Tag Archives: seder

One Vulnerable Goat (and Two Zuzim) – Pesah Day 1 5780

When I look at the Pesah seder with my rabbi-glasses on, of course I see all the great opportunities to discuss, all of the ways in which the story is relevant to who we are and how we live today.

But when I look at it from the perspective of one who has been Jewish my whole life, and for 34 of those 50 years NOT as a rabbi or a cantor, I see a totally different thing. I see family dinner, with great food and good company, with people noodging each other around the table as they have always done, silly dad jokes and older siblings who have not seen each other in months falling into their regular patterns. I hear the family stories – the time that I dissed my grandmother’s home-made gefilte fish in favor of Mrs. Adler, the time so-and-so actually drank four cups of wine and was clearly drunk. I hear the music of families singing old seder standards together: Mah Nishtana, Dayyenu

The family sedarim of my youth were not about discussion. We generally read the Maxwell House, and maybe later the KTAV haggadah, in English, one paragraph at a time, and I don’t think we really understood it that well. We did not know, for example, that the five rabbis – Eliezer, Yehoshua, El’azar ben Azariah, Aqiva and Tarfon – were plotting rebellion against the Romans in what would be the Bar Kokhba Revolt, and that the line, “Rabboteinu, higi’a zeman qeri’at Shema shel shaharit” / “Our teachers! The time has come to recite the morning Shema,” may have been the code phrase for, “Quick! Hide! Roman soldiers are coming!”

We did not know that the seder is an imitation of the Greek symposium, in which Greek men of leisure would dine and philosophize and dip their food whilst reclining to the left, and then go out partying from house to house in what was known in Greek as “epikomion,” a word that entered Mishnaic Hebrew as “afiqoman.”

We did not understand the fuss made over small textual issues, like interpreting “Kol yemei hayyekha,” (Deut. 16:3; literally, “all the days of your life”) or how ten plagues became 250. We did not know that the standard Four Questions are not the same Four Questions asked in the Mishnah, and we failed to notice that they were really only one question with four elaborations on that question.

We were, however, singers, and so we have always enjoyed singing along together at the end of the service. And we have always enjoyed getting a little crazy with songs toward the end. Fine, so I didn’t know what “Shishah sidrei mishnah” (six are the orders of the Mishnah) exactly meant. I didn’t really know what the Mishnah is until my 30s. But who cares?

One of the songs that we have always sung is Had Gadya. It’s a fun song, and fits neatly into the other seder songs in that it is repetitive, and designed to last a while to extend the evening’s festivities. Anybody who has been to the congregational sedarim that I have led in recent years is familiar with the Moishe Oysher melody:  

וְאָתָא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא וְשָׁחַט לְמַלְאַךְ הַמָּוֶת, דְּשָׁחַט לְשׁוֹחֵט, דְּשָׁחַט לְתוֹרָא, דְשָׁתָה לְמַיָּא, דְּכָבָה לְנוּרָא, דְשָׂרַף לְחוּטְרָא, דְהִכָּה לְכַלְבָּא, דְנָשַׁךְ לְשׁוּנְרָא, דְאָכְלָה לְגַדְיָא, דְזַבִּין אַבָּא בִּתְרֵי זוּזֵי. חַד גַּדְיָא, חַד גַּדְיָא

Then came the Holy One, blessed be He and slaughtered the angel of death, who slaughtered the shohet (kosher slaughterer) who slaughtered the bull, that drank the water, that extinguished the fire, that burnt the stick, that hit the dog, that bit the cat, that ate the kid that my father bought for two zuzim, one kid, one kid.

Not a song that you might ordinarily think about too deeply – it’s not too different in spirit and structure from, “I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly.” 

But what is Had Gadya about? On the old Moishe Oysher LP, The Moishe Oysher Seder, the narrator says, “If you listen closely to the words, this song tells the entire story of the Jewish people.” Although I must say that that does not quite make sense. If we consider ourselves, the Jews, to be the goat, then we were long ago consumed before the Qadosh Barukh Hu came along to redeem us. 

