Books Passover Pesach Social Justice

Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: The Obligations of Our Exodus

In anticipation of the release of CCAR Press’s newest book, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, we’ve invited Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, co-editor of the book, to share an excerpt of the book on Passover. Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press.

A couple of months ago I was arrested in the grand rotunda of the Russell Building of the United States Senate. Nearly one hundred Jewish clergy and leaders joined in song and prayer, demanding that the United States Congress pass the DREAM Act, which would grant citizenship to the nearly eight hundred thousand Dreamers who came to the United States as children and are every bit American as my own daughters. As we sang “Olam Chesed Yibaneh” (“We will build this world with love”) over and over again, hundreds of Dreamers stood cheering us on from the balcony, ringing us like a human halo. In an intentionally ironic twist on the famous cry from Moses to Pharaoh, we chanted, “Let our people stay!”

When we were handcuffed, removed by the Capitol Police, and placed under arrest, we understood that we were following directly in the footsteps of our ancient Israelite ancestors. Ironically, our being put into fetters was inspired by the Hebrew slaves, who rose up from their slavery in Egypt and cast off the chains of Pharaoh’s bondage in their journey to redemption. As our hands were locked in cuffs and we were led away, we chanted the verse taken from the Song at the Sea “Ozi v’zimrat Yah, vah’yi li lishuah,” “God is my strength and might, and will be my salvation” (Exodus 15:2). There seemed no words more fitting than those our ancient Israelite ancestors sang as they passed through the parted seas of their redemption.

Even as we were led into police custody, our group understood that we were walking in the footsteps of countless generations of Jews before us, generations who internalized the Rabbinic mandate in the Passover Haggadah that “it is incumbent on every generation to see itself as if they themselves—every person—had personally escaped from Egypt” (Babylonian Talmud, P’sachim 116b). Our deeds of civil disobedience were an act of moral resistance to the injustices being perpetrated on the Dreamers, along with tens of millions of other immigrants and refugees. We acted on the spiritual authority inherited from recent leaders like Rabbis Richard Hirsch, Abraham Joshua Heschel, and Maurice Eisendrath, who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because they internalized the most often repeated commandment in all of Torah: “You shall love the stranger, because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). Jews have marched throughout history because the core narrative of our people, the defining master story of our tradition, is the archetypal tale of redemption. Our Exodus from Egypt is the story of the transformation of the world-as-it-is, in which “strangers” are continually crushed by oppression, into the world-as-it-should-be, one where all people know justice. The power of the Jewish master narrative lies in its inherent call to every generation to live empathy; because our ancestors were strangers, we—in this era, and in every era—are to love the stranger.

Jews not only retell the master story of redemption throughout our ritual and cultural life; we have relived it throughout history. Our history has served to reinforce the most central exhortation of our Exodus narrative: we are obligated to love the stranger as ourself.

Among the many gleanings of the Exodus narrative that ground Jewish life and values, three stand out as the sources of the spiritual authority demanding that Jews resist injustice and champion morality in every age (and regardless of the challenges we face). First, we learn not only that resistance is required by our faith and experience, but also that it is always possible. Second, we are reminded that our empathy extends beyond the “stranger” to all those who are vulnerable in our midst. Finally, we instill in our souls that the Exodus is not simply about freedom from bondage; our master story culminates with the agency to enter into a covenantal community in which all people are bound to one another.

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner serves as the Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. He has led the Religious Action Center since 2015. Rabbi Pesner also serves as Senior Vice President of the Union for Reform Judaism. Named one of the most influential rabbis in America by Newsweek magazine, he is an inspirational leader, creative entrepreneur, and tireless advocate for social justice.  Rabbi Pesner is the co-editor of CCAR Press’s  upcoming book, Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice, as well as a contributor to Seven Days, Many Voices: Insights into the Biblical Story of Creation.

Moral Resistance and Spiritual Authority: Our Jewish Obligation to Social Justice is now available for pre-order from CCAR Press. 

Passover Pesach Social Justice

Each Person Must See Themselves As If They Went Out of Egypt

“In every generation, each person must see themselves as if they went out of Egypt.”

This is my favorite line in the Haggadah.

In the Moss Haggadah, an illuminated text created by the artist David Moss, the page with this text depicts Jews from many different generations and places—Jews from ancient Middle Eastern countries, medieval European countries, colonial America, and so on. And in between each picture is a small mirror, so that when you look at the page, you see yourself along with all those Jews of different generations.

This year, when I look a the Moss Haggadah, I will see the faces of my maternal great-grandparents who came to the United States fleeing persecution in Czarist Russia in the 1890’s, and my paternal grandparents, who fled Nazi Germany in 1939. I’ll see my mother’s parents looking like folks straight out of a Sholom Aleichem play; I’ll see my dad’s father, age 7, in his lederhosen. I will add their faces that page of the Haggadah in my mind’s eye.

