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Festivals Sermons

As God is My Editor – Pesaḥ Day 1, 5781

The past year, in addition to facing all of the various physical, social, and economic ills caused by the coronavirus pandemic, we have also had a sort of national reckoning on race, and we continue to look deep inside ourselves as we wrestle with the biases and prejudices that we all have. As a part of this process, we have continued the public struggles over symbols of the racism of American history. And this has not been an easy or comfortable conversation.

Right now, we are celebrating one of the most essential festivals of the Jewish year, a holiday that marks our freedom from slavery and our freedom to worship as we please. And yet, in more than one passage in the Torah, it is clear that some of our ancestors, thousands of years ago, owned slaves. Now, the slavery described in the Torah seems to be largely an economic arrangement born of bankruptcy, in which one who could not repay debts could effectively sell him/herself as a slave, although there are also arrangements for enslaving those captured in war. And it is worth pointing out that the Torah requires slave owners to let slaves go free, if the the slaves desire, after 7 years.

How can the Torah permit something which it elsewhere decries?

Of course, the very idea of slavery of any kind is detestable to us today as Jews, and as Americans. And yet, of course, as with all the other passages in the Torah that make us uncomfortable, we continue to read them, albeit with the disclaimer which I find myself making whenever explaining these thorny parts of the Torah, that although this was permissible in ancient times, we no longer do this. That’s the thing about the Torah – we read it all, out loud, every year (well, every three years at Beth Shalom, where we follow the triennial cycle). We cannot edit out passages that we do not like.

And let’s face it: as an ancient tradition that unfolded over centuries, there are plenty of things in Jewish life that we have received from our ancestors which today we find uncomfortable. And we must wrestle with those things.

The traditional Pesaḥ haggadah, for example, includes a passage that I find particularly objectionable. You can find it in your haggadah right after the berakhah for the third cup of wine, which is in the “Barekh” section (most of which is Birkat haMazon). 

 It is the following:

שְׁפֹךְ חֲמָתְךָ אֶל־הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדָעוּךָ וְעַל־מַמְלָכוֹת אֲשֶׁר בְּשִׁמְךָ לֹא קָרָאוּ. כִּי אָכַל אֶת־יַעֲקֹב וְאֶת־נָוֵהוּ הֵשַׁמּוּ 

שְׁפָךְ־עֲלֵיהֶם זַעֲמֶךָ וַחֲרוֹן אַפְּךָ יַשִּׂיגֵם 

תִּרְדֹף בְּאַף וְתַשְׁמִידֵם מִתַּחַת שְׁמֵי ה

Pour your wrath upon the nations that did not know You and upon the kingdoms that did not call upon Your Name! Since they have consumed Ya’aqov and laid waste his habitation (Psalms 79:6-7). 

Pour out Your fury upon them and the fierceness of Your anger shall reach them (Psalms 69:25).

You shall pursue them with anger and eradicate them from under the skies of the Lord (Lamentations 3:66)

These are a relatively late addition to the haggadah, probably from the 12th century, in the context of the Crusades, which were particularly painful to the Jews of early Ashkenaz: four verses saturated with anger and grief and pain. They were chosen because they are an obscene gesture to our non-Jewish enemies, a reflection of the powerlessness of our medieval ancestors in response to their horrible condition, maintained by anti-Semitic oppression.  

And what do we do when we recite these verses? We open the door, ostensibly to welcome Eliyahu HaNavi, the Prophet Elijah. Yes, I know that is what they told you in Hebrew school. 

A cup for Miriam the Prophetess, which some put out in addition to a cup for Elijah

But what are we saying as we do this? May God slaughter our enemies, in anger.

One theory about why we open the door is that our ancestors in these troubled times were demonstrating to our non-Jewish neighbors that nothing nefarious was going on, to show that we were not, as we had been accused, using blood of murdered Christian children to make matzah. So the irony here is that we open the door for all to see our innocence, and yet at the same time we are calling on God for vengeance.

I have often been at a loss to try to square these verses, their origin and context, with my own outlook on American Jewish life in the 21st century. On the one hand, anti-Semitism is, lamentably, still thriving here and around the world. On the other, is cursing our neighbors and calling for their destruction the right response? So, when leading a seder, I have tried to put these in context, to rationalize their presence in my haggadah, or to lean into the Eliyahu haNavi bit rather than the pouring out of Thy wrath.  

But that is what we do: when faced with rituals or text that challenge our contemporary sensibilities, we do not merely take them out. We modify them slightly (for example, adding the Imahot, the matriarchs to the opening paragraph of the Amidah), or we put them in context. The Conservative movement has historically been the home of Tradition and Change. We do not gloss over the ugly parts; rather, we seek context, meaning and intent in every generation, as our world evolves.

And we must do the same as Americans.  We are struggling right now with symbols of our past that are fraught with the sting of racism. 

You may recall that the wider movement to remove some of these symbols, like statues of Confederate generals and Confederate flags, gained a new urgency following the mass shooting at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina by an avowed white supremacist in 2015. You may also recall that the shocking march of white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017 was precipitated by a public debate in that city about whether to take down a monument of Robert E. Lee.

Some symbols, like those of Confederate generals, are too painful to remain in public places. Mississippi, the state with the highest percentage of African-Americans, only removed the Confederate emblem from its flag last June. I cannot even imagine how it must have felt to the 40% of Mississippi that is Black to live in a state that flew that flag; picture having to tolerate veneration of Nazis in your neighborhood.

But while Confederate symbols and statues are clearly unacceptable, all cultures have heroes, and heroes are never saints; they are human. Their achievements can be admired while also giving context and even speaking of their failings. Presidents Washington and Jefferson, for example, were slave owners. Should we remove the statues of these icons of American democracy?

We the Jews are all too familiar with the danger of words and images. We understand where the constant denigration of others can lead. We are all too familiar with the grief and suffering caused by ancient hatreds – the pogroms, the forced exiles, the forced conscriptions, the genocide.

When we look deep into our own tradition, there are clearly troubling items to be found there. But our response is always to teach, to argue with ourselves, to write commentaries and fiery sermons and opinion pieces and critical editions of ancient texts. And, of course, around Purim time, we remember to forget Amaleq, who sought to destroy us.

In short, the remedy to these things is education. We do not edit out the bad parts; we teach them! And we teach that hatred is wrong, that oppression and slavery are wrong.

And so too as Americans. We have to teach the shameful parts of our past, and help our coming generations wrestle with our own internal demons to lead us all to live in harmony with each other, to understand that we are all in this together, that nobody is truly free until all are free. We have to make sure that the commentaries are there, the explanations that say, “This is not who we are. We are better than this.” 

We, the Jews, have to share a little bit of the seder with our non-Jewish neighbors, a different part, the passage that is, I think, the most important one in the whole book: Check out the beginning of “Maggid”: Kol dikhfin yeitei yeikhul. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. I am going to break these down, Rashi-style:

Kol dikhfin / All who are hungry: This refers to all who suffer in any way, whether through physical or spiritual deprivation. It includes the homeless as well as the oppressed, the abused, the victims of grinding poverty, baseless hatred, and corrupt governments.

Yeitei / Let them come: Open our doors with love, honesty, and compassion.

Veyeikhul / And let them eat: We are obligated to take care of one another, to make sure that all are welcome, all are fed and clothed and housed and all have access to health care and justice. We should incline toward building a better society, one in which nobody falls through the cracks. The work of repairing this world is not yet done.  

If you want to reinterpret “Shefokh ḥamatekha” / pouring out God’s wrath a different way, that’s fine. Perhaps you’d like to interpret this passage as directed at the enemies within ourselves, the parts of our personalities that resist God’s holiness. Maybe right afterward, you could reprise Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. But just make sure that we know why we are saying what we say. Teach our values, so that we may live them, and that our children may live them, and all of us may live together.

חג שמח / Ḥag sameaḥ!

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, first day of Pesa , 3/28/2021.)

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Festivals Sermons

Slavery Is Not an Ancient Abstraction – First Day of Pesah 5777

There is a certain amount of debate in the pages of Jewish commentary about a verse that appeared in today’s Torah reading, Shemot / Exodus 12:42:

לֵיל שִׁמֻּרִים הוּא לַה’, לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:  הוּא-הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה לַה’, שִׁמֻּרִים לְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְדֹרֹתָם

That was for the Lord a night of vigil to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the Lord’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages. (JPS)

I have also seen “leil shimmurim” translated as, “a night of watchfulness,” playing on the apparent connection to the simple form of the verb, lishmor, to guard or keep.*

The debate in interpretation is regarding the watchfulness. Who is being watchful? Is it, as Ibn Ezra suggests, that God was watching/guarding the Israelites in Egypt on the night of the 14th of Nisan, when the Angel of Death swept through, to see them depart safely? Or is it, as Ramban states, that the Israelites are to be watchful on this night when we commemorate our departure from Egypt, as we did last night?

watcher

The Etz Hayim commentary (p. 389), by the way, splits the difference: it is a night of vigil both for God and for us. Regardless, Pesah is unquestionably meant to be a holiday of awareness. Awareness of ourselves, of God, of our freedom, of spring. Pesah is about paying attention, about guarding, about being ready to act.

*****

I remember leading a seder at my home a few years back, and leading a discussion (yes, I lead discussions at home as well with my family – I am, after all, their rabbi. They pretend to listen and occasionally participate as well). We were talking about the passage that I think is the most essential line in the entire haggadah (Mishnah Pesahim 10:5):

בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם

Bekhol dor vador hayyav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza miMitzrayim.

In every generation, each of us must see him- or herself as having personally come forth from Egypt.

It is a direct quote from the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:5), and the imperative to me seems clear: the whole point of Pesah is not to speak about the journey from slavery to freedom in the abstract, but rather to understand it as our current reality. We are all former slaves. We have all earned our freedom, with God’s help. And we must actively recall that redemption every day of our lives.

So there we were, talking about the import of this statement, when it suddenly occurred to me that we had, sitting at the table with us, a person who had actually been a slave. So I asked, has anybody here ever been a slave? And my father-in-law, Judy’s father, who spent seven months in a labor camp in the Auschwitz/Birkenau complex, said yes. And that very moment was so powerful that no more questions were required. He had lived that very journey. He had survived the Exodus.

I mention this because slavery is not something that is only in the past. It has always existed, and still exists today. In fact, estimates vary widely, but despite the fact that it is illegal in every country in the world, there are between 20 million and 36 million slaves on this planet. That’s somewhere between the population of New York State and California. About three-quarters of them are located in India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Thailand, Congo, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. India alone has about 14 million slaves, around one percent of the population of that country, and more than the number of people living in Pennsylvania.

slavery

There are different types of slaves, among them bonded labor, where people take loans under the condition that they work off the debt, but are never successful in doing so; sexual slavery, including forced prostitution and the like; and child labor, which is the predominant category in India.

Now, you may make the case that challenging circumstances (war, economic hardship, and so forth) create slaves, and that is surely true. But this is what is more troubling is this: however slaves came to be enslaved, we keep them enslaved. Many of the products that we buy – food, clothing, electronics – have slaves involved somewhere along the production line. Just as the Nazis used my father-in-law and perhaps millions of others to keep their balance sheet in the black, so too do the economic engines of today’s global marketplace. You can read all about it on the Internet – simply type “contemporary slavery” into your favorite search engine. And it’s not just products, of course. The US State Department estimates that about 50,000 people, mostly women and girls, are trafficked into the United States each year to be forced into prostitution.

child slavery

So when we discuss slavery as free people around the seder table, we should be aware that it is not an ancient abstraction. Slavery is very real, and still an ongoing scourge. It is even in our midst. And hence we need to be watchful. We need to pay attention to where our money goes, who it benefits, and who it punishes.

OK, Rabbi, thanks for the bad news. Now what can we do?

First, be aware. On this holiday of awareness, when we decrease our joy by removing drops of wine from our cups while mentioning the ten plagues, when we only recite a partial Hallel to account for the suffering of the Egyptians, when we stay up late at the ready, when we make it a point to teach our children about freedom, we need to remind ourselves that there are oppressed people in horrible circumstances in the world, even as we recline as free people at the seder table. And we should know  how our spending habits affect the lives of others.

Second, act. The Torah exhorts us over and over to recall that we are slaves, and to behave accordingly. I recently counted these instances; there are at least ten times in the Torah (there may be more) where it says a variation on the following, “Do not oppress the stranger/poor/slave among you, because you were slaves in Egypt.”** And add to that the Torah’s imperative, also recurring in many places and forms, to care actively for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger in your midst. We’ll read one such example in tomorrow’s Torah reading (Vayiqra / Leviticus 23:22 – identifies the mitzvot / commandments of Pe’ah / leaving the corners of your fields un-harvested, and Leqet / leaving gleanings for the poor). Our tradition requires us to act. And action can take the following forms:

  1. Donate to organizations that work to free slaves, end human trafficking, and work for human rights all over the world. Here are a few: (I can’t make any claim as to whether or not these are good charities)

Made in a Free World

Free the Slaves

Anti-Slavery

It may be just a drop in the bucket, but every life that is reclaimed from slavery brings our own redemption one step closer. Think of it as a mitzvah in the category of piqquah nefesh, saving a life, which takes precedence over all other mitzvot.

  1. Consider buying “fair trade” products when possible. This is not necessarily a cure-all, but may have an impact, particularly if many of us do it. The most visible fair trade products of late are coffee and chocolate, but certification labels are now appearing on textiles and other products. Look for them. We have the potential to change the world merely by altering slightly our spending patterns.
  2. You may want to consider submitting a suggestion to the companies that supply the goods that keep us fed, clothed, and digitally connected. Some of the websites listed above allow you to do this directly from the website.

Our obligations in this season go beyond recalling the Exodus. Pesah is a festival of freedom for the entire world, but it is also a journey of awareness. Be watchful; be aware, but don’t forget that ours is a tradition of action.

Hag sameah!

~Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, First day of Pesah 5777, Tuesday morning, 4/11/2017.)

 

* Back in cantorial school, they taught us a melody, a “mi-sinai” tune (not actually from Mt. Sinai, but so old that it might as well be) for the series of piyyutim that begin with “leil shimmurim,” recited on the first two nights of Pesah, inserted into ma’ariv service. I’ve never actually used that melody in a synagogue, and the piyyutim do not appear in our siddur, but they are still bouncing around in my head.

 

** The ones I found, using a concordance, were:

Shemot / Exodus 22:20, 23:9

Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:34

Devarim / Deuteronomy 5:15, 10:19, 15:15, 16:12, 23:8, 24:18, 24:22

 

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Festivals Sermons

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.)