I would rather approach it from a perspective that Dr. Erica Brown brings in her commentary to her book, Seder Talk: The Conversational Haggada. She says the following:

We get the last laugh. We still survive to sing about our vulnerability…

Had Gadya is essentially about leaning into our vulnerability. We are the goat, the meek kid purchased for a mere two zuzim – just a few meager coins. We are the most vulnerable character in the whole scheme. Jewish history is filled with stories in which we barely survived: we escaped slavery in Egypt; we returned after the Babylonian Exile; we escaped death at the hands of the Persian Empire; we lost Jerusalem and the Temple to the Romans, and then the Bar Kokhba Revolt was crushed a half-century later; etc., etc. And all of that was two-to-three millennia ago. A whole lot more happened since. (And, by the way, what better way to remind us of our fundamental vulnerability than a world-wide pandemic?)

 Dr. Brown goes on:

What starts the entire song moving is the two zuzim used to purchase the goat, referring to the two tablets given to us at Sinai. Because we were claimed and “purchased” for this covenant, God ultimately intervenes to make sure that we are protected and redeemed… The song asks us not to fear the repetition of our hardest hours in history because God breaks the cycle of violence and we endure.

The Qadosh Barukh Hu wins. God wins. And hence we win. But we do not win by aspiring to be the butcher or the ox, but by being the vulnerable goat, the one that came from the two zuzim / tablets. Our value is that of Torah, that of covenant. Our strength is not the might of the fire or the water, but in the quiet confidence that comes from sticking to our tradition and knowing that, whatever happens, God is on our side.

Yes, yes. I know that this does not quite fit into the theological framework of Kaplan’s God as the power that makes for salvation, or Buber’s Unconditional, the kinds of contemporary theological constructs that I prefer. On the contrary, this is more of a traditional, activist God, the one that we appeal to in our tefillah, the one who is Magen Avraham (the shield of Abraham) and Poked Sarah (who remembers Sarah), who is somekh nofelim (lifting up the fallen) and rofeh holim (healing the sick). Now is an especially good time to focus on that last one – the world needs a good doctor right now.

But hey – now is the time that I need an activist God, one that will protect us and help us all come through this. And we will come through this.

Dr. Brown adds the following:

We see ourselves as fragile in this world… We ask to stay small and humble and for our humility to be the hallmark of our identity, along with the two zuzim, the laws, that keep us holy.

One of the things that distinguishes the Jewish origin story from that of many others is that we see our nationhood, Am Yisrael, as having been forged in slavery. It is the passage from slavery to freedom that enabled us to receive the Torah (there are those two zuzim again!) on Mt. Sinai, and to be a party to that berit, that covenant with God. Our strength, our protection essentially comes from that vulnerable place, that “meitzar” / narrow place that we sing about in Hallel that we associate with Egypt, Mitzrayim. We remember that we are the kid, the baby goat, and that stirs us to be resolute about the future. Redemption is coming.

And not only that, as a part of that covenant, it is up to us to bring on that redemption. So here is a discussion you can have tonight, and you do not have to wait until you sing Had Gadya at the end, ‘cause it might be too late by then and folks might already have checked out. 

Here’s the question: 

How does knowing that we came from slavery, from the place of ultimate vulnerability, lead us to be better people? How does it make us better citizens, better parents and partners and siblings and neighbors and co-workers? Discuss. 

Have that discussion right after the so-called “Four Questions.” Extra points if you can point to lines in the haggadah that support your argument, but of course the entirety of the Jewish bookshelf is also available to you if you need help. Good luck!

Hag Sameah!

~
Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Thursday morning, April 9, 2020.)

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What Makes Pesah Work? – Shabbat HaGadol, 5780

A few years back, in the week before Pesah, I was somewhat surprised to see an ad on my Facebook scroll for a Passover seder at a nearby Italian restaurant. This was not a kosher restaurant, and clearly all the more so during Pesah. So OK, there are Jews in this world for whom kashrut, for Pesah or otherwise, is not so high on the list of priorities. But the thing that got me was the line, “A Very Reformed Seder Service (20 min.).”

Now, leaving aside the term “reformed,” which many Reform Jews read as a slur – reform is an ongoing process, not something that was done in the past – the enticement that the ad seemed to be presenting was that this seder experience would be long on food and short on ritual, discussion, or singing. 

Now, it’s curious that Facebook thought I would be interested in this seder (perhaps the algorithm has since improved). But all the more so, it’s curious that some people would be so inclined as to minimize the best part of Pesah, that is, the story, and (I presume) toss out many of the essential, traditional food items in favor of a pasta dinner? Particularly because, being the second-most-observed ritual of the Jewish year, the seder formula clearly works.