They told desperate stories to their families of their harrowing escapes, the laws they bent and broke to get out from under the tyranny of their native lands, and stories of the pride they felt in making it to America as refugees, as asylees. I will see I will see my maternal grandparents as they struggled to adapt to life in the United States, to learn English, to learn a new culture. I’ll see in the Moss Haggadah an image of my father’s parents as they spoke with tears in their eyes of all the family they left behind.

And then I will see– there on the pages of the story of our exodus from Egypt, the story of the miracles it took to free us—I’ll see those mirrors on the page. I will see myself—not as a refugee, but as a witness.

And I will see, if I squint hard enough, the faces of my children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. I will hear a question in their eyes. I will hear them asking, “What did you do in your generation to live out the Torah’s admonition, ‘In every generation, each person must see themselves as if they went out of Egypt?’ What did you do, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, in your time, when people were facing persecution, fleeing the only homes they’d ever known, seeking asylum? What did you do?”

And what will I say? Will I say, “well, my children, there was nothing I could do”? Or will I say, “well, my children, it was a different time, because it wasn’t Jews who were fleeing”? Or will I say something else? Will I perhaps tell a story of which I am proud, of a time when the Jewish people, when the majority of people of conscience in my home country stood up for the rights of those whose lives were under threat in their native lands?

That is what I will reflect on this Passover as I look in those mirrors, as I see faces of future generations staring back at me. The mirrors are a little blurry. This story is not yet written. We still have a choice. I pray that I will write—that we as a nation will write—a story we can proudly tell our children. I pray that when they open this page of the Haggadah and see us, that they will smile with pride, and be agitated to be matir asurim, those who free captives, in their own time.

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher serves Temple Shaaray Tefila in New York City. 

Passover Pesach

The Freedom Seder

Last year, two brave mothers approached me for a meeting. They were looking to find educational opportunities for their children with special needs. Tired of turning to other synagogues where they felt less connected, or Chabad where they felt philosophically or religiously uncomfortable, they wanted Temple Israel to be place of learning and experiencing Judaism for their children, just like it had been for them and the other children we serve. It was such a beautifully authentic need that I could not ignore. Thus begun my first humble steps into Special Needs programming for our synagogue.

I quickly consulted with colleagues and then more seriously applied to the Matan Institute for Educational Directors to help me best serve the needs of this community. Matan educates Jewish leaders, educators and communities to empower them to create learning environments supportive of children with special needs, through training Institutes and consultations across North America. By advocating for the inclusion of diverse learners, Matan enables the Jewish community to realize the gift of every individual and fulfill its obligation to embrace all children regardless of learning challenges in every Jewish educational setting.

And so I set out to create our first holiday program designed for special needs children and their entire family, called the Freedom Seder. The Freedom Seder is designed to look a lot like a camp program. There is music with a song leader, it is interactive and inclusive, it aims to inspire and educate learners on multiple levels (including adults) and it is flexible. We have learned that the space should be a safe one. Children can be who they are – we don’t expect them to “sit still” or do all the activities. We hope they will participate, but we also know that some days are tougher than others and the quiet room, with Passover books and pillows and soft lighting might be a great option for a particular child on that day. We offer tactile activities, but we make sure there are alternatives for those that struggle with sensory processing disorders. Our Freedom Seder is a one hour program that gives these children the “freedom” to explore different aspects of the Seder. They can plant parsley seeds, vote on their favorite part of the story, taste different kinds of matzah and tell us which one they liked the best. They can make an afikoman bag and color in different parts of the Seder. And their parents can meet one another, get to know our clergy (who all volunteer to be present) and watch their children explore with excitement their rich and engaging tradition.

All of our families deserve and so yearn for a place that lacks judgement or places unrealistic demands on their time, energy or child. We need to provide educational opportunities that are stimulating and adjustable. At Temple Israel we are committed to providing more of these opportunities where we educate differently then we have in the past, we assume nothing, we build relationships of care and trust and we provide interactive and tactile activities at the heart of all we do. Most importantly we have reframed our goals – we do care that the content be current, engaging and deeply enriching but we are also supportive of other goals. For some of these new families the goals may be to meet new faces, hear Jewish music, or simply feel comfortable in the building. We have only just begun. This year we provided two family programs (Chanukah and Passover), we will begin to make our family Shabbat services an inclusive and warm setting for all of our families – including those whose children have special needs and we opened our Purim Carnival early for those children who need a more quiet approach to a Purim celebration.  These steps towards an inclusive community for all help us break down the walls that for too long restricted some of our families from participating in Jewish life and learning.

