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The Challenge Before Us – Shabbat HaHodesh 5778

I hope that, by now, you have heard about the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s 2017 Community Study. (Beth Shalom members Evan Indianer and Bruce and Jane Rollman served on the committee that brought it to fruition, and most likely some of you were contacted in the survey.)

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There are some very important numbers in this study. Some of them might make some of us anxious. But I am actually inclined to read this study optimistically. There is a lot here to try to absorb. First, the challenges:

  1. There is a “hole” in our community.

The percentage of Jews in the 35-49 range, to some extent what would be the most active core of synagogue membership, is smaller than other age brackets. Only 17% of all Jews in the area fall into that category, which is less than the national average for age distribution. This may have something to do with people who moved away when the economy was weak, and never returned. (By comparison, 24% are in the 18-34 bracket, 31% are 50-64, and 28% are 65+.)

  1. A smaller percentage of Jews are living in Squirrel Hill.

Only 30% of Jewish individuals in the area live in Squirrel Hill and Shadyside combined. Almost as many live within the city limits of Pittsburgh (26%) but outside of these two neighborhoods. The challenge here is that most of the Jewish institutions and services are here. The overall population has grown, and Squirrel Hill’s Jewish population has grown as well. But while a plurality of Jews surely live in or near Squirrel Hill, fewer of the newcomers are moving into the traditionally Jewish neighborhoods.

  1. Only 19% of respondents pay dues to a “brick-and-mortar” institution like this one.

In 2002, about half (53%) of respondents said they belonged to a synagogue. In 2017, 35% said they did, although only 19% said they paid dues to synagogues like Beth Shalom. The others are affiliated with Chabad or other independent congregations, or claim membership in a synagogue but do not pay dues. In 2002 they did not subdivide that 53% number, so it’s impossible to know how many were dues-paying members of brick-and-mortar synagogues 15 years ago. But regardless, the number has to be significantly lower. This is certainly a challenge to our membership model.

So here is the good news:

  1. When asked about movement affiliation, more 18-34-year-olds (27%) identify as Conservative than any other group. That’s higher than Reform (24%), higher than Orthodox (12%). Higher even (and this is important) than “Just Jewish” or “Secular.” Based on the numbers, the Conservative movement seems to be doing better than everybody else among younger Jews.

    Pop study data

  2. In terms of involvement in Jewish life (participation in Jewish life: rituals, services, cultural activities, belonging to, donating to or volunteering for Jewish organizations), those who identify as Conservative have a fairly high rate of participation and commitment. About one-third of those in the “Immersed” category (that is, they are immersed in Jewish life on a daily/weekly basis) identify as Conservative (cf. 46% Orthodox, 15%  Reform). That is, I think, a relatively healthy statement regarding what we stand for.
  3. And here’s my favorite number, because it sings with opportunity. While 80% of “Immersed” Jews are studying Jewish text on a regular basis, very few outside of that category are learning anything from the Jewish bookshelf. (OK, so you might not consider that “good news.” It is, however, an indicator that the vast majority of Jews are alienated from the benefits that come from studying Jewish text. So all we have to do is somehow get their attention. This is an opportunity.)
  4. On a related note, only 44% of Conservative Jews have attended a Shabbat meal over the last year. For those of us who know and savor the Shabbat dining experience, this number too speaks of opportunity.

Now that I have assaulted you with data, the question that emerges is, “How does this information help us move forward?”

Well, I have some very good news.

First, this study comes at precisely the right time for Beth Shalom, because we are about to begin the process of strategic planning to come up with a vision for the next 3-5 years. The last time that we pursued such a process was ten years ago, and so now that we are on a healthy trajectory and with the centennial celebration behind us, it is time to consider how we move forward from this point. The process will be guided by the United Synagogue’s Sulam for Strategic Planners program, which is a systematic approach that includes data gathering, analysis, communicating various things to the community and producing a report, followed by an implementation phase. We will receive regular guidance from a United Synagogue Transformation Specialist, Aimee Close.

These data points will be extraordinarily helpful in the initial phase of the process, and will help us with getting a sense of the situation on the ground in preparation for making strategic decisions.