Prior to this year, statistics have shown that about three-quarters of American Jews come to a seder. What will happen this year is probably a dramatic decline in the number of seder attendees, because my assumption is that the majority of us go to somebody else’s seder, and in our current circumstances, we cannot do that. (That is the primary reason, BTW, that I am live-streaming the second-night seder from my home.)

But what makes the seder so popular? Is it the food? Is it the story? The songs? The gathering of family? The short answer is, yes to all.

This will not be the first time that I have mentioned Marshall Sklare, the Brandeis sociologist who chronicled American Jewry in the middle of the 20th century, suggested that American Jews are most likely to maintain Jewish rituals that:

  1. May be redefined in modern terms
  2. Do not demand social isolation (i.e. requirements that separate the Jew from the wider society; yes, I know that sounds curious in the present moment!)
  3. Offers a Jewish alternative to a non-Jewish holiday (e.g. Easter, Christmas; this was something that was brought to my attention by one of our teens at a USY “Lunch & Learn” I facilitated last week, so it’s still valid)
  4. Centers on the child
  5. Is infrequent (e.g. annual, rather than weekly or daily)

Sklare pointed to the Pesah seder and the lighting of Hanukkah candles as being the best examples of such rituals in his book, America’s Jews, published in 1971. And really, little has changed in the last four decades: Pesah may still resonate because it pushes all those buttons. And Dr. Sklare’s thinking seems to still be on the money, half a century later. In this time of decreasing Jewish engagement, particularly outside of Orthodoxy, Pesah is a model that still works.

Away from the cold, academic glare, however, something else is true: Pesah works because we make it work. Perhaps in accord with Sklare’s first observation, that a ritual is likely to be observed if it may be redefined to suit contemporary issues, the message of Pesah continues to resonate with us. Slavery is still an unfortunate reality of today’s world (go to slaveryfootprint.org for more information on that); poverty and oppression may be found just about wherever we look. Those members of our people who fought for civil rights in the 1960s read the haggadah in that context, and there are those who read it today with the various ongoing struggles for equality – for women, for gays and lesbians, for non-Orthodox Jewish movements in Israel – in mind.

But I think there is more to the story.

In the central portion of the seder, the telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt (the item identified as Maggid, “telling”), there is a classical midrashic exposition of a passage from the Torah. The passage is the one that begins, “Arami oved avi,” “My father was a wandering Aramean.” (Deut. 26:5-8). You are probably familiar with it. The Torah presents these verses as the proto-liturgical  monologue that the Israelites would recite when bringing their first fruits to the kohen, the priest, on Shavuot, and it encapsulates the story of Jacob and his family going down into Egypt, where they became a great nation, and then were enslaved, and God took us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, etc., etc.  

Within the midrash is the following comment on four words from Deut. 26:5:

וַיְהִי שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל. מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהָיוּ יִשְׂרָאֵל מְצֻיָּנִין שָׁם

Vayhi sham legoi gadol. Melamed shehayu Yisrael metzuyanim sham.

They became a great nation. It teaches that the Israelites were distinguished there [in Egypt].

The Rabbinical Assembly’s “Feast of Freedom” haggadah (which I use in my home) elaborates on this as follows:

[The Israelites] became unique… through their observance of mitzvot. They were never suspected of unchastity or slander; they did not change their names and they did not change their language.

What makes us a great nation, ladies and gentlemen, is just as true today: we have our own heritage, our own traditions, our own laws. We also have our own language, the Hebrew language, which underwent a tremendously successful revival in the last century as a modern tongue. We also continue to keep our own Hebrew names, which we continue to use, for example, when we call our daughters to the Torah for bat mitzvah, and when our sons stand under the huppah, and at various other points in the Jewish life cycle.

This is our Jewish framework. But in addition to this, wherever we have lived, we have also taken on some of the aspects of the wider (i.e. non-Jewish) society, although for the most part we were never entirely assimilated to the point where we lost our tradition. Indeed, you might make the case that it is in fact Judaism’s flexibility that has enabled us to maintain our distinctiveness while living among non-Jews, to be both Jewish and something else. 

Rashi, living in 11th-century France, spoke French and followed some French customs (he was a wine merchant, and historians suggest that he also wore a beret, smoked Gauloises, and exuded ennui). 

Rashi

Maimonides, in 12th-century Egypt, was a court physician to the sultan in Cairo, who treated Jews and non-Jews. 

Moses Mendelssohn, widely considered the first modern Jew, joined the elite salons of 18th-century Berlin while continuing to practice his faith. 