I can say without hesitation that these hour-long programs are the most rewarding hours of my career; the joy of learning is palpable, the enthusiasm contagious and the gratitude overwhelming. Each year we read the Passover story I always find myself lingering on the moment at the sea. As the Israelites crossed between two walls of water, perhaps they found themselves also caught between feelings of gratitude and nervous anticipation of the unknown. Where would this journey lead the people? Did they know enough? Were they strong enough? Would they live up to the expectations of the God who redeemed them from the darkness?  I too face this new path, humbled by what I don’t know, but grateful and eager to provide new ways for each learner to connect powerfully to our beautiful tradition.

Rabbi Melissa Buyer-Witman serves the Temple Israel of the City of New York.

Passover Pesach

Our Real Security Tonight is Being Here, All Together

All rabbis have humbling moments when the words that spontaneously emerge from our mouths wind up being far more impactful than those sermons over which we slave through ceaseless drafts.  Such a moment happened to me just this past week.

The setting?  Our annual Interfaith Seder.  The timing? Right after a full Paschal meal and before we got to an ecumenical Barech, our grace after meals.  The impetus?  I was doing what all rabbis must do… thanking everyone who helped.  Given the fact that we host over 150 people from 12 different faith institutions, feature two different choirs, include 14 clergy partners, and engage 30 temple volunteers, there was a long list of people to whom I owed gratitude for sharing such an event.  Equal–if not above–them all, are all the members of the staff team at Sinai.  I came around to thanking Bill, who is part of our security team.  Right after I thanked Billy, these words just came out of my mouth, my mind:

Our real security tonight is being here, all together.

“Let all who are hungry come and eat” can be taken in many different ways.  Some of us, cleaning our houses of chametz, make donations to local food pantries to make sure those who literally hunger can find sustenance this festival season.  Others of us host communal sedarim so that no one has to be alone on Passover.  At Chicago Sinai Congregation, a different kind of hunger brought together a community across lines of race, class and color.  I just didn’t realize it until the Haggadot had closed and Adir Hu was but an echo in our ears.

I inherited a remarkable ritual when I joined this synagogue: every year, about two weeks before Passover, we host an Interfaith Seder for our non-Jewish neighbors.  The event was explained to me as an opportunity to share the best of what Judaism has to offer: we stage a model Seder through which we can teach our Jewish practices, traditions, and most deeply-held values.  With the tools of our Haggadah, our favorite songs, and some explanations along the way, we manage to create a lovely evening, and express the importance of our core narrative of liberation with the unique impact of Pesach.

When we gathered for last year’s Interfaith Seder, I did what many of do at Seder: I added a supplemental reading to help us focus on contemporary issues of oppression.  The Reform Movement was launching its Racial Justice campaign; I barely need spill any ink expressing why that is relevant here in Chicago.  And so one year ago, just before we blessed the matzah and made our Hillel sandwiches, I gathered the clergy who were in attendance, and we read the Racial Justice supplement created by Rabbis Organizing Rabbis.  We simply stood at the front of the social hall and read from photocopied pieces of paper.  A last-minute idea turned out to be last year’s most powerful moment of the night.

And so, a few weeks ago, I went searching for something new to supplement the Seder, a different piece for the participating clergy to read.  After a it of poking around, I decided to excerpt part of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s “No Religion is an Island,” originally published in 1966.*  Amidst the rush of preparing for multiple Sedarim, a few shabbat sermons, and a CCAR convention, it seemed like it would fit the bill just fine.

I was not prepared to hear by friend and partner, the Reverend Randall K. Blakey, read these words:

First and foremost we meet as human beings who have so much in common: a heart, a face, a voice, the presence of a soul, fears, hope, the ability to trust, a capacity for compassion and understanding, the kinship of being human. My first task in every encounter is to comprehend the person-hood of the human being I face, to sense the kinship of being human, solidarity of being.

This is what our Seder, every Seder, is about: the kinship and solidarity of all human beings.  As the assembled clergy continued to read, Episcopalians, Catholics, Presbyterians, AME Zion-ists, UCC-ers, Buddhists, Muslims, and Jews literally brought life to Heschel’s vision.  And tears to people’s eyes.


We are living in turbulent times.  Political forces threaten to dismantle long-standing inter-religious partnerships and splinter off friends forced to protect their small self-interests.  Cruel and sadistic individuals call or email our institutions and threaten our precious children; we fear these actions won’t culminate merely in threats.  Our nation’s beacon of hope for the world’s tempest-tossed–a most fitting metaphor for our Passover theme–is being dimmed to darkness.  We find few places to feel secure.

This was the hunger people brought with them to this year’s Interfaith Seder: a hunger for human decency, a hunger for a hopeful message,  a hunger for belonging to a larger community united for the common good.  Oh, that all who have such hunger could come and be nourished!