The other way that these numbers help us is that it looks like (א) the Conservative movement’s star may be on the rise, particularly among younger people, and (ב) there is plenty of room for growth in the Jewish learning department. Yes, regular tefillot / prayer services will continue to be an essential part of what we do. But we have to continue to expand our range of offerings beyond tefillah, to continue to re-envision what it means to be a synagogue. Aimee Close was positively impressed with the work we have already done with Derekh. Now we need to continue that work by trying to penetrate more deeply into those who think that synagogues are ONLY for services and benei mitzvah. These numbers are in some sense a validation of the direction in which we are moving, that is, to re-frame the Jewish conversation such that we focus on meaning, on connecting what we learn with how we live today, on fostering spiritual growth.

One final observation about the data.

A recent New York Times article on nutrition cited a study that seems to reveal that weight loss is dependent not on the quantity of calories consumed, but rather on the quality of those calories. The study found that

“…people who cut back on added sugar, refined grains and highly processed foods while concentrating on eating plenty of vegetables and whole foods — without worrying about counting calories or limiting portion sizes — lost significant amounts of weight over the course of a year.”

That is, what you eat matters more than how much.

While this study is in itself quite interesting, it also has, I think, an interesting parallel in Jewish life. We all know that our tradition has 613 mitzvot. It’s a big number, and hard for many of us to wrap our brains around, let alone our lives.

We all know that there is a continuum among people in our community about what we practice – some of us are hitting a lot of those mitzvot, some fewer. Nonetheless, I hope that we should all be able to understand and appreciate that it is the quality of engagement with Jewish life that matters, not the quantity. Today, personal meaning matters more than merely doing for the sake of doing.

Less than a quarter (22%) of Conservative Jews feel that their “spiritual needs are met.” (That’s lower than Reform, BTW, and dramatically lower than Orthodox.) Getting more members of the community to a Friday night dinner or to a good, relevant study session may not lead more people to keep kosher or not use their smartphones on Shabbat. But it may help meet the spiritual needs of more of us by reinforcing:

  • The value of community
  • The value of a framework rooted in Jewish traditional practice and learning
  • The meaning that one can glean from that framework

If we can bring more of us to the Shabbat table, and more of us to the beit midrash, and do a better job of connecting those experiences to real Jewish learning, then I think we may have a better shot at meeting the spiritual needs of everybody. Quality over quantity.

In reading these data, I am not frustrated, but hopeful. Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/17/2018.)

* The Jewish obsession with counting ourselves dates back to the late 19th century. The Union of American Hebrew Congregations published a study of American Jews in 1880 (thanks to historian and Beth Shalom member Tammy Hepps for bringing this to my attention). A group of Russian-Jewish scholars created the Jewish Society for History and Ethnography, under the leadership of historian Simon Dubnow in 1908. This group pioneered the documentation of the Jews of Russia, their history and cultural contributions, and even sent the writer S. Ansky on an expedition throughout the Ukraine to collect information on the Jews of all the little towns therein. Since Dubnow and Ansky, and in particularly after the Shoah, we have been captivated by information about ourselves: how many of us there are, of course, but also what we are doing: our Jewish practices, our salaries, our ages, our membership in Jewish institutions, how many kids we’re having, etc.*

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Race, Gender, and Who We Are Today, or, Is Gal Gadot White? – Qorah 5777

You may be aware of an Internet dispute that popped up a few weeks ago with the release of the new Wonder Woman film. Some critics were quick to note the unfortunate tendency in the world of comic-book heroes turned into movies to feature only white actors. Wonder Woman is, according to some, yet another example of such an oversight.

Leaping into this fray, with a commentary posted on the website comicbook.com, was a brief piece about this by Matthew Mueller, arguing that Gal Gadot, the Israeli actress and model who plays the lead, is not “white”; rather, she is Ashkenazi Jewish.

How Wonder Woman Solves The Comic Book Movie Villain Problem

I must concede that I have often questioned the idea of Jews being white, and when I have submitted forms that ask for my race, I have occasionally checked off “Other.”

Despite the fact that Jewish students on college campuses are reminded of their “white privilege,” I think it’s a stretch to call us “white.”

