Categories
Healing Holiday Passover Pesach spirituality

When Is Enough, Enough Already?

With Pesach just concluded, I am still contemplating part of the seder. In my family, like many others, we add to the singing of Dayeinu, the wonderful custom of smiting one another with scallion. “Dai, dai yeinu, dai, dai yeinu…,” we sing joyfully. “It would have been enough. Enough, enough, enough. To bring us out of Egypt, to give us Shabbat, to give us Torah—enough, enough.

But when examining the stages of Dayeinu, I wonder, would each of these moments really have been enough? To have been brought out of Egypt, but left at the Red Sea? To have been brought into the desert, but with no manna? To have been brought to Sinai, but with no Torah? Would that really have been enough?

And so, too, now we wonder. In each of our lives, we have moments when it is simply not “enough.” To have been given chemo for our cancer, but given —lo dai.  To have cutting-edge treatment for my depression, without feeling better—lo dai. To work towards a vaccine, without lowering the rate of transmission of COVID-19—lo dai.  

And, when, at the time of Elijah’s cup, we remember and recite the tradition of “pour out Your wrath,” when we note that “in every generation, tyrants have risen up to oppress us,” we might think—yes, God, enough. Perhaps more than enough. In this time of coronavirus, we may think, “Yes, oh God, enough already.” Surely we could learn to feel God’s presence, God’s redemption in our lives without yet another plague or persecution.  

I led two Zoom seders this year. Ordinarily I lead one, and my family is invited out to the other. Not only was I exhausted afterwards, but it was hard to tell how they went. As opposed to “in-person” sedarim, online ones are murky. Were other people singing along? Was there joy in being together? Did we lift up our voices together in Hallel, and were we silly as a group in the songs at the end? Or were people just tired, bored, waiting for the end?

If I felt worn out after two nights of leading family and friends, I can only imagine both the over-functioning of my pulpit and other working colleagues, and their need for positive feedback, to know that their efforts are hitting the mark often enough. That they are dai.  

And so it occurs to me that perhaps this is what Dayeinu means to us this year. Not that we say to God, “What You have done for us is enough,” but rather, “Dayei-nu” “we are dai, we are enough.” If our seder leadership brought our families to Sinai (without a major Torah revelation), well, then, we are dai! We are good enough, and we did enough. If our remote visits to the sick and with mourners comforts them, but not as good as a hug would have, אנחנו די, we are enough! And if we are leading remote services on Shabbat, then, remember—we, too, need a Shabbat, a rest—because we have needs, because we are enough, not God.

In this extraordinary time of uncertainty and fear, of rabbis rising to do remarkable work, let our Pesach hymn carry us forth. God, give us enough to work with, when we affirm that we, ourselves, are enough. And that is the blessing of gratitude and limits, of thanksgiving and self-acceptance, wrapped into a song of joy and scallions.


Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado. She may be reached at ravsjcohen@gmail.com.

Categories
interfaith Passover Pesach Prayer

Tragedy and Transcendence: Opening Prayer for the CO State House in a Time of Holiness and Horror

Rabbi Joe Black read this opening prayer for the Colorado State House of Representatives before they began their session on Wednesday, April 17, 2019.

Our God and God of all people:

This Friday night, Jews around the world will tell the ancient story of Passover.  We will gather around our seder tables and experience the bitterness of slavery and the sweetness of freedom and redemption. On Easter Sunday, Christians will celebrate the potential to be reborn with hope and faith.

This is a sacred time – when we are reminded of both the fragility of life and the potential for renewal and redemption. Now should be a period of gratitude and introspection that helps us to see the best in all of humanity.

And yet, in the midst of these festivals of holiness and hope, over the past two days our state was suddenly and brutally thrust into a climate of terror and dread brought about by a heartbreakingly disturbed young woman who played out her demons as we anticipated the 20th anniversary of the Columbine shooting.

The juxtaposition of the anticipation of these two sacred festivals with the ugliness and paralysis of potential violence reminds us just how little progress has occurred in the years since our innocence was shattered on April 20th, 1999. We have become numb to the horrors of violence brought about by each new tragedy. For a parent to have to tell their child that it is too dangerous to go to school is an obscenity and anathema to the values that are embodied in this sacred chamber.