I was hungry, too.  What I realized during our Interfaith Seder, what actually came out of my mouth before it entered my consciousness, is that–for all the needed guards and protocols Jewish institutions require–our greatest security during these turbulent times will be our friends, our community, our partners.  When we build strong relationships with friends of other faiths, when we speak honestly of shared values that arise from different sources, when we live our lack of fear for the other and demonstrate a compassionate curiosity in other human beings, we build an impenetrable fortress of faith.  Not faith in the same God, perhaps, or even any God at all.  But faith in united purpose.  Faith in common destiny.  Faith in each and every human being who hungers.

Let all who are hungry find the sustenance we need in this year’s Passover.

Rabbi Seth Limmer serves Chicago Sinai Congregation.  

Books Holiday Passover Pesach

Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family

Passover Seders in my family were always large affairs.  Persons who had no place to go for Seder (“Welcome the stranger…”) and persons of other faiths joined family members in celebrating the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt more than three thousand years ago.  Whether conducted by my grandfather (mostly in Hebrew), my parents (much more in English) or my father-in-law (a Reform Rabbi who used a healthy mix of Hebrew and English), we joyously celebrated together.

Several years ago, I began to attend a series of programs focusing on interfaith issues for Jewish professionals and lay leaders conducted by the Outreach Training Institute (now Reform Jewish Outreach Boston).  After attending panel discussions, workshops and seminars over several years I decided to write a Passover Haggadah for the contemporary Jewish family – which may include members who were born Jewish, those who have chosen to be Jewish, and family members of other faiths.  Looking across the spectrum of knowledge, religious practice, and faith – from the observant to those for whom Judaism and Jewish Festivals and traditions were new – my purpose was to create a text for a joyful and inspirational family Seder.

The result of my efforts is Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family published by the Central Conference of American Rabbis Press (CCAR Press).  It is illustrated with magnificent original art work by the contemporary Jewish artist Mark Podwal.  Sharing the Journey is an inclusive Haggadah that addresses the needs of every family member.  For family members and guests who are attending their first Seder or do not know what questions to ask about the observance of Passover, Sharing the Journey explains the meaning of the symbols and rituals of Passover in language that is clear and understandable.  For family members whose participation in a Seder is an important religious occasion, Sharing the Journey provides an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of God’s teachings through the story of the Exodus and to renew and strengthen commitment to the pursuit of freedom, tolerance, and justice.  For everyone, Sharing the Journey provides the framework for a joyful and meaningful Passover celebration – enabling all family members to truly experience the power of the Seder and the story of the Exodus: A shared Jewish experience that has historical and contemporary significance to persons of all faiths.

This year, the CCAR Press is offering a special 40% discount to “friends of the author” and I am able to extend the discount/offer to all ravblog readers and their families.  If you would like to take advantage of this offer, visit the CCAR Press website.  Add the book(s) to your cart and use promo code PASSOVER40 at checkout to receive your 40% discount.  Please pass along the discount information to members of my “extended family,” that is, your family and friends.

Early Best Wishes from me and the entire Yoffie Family for an inclusive, joyous, and inspirational Passover Seder.

Alan S. Yoffie is a former president of Temple Emanuel in Worcester, MA and an active member of its Jewish community.  He currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Worcester Jewish Community Center and The Jewish Healthcare Center and as a member of the Ritual Committee of Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, MA.   In addition to Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family, Mr.Yoffie wrote a Seder Leader’s Guide, also available from the CCAR Press, which includes two CDs (instrumental and vocal) that provide a “musical companion” for the Seder.   



Passover Pesach

Monty Python and the Ten Plagues

Growing up I was a big fan of Monty Python; I would listen to their recording “Live at Drury Lane” over and over again, so much so that I could recite some of the sketches by heart.  One of my favorites was entitled ‘The Four Yorkshiremen’, and it involved four Yorkshiremen (as the name suggests) talking about how terrible and how difficult their lives were as children.  Each one tried to outdo the other with their exaggerated descriptions of childhood suffering; so that ultimately there can be no truth to the claims which include: paying for the privilege of going to work, living in a shoebox, and working a 29 hour day in the mill.  At the end the punchline is “But you try and tell the young people today that … and they won’t believe ya.”

In a blog post one writer drew a connection between these four Yorkshiremen and the three Rabbis, who discuss the Ten Plagues, within our Hagaddah.[1]  Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Eliezer, and Rabbi Akiva engage in a conversation in which they exaggerate, or perhaps grow, the number of plagues that actually took place.  The author suggests that this is a way of competing to praise and glorify God, but I think something else is taking place.

As we read about the Ten Plagues, both in our Torah and the Hagaddah, many of us are uncomfortable at the fact that so much suffering had to befall the Egyptians in order that we might emerge from slavery to freedom.  Our Passover ritual of taking a drop of wine from our cups for each plague reveals that our joy is somewhat diminished because of the suffering that the plagues inflicted.  But I think that the words of the Hagaddah are designed to express further discomfort with the plagues and remove us from thinking too hard about the suffering that actually took place.