Theodore Herzl, in the late 19th century, was a secular Hungarian Jewish journalist, and yet he arguably launched the most successful modern ideological product of Judaism, that is, Zionism. 

Throughout our history, although we kept Hebrew and our names and the Torah, we have navigated the wider culture and adapted to new environments and new host societies. And we have incorporated some things from the non-Jews around us as well: foods, including ritual foods, vary tremendously within our communities. And music and spoken languages and a whole range of minhagim, of customs, differ greatly depending on where your ancestors landed.

Yet there are certain commonalities of Jewish life that have continued for two thousand years or more – just one example: leather tefillin were found at Qumran, the site where the Essene sect lived at the northern end of the Dead Sea 2,000 years ago. But in every generation, each of us has seen ourselves come forth from slavery to freedom in our own context. We have never lived in a vacuum; we have continually scoured our tradition for contemporary relevance, searching for how the great works of the Jewish bookshelf continue to speak to us. Etz hayyim hi lemahazikim ba. The Torah is our Tree of Life, and in holding on to it we have upheld our nationhood even as we have clothed it in new styles and fabrics.

Had we been rigidly committed to one particular mode of living, Judaism could have died many times over: when the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple in 586 BCE. Or when the Romans laid waste to the Second Temple in 70 CE. Or after the great yeshivot around Baghdad closed up shop in the 11th century CE. Or after the Expulsion from Spain in 1492. Or after the Shoah / Holocaust.

So here is a suggestion. When you sit down to your seder on Wednesday evening, do what Jews have always done: make it yours! Make it relevant! Don’t just do what you’ve always done. That is NOT how Jews do it!

Here are some examples:

When the Four Questions come up, don’t just limit yourself to those traditional four. Ask more questions!

When telling the story of Pesah, don’t simply read what’s in the good ol’ Maxwell House haggadah. Have somebody summarize it in their own words. Get up from the table and act it out! Assign parts!  Have everybody improvise parts of the story! If you have time, prepare some costume items: a staff for Moses, a crown for Pharaoh, a megaphone for God (maybe there is an app for that?), etc.

Plague masks

Have discussion questions prepared: What are you a slave to? What are the things that you are grateful for? What are the things that make your life bitter? In what ways do you feel free?  Why is spring the best time of year? What hametz-laden item do you miss the most during these eight days and why?

These ideas work for families, for children, for sullen teens, for adults, everybody!

Ladies and gentlemen, what makes Pesah work is you! Your creativity, your enthusiasm, your joy. It’s not just about the kids, as Sklare suggested. It’s about you, living here in 21st-century America. 

So go ahead, set the text of the haggadah to the music of Lil Nas X, or to the music of Hamilton, or whatever. Make it yours. Make it relevant. That is how we will maintain our Jewishness and the eternal appeal of our rituals. Hag sameah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 4/4/2020.)

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In Every Generation: The Return of Anti-Semitism – Pesah Day 1, 5779

It was indeed tragic to watch Notre Dame de Paris on fire last week, to ache for the loss of a building so deeply connected to the history of Paris and Europe, to lament the destruction of antiquities and works of art. But the burning of Notre Dame is, I am sorry to report, a fitting metaphor for our current moment, when religious engagement is on the decline in the West, and the order of the Old World continues to slip away.

Gargoyles of Notre Dame

It is notable to me that we are living in a time in which many Jewish people feel kinship with our Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist neighbors, our partners in faith; consider the interfaith cooperation that has happened here in Pittsburgh in the wake of the 18th of Heshvan (the Hebrew date of Oct. 27th, 2018) – the local Muslim community fundraising, the churches that have reached out to us, the huge interfaith vigil, the members of our community that stepped forward to offer comfort to the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh after the Christchurch shooting, and so forth.

That has certainly not always been true. Religious differences, as we know, have historically yielded enmity and outright hatred between people of different faiths; blood libel accusations, wherein Jews in medieval Europe were falsely accused of killing Christian children to use their blood for making matzah, often emerged around this time of year.

One theory about why we actually open the door “for Elijah” during the seder is that it is an attempt to show the non-Jewish neighbors that we are not doing anything nefarious. Nowadays, we might think of the open door as, rather, a metaphor for seeking opportunities to collaborate with our neighbors for the common good. Consider the program 2 for Seder, created by the daughter-in-law of Joyce Fienberg, z”l, an opportunity to share the Pesah ritual with people who have never been before.