When messages of rebirth and redemption are overshadowed by fear, we must take stock in who we are and who we are becoming. We can try to write off each tragic incident as distinct and separate, but taken in an aggregate we have no choice but to acknowledge that there is a sickness in our nation that cannot be ignored. Whether it is caused by easy access to weapons of destruction or the political divisions that paralyze us, it is essential that we come together to bring about change – to strive to see the veracity and sanctity of all humanity – even if we disagree. If the deaths of innocents are not enough to move us to action, then what have we become?

May the messages of hope and rebirth symbolized by both Passover and Easter motivate all of us to see the holiness infused in every soul. As we anticipate this painful anniversary, may we be inspired to use every means at our disposal to ensure that the hopelessness and despair that we have been feeling these past two days will be replaced by a sacred determination to bring about healing and change.  Only then will we be able to ensure that we are doing God’s work on earth.

Amen

Rabbi Joe Black serves Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado. This blog was originally shared on his personal blog.

Categories
Immigration Passover Pesach Social Justice

Let My People Go

Over 1,000 men in detention. Fifty men sharing a dormitory room, sleeping on bunk beds seemingly made out of plywood and nails, topped with thin plastic “mattresses.” Men under constant surveillance, wearing prison uniforms, fed unappetizing-looking meals, and  working as barbers, cooks, or custodians for $1 a day. Days spent mostly lying on their beds, with occasional outings to a cement yard topped with barbed wire. For most of them, they have committed no crime, only exercised their human right to seek asylum. 

These are the conditions inside the New Mexico Otero Detention Center for migrants awaiting a hearing. It is run by the for-profit company Management and Training Corporation(MTC) which collects $100,000 of our tax dollars daily to house these men. There is one part-time physician and one chaplain for all of them. The Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General’s office made a surprise visit to Otero in 2017 and “found evidence of the unjustified use of solitary confinement, unsanitary conditions and non-working telephones.”

The Torah tells us 36 times that we are to care for the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Our freedom from slavery is celebrated every year at Passover, which begins the night of April 19. So when I see hundreds and thousands of people from Central America fleeing from violence and desperate poverty, coming to our borders seeking asylum, only to be locked up in detention centers or detained in the elements under a bridge, my heart aches and I am called to action.

This is why I joined HIAS and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights on a recent trip to El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico to learn what is going on at our border. I was not unfamiliar with the plight of migrants from Central America. Near where I live in Riverside, CA is the town of Adelanto, a desolate location in the high desert and home to another private detention center, this one run by the private company GEO Group. With the help of organizations such as the New Sanctuary Movement and Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, I had visited detainees there but was never allowed beyond the visiting room. The conditions at Otero were more upsetting than I had expected.

Under international and federal law, people have the right to request asylum. Asylum seekers are not criminals; many are people with legitimate fears of being killed in their countries of origin. Why are we treating them like this? Judaism certainly insists that we are all made b’tzelem Elohim, in God’s image. How do we as a country justify making a profit off those seeking safety by locking them up in private prisons?

As a rabbi, I take seriously our mandate to free the captive — those who are unjustly imprisoned. The people in these detention centers made dangerous journeys to arrive on our soil. As they await their trial, their detention can last months in these conditions. In El Paso, the rate of deportation following this ordeal is close to 97 percent.

On this trip, we also visited shelters in El Paso and on the other side of the border, in Ciudad Juárez. We met true tzaddikim, righteous people doing everything they can to provide a respite for those on these arduous journeys. At the nonprofit Annunciation House, for example, Ruben Garcia tirelessly places migrants released by ICE in a variety of shelters throughout the area. In fact, ICE would have to release over 600 people a day if Garcia did not provide them with these locations.

At this point, the shelters are being overwhelmed beyond capacity. The day we left El Paso, Customs and Border Protection had begun to detain migrants under the bridge connecting the U.S. to Mexico. We were horrified to witness crowds of women and children behind barbed wire, forced to sleep on the rocky ground outside.

What can you and I do to address this problem? You can support any of the wonderful organizations mentioned above. You can volunteer your time at one of the shelters, whether you live in El Paso or not. And you can bring these stories to your seder table, drawing the parallels between the journeys made by our own ancestors and those of today’s refugees. Let us adhere to Rabbi Hillel’s dictum: If I am not for myself, who will be?  But if I am for myself only, what am I? And if not now, when?