Immediately after reciting the Ten Plagues we read: “Rabbi Yehuda used to abbreviate the plagues with the acrostic: D’Tza’Ch, A’Da’Sh, B’A’Cha’B.”  While an acrostic does serve as a memory device, the words of the acrostic itself have no meaning.  In this way we remove ourselves from the reality of the plagues.  We remember that there were ten plagues, and we remember the initials of each plague, but what those plagues actually were is lost in the three made up words he uses as a memory device.

This is then followed by the three Rabbis and their story of exaggeration.  First up is Rabbi Yossi who claims that there were 10 plagues in Egypt, along with 50 plagues at the sea.  He uses two verses of Torah to prove this.  While the Israelites were in Egypt we read “the Egyptian magicians said to Pharaoh: ‘This [plague] is the finger of God’” (Ex. 8:15); and then at the Red Sea we read: “Israel saw the great hand that God used against the Egyptians” (Ex. 14:31).  If it was a finger in Egypt and a hand at the sea it stands to reason that if there were 10 plagues in Egypt, then there would have been 50 plagues at the sea.

Rabbi Eliezer builds on Rabbi Yossi’s theory, accepting that there were five times as many plagues at the sea as there were in Egypt, but he adds a new dimension.  Referencing Psalms 78:49 “God cast upon them the fierceness of God’s anger, wrath, and indignation, and trouble, by sending evil angels among them” he claims that each plague was really four rolled into one.  The four dimensions in that verse are “wrath”, “indignation”, “trouble”, and “evil angels”. This leads to the claim that there were 40 plagues in Egypt and 200 plagues at the sea.  Rabbi Akiva goes one step further and divides the verse from Psalms so that there are five dimensions: “God’s anger”, “wrath”, “indignation”, “trouble”, and “evil angels”, for a grand total of 50 plagues in Egypt and 250 plagues at the sea.

This might appear like a competition to see who can glorify God the most, but there is something else going on, which is especially striking when following Rabbi Yossi’s acrostic.  Whether we accept that there were 60 plagues, 240 plagues, or even 300 plagues, with the potential for so many plagues the original 10 plagues in Egypt get lost in the mix, accounting for just a small percentage of the suffering that was actually inflicted.  While we might accept the reality of the Ten Plagues, as the exaggeration goes on we begin to doubt the veracity of what we were originally told.

The structure of the Hagaddah ensures that after reading the plagues we then essentially try to avoid the reality of what was actually done.  Our discomfort with the plagues is not new, the Rabbis who put together the Hagaddah felt the same discomfort and so they used their editorial power to minimize them, avoid them, and even lose sight of them.  And perhaps, after claiming that there were actually 300 plagues the final line, adapted from Monty Python, might have to be: “But you try and tell the people around the Seder Table that … and they won’t believe ya” – any maybe, in some way, that is what the Rabbis were going for.

[1] The blog post is available to read here.

Rabbi Danny Burkeman serves the Community Synagogue of Port Washington, New York. 

News Passover Pesach Rabbis Rabbis Organizing Rabbis Social Justice

Promises of Liberation

This week is framed by the unfulfilled promises of liberation.

On April 16, we celebrated Emancipation Day, which marks the anniversary of President Lincoln’s signing the Compensated Emancipation Act of 1862, which freed the over 3,000 enslaved individuals who resided in Washington, D.C.

On April 22, which is also the 14th of Nissan, we will sit at our Seder tables to commence our annual Passover festival which marks not only the historic liberation of our people from Egyptian oppression, but also the beginning of our obligation to insure none in the world suffer similar degradation and abuse.

Our Passover meal ends with the hope, “Next year in Jerusalem! Next year may all be free!” We understand it is our obligation to rise up from our Seder and work for that great liberation of humanity which is not yet complete.  For those who marked Emancipation Day, we recognize that—in a society still roiled by racial injustice—the promise of American Emancipation is likewise not yet fulfilled.

It is our work to bring to light the Jewish hope, and the American dream, of enduring freedom for all.  Passover teaches us that the opposite of freedom is oppression; we know in American that the antithesis of living free is being incarcerated.  We also know that our country today suffers—disproportionately in the case of our Black brothers and sisters—from the plague of Mass Incarceration.  That is why we, as a Reform Movement and Reform Rabbis, have banded together to advocate the passage of the bipartisan Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act [S. 2123] in this year’s Congress.

Fighting for the passage of S. 2123 has been interesting for me as a resident of Illinois.  One of my Senators, Richard Durbin [D-IL], is an original co-sponsor of the bill.  My other Senator, Mark Kirk [R-IL], has long been viewed as a key moderate who might ultimately come out in support of the bill.  Our job was to turn the possibility of Kirk’s potential support for this bill into his committed support.