But that’s mostly because “race” (I’m using a lot of air-quotes here) is an unfortunately enduring social construct that comes from 19th-century thinking about the palette of human physical traits, reducing them into approximately three major branches. But of course humanity is more of a continuum; the lines are not so clear. That is why scientists today speak of ethnic groups or populations rather than “races.”

But really, the challenge is that the human mind likes categorization. That’s the way we work. Part of the lens through which we understand the information we take in relies on a kind of series of shortcuts: black/white/yellow, male/female, gay/straight, etc. Our minds are not trained to think flexibly about these categories.

And this mode of thinking certainly permeates our tradition as well. The Torah exhibits a need to categorize, to classify, to separate. Consider the laws of kashrut: if a land animal has split hooves and chews its cud (series of stomachs and culture of gut bacteria that break down cellulose) it is fitting to eat; if not, then are not permitted to eat it. There is no grey area. Fish, as you know, must have fins and scales. (And some of you know that there are certain fish, like sturgeon and swordfish, which have scales early on but lose them. The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards permit these fish as kosher.)

The sociologist Mary Douglas, in her seminal work Purity and Danger, examined the need of religion to categorize; things that cross boundaries were, to ancient people, dangerous. Our ancestors strived to keep things separate; think about the Torah’s laws about not sowing two kinds of seed together (Deut. 22:9), or not allowing wool and linen to be woven together in clothing (Deut. 22:11).

And that thinking continues into rabbinic literature; hence the continuous need in halakhah to determine where are the boundaries: what time of the day may you recite minhah / the afternoon service? Can you eat a grilled cheese sandwich on a plate used for eating a hamburger within 24 hours? Is electricity a form of fire, and if not, can you turn on a light switch on Shabbat?

One of my favorite examples of the rabbinic need to set boundaries is that of the woman in labor who is in the miqveh, in the process of converting to Judaism, and she is crowning at the same time (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bekhorot 46b). How far out, the rabbis ask, may the baby be before s/he requires a separate conversion? The answer is (drum roll!) that if the baby’s nose has not yet emerged, then s/he is a Jew. Now THAT’S a boundary.

So one of the curious things about living in the 21st century is that we are rapidly expanding the range of identities.

Consider our erstwhile president, Barack Obama, who has described his family as “a mini-United Nations.” He was born to a Kenyan father and a mother descended from English, German, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Swiss, and French ancestors, who was also connected to a black former slave as well. Mr. Obama defies easy categorization, and although he may be referred to by some as the first “black” president, the reality is much more complex.

Have you had genetic testing? Nowadays, among the things that you can learn when you have your genes analyzed is your ethnic composition. I have not had this done, but I’d lay a fair wager that in addition to a hefty chunk of Ashkenazi Jew (itself a construct that dates to no earlier than about 1000 years ago, really only yesterday in terms of Jewish history), that there would be a fair mix of Slavic and Germanic, and who knows, perhaps even some Italian. (I’ve always enjoyed a hearty marinara.)

We are inching toward an age of gradients, in which there will be no black and white, nor gay or straight, but a virtually infinite variety of people that fall somewhere in-between.

While we may have been inclined to categorize people with reductionist brushes in the past, what may soon be the new norm is to acknowledge those gradients, to accept that none of us fits neatly into precise categories. And this transitional time will be challenging to many of us.

In parashat Qorah, which we read from today, there is a tension that comes through based on rabbinic interpretation of a couple of verses, a tension between what is eternally fixed and what is not.

First, there is the Qorah rebellion, which our bat mitzvah spoke about earlier. Pirqei Avot (5:19) cites this as challenge to the authority of Moshe and Aharon as a dispute that is not for the sake of heaven, a mahloqet she-einah leshem shamayim. What is a mahloqet leshem shamayim? A dispute which is holy, and will last forever. Internecine political struggles, which are not holy, do not last; disputes over the various understanding of our tradition are.

Elsewhere in the parashah (Numbers 18:19), we read about the “berit melah,” literally the “covenant of salt” that is between God and humans.

יט  כֹּל תְּרוּמֹת הַקֳּדָשִׁים, אֲשֶׁר יָרִימוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל לַה’–נָתַתִּי לְךָ וּלְבָנֶיךָ וְלִבְנֹתֶיךָ אִתְּךָ, לְחָק-עוֹלָם:  בְּרִית מֶלַח עוֹלָם הִוא לִפְנֵי ה’, לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אִתָּךְ.

19 All the sacred gifts that the Israelites set aside for the Lord I give to you, to your sons, and to the daughters that are with you, as a due for all time. It shall be an everlasting covenant of salt before the Lord, and for your offspring as well.

What is the nature of this covenant? It is something that lasts forever, that is stable and unchangeable, like salt.

The tension that we might perceive here is that nothing is fixed and immutable. The way we relate to God, the way we understand Jewish life, our relationship to Jewish text – these things have all changed over the last twenty years, let alone the last 2,000. And these things are, in fact, in the category of mahloqet leshem shamayim, holy controversies that will continue forever; how we worship, how we observe Jewish law, how we engage with our holy texts – these things are not fixed.

Two weeks ago, in honor of Pride Shabbat, BD Wahlberg spoke to us about BD’s experience in not being confined to one of two binary genders, and how we might understand that in a Jewish context.

I know that for some, BD’s talk was inspiring and affirming. For others among us, it may have been challenging and disorienting.

But facing the challenges of how we understand gender, how we understand “race” and ethnicity, these are holy challenges that we must continue to wrestle with. We cannot pretend that any of these things are like salt, unchangeable. We have to acknowledge that just as Judaism made room for relating to God through words instead of sacrifices, or accepted sturgeon as kosher, or learned that electricity is not fire and therefore may be used on Shabbat, that the way we categorize people also has to change.

And, to refer back to a point that BD made, we have to acknowledge that all of us are created “betzelem Elohim,” in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). And if that means that we do not fit into neat categories, well, then we are in mahloqet leshem shamayim territory once again. It is a holy struggle that will continue.

So is Gal Gadot “white”? Is Barack Obama “black”? Is BD a man or a woman? The answer to any of those questions could be yes, no, or neither. Once our minds have acclimated to this brave new world, we will no longer have to answer such questions. But in the meantime, let’s just live with the postulate that each of us is divine in our own way.

Shabbat shalom!

~

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/24/17.)

~

Articles about Gal Gadot and the “whiteness” of Ashkenazi Jews

May 31

http://comicbook.com/dc/2017/05/31/wonder-woman-person-of-color/

June 2

http://forward.com/culture/film-tv/373658/gal-gadots-wonder-woman-is-white-lets-not-pretend-otherwise/

June 4

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/yes-ashkenazi-jews-including-gal-gadot-are-people-of-color/

June 11

http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/ashkenazi-jews-are-still-people-of-color-reply-to-critics/

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Comedy and the Jews – Shofetim 5776

The Jewish world has lost (at least) two luminaries summer: Elie Wiesel, who passed away in July, and Jerome Silberman, aka Gene Wilder, who died nearly two weeks ago.

We will surely invoke Mr. Wiesel’s memory over the course of the High Holidays, but I think that the proper way to celebrate Mr. Wilder’s life is to recall his humor. And, while we’re at it, to remind ourselves that the Jews practically invented comedy.

A few years back, Robin Williams (alav hashalom) said the following:

I was on this German talk show, and this woman said to me, ‘Mr. Williams, why do you think there’s not so much comedy in Germany?’ And I said, ‘Did you ever think that you killed all the funny people?’

We do not tend to think of our ancient Jewish texts – the Torah, the Talmud, and so forth – as being funny. Today’s parashah, Shofetim, for example? Not a funny word in it. Most of it is about our obligations to uphold various commandments, and particularly with respect to law and order. Taking responsibility for an unclaimed, murdered corpse (Deut. 21:1ff)? Not funny. Not destroying fruit trees during a siege (20:19-20)? Not funny. The whole eye-for-an-eye thing (Deut. 19:21)? Definitely not funny.

And yet Jewish life and culture has produced many, many funny people. Allen Konigsberg, known to the world as Woody Allen, once quipped that the Jewish response to centuries of persecution was that we learned to talk our way out of a tight spot. A brief look at Comedy Central’s list of the top 100 stand-up comedians yields four Jews in the top ten. One surprising outcome of the Pew Research study about American Jews from October 2013 is the following: In responding to the statement, “[blank] is an essential part of what being Jewish means to me,” 42% said, “Having a good sense of humor.” (It was the sixth item on the list.)