Rabbi Suzanne Singer serves Temple Beth El in Riverside, California.

Categories
Passover Pesach

The Poor Bread

From The Passover Haggadah:

This is the poor bread that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Anyone who are oppressed shall come and eat, anyone who is in need shall come and partake of our Passover. Today we live in a world imperfect; next year may we live in a world redeemed.  Today we are enslaved, next year may all be free.

This reading from our Haggadah remains one of my favorite pieces of Jewish liturgy.  At the outset of our Seder, we focus in on the Matzah as a teaching tool, as a mnemonic of history, as an invitation to all who are hungry, and as a reminder of the deepest lessons of our liberation.  We transform an unleavened slice of bread into a symbol of our commitment to end all oppression, to bring the freedom we enjoy to all the people of our world.

But why is it called “the poor bread”?  Our CCAR Haggadah of my youth translated this difficulty away, rendering the Aramaic HaLachma Anyia as, “This is the poor bread, the bread of affliction”.  Surely our Exodus narrative speaks of our oppression in Egypt, of harsh labor in mortar and brick, of genocidal edicts enacted by Pharaoh.  Despite all that affliction, we also learn from Torah that our ancestors ate pretty well in Egypt: while in the wilderness, the Israelites bemoan the fish and fruit and foods they savored during servitude.  If we eat Matzah to remember the haste with which we departed Egypt, why do we call it “the Poor Bread”?

Rabbi Yehuda Loew, the Maharal of Prague, asked these precise questions in his 16th Century commentary on the Haggadah, called “Gevurot HaShem/The Power of The Name”.  Loew starts off by likening the Matzah to poverty: just as unleavened bread is stooped lower than its peers and cannot stand tall, so too does poverty force people to lower their heads, preventing them from standing tall and proud.  He hints that just as Matzah is missing in some ways the quintessential element of bread, namely leaven, so too are those forced into poverty deprived of the essence of a robust existence.  That is quite a lesson to chew over for seven days!

The Maharal, however, isn’t satisfied with that explanation.  Amazing, just as our Haggadah equates “the poor bread” with “the bread of affliction”, so too does the Maharal expand the interpretation of Lechem Oni.  He imagines a situation in which the Egyptians, in order to oppress the Israelites even more painfully, forcefully fed them Matzah so that it might be stuck in their stomachs.  The Maharal knew what many of us experience: the difficulty of digesting Matzah!  He actually describes our weeklong intestinal discomfort as inflicting upon ourselves the same punishment Pharaoh meted out to our ancestors.  On this interpretation, our festival of unleavened bread is an extended hunger banquet meant to connect us physically to the sensation of those oppressed and deprived.

In the end, however, the great sage of Prague rejects both of these interpretations he himself created!  He ultimately explains that our matzah is “poor bread” because it is the opposite of “rich bread”, namely beautiful leavened bread covered with cream and jam.  The Matzah, to the Maharal, stands as a stark reminder that while those who are poor do indeed eat, it is in marked contrast to the festive table arrayed before us.  That is his last word on the matter of Matzah.

However, the last word shouldn’t be taken as the final answer.  Rabbis actually do know how to answer a question directly; when the Maharal shares two answers only to reject them, he still hopes to deepen our learning.  I believe he shares all these interpretation of Ha Lachma Anyia because—historically accurate or not—he believes the lessons of all are important.

Together, these takes on the Poor Bread teach us to be sensitive to the experience of poverty.  Those oppressed by want are often forced to walk in humiliation, not in pride.  Those deprived, even by force, of healthy and nutritious foods, spend their lives in real physical discomfort.  Those whose needs are greatest cannot perhaps even imagine the luxuries of family and ritual and food we enjoy every night, and especially on the most different nights of Passover.

Our passage ends with the hope, “Today we are oppressed; next year may all be free”.  Just as do so many other elements of our Seder experience, the Matzah—a la Maharal—is meant to put us in deep connection to that oppression so that we can rise from our Seder tables with an even deeper commitment to work for a world where all are free of the chains, sufferings, and deprivations of poverty.