Our work began in January, the Friday before Rev. Martin Luther King Day.  Rabbi Ari Margolis and I met with Senator Kirk’s representatives in his Chicago office, and explained our movement’s support for this needed legislation.  The following Tuesday, over 500 Reform Jews—inspired by their rabbis—called into Kirk’s office to add their voices to those who wished to see S. 2123 become the law of our land.

But January brought no word of endorsement or support, we took further action.  The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights organized a local press conference at which I spoke on behalf of the Reform Movement and reminded our Senator that, “Mercy, redemption and rehabilitation are just as much part of a just society as punishment.” []  Still, we hear little from Capitol Hill.

Last week, I travelled to Washington, D.C., as part of our bi-annual meetings of our Commission on Social Action.  Our meetings ended on Tuesday with a trip up to the Hill, where we gathered in state Caucuses to lobby on behalf of S. 2123.  Together, Rabbi Shoshana Conover and Deborah Kadin and I prepared for what we feared would be a contentious meeting in Kirk’s offices: too much time had passed for us not to receive an answer.  As we sat with Gregory Tosi, the Senator’s lead counsel, I honestly felt like we would walk away defeated.  Boy was I wrong.

Instead, as we finished advocating for our cause, Greg shared the following with us: “You’ll be happy to hear—and you’re the first to hear—that the Senator decided today to become a co-sponsor of the bill.”  That direct.  That plain.  After months, the victory we sought… a first small win on the campaign for much more.

We left the Hart Office building delighted.  I thought I was the one with good fortune—I also ran into colleagues Matthew Cutler and Michael Latz, who were lobbying with the Jubilee USA network for relieving global poverty.  It was my colleague Rabbi Conover who had the best luck: she ran into Senator Kirk himself, while he was on the way to a press conference to announce his support for S. 2123.  On behalf of all of us, she thanked him for his vote.

As we dwell in a season of unfulfilled dreams, I am fully aware that this victory is small.  Next, we need to ensure S. 2123 makes its way to the Senate floor.  Then we will likely need to fight for its passage.  And then, the problems of Mass Incarceration won’t evaporate; they will only be mitigated.  Dr. King taught that the moral arc of the universe is long, and we need to be in this for the long struggle if we want to make sure that arc bends towards justice.

I left Capitol Hill last week, a few Days before Emancipation day and a week prior to Passover, feeling just as I do every year when the Seder comes to an end: I’m appreciative of the strides we’ve made towards liberation for all, but aware that we have a lot more marching to do to pass everyone through the split sea to the Land of Promise.

Rabbi Seth Limmer serves Chicago Sinai Congregation.  He is also the Social Justice committee chair for the CCAR. 

Read more about the Commission on Social Action and Rabbis Organizing Rabbis trip to Washington D.C.


Passover Pesach

The Ivrim: Holding Time and Tension in Perfect Balance

This week, we mark our final days in Egypt. For generations, we have languished in slavery, served our masters from the narrow confines of our chains. We have built, heaved, sweat, and cried – bled, birthed, pushed, and died all in a land that is not our land, for a king who is not our king. Stifled, oppressed – this is our people’s story of alienation, of being the stranger.

But, this week, though our bodies are still ensnared, our eyes are set on revelatory fire. There is something new in the air. Freedom is coming. This week is the last week of our captivity. In these final days leading up to Pesach, we step into the project of our redemption – a seemingly unending march to the land of our promise.

There’s a paradox here. Every year we leave Mitzrayim, we leave Egypt, and every year we find ourselves back there again. Where was your Mitzrayim, your narrow place, last year? By what or by whom are you held captive this year? Back and forth – and forever in between.

This is the story, the very essence of our people. We live in tension, in movement. From the narrow confines of slavery, toward the land of our redemption – from the darkness of exile to the blinding light of revelation. Most of the time we are betwixt and between.

We are the the Hebrews, the Ivrim.  The word Ivrim comes from the root ayin, bet, resh, which means to cross over. The very name informs us that we are in constant motion, unending transformation, and enduring transition. We are named for this tension, this unending march toward a more just, a more righteous reality.

As Ivrim, we are called to move across borders and boundaries, across time and space – called to relive a collective past and a shared memory in every act of ritual, in every reading of text, and in every moment of prayer. We are an unending past and revelatory future – a collection of movements, words, and memories transmitted from the murky depths of creation passed down to us in the accents of our great-grandparents.

When I think about crossing boundaries, about breaking free from captivity, I think about my great-grandfather, Nathan Chanin. Nathan came to America at the turn of the century after serving an eight year sentence in Siberia for his revolutionary activities. He was a leader of the Jewish Labor movement, a prominent union organizer, and well-known educator.  He worked for the  Workmen’s Circle for over 15 years, serving as both the organization’s Education Director and Secretary General.