So where did this wonderful sense of humor come from, if not from our ancient texts? Perhaps, along the lines of Woody Allen’s statement, persecution and oppression indeed produced the Jewish smart-aleck. With all the misery in Jewish history, how could we not respond with humor? Comedy is, after all, human failure; Mel Brooks once defined comedy as follows: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Let’s face it: Jewish history is riddled with human failure. We understand comedy.

And of course, we are masters of the word, the People of the Book, and our greatest scholars have dedicated their lives to parsing our ancient texts. This has refined the way that we Jews use words. Words in our tradition are valuable; they are to be adored, examined, deconstructed and reconstructed again. The inevitable result is the ability to spin every tale, happy, tragic, or otherwise, in multiple directions. It therefore became a Jewish tradition to use words not only for teaching and learning, but also, as a natural outgrowth, for amusement.

I would also like to point out that although our Jewish sources might seem somewhat unfunny, there is the occasional humorous moment. For example, there is the moment in Parashat Balaq when Bil’am’s donkey opens his mouth to berate his rider (Numbers 22:28-30; it is surely not a coincidence that the 2001 movie Shrek features a talking donkey, among other Jewish hints). Or when the prophet Elisha is taunted by a pack of little boys, saying “Go away, baldy!” And so he curses them, whereupon two bears come out of the woods and mangle forty-two of them (II Kings 2:23-24).

But the Talmud is a richer source.

For example:

Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 23b

מתני׳. ניפול הנמצא בתוך חמשים אמה ־ הרי הוא של בעל השובך, חוץ מחמשים אמה ־ הרי הוא של מוצאו

גמ’. בעי ר׳ ירמיה: רגלו אחת בתוך נ׳ אמה ורגלו אחת חוץ מחמשים אמה, מהו? ועל דא אפקוהו לרבי ירמיה מבי מדרשא.

Mishnah: If a fledgling bird is found within fifty cubits of a dovecote (a cage for raising pigeons), it belongs to the owner of the dovecote. If it is found outside the limit of fifty cubits, it belongs to the person who finds it…

Gemara: Rabbi Jeremiah asked: if one foot of the bird is within the limit of fifty cubits, and one foot is outside it, what is the law? It was for this question that Rabbi Jeremiah was thrown out of the Beit Midrash.

Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 39a

אמר ליה קיסר לרבי תנחום: תא ליהוו כולן לעמא חד. ־ אמר: לחיי, אנן דמהלינן לא מצינן מיהוי כוותייכו, אתון מהליתו, והוו כוותןִ ־ אמר ליה: מימר ־ שפיר קאמרת, מיהו כל דזכי למלכא ־ לשדיוה לביבר, שדיוה לביבר ולא אכלוה. אמר ליה ההוא מינא: האי דלא אכלוה ־ משום דלא כפין הוא, שדיוה ליה לדידיה ־ ואכלוה.

Caesar said to Rabbi Tanhum, “Come, let us become one people.”

Rabbi Tanhum replied, “By my life, we who are circumcised cannot become like you. You, then, should become circumcised and be like us.”

“A very good answer, Caesar replied. “Unfortunately, anybody who defeats the emperor in an argument must be thrown to the lions.” So they threw Rabbi Tanhum to the lions. But the lions did not eat him.

An unbeliever who was standing nearby said, “The reason the lions do not eat him is that they are not hungry.”

To test this theory, they threw the unbeliever to the lions, and they ate him.

Comedy: human failure.

A piece of Gene Wilder’s work that crossed my e-desk this week was a clip from The Frisco Kid, in which Wilder plays a rabbi from Poland traveling across the US in 1850 to serve a Jewish community in San Francisco, and to bring them a sefer Torah. There is a scene where the rabbi and his traveling companion, a bank robber played by Harrison Ford, are captured by unfriendly natives, and Wilder’s character expresses his willingness to trade everything, including his life, for the sake of the Torah.

It’s not a funny scene, and it certainly contains potentially damaging stereotypes about Native Americans.

But put in the context of Wilder’s body of work, I think there is a larger message we as contemporary Jews can draw from this: Even as we cling to our ancient textual tradition, we should do so along with a sense of humor.gene-wilder-picture-9

Wilder was not a traditionally-practicing Jew. But he was deeply connected, as most of us are, to his heritage. He was an actor. But the fact that this scene sits alongside, say, Young Frankenstein and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (one of my favorite movies, BTW), suggests something about the nature of how we live today. The Torah is not relegated to a library. It is part of us, and we should approach it in the context of all of the enjoyable, playful parts of our lives along with the serious moments, along with the grief, along with the all of the challenges we face.

Our tradition is malleable; the ancient words of Jewish wisdom sparkle as much today as they did 2,000 years ago. But they are not meant to sit on a shelf and collect dust. They are supposed to bring joy into our lives.

Some of you may know that Gene Wilder left this world in the haze of Alzheimer’s disease. I find it particularly upsetting to picture Mr. Wilder gripped with that affliction; this man who brought us so many laughs, who at the end of his life would not even be able to recall the punch line, much less the rest of the joke. It seems to me a particularly ironic way for a Jewish comedic actor to go out.

But it is also a reminder of a gem of wisdom from our tradition:

Yalqut Shim’oni, Eqev, 850 (on Deut. 7:25):

אין אדם בעולם בלא יסורין

There is no human being in the world without afflictions.

There is, as they say, one more star in the sky, but the rest of us down here are left in a slightly less-humorous world. Tehi nishmato tzerurah bitzror hahayyim. May his soul be bound up in the bond of life. And I hope that we can keep laughing, even as we cling to the values of Torah.

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 9/10/2016.)

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Who Are We? – Pesah 5776

Pesah is about identity in a way that no other holiday is. It is the festival that tells us who we are, and that is the essential Jewish question of our time.

Not too long ago, there were very specific cultural and tribal definitions of what defines a Jew. We knew who we were, the non-Jews knew who we were, and there were very clear lines. There was no liminality, no ambiguity around the borders of the tribe.

All of that began to change with Jewish emancipation. From the time that Napoleon first granted French Jews the rights and privileges of French citizenship in 1789, the gradual inclusion of Jews into the wider, non-Jewish society has yielded the situation in which we find ourselves today. Now there are all kinds of Jews in the mix: black, white, Asian, openly gay, straight, transgender, secular, not-so-secular, of course, but also all sorts of combinations that are the product of interfaith relationships. The Jewish world is no longer demarcated by simple, clear lines.

Add into this melange our changing concept of personal identity in 21st-century America. The idea of “Who are we?” in the wider culture is far more fluid than it has ever been. One need not look too far beyond the very-current struggles over who can relieve themselves in a public bathroom to understand this. Are we who we were at birth? Or can we become something else entirely?

Fortunately, for Jews, we have some common themes of identity, and some of the most important aspects of Jewish identity are invoked in the Pesah seder. For one thing, some of our most fundamental, personal Jewish memories involve the seder table – a home ritual that brings friends and family together.

It’s worth noting that, after the lighting of Hanukkah candles, the seder is the second-most observed ritual of the Jewish year: about 70% of American Jews (according to the Pew study of 2013) show up for a seder. That’s a pretty impressive number, especially since only 22% of us have kosher homes and 13% avoid spending money on Shabbat. It is therefore a very strong identity-building ritual, even if it’s just dinner with matzah. Think of your own seminal sedarim: how you may recall your silly uncle’s embarrassingly-loud, horribly off-tune singing, or that time your teenage cousin actually drank four full cups of wine, or checking to see if the wine in Eliyahu’s cup had actually gone down when you opened the door. Think of the lessons learned, how proud you may have felt being invited to engage in serious discussion of tough questions with grown-ups, the sense of community engendered by making your first seder on your own for your friends when you couldn’t get back home, the feeling of togetherness created by having all the people you love together, and so forth. Even the implicit messages — who are we? We are the people that gather to eat traditional foods and to discuss their history.

Passover 1946 - the Seder Table at the Elinoff home, with Joel's great-grandparents, grandparents, and extended family.

Pesah in Pittsburgh, 1946.

And all the more so for those of us who spend some time at the seder discussing the themes of the holiday. If you dwell at length on the text of the traditional haggadah, then you have most likely encountered the most relevant statement about what it means to be Jewish. It’s quoted straight out of the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:5):

בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות יג), וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם

Bekhol dor vador hayyav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza miMitzrayim, shene-emar: “Vehigadta levinkha bayom hahu lemor, ba’avur zeh asa Adonai li betzeti miMitzrayim.”

In every generation, one must see oneself as having personally come forth from Egypt, as it is written (Ex. 13:8), “And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.’”

When I was growing up, we used to read through the haggadah in English, full-speed ahead, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 sheqels. So I never really paid much attention to this line until I was in my 30s.

But this is in fact the whole reason that we gather and tell the story on the first night of Pesah : to make it personal. To put ourselves into the story. To walk a mile in the shoes of our ancestors, to connect with their struggles. To re-live the formation of the Israelite nation, conceived in slavery and delivered at Mt. Sinai. We went down into Egypt as a family and emerged as a people, as Am Yisrael. And as much as we celebrate our freedom on Pesah, we also celebrate our identity as members of the tribe that left Egypt together and received the Torah together.

And so it is our duty to reinforce that message at the seder, not only to dine as free people in the style of the Greek symposium, reclining and dipping and telling weighty stories, but also to connect ourselves with slavery, and to tell our children about it.

And how do we do that? How do we teach our children, who are mostly, thankfully, being raised sheltered from even the strife and hardships that our grandparents knew, what it’s like to be a slave? While we are reclining in our safe, comfortable homes, in an environment in which food is always plentiful, where debts are mostly politely confined to paperwork, where manual labor is generally an option, how do we continue the generational transmission of understanding oppression?

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Ask those gathered to discuss what we are “slaves” to (job, mortgage, alarm clock, etc.). Are we really “free?”
  2. If you have any Shoah survivors at the table, ask them if they were ever slaves, and perhaps to describe their experiences.
  3. Find some information in advance about slaves in the world today. Estimates vary, but there are many millions. Consider our economic habits and how they may keep people enslaved in distant lands (see, for example, slaveryfootprint.org). Consider what that means in the context of our heritage.
  4. Consider another essential line in the haggadah, the preamble to the Maggid (storytelling) section of the seder: Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Discuss how our understanding of / history of slavery require us to act in this world?
  5. Consider that the Torah invokes our having been slaves many times, and uses that statement of our history to justify our not mistreating strangers, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Talk about how that obligation affects our relationships with others.

Your creativity at the seder should not go only into the food! On the contrary! The more that you put into making your first nights of Pesah engaging, informative, and reflective, helping those around the table enter into our tradition, the greater chance that they will carry on that tradition, creating new memories and new opportunities for our collective spiritual growth.

Why have Jews always been at the forefront of issues of social justice? Why did Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and many other Jews, march with Dr. Martin Luther King? Why was the American Federation of Labor founded by Samuel Gompers, a member of our tribe? Why did so many American Jews advocate to help free our Soviet cousins in the 1980s? Why did the Zionist movement ultimately succeed in building a Jewish state? Why did Sigmund Freud seek to liberate the unconscious mind? Why did Jonas Salk work to rid the world of polio?

Because of the identity formed around the seder table, where we see ourselves as slaves and learn about the imperative to help all those who are suffering from persecution and oppression of all forms to gain their freedom. That is who we are, regardless of all of the other ways in which we differ.

And the very foundation upon which this identity has been forged, the one thing that we all have in common, is the Torah. Yes, we interpret it differently. Yes, we disagree over its meaning. But that is simply the way that Jews have always related to our tradition, and it is, in fact, ours. The Pesah tale, the story of our nation’s departure from Egypt, is the seminal moment of identity formation, and it connects directly to Shavuot, seven weeks later, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah. That is the cornerstone of what it means to be Jewish, and perhaps that is why we keep coming back to the seder table every year.

So when you gather with your family and friends tonight, look around the table at the young people there, and ask yourself, “Have I engaged them? Have they learned something? Have I helped them fashion their identities? Have I enhanced that multi-generational connection?

That is what Pesah is all about. Not necessarily the food, not the karpas, not even the Pesah-Matzah-Maror or the four retellings of the story. It’s about identity. It’s about who we are.

Shabbat shalom and hag sameah!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, First Day of Pesah 5776, 4/23/16.) 

 

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