Rabbi Seth Limmer serves Chicago Sinai Congregation and is on the CCAR Board of Trustees. Rabbi Limmer also is a contributor to CCAR Press’s forthcoming publication,
The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic.

Categories
Passover Pesach

Opening the Door, Eyes Wide Open

On Friday night, we will send the youngest among us to open our doors to the promise of perfect redemption. This year, though, that promise feels more distant than ever, even unattainable: Humans, far from being God’s partners in bringing salvation, continue to destroy the world.

We are taught, by the ancient rabbis in the Mishnah and also in the holy Quran: “One who kills a single human being is compared to one who destroys the entire world.”[i]

Hatred has annihilated God’s creation repeatedly.

On March 15, 2019, fifty human lives were snuffed out. Their crime? Being Muslims at prayer.

On October 27, 2018, eleven precious souls were taken from this Earth. Their crime? Being Jews at prayer.

On June 12, 2016, forty-nine human beings were executed. Their crime? Being gay men, or in the presence of gay men, at a night club.

On June 17, 2015, nine of God’s children were shot to death. Their crime? Being Black people at a Bible Study.

On September 11, 2001, nearly 3000 lives were taken. Their crime? Being Americans, or among Americans, at work or on an airplane.

And I have listed only a small fraction of these horrors in the current century.

In the last century, Pastor Martin Niemoller, in the wake of the Nazi genocide, initially imagined himself to have been among those who had resisted Hitler and his homicidal hatred. Then, he visited the Dachau Concentration Camp. At the crematorium, he saw the dates throughout which a quarter million victims had been incinerated there, 1933-1945. Niemoller recognized his culpability. He had not begun standing up to Hitler until 1937. Only then, Pastor Niemoller began to hold himself to account for the slaughter, in words that later became a famous poem:[ii]

“First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out –

            Because I was not a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out –

            Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –

            Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

If we are to send our children to the door with integrity, we must declare that we will never be silent in the face of hatred.

When they come for Muslims, we must speak out, because silence is deadly.

When they come for African Americans, we must speak out, because silence destroys the entire world.

When they come for queer folks, we must speak out, because silence is deadly.

When they come for immigrants, we must speak out, because silence destroys the entire world.

When they come for Republicans or Democrats, for Americans or Asians, for Christians or Jews, for country folk or city dwellers, we must speak out, because silence destroys the entire world.

Speaking out is powerful. The rabbis taught, in words also inscribed in the holy Quran: One who saves a single life is credited with saving the entire world.[iii]

As our young ones open the doors on Friday night, we pray that they do so with eyes that shine with the promise of a bright future. We who are adults, while smiling for our little ones, must open our eyes wide both to all that plagues God’s creation and to our power and responsibility to be God’s partners in salvation.


[i] M. Sanhedrin 4:5, inter alia in the Talmud. Also Quran 5:32.

[ii] Joseph Coohill, ”Martin Niemoller, ‘First They Came…’ – Quote or No Quote,”  Professor Buzzkill, November 6, 2018.

[iii] M. Sanhedrin 4:5, inter alia in the Talmud. Also Quran 5:32

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees. 

Categories
Passover Pesach

Discussion Starters from the Seder Plate

Just in case Miriam hasn’t stopped by to replenish your well lately.

The Two Cooked Dishes

Starter

Pesach 114b of the Babylonian Talmud mandates “two cooked dishes” (in addition to charoset and chazeret) be present on the seder plate. While Rav Huna advocated for the vegan options of cooked beets and rice, Rav Yosef insisted that each should be meat, one as a remembrance of the obligatory paschal sacrifice (usually interpreted as the shankbone) and the other, a voluntary commemoration our festive celebration (usually understood as the egg).[1]