Nathan’s passion for the Yiddish language, his unceasing pursuit of justice, and his love of Yiddishkeit have flowed down through the generations of my family, spilling over into our religious, political, and cultural identities. It is at this time of year, this time of exodus, of liberation, and of transition, that I am most reminded of Nathan’s legacy.  Every Pesach, my family narrates, sings, and celebrates the story of our redemption in Yiddish. From the perfectly pronounced story of the four sons, each voiced by my mother and her siblings, to my broken and heavily accented four-questions — we speak a more just future into being through the language of our past.

In addition to the Yiddish of our past, my cousins and I add supplementary texts, prayers, and music to our family seder. Every year, we bring new words that have moved us, songs that have inspired us, and rituals that have transformed us. We bring in Leonard Baskin’s drawings from the CCAR’s Passover Haggadah and the ritual of Miriam’s Cup and the gender-inclusive language of The Open Door. Our Seder is two moments in time at once – multiple voices held together in perfect tension.

This blend of past and future, of Nathan’s secular Yiddishkeit with the current longings and passions of his great-grandchildren have taught me that perhaps freedom and redemption come not as the result of a long march or entering a promised land, but are cultivated and honed over time in our ability to move in and out of the boundaries and to live as Ivrim, in constant transformation.

At the end of his novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” James Baldwin imagines a moment of unending revelation and redemption that stands in perpetual tension. He writes:

“No power could hold this army back, no water disperse them, no fire consume them. One day they would compel the earth to heave upward and surrender the waiting dead. They sang where the darkness gathered, where the lion waited, where the fire cried and where blood ran down. They wandered in the valley forever, and they smote the rock forever. And the waters sprang perpetually, in the perpetual desert. They cried unto the Lord forever and lifted up their eyes forever. They were cast down forever, and the Lord lifted them up forever.”

Revelation, Baldwin says, happens in tension – in the unending march toward freedom.

As we embark once more from the confines of Mitzrayim, our narrow places, I would like to offer you the opportunity to fully embody the identity of the Ivrim, the boundary crosser. From Egypt to revelation, from the promised land to exile — we are blessed with the ability to find redemption and freedom in moments of unending tension.
May this blessing be available to each of us.

Hilly is a second-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in NYC. Originally from New York, Hilly has a Masters of Theological Study from Harvard Divinity School and has worked in temples from Boston to Boulder.  Hilly is also a rabbinic intern at the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

News Passover Pesach

Dayenu: Enough is Enough

If the Passover seder had an anthem, my vote would be for Dayenu– the jubilant, infectious melody responsible for resuscitating seders everywhere, year in and year out.  Dayenu wakes us out of our seder stupors and inexplicably inspires all to join their voices in song: “Dai-dai-yenu, Dai-dai-yenu, Dai-dai-yenu, Dayenu, Dayenu!!!”

Dayenu—it would have been enough had God only delivered us from slavery, but God did more.  Dayenu—it would have been enough had God only given us Shabbat, but God gave more.  Dayenu—it would have been enough had God only bestowed upon us Torah, but God bestowed more.

When I reflect on Dayenu today, I struggle, because I see not enough emphasis on “enough” and too much emphasis on “more.”  What does “Dayenu” mean in a world where bigger is (usually) better and more is (often) what we are looking for?  How do we understand Dayenu in a society that prizes conspicuous consumption and fetishizes acquisition in every medium imaginable?  When we are conditioned to believe that more stuff and more riches and more power will lead to a happier life, how do we even begin to set limits and embrace moderation? How do we adopt the idea of “Dayenu,” or “just enough” in a society that can never seem to get enough (accolades, money, power, status, etc.)?

And what does “enough” mean in a world where our children are asked to be everything to everyone–studious, sporty, intellectually curious, musical, artistic, socially conscious, tech savvy, and how about entrepreneurial?  We want them to master a sport (or two or three), a language (or two or three), an instrument (or two or three) and a hobby (or two or three).  But we also want them to be well mannered, concerned for others, deeply connected to their friends and community, and passionate (and if that passion can be parlayed into a career, even better).  We cannot bear to waste the potential we see in them; we cannot bear to have them miss out on any opportunities availed to them.  We desperately want the best for them and we want them to be their best.

But when and where in this scenario do we say “Dayenu”—he is doing enough or Dayenu, she has enough on her plate?  When do we say “Dayenu,” this schedule is woefully too busy for a young adult and much too hectic for a child?  At what point do we say, “Dayenu” too much of a good thing is not good?  On the other hand, what would it mean to accept that “enough” is enough?  To be smart enough, athletic enough, pretty enough, strong enough, quick enough, funny enough, popular enough, or good enough—what would it mean to say, that is perfect?  What would it mean to teach our children, when you look in the mirror and see the person reflected back at you, that person is “enough”- to succeed in life, to excel in friendships, to create a solid foundation, to be a happy person.  You are enough, period.