***

I attended a meeting last week in New York that I need to tell you about. The meeting was convened by the Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, at the office of the American Jewish Committee in New York.

The purpose of the meeting was for people knowledgeable about anti-Semitism in America to share information about it with a very special guest, Dr. Ahmed Shaheed, who is the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Dr. Shaheed, a diplomat from the Maldives whose last big project was documenting human rights abuses in Iran, is preparing a report on worldwide anti-Semitism to be delivered to the United Nations General Assembly next fall.

Seated around the table were a bunch of bold-faced names from the Jewish world who are experts on anti-Semitism. Among them were Mark Potok, formerly of the Southern Poverty Law Center and a well-known authority on hate groups, Ira Forman, US Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating Anti-Semitism in the Obama administration,  Oren Segal, director of the the ADL’s Center on Extremism, Deputy Inspector Mark Molinari, head of the NYPD’s Hate Crimes Unit, Steven Bayme, Director of Contemporary Jewish Life at AJC, Brian Levin, Director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State University, San Bernardino, and others. Now I am clearly not an expert on the subject like all of these folks, but Dr. Shaheed had specifically requested hearing from the Pittsburgh Jewish community, so Jeff Finkelstein (CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh) and I were also seated around the table.

Among the things I learned were the following:

  • Our nation has seen annual increases in hate crimes for the last five years.
  • Hate crimes against Jews are vastly over-represented; 13% of all hate crimes are anti-Semitic. In NYC they are the majority of hate crimes.
  • The biggest single day for hate crimes in America in recent years was Nov. 9, 2016, the day after Election Day.
  • White supremacists have turned their focus to fighting the “white genocide,” which is, according to their understanding, engineered by Jews.
  • There is, in particular, a spike in online anti-Semitism. White supremacists gather in the darkest corners of the web to foment horrible ideas about Jews. It is worth noting that the Pittsburgh shooter and the Christchurch, NZ shooter were motivated by more or less the same types of online hatred, even if the latter did not go into a synagogue.
  • Anti-Semitism is now evident on the left and the right of the political spectrum, and although we tend to think of these two varieties as coming from different places, they now share memes and other material about the evil of the Jews.

I was asked to speak about how anti-Semitism has affected us in Pittsburgh, and I reported the following:

Five months after October 27th, many of us have returned to what looks outwardly like normalcy.  Even so, I have congregants who are still grieving, whose children are traumatized. I am told that it is difficult to get appointments with local therapists. The recent mosque attacks in New Zealand brought some of the pain back to the surface for many of us in Pittsburgh.

Brad Orsini, the Director of Jewish Community Security at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, has informed me that there has been a marked increase in anti-Semitic activity since October 2018 – more graffiti, more threatening phone-calls, leaflets, etc. He is called to respond to new threats almost every day. There are now four white supremacist organizations operating in Pittsburgh, whereas prior to Oct. 27th, there were only two.

Every Jewish building now has expensive armed guards, and is spending money we don’t have on making ourselves harder targets – metal detectors, silvered windows, electronic doors, and so forth. At least one synagogue in my neighborhood is opting to arm congregants with proper training. We cannot manage hatred, but we can at least try to prevent it from entering our communal spaces.

And beneath the surface, while we continue to grieve for those whom we lost in October, we are now all more anxious, more circumspect.”

Toward the end of the day, all of us in the room were challenged to state whether or not there might be some good news in all of this. Rabbi Noam Marans brought us back to interfaith cooperation: religious groups and individuals today are far more willing to cooperate with one another, and we see evidence that civil society is largely united against those who hate.

Certainly, in the wake of the 18th of Heshvan here in Pittsburgh, we all felt a very strong sense of neighborliness infuse the already-pretty-neighborly feel of our city. On Monday, two days after, I was visiting a congregant in the hospital, and after parking my car, an African-American woman saw me on the street, asked “Are you Jewish?” and when I said yes, offered to give me a hug, which I gladly took.

So the bad news regarding this is that, going back to where we started, religion and faithful living have a diminishing audience and therefore much-reduced influence in our society. So while at one time, anti-Semitism flowed to some extent from people of faith, today its primary purveyors are not religious. As you have heard me say before, the fastest growing religion in America is “None.” Rabbi Marans pointed out that 23% of Americans are now people without any religion, so no matter how much interfaith cooperation there is, we are not going to reach them.

Others around the table pointed to various types of initiatives that seek to help skinheads and Klansmen and other disenfranchised haters to see the humanity in the objects of their hatred, and to lift them up out of the swamp of racism and anti-Semitism. But while these groups have had a few successes, these are tiny compared to the challenge of entrenched fear and loathing digging ever deeper online.

So while there is not a lot of good news, perhaps the only thing we can lean into is Jewish tradition. Anti-Semitism is not new; we have always lived with this. Two items, in particular, from the traditional Pesah haggadah text, might be helpful to recall:

  1. The haggadah reminds us that,
    אֶלָּא שֶׁבְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר עוֹמְדִים עָלֵינוּ לְכַלוֹתֵנוּ
    “In every generation, there are those who rise up to destroy us.”
    While for some decades now, many of us believed that this ancient fear was passé, we can no longer think that way. We must be more vigilant than we have been in recent decades.
  2. Later in the haggadah, we read,
    בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם
    We are continually obligated to see ourselves as having personally come forth from slavery, and to act on that vision to eliminate oppression from this world. In light of our new reality, this year we will very much see ourselves as being allied with people of faith around the world who are targeted for their religion, and we will act in solidarity with them. No Jew will feel the freedom to worship in safety when people of faith around the world feel that they too are bound by the shackles of fear.

We have to support initiatives that bring people together to breed harmony and compassion for the other. We may not be able to reach everybody we need to reach, but more love and connection will yield a bulwark against hatred.

As we gather once again tonight around the seder table, perhaps you might ask your family members and friends what they have done to gain allies, to raise the bar of cooperation, to ensure that those of us who love our neighbors win out over the forces of those who hate.

There is a custom from Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropshitz (Ropczyce, Poland, 1760-1827) that Elijah’s cup, the fifth cup on the table representing our desire for future redemption, be filled with wine from the cups of all the participants around the table. The suggestion is that we all have to play a role in bringing about that redemption; now is the time for us all to work together, even with those who are not at our seder table, to box out the forces of hate.

Shabbat shalom and hag sameah!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning and the first day of Pesah, 4/20/2019.)

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We Need More Nuance – Shabbat HaHodesh 5779

I recently read an article in Harper’s Magazine about the slow death of the long-form book review. It was a lengthy lament on the decline not merely of book reviews, but also an appreciation of nuance overall in our current media environment. The author, Christian Lorentzen, a former book reviewer for New York magazine, opined that even respectable media outlets have focused on covering books in a way that suits today’s climate: shorter bits, recommended lists, author Q&As, thumbs-up-thumbs-down-type coverage. In one passage, acknowledging that the reality is that even the New York Times Book Review is ultimately in search of more clicks, the author drew a fine point on it

… For certain types of journalism the quest for traffic is incompatible with, if not antithetical to, the task at hand. Once a critic has decided, or been assigned, to review a book, should any questions of attracting traffic figure into the work of analysis and evaluation? If they do, such concerns will inevitably push the reviewer to declare the book either a masterpiece or a travesty, or to point up its most sensational elements if there are any to speak of. A conscientious review admitting either to ambivalence or judgments in conflict with one another won’t travel as quickly on social media as an unqualified rave. As BuzzFeed books editor Arianna Rebolini put it…, “Are you going to put your time into something that’s not going to share well?”

Lorentzen takes us all to task. Book coverage, like virtually everything else, has been reduced to black and white. It’s either awesome or horrible, enthusiastically recommended or panned. We either “like” it (with a thumb icon) or we don’t. Not much room in that thumb for nuance, for accepting some good points with some weaknesses. The subtlety that should mark any great work of literature is lost, because such subtlety is virtually invisible in an online environment in which EVERYBODY IS SHOUTING in capital letters.

And so too throughout society. On every issue, we are all polarized. You either agree or disagree. End of story. The middle won’t hold, because it doesn’t attract enough online traffic.

Who has time for nuance? I can’t help but view the world through my professional Jewish lens. And I see a parallel between long form book reviews and (get this!) Conservative Judaism.  Our greatest challenge, being in the middle of Jewish life, is that we cannot be described in a soundbite. An unofficial slogan of the Conservative movement, in the middle of the 20th century, came from Rabbi Mordecai Waxman, who was the senior rabbi at Temple Israel of Great Neck on Long Island for 55 years, from 1947 until 2002. His slogan, “Tradition and Change,” used to resonate throughout the movement. We stand for halakhah, Jewish law, (i.e. tradition) and yet we exercise our right as modern Jews to interpret halakhah (that is, to make some change) to adapt to the framework of contemporary life.

A classic example is that, in 1950, the movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, in an effort to encourage Shabbat observance when more and more American Jews were moving to the suburbs, passed a teshuvah, a rabbinic opinion, that said that if you do not live within walking distance of a synagogue, it is better that you should drive to be with your qehillah, your community on Shabbat than not to go at all, even though driving a car with an internal combustion engine is clearly prohibited according to halakhah.

The challenge to the Conservative movement is putting forward a nuanced vision of Judaism while living in a dramatically non-nuanced world. The idea of “Tradition and Change” works well on the Jewish bookshelf, but it hardly gets people very excited about our heritage.

We the Jews are masters of nuance. Rabbinic literature is filled with examples of the subtle parsing of words and concepts. One such example that came across my desk this week, courtesy of Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, the director of Derekh, relates in particular to the language of the haggadah.

One passage which you really should discuss around your seder table, is a direct quote from the Mishnah of Pesahim, the book of the Mishnah dedicated to all aspects of Passover (10:5). You might miss it if you’re only focused on singing the Four Questions and Dayyenu, and for sure if you’re skipping right to dinner

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

… In every generation a person must see him/herself as though s/he [personally] had gone out of Egypt, as it is stated, “And you shall tell your child on that day, saying, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt’” (Exodus 13:8).

This is the call to arms of the seder. It is the line that is most important because it connects our history to who we are and how we live today

What does it say? Each of us must see ourselves as having personally come forth from Egypt. How might that guide our actions? If we are truly internalizing that notion, then it should mean that we should let that vision of ourselves guide us in eliminating oppression from our world.

But hold on a minute. Rabbi Markiz pointed me to the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides / Rambam, his 12th century halakhic work that gives a thorough snapshot of living Jewishly. And while Rambam sometimes quotes the Talmud directly, here he changes the words somewhat (MT, Hilkhot Hametz uMatzah 7:6)

בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לְהַרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא בְּעַצְמוֹ יָצָא עַתָּה מִשִּׁעְבּוּד מִצְרַיִם שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (דברים ו כג) “וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם” וְגוֹ’. וְעַל דָּבָר זֶה צִוָּה הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא בַּתּוֹרָה “וְזָכַרְתָּ כִּי עֶבֶד הָיִיתָ” כְּלוֹמַר כְּאִלּוּ אַתָּה בְּעַצְמְךָ הָיִיתָ עֶבֶד וְיָצָאתָ לְחֵרוּת וְנִפְדֵּיתָ

In every generation a person must show her/himself that s/he personally had come forth from Egyptian subjugation, as it is stated, “God freed us from there…” (Deut. 6:23). And regarding this, the Holy Blessed One commanded in the Torah, “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt…” (Deut. 5:15, 15:15, 24:22), that is to say, as if you yourself had been a slave, and you came forth into freedom, and you were redeemed.

So here is the nuance:

  1. Rambam changes the imperative from “see oneself” (lir’ot) to “show oneself” (lehar’ot). The second form is causative (hif’il). Don’t just picture yourself as a former slave, says Rambam. Rather, show yourself. Do something that will bring this understanding home, will make it personal. Go from passive to active.

  2. Rambam also changes the proof-text. Instead of the verse quoted in the Mishnah, about what God did for me when I came forth from Egypt, he cites an explicit statement of what God did, i.e. freed us from Egypt’s clutches, and then backs it up with an oft-repeated line in the Torah about remembering that we were slaves. The impression with which we are left is stronger. Don’t think of freedom merely as a gift from God for which we should be grateful. Rather, remember that you were a slave, and now you’re free, and you have to act on that.

You can feel free to use Rambam’s words in your seder if you’d like. In fact, I encourage you to print them out and compare them back-to-back one night. But you can’t stop there – the point of the seder is not merely intellectual discussion. It is, rather, a call to action.

Show yourself what it means to be free. Contribute your time to help others – by working in a homeless shelter, or joining a group that is working to prevent gun violence, or reaching out to the local Muslim community, or the local African-American community, to work toward better inter-faith and inter-racial relations, or many other such activities, or speaking up when your own government separates migrant families at our southern border. Don’t just picture yourself as a slave; show yourself what it means to be free. Prove to yourself that your freedom moves you to act on the behalf of those deprived of it.

It is a subtle textual emendation by Maimonides. But it could make a huge difference in this world. We cannot afford NOT to parse the nuance. We cannot reduce ourselves to the Like/Dislike sickness that has afflicted our society. We the Jews have a proud tradition of textual interpretation based on subtlety; let’s put it to work as we show ourselves and others that we understand the value of nuance.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/6/2019.)

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Pesah Evangelism

Without question, Pesah is the most important holiday of the Jewish year. It eclipses Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah. It outstrips Purim and Hanukkah by a great distance. Shavuot? Sukkot? Fahgeddaboutit. Pesah is where it’s at. Let me tell you why.

Pesah is the only holiday where you have a chance to guarantee a Jewish future. That’s how high the stakes are. Pesah is the most spiritually sustainable holiday of the year. It’s the festival that incorporates the greatest creativity and personal engagement. It’s also the time that we have the most people around the table. It’s an opportunity of epic proportions.

images.duckduckgo.com

And it’s up to us not to let this opportunity pass by.

Somewhere between 70-80% of American Jews still show up for the seder. Most of them are not affiliated with Jewish communities or institutions. Many of them do not feel that Judaism infuses their lives, or has any real value from which they can draw. Many are bringing partners and children who have not yet joined the Jewish people.

And that’s where you come in. You can be a Pesah evangelist. (You should pardon the association.)

And how might you do that? Very simple:

Ask questions and discuss.

Sure, you should sing, drink four cups of wine, make a Hillel sandwich, spill wine from your cup when you remember the plagues, etc.

But the real way to be a Pesah evangelist is to get away from the printed seder to one that includes asking more questions than the standard four: questions of who we are and why this all matters to us. The Talmud (Pesahim 115b) tells us that matzah is the kind of bread that elicits conversation:

אמר שמואל (דברים טז, ג) לחם עוני (כתיב) לחם שעונין עליו דברים

Shemuel said: It is written (Deuteronomy 16:3) “lehem oni” (literally, “the bread of poverty”): [this can be understood as] the bread over which one answers many matters.

Here is a list of possible discussion questions (some have simple answers, but can be used to spark further conversation). Use them at your seder table:

“Big picture” questions:

  • What does it mean to be a slave, literally and/or figuratively?
  • In what way are we slaves today (i.e. to the clock, to work, to societal expectations, to money, etc.)?
  • Envision not being a slave to these things.  What would that feel like?  What is the downside?Why is it important to have a celebration of freedom?
  • What is the meaning of freedom, and what responsibilities does freedom carry with it?
  • Who or what is your Pharaoh?
  • To what are we slaves today, and how are we free?
  • Would it have been easier to have remained slaves in Egypt?
  • What is your favorite Jewish holiday and why?  Why or why not Pesah?
  • The Pesah story is the precursor to the giving of the Torah.  What is our relationship today to the Torah and its mitzvot?
  • Fill in the blanks:  Had God _______ but not _______, would it have been enough?

Details of seder:

  • Why do we “recline” while we eat/drink?
  • Why do we dip some things into other things?
  • Why do we eat eggs, and why is there one on the seder plate but it is never mentioned?
  • Why do we tell the same story year after year?
  • Why have a seder at all?
  • What is the significance of each of the items on the seder plate, and in particular the shankbone, the matzah and the bitter herbs? (this discussion fulfills one of the obligations detailed in the Mishnah)
  • Why are there all these funny songs at the end?
  • Why do we eat the afikoman as dessert?

General Pesah questions:

  • What are the prohibited foods of Pesah?
  • If the Conservative movement allows us to eat kitniyot (legumes, etc.), is that enough of a reason to dispense with a 700-year-old custom for Ashkenazi Jews?
  • Doesn’t it seem strange that Sefaradim can traditionally eat some things on Pesah that Ashkenazim do not?  And yet we are all Jews. Discuss!
  • Which days of Pesah are Yom Tov (i.e. festival days on which many of the celebratory Shabbat guidelines apply) and why?
  • What’s the deal with the Omer?  When do we start counting and why?  When does it conclude?
  • How is Pesah connected to the next festival, Shavuot?

If you need more resources to draw on, a whole bunch of them may be found here, courtesy of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America:

http://www.jtsa.edu/passover-resources

Don’t let this opportunity go. The seder is a wonderful way to reconnect with Judaism, for everybody around the table. Good luck! Happy evangelizing! And hag sameah.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

 

 

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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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