Potential Discussion Directions

  • Out of the sacrifices on your proverbial plate, what is done out of obligation (the shank bone) and what is done out of voluntary joy (the egg)? How do we choose to spend our time and resources? Where is the balance between the two? Where is the integration between obligation and joy?
  • (Using two brave volunteers, or in teams) Debate Rav Huna’s position for a vegan seder plate versus Rav Yosef’s position for a sacrificial seder plate. What are the benefits to each? Why would so much of tradition weigh on the side of the sacrificial seder plate? How does what we know about modern agricultural sustainability inform this debate?
    • Potential supporting text for Rav Huna’s “side”: “For as soon as man ceases to look upon himself as the empowered guardian and administrator of the earth… For him the sun does not shine, nor the thunder roll, the lightning flash, or the earth deck itself in green…” Rabbi Samuel Raphael Hirsch, Nineteen Letters
  • Sherira Gaon (986-1006 CE) recorded that many added a third cooked dish to this list, in memory of Miriam (in reference to Micah 6:4, “I brought you from the Land of Egypt… I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam”) How are we working to include women’s voices today? In our religious practice? In our organizations?
  • It takes energy to cook a dish. As Passover marks the start of spring, let’s take a moment to reflect: where are you directing your energy? Is that direction aligned with your driving values? How is the holiday of Passover meant to help us realign how we spend our energy with our values? 

Matzah

Starter

“This is as the bread of affliction, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt; let all those who are hungry, come and eat; and all who are in need, come and celebrate.” (Ha Lachmanya, Passover Haggadah)

Potential Discussion Directions

  • Many cultures – including our own Western one, especially when you look on social media – often hides any kind of affliction, as a source of shame or embarrassment. Yet here we are, holding it up and naming it honestly, as one of the centerpieces of tonight’s celebration. How can we work to highlight, rather than hide, today’s afflictions? What affliction do you wish was spoken about openly and honestly?
  • What can we do to mitigate affliction?
  • Some require that three matzot be on the table, in order to represent three different parts of ancient Israelite society, the Kohen, the Levi, and Israel. What different kinds of class systems exist in our society today? What can we do to ensure that all of us are able to experience not just sustenance but also celebration?
  • In Mishnah Pesachim 10:5, Rabban Gamliel states that matzah is also a symbol of redemption. When have you seen a failure or affliction be eventually turned into a learning experience and, if especially lucky, redemption?
  • Why do we say the blessing for matzah over the broken piece? Where can we find the holiness in the brokenness?

Maror

Starter

Midrash HaGadol on Exodus 1:14 reads “In four things there is said to be bitterness. The inability to conceive children… bereavement over children… a broken heart… and terrible illness. When the Egyptians enslaved Israel, they caused all of these.”[2]

Potential Discussion Directions

  • Depending on what is happening in your community and the context of your seder, you might want to discuss some deeply personal issues. There are organizations that can help you frame some of these discussions around infertility, child loss, the importance of therapy and other healing practices, and health issues.

D’var Acher: A different Starter

We eat maror, or bitter herbs, while reclining ceremoniously.

Potential Discussion Directions

  • Why is it important that we recline? Why do we express gratitude while reminding ourselves of bitterness?
  • Maror is a symbol of the bitterness of slavery. Modern day slavery exists; and in all its forms, it is still just as bitter. There are organizations that help. Let’s discuss.

Charoset

Starter

Mishnah Pesachim 10:3 lays out the different requirements for a seder plate. It lists matzah, chazeret (lettuce), charoset, and two cooked foods. However, in Pesachim 116a of the Babylonian Talmud, the rabbis debate if eating charoset is truly a commandment, as it is not a symbol found within the Torah. Rabbi Levi connects charoset with remembering the sweetness of love, quoting Song of Songs 8:5. Additionally, Rabbi Yochanan associates charoset with the memory of the mortar used by Jews when they were slaves in Egypt.

Potential Discussion Directions

  • On the importance and beauty of diversity: Why would the rabbis have a single symbol seemingly hold such different meanings?
  • On memory: why would we need so many symbols to remind us of all the different parts of the Passover story? Why wouldn’t one symbol be enough?

Elijah’s Cup

Starter

While the idea of welcoming the prophet Elijah, as the harbinger of a more perfect age, is recorded in the third century, the placing of Elijah’s cup on our seder table cemented into tradition only by the early medieval period.

Potential Discussion Directions

  • Why would the yearning for a more perfect age be so strong as to change tradition in the Middle Ages? What imperfections about today’s age drive you to hope for (and maybe work towards) change?
    • What role does fear play in our lives today? How can we work to strengthen our hearts against the emotional slavery of today’s fears?
  • “‘Come out,’ called God [to Elijah], ‘and stand on the mountain before Adonai.’ And lo, Adonai passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of Adonai; but Adonai was not in the wind. After the wind – an earthquake; but Adonai was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake – fire; but Adonai was not in the fire. And after the fire – a still, small voice. And when Elijah heard it, he covered his face.” (1 Kings 19:9-12) Where do you find the still, small divine voice?

[1] Hoffman and Arnow, ed., My People’s Passover Haggadah, vol 1, p. 38

Rabbi Lauren Ben-Shoshan, M.A.R.E., lived in Tel Aviv, Israel until recently, and now resides in Palo Alto, California with her lovely husband and their four energetic and very small children.

Categories
Passover Pesach

The Most Important Day of Passover

More American Jews attend a Passover Seder than observe any other Jewish ritual. How do we know? The Pew Research Center tells us.[i]

But how many observe the Seventh Day of Passover? I don’t believe that Pew Research even asks. Our synagogues may hold services, largely attended by those observing yizkor. One could be forgiven for concluding that the seventh day of Passover is a day of mournful memory. But it’s not.

After ordaining the first day of Passover as a holy day, Torah commands, “…and in the seventh day a holy convocation; no manner of work shall be done…”[ii] Exodus offers no explanation for the holiness of the seventh day. The medieval commentator, Ibn Ezra, provides a plausible theory: “The seventh day is the day of Pharaoh’s drowning and being rendered powerless.”[iii] Passover’s final festive day, then, celebrates the anniversary of the fulfillment of our ancestors’ freedom.

In our own lives, we experience “first day” liberations very much in need of “seventh days.” We feel free when we extricate ourselves from harmful addictions, toxic relationships, or soul-numbing employment. And yet, we may be experience the anxiety of Israelites being chased by Pharaoh’s armies until we are firmly established in new, healthier behaviors, loving relationships or meaningful work. Only then do we know the liberation that our ancestors celebrated on the east bank of the sea. In our Jewish people’s 20th Century history, Holocaust survivors were liberated when the Allies were victorious. They were not truly free until the newborn State of Israel had prevailed in its War of Independence – or, more likely, until survivors were comfortably settled in Israel, America, Canada, and other lands of refuge.

We who diminish our cups for the plagues upon Egypt, though, may be ambivalent about celebrating the day that Pharaoh and his chariots were drowned in the sea. Eliahu Kitov argues, “Holidays were not given to Israel to mark the downfall of [our] enemies…The essence of the celebration of this day is the song that Moses [, Miriam,] and Israel were Divinely inspired to sing on this day.”[iv]

The significance of the seventh day of Passover is as profound as it is complicated. Often, our greatest moments of liberation come at others’ expense. Nevertheless, we are permitted, and even commanded, to celebrate.

We rejoice when we’ve landed that dream job, even as we are aware that means that somebody else was passed over. We love coming in first, even knowing that somebody else came in last.

The next Jewish celebration after the seventh day of Passover will be Yom HaAtzma’ut. This year’s a big one, Israel’s 70th. We have long known that Palestinians mark that day as naqba, the catastrophe. They’re right. The very day we celebrate was and is catastrophic for the Palestinian people. Like Seder-goers diminishing our cups for the plagues upon Egypt, we would do well to take Israel’s milestone birthday as an occasion to explore the depths of the disaster that Palestinians experience and to imagine how that damage can be assuaged without unduly diminishing our people’s miracle. Then, let us wave our flags and celebrate, rejoicing as our ancestors did at the shores of the sea and as we do on Passover’s final festive day.

Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas, and is a member of the CCAR Board of Trustees.

 

[i] “Attending a Seder is common practice for American Jews,” Factank News in the Numbers, Pew Research Center, April 14, 2014, April 14, 2014.
[ii] Exodus 12:16.
[iii] Ibn Ezra’s commentary to Exodus 12:16.
[iv] Eliyahu Kitov, “The Seventh Day of Passover,” Chabad.org, not dated.

Categories
Passover Pesach

No Rice for My Family this Passover

In November 2015 when the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly (RA) issued their teshuvah permitting rice and other legumes for Ashkenazi Jews during Passover, I thought it was interesting, but did not think it had any bearing our movement.

Imagine my surprise, then, when colleague after colleague posted with glee that we could now eat rice.

This reaction bothered me for two reasons.

First, we Reform Jews have never been bound by the halakhic policy of the Conservative Movement. We have not even been guided by it. If our Responsa Committee cites the RA when publishing a responsa, it is rare indeed.

Why, then, was this particular ruling quoted time and again by our colleagues? Is it because those of us who eat rice at Passover felt validated by the Conservative ruling? If this is true, it is problematic. We do not need validation. Our practice and our traditions need no approval from another movement. We preach all the time that other movements are not inherently more correct because they are more fundamentally bound to halakha. If this were true, it would undermine much of what we currently do and much of what we are working toward.

The second reason bothers me even more than the first. As far as I am concerned, rice is still forbidden for Reform Ashkenazi Jews. To defer to the Conservative movement in this instance is to forget one of the most fundamental principles of Reform Judaism.

We are the movement that reinterpreted tikkun olam and use it as our battle cry. We are the movement dedicated to shouting against injustice, caring for those less fortunate, healing the broken among us.

In this context, Passover is more than just remembering the Exodus from Egypt. It is remembering our own privilege, remembering there are those who are always hungry, who do not know when their fast will end.

Without legumes, keeping kosher for Passover gets old very quickly. By the fourth or fifth day, we are longing for the holiday to end. It is on these days, and each subsequent day of Passover, that we should be struck with the stunning realization of how fortunate we are. If we have become weary of our food choices, if we are starting to feel hungry for more, just imagine the plight of those whose food choices are even more limited than ours on Passover, those whose hunger will not be relieved at Passover’s end.

If Passover makes us food-fatigued and hungry, even as we have an array of foods we can eat and can afford, and even though we know the holiday will soon end, can we even begin to imagine what it is like to feel hungry with limited food resources and options in a situation without end?

I do not know if I could reach this point of insight if I included legumes in my Passover diet.

We teach our people that in addition to its organic meaning, Passover also stands as a reminder that there are those still pining for the manna I take for granted. There are those left behind who are still standing on the other side of the Jordan. There are those I am commanded to remember by the very Torah I will celebrate receiving.

This Passover, no matter what your dietary practice, let us remember and remind our baalei batim how fortunate we all are, and if any of us have extra, let us inspire ourselves and them to share it.

— 

Rabbi Andrea Berlin is the founder of Berlin Consulting, LLC, which provides transition management and conflict facilitation to organizations in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors.  Berlin Consulting, LLC also provides synagogues with general consulting.

Categories
Passover Pesach Prayer Social Justice

When It’s Time to Stop Praying and Start Marching

Two weekends ago, many of us took to the streets with our communities to “March For Our Lives,” and last weekend we welcomed the festival of Passover, which makes this a good time to remember that the Torah tells us “thoughts and prayers” can only do so much; we need action to move forward.

In Exodus 14 we read that when the Israelites were stopped at the shore of the Sea of Reeds with the Egyptians fast approaching behind them, Moses began to pray. The people were distressed and feared for their lives and were demanding action — and Moses offered prayers. God said to Moses, “Why do you cry out to Me? Tell the Israelites to go forward. Lift up your rod and hold out your arm over the sea and split it, so that the Israelites may march into the sea on dry ground.” The Torah is pretty clear that there is a time for words, but when trapped between the Egyptians and the Sea, it’s time for action.

Our sages expanded on this idea in the Talmud, which teaches us that as the Jews were standing at the shore of the sea, Moses was prolonging his prayer. God said to him, “My beloved ones are drowning in the sea and you prolong your prayer to me?” Moses replied, “But what can I do?” God said, “Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to go forward. And you, lift up your rod and stretch out your hand.”

There’s a midrash that imagines God saying, “My loved ones are drowning in the sea, and the sea is raging, and the foe is pursuing, and you stand and wax long in prayer?” To which Moses replied, “God of the universe, what can I do?” And this is when God replies with the words from Exodus 14.

A story in the Talmud teaches that while Moses was busy praying, one person — Nachshon — stepped into the sea and began to walk. Nachshon had faith that God would see them to safety on the other side, and demonstrated his faith by stepping into the water.

Even in a tradition that annually celebrates the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea, it is clear that we can not just cry out or send “thoughts and prayers” – we must take action. Faith is not waiting around for God to do the work, but taking that first step – speaking out and raising your hand.

That is what the teens are trying to teach us: there is a time for thoughts and prayers (and often that is where we find comfort in the face of tragedy), but the Torah teaches us that when you life is in danger, you don’t stand around praying; you have to speak to the people and take action.

This is faith. Not that God will fix it, but that we have within us the power to change the world for the better; that even when it looks as if there is no way forward, we can find a way; that even when enemies are fast approaching and threatening us, we have the strength to keep going. Faith is working together to bring a future where everyone is free from violence.

Rabbi Shawna Brynjegard-Bialik is an artist at Paper Midrash and also blogs on her personal blog.

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Passover Pesach

Tell Your Own Story

Pesach is many things to many people: memory, message, meaning, food, tradition, song or a call to justice, action, and transformation. Regardless how Pesach may resonate with you in your own life, give yourself a unique Pesach gift: the blessing of telling your own story.

This can be interpreted literally of course: we tell the stories of our ancestors at our Seders, just we chant Hallel, the festive psalms, at our Festival services. From Kiddush to Chad Gadya, from Maggid to Nirtza there is plenty of story and song. We can also, however, transcend the literal understanding and look at a deeper meaning: what does it mean for us to tell our own story?

The word Haggadah means ‘the telling’. It’s interesting that our tradition has chosen this word when other terms would have fitted too: ‘Limmud’, ‘the learning’ would have been adequate – after all, the Seder has an undeniable pedagogical methodology through its melodies, foods and rituals. Yet, it’s the verb ‘lehagid’, ‘to tell’ that has become the centerpiece of Pesach. As the Torah commands us, ‘higadeta levincha bayom hahu lemor: ba’avur zeh asah Adonai li betzeti mimitzrayim’ – ‘and you shall tell your child on that day saying, it is because of this what the Eternal did for me, when I came out of Egypt’. (Ex. 13:8)

When studying this verse, we usually focus on ‘ba’avur zeh asah Adonai li betzeti mimitzrayim’ – ‘it is because of this what the Eternal did for me, when I came out of Egypt’. This verse provides the basis of the famous statement by Rabban Gamliel in Mishnah Pesachim 10:5 that ‘in every generation a person must regard him or herself as though he or she personally had gone out of Egypt’. Personalizing the Seder as if we suffered the deprivation of slavery and the liberation of the Exodus is one of the cardinal commandments of the Festival. In each age, we are called to hear the ‘tza’akah gedolah’, the ‘great outcry’ of our time and cultivate radical empathy.

Still, there’s another dimension to the verse from Exodus: ‘higadeta levincha’ – ‘and you shall tell your child’. What is it about this ‘telling’? A story is more than just a series of facts. A story aspires to bring intent to its telling. A report may focus on dry data. A story, however, is meant to bury its way into our kishkes, our innermost, intuitive selves. The gift of Pesach is that we are invited to take ownership over our stories and write them.

What an amazing, powerful thing. The difference between victimhood and empowerment is wafer thin, like the matzah we eat. Many peoples, nations, cultures and faiths have narratives centering on their own hardship and oppression. What makes our Jewish narrative unique is that our ancestors had the courage to tell our story in a different way. The Torah and Mishnah encourage us to tell the story with radical empathy; with a living, breathing concern for the other. We are charged to control our own message and ultimately we are shaped not merely by our circumstances but through our choices and commitments.

What story will you be telling this year? The words and melody mutate across the centuries, but the sacred intent remains constant. Our liberation is tied up with the liberation of all humanity. We empower ourselves not at the expense of our enemies but in the name of ethical monotheism. We place at the center, like the Seder plate at our home Seders, our own vulnerability and derive incredible strength from it.

Give yourself this gift. Tell your own Pesach story. Tell those who you love, tell the world, tell God what your great dream is. Call out, sing praise, dance at the shore, cry bitter tears, laugh and love and through all of these, see the divinity in our common humanity. Know that we can transform trauma into redemption in the crucible of our People’s greatest gift: the ability to tell our story. That our stories may be a blessing to all.

Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz serves  Congregation Agudas Achim, in Iowa City, Iowa.