And what about ourselves? The expectations we have for ourselves and our families and our congregations often have very little grounding in reality.  What is good enough for others is simply not good enough for us.  “Enough” is not a standard bearer; “enough” is not worthy of praise.  “Enough” is not gasp-inducing or eye popping. Enough is just adequate.  It is merely satisfactory.  It meets the criteria but it does not surpass.  We don’t want enough; we want extraordinary.  And yet, Dayenu…

There is nothing wrong with reaching for the stars.  There is nothing wrong with pushing oneself to succeed and surpassing expectations. There is nothing wrong with perseverance and determination and high-octane drive.  We need that passion to accomplish all we set out to do.  We require that motivation to ignite the spark within our souls.  But we meet a breaking point when the pursuit surpasses the prize, when we find ourselves on a relentless path towards the next best thing-at all costs.

When do we stop and say, Dayenu?  This rung is high enough, this place is good enough and this pace is quick enough?  When do we acknowledge ourselves and our families and our careers and say, we are enough—enough to appreciate and to accept and to cherish and to love?  When do we say, enough is enough with always wanting more, with never being satisfied, with never giving ourselves the opportunity to savor the moment?  When do we say, with true conviction, Dayenu?

We can look back to our Torah for a little help in the matter, and a little inspiration.  When Moses called upon the Israelites to bring gifts towards the erecting of the Mishkan, the holy Tabernacle, they responded with unbridled enthusiasm.  They brought and they brought and they brought some more.  Ultimately, Moses had to stop the flow of gifts; the people had brought too much; “their efforts had been more than enough for all the work to be done.”  (Exodus 36:7)  In this case, God only wanted enough, no more, no less, just enough.

God got it right with the Mishkan.  Passover gives us an opportunity to get it right with Dayenu.  This Passover, may we all go from strength to strength to…Dayenu.

Rabbi Sara Y. Sapadin resides in New York City.  She most recently served Temple Israel of the City of New York.  Sara now volunteers as the CCAR RavBlog Member Volunteer.  Interested in writing something for RavBlog?  Learn more

Passover Pesach

Seder on the Dining Room Floor

Years ago, unplanned repair work on our house in early spring devastated our kitchen and dining room, ripped up our living room carpet, and threatened to destroy our plans for a comfortable, traditional Passover Seder. Add to it that more than half the guests were under 6 years old and could barely sit still long enough to dip the karpas in the salt water and we quickly realized that our Passover celebration needed to be creatively re-imagined.

We wondered: how were we going to make a Seder experience that taught our multi-generational gathering about the holiday’s central messages? That we journeyed from slavery to freedom, and that we must help others do the same. Sitting around a traditionally set table was just not in the cards.

We discovered that with creative and open minds, a willingness to merge tradition and innovation, and an accessible flexible Haggadah, an engaging Passover Seder can be had.

We threw borrowed gym mats over the living room concrete, placed Seder symbol-laden coffee tables around the room, and let the kids roll around while we told stories, read interesting tidbits from the Haggadah, and experienced the tactile sensations of the rituals. We realized that like for any other meaningful celebration – a birthday party, for example – the key to memorable success was to intermix food, family, songs and stories, ritual and readings in a meaningful way. We discovered that tradition and innovation needed to go hand and hand.

STJCoverWe also realized that our Seder needed a Haggadah that was filled rich and varied readings, colorful interpretations, easily accessible instructions, and enticing visualization from which we could sample. We have become enamored with Sharing the Journey: The Haggadah for the Contemporary Family (written by Alan S. Yoffie, illustrations by Mark Podwal) published by the CCAR Press. This rabbi-approved Haggadah is as accessible and creative as our personally cut-and-pasted booklets of our younger years with a few fantastic differences: Adults and children alike always seem to discover age appropriate material that uplifts and inspires. Teens and college students appreciate its ability to challenge contemporary understandings, while the grandparents like that it has enough traditionalism to recall their Seders of old. We like the fact that we can use it both at one night’s creative and another evening’s more traditional sit down Seder.

Over the years our Seders have changed. Our guests still enjoy the unique touches that invite contemplation: the football on the Seder plate, (suggesting that just as the Angel passed over the Israelites, perhaps we need to ensure that we hit our intended moral target), and history books strewn around the room (sparking a great discussion of whether the Exodus is historical or not and whether that matters). We just schepp nachas (are bursting the pride) that to this day our kids, relatives and friends enjoy these longer and deeper annual opportunities to explore the abiding lessons of Passover.

Rabbi Paul Kipnes is Vice President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and serves Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, California. Paul also co-wrote Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness.