Shabbat Pesakh I: What is this Matzah?

Tonight at sundown over 70% of all self-identifying Jews will observe the beginning of Pesakh (Hebrew for “Passover”). At the very least, they will all have matzah, the symbolic bread of affliction, on their tables – gluten free, locally made, even homemade, matzah is the ultimate symbol of the holy day period. Hag haMatzot, “The Festival of Matzah,” is one of the holiday’s most ancient – and most official – names.
This simple bread is paradoxically rich in symbolism. Matzah is made only of flour and water in a rudimentary form, free of yeast or starter. There’s no magic to it, no rising, no crumb or crust. It is the epitome of fast, easy, straightforward. Yet it is so much more than that: when we consider the matzah, called by our tradition not only the poor person’s bread but also the bread of freedom, we begin to see the midrashim (interpretations) that centuries of sages and commentators have drawn from it.
1. matzah in its simplicity teaches us humility. We may find ourselves leading with our accomplishments, and what makes us special in our own eyes, “puffed up” as if with yeast. Matzah invites us to consider our essential simplicity as our most important and precious trait. If you let go of the outer shell of defense that you carry between you and the world, what might happen?
2. matzah is a demonstration of how few ingredients we really need to make bread. Let it help you consider how much – or how little – you really need in other places in your life.
3. matzah is an invitation to trust in abundance and in potential. The original mitzvah (command) is to clear out our dwellings from all the old bread: the starter, the leftover bread, anything at all that is made of last year’s harvest. Imagine yourself as a subsistence farmer in the ancient Near East, glad if you have some grain left in storage after the long hard winter – and now, just before the new wheat is ready to harvest, you are to take those last grains and clear them out. “You shall have no hametz (“leaven”) in your possession.” (Ex. 12.15)
It’s a demonstration of trust that the new harvest is going to come in, the  new grain will be gathered and we will eat, and survive, and live for another season.
In these days of chronic fear, trust is a difficult quality to come by, whether in each other or in the future. And yes, we American Jews have had it good for a while now, so it was easy to be optimistic and these words basically bounced off our hearts. But as the days pass and we come to know some small measure of the stress and worry our ancestors lived with, we come to see how courageous their hope was. How much they suffered, and yet they were still able to defy fear and sadness, and celebrate all that was good in their lives nevertheless.
Matzah is a symbol of poverty and being beaten down; matzah is a symbol of beautiful simplicity and serene trust in all that is good. When you lift it up at your Seder, what will it mean for you?
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Shabbat HaGadol: It’s the Details

This Shabbat is Shabbat haGadol, the “Great Shabbat” which is the last before Pesakh. It is traditional on this Shabbat to spend time reminding ourselves and each other of two things, that neither may take precedence over the other: the meaning, and the details. it’s quite typical in this time of ours to downgrade the details in favor of the meaning, for example to say that it doesn’t matter how you do it as long as you do it. It’s interesting to consider the radically different ancient Hebrew approach, which insists that the more important something is, the more each detail matters.
Every year we do the best we can to balance them, and to preserve both the keva, the form of the Seder and the Passover observances we follow for eight days in the Diaspora (seven in Israel), and the kavanah, the intention and mental focus that lies behind them and is reinforced through them. Every year we discover that the more we take care with the details, the more depth of meaning we find – and of course, the converse is true: the more we care about the meaning, the more we find the details important.
May the details you observe bring meaning to your experience, and may the meaning of your experience of the Festival of Matzah bring delight to every detail.
the details:
1. All foods containing any form of hametz (wheat, oats, rye, barley, and spelt) should be cleaned out from your dwelling place by 10am on Erev Pesakh, Friday March 30. This observance does not encourage discarding good food, but rather donating where possible; that which is open or otherwise cannot be donated should be sealed and put in an inaccessible area (this can include putting it all on one shelf somewhere (the garage? the basement? a kitchen cupboard?) and covering the shelf with aluminum foil, a sheet, a tarp or whatever.  The mitzvah requires that you not own hametz for the duration of Pesakh. If you don’t belong to a congregation, you can still contact one and ask that your hametz list be added to theirs, which will be legally sold to a non-Jew for the duration of the holiday and then re-bought.
2. the Bedikat Hametz (Searching for Leaven) takes place after the house is cleared of hametz on the night before Pesakh (this year, Thursday night March 29). A guide to this ritual and that for Bi’ur Hametz, burning it) can be found in most Haggadot.
3. It is traditional to recite Yizkor prayers for our beloved dead. Find a shul and ask them when they will be reciting this prayer, which is said only during the Festivals of Pesakh, Shavuot and Sukkot, and on Yom Kippur. Join them and remember those you have loved and lost with a community.
the meaning:
1. the central statement of the Haggadah: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
the personal touch: do you have room at your Seder for a guest? it’s a mitzvah to invite guests if you’re hosting, or to get yourself inviting somewhere if you’re not able to host.
2. we were strangers in the Land of Egypt and homeless wanderers for many years.
both near and far: mark the meaning of this teaching by supporting asylum seekers in Israel: #LetUsHelp
3. celebrate freedom by using yours responsibly. We are most free when we are reliably faithful to that which builds meaning and purpose in our community’s life.
what you do matters not only to you but to the Jewish community: On this Great Shabbat and every day, may your Judaism inform your U.S. activism, and your U.S. patriotism be supported by your Judaism. Some of us will make the minyan, others will feel called upon to join the inspiring and wonderful student march against guns. We can’t do anything about the fact that the U.S. doesn’t check the Jewish calendar before scheduling important events, and of course it’s disappointing to be left out. No matter what you do this Shabbat morning, I hope you’ll join in my prayer and determination that marches be followed by voting, and other acts that will, we pray, bring about the change we need.

Shabbat VaYikra/Shabbat HaHodesh: The Small Alef

This Shabbat we begin the book VaYikra, Leviticus. The first word of the narrative is the book’s name, a word which is Hebrew for “[and] he called.” The lack of pronouns indicate that this is a continuation of an earlier story, and indeed the content fits that assumption. We have just ended the detailed description in the book of Exodus of the construction of the Mishkan, the holy place to which Israelites will go when they seek to experience the Presence of G*d. Now we continue with the description of the various kinds of rituals which will take place in that space. And so – who is calling, and who is being called? The simple answer is that G*d is calling to Moshe.
It’s interesting to note in this context that the word is written with a small alef, that is to say that the last letter of the word, the alef, is written smaller than the rest of the word.
Like this:   ויקרא  Our commentators on the Torah find this intriguing; since the Torah is a holy book that speaks to us in a way which is considered to be qualitatively different than usual human speech, this small alef means something. It’s not just a typo. The way in which the Torah is written has been preserved exactly for many years; the Aleppo Codex, the oldest copy of the Tanakh in existence, is one thousand years old, and it also shows this word written in just this way.
Today we on our learning tour of Israel learned from a kibbutznik, a member of one of 284 idealistic socialist communities that helped to build the State of Israel from its earliest beginnings. Yonatan told us that people raised on a kibbutz were raised to know that they were not the center of the universe; that it was not the individual that mattered but the mission, the vision of the community.
It has been taught that the little alef referred to Moshe, and, as such, we can see it as a way of referring to each of us. To think of ourselves in the moment when we are called upon by G*d, so to speak – called out of ourselves and into that which we might be – is to know oneself as very small in just this way – smaller than that which calls upon us, and at the side, not central at all, but yet an integral part of the word. To live for a cause, to feel called upon to participate in something which is greater than oneself, is to give oneself to something which can lift us up if we concentrate on the whole of it, and not upon ourselves.
No system, not the kibbutz movement nor any other, is perfect. We humans will see to that. But on this Shabbat, which is also Shabbat haHodesh, the beginning of the first month of the Jewish year, we are each called upon, vayikra, to see ourselves as a part, as integral, to something so much bigger than us, which can hold us, carry us when we are despairing, and lend us meaning when our own lives challenge that concept. May the new month which is the first month renew for all of us the holiness of each moment of our lives when we see how we are linked to the Life of the World.
To learn more about the kibbutz movement, look here: The Kibbutz.

Shabbat VaYakhel-Pekudey/Shabbat Parah: Holy Tents and Sacred Cows

This week I am privileged to share an erev Shabbat thought with you from Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. Soon a group of Shir Tikvah congregational family and friends will arrive and I look forward to greeting them soon at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. I’ve come a few days early to see family and friends.
Here in Israel, one enters any communal building and sees that one is in the Jewish state. There are Pesakh haggadot for sale in the bookstore at the airport, Pesakh coloring books for children at the grocery store, and my cousins are already planning their family Seder – for 100 participants! There’s nothing quite like being in the midst of a nation of people who are all looking forward to the ancient Festival of Pesakh as one of the most important family – and national – holidays of the year.
One of the most fascinating aspects of visiting Israel today is that, for all the differences caused by two millennia of normal historical developments as well as abnormal events of Exile, to be in Israel now is to be as close as one can come to the feeling of what it is like to feel one’s life to be part and parcel of the mainstream of Jewish life, whether 3000 years ago or now.
This week’s parashah presents us with an opportunity to consider how we might relate to that thought, that each one of us is an integral part of our story. We witness in this double parashah, parashat VaYakhel-Pekudey, the poignant story of our entire people helping each other to pick each other up and go on, together to discover the way to make our way forward once again. What was the direction we were heading before last week’s explosion of frustration, confusion, anger and upheaval?
This week we return to the narrative of two weeks ago, to immerse ourselves in the details of creating the Mishkan, from gold and silver to finely wrought wool and linen to wooden planks and hooks, clasps and sockets. Everyone was involved in some aspect of the work, and it was that immersion in the work itself that healed the rifts. Work that could only be done together – you holding the cloth while I fasten the clasp – reassured us that we could work together. We could, and we can, live together.
It’s true, commentators have pointed it out since there were commentaries on the Torah: where there are Jews, there will be divergent opinions, passionately held. To be immersed in work that one considers holy causes passions to rise, because one cares so much. It has been pointed out that there is only one place in the Torah where the entire Jewish people, gathered together, is referred to using a singular verb, indicating that all the people were of one mind. That moment is no coincidence but full of meaning: vayikhan sham Yisrael neged haHar, “[t]he[y] camped at the foot of the mountain.” (Exodus 19.2) We derive from this verse that we were all one when we knew ourselves to be standing in a holy place, that is, in the place of the mountain where we experienced the Presence of G*d. No matter where we find ourselves within community, the “tent” we raise together is holy when you and I delight in the work we are doing together, as well as the goal, as well as each other.
This happy state, of being of one mind, does not necessarily entail agreeing, or knowing certainty. We are reminded of this by the fact that this Shabbat is also Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat of the Red Heifer. This passage is so inexplicable that even King Shlomo, the wisest of them all, admitted he could not understand it. Committing to the mitzvot does not mean we can understand and explain them all logically, and, similarly, committing to each other need not be understood as some kind of unnatural conformity of heart or mind – or that we understand each other. Only that we understand that we cannot live without each other.
I look forward to bringing you Torah insights related to the learning we will do in the next two weeks here in Eretz haKodesh, the Holy Land – not because of some intrinsic quality, but only when, and because, we are standing here together in the Presence of G*d.

Shabbat Ki Tisa, and Shushan Purim: Sowing Hate is a Form of Murder

Well, we’ve heard the Megillat Ester, and Shabbat Ki Tisa is upon us, and we haven’t learned much yet, apparently.
I find myself much dismayed. Incidents come to my attention. Haman is still among us, and inside of us.
You, who believe you need not check your hypocrisy, because that there’s no way that the sin you accuse in another can possibly touch you.
You, who betray your words of caring for our community with careless acts that show you consider its true worth to you to be beneath concern.
You who think so little of the love another has for our community, giving endless volunteer time and heart, that you treat them without courtesy.
Causing harm to another’s reputation or name, causing embarrassment to them in any way within a community, refusing in our righteous anger to give the benefit of the doubt, is judged by our Jewish legal tradition to be a sin akin to murder.
This week in the parashah we see that when our commitment to each other is not strong, when we start to undermine the gentle, vulnerable bonds of trust that holds our community together, there is great harm, perhaps irreparable, that we do to each other. The sin of that small gold bull caused not only the actual deaths of many involved, but the death of that community’s hope for true unity on their way forward into the wilderness.
The wilderness is still there to be crossed; we can’t avoid that. But we can work a little harder to treat each other with decency, if not to “love your neighbor as yourself” if that’s too difficult for you right now, at least to consider “that which is hateful to you, do not do to another.” Both are foundational ethical teachings demanded of you as a Jew.
Purim is still with us; that holy day that the Rabbis suggest is actually much more significant than we realize. An ancient teaching points out that on the other end of the year, as fall begins, we observe a day the name of which can literally be understood as “the day which is like Purim” – Yom ha-Kippurim. Purim, our teachers suggest, is a day of considering the value of life, how we live it, at what cost, and the masks we need to finally stop wearing if we are to face each other honestly. A covenant relationship thrives on no less than this. Those with exit strategies in place if things don’t go their way are not speaking the language of Jewish covenant.
Today is Shushan Purim, on which Jews celebrate the holiday who lived in cities which were walled at the time of the Purim story. Perhaps that’s the best day for us to observe it, those of us who are still insisting on walls between us and those with whom we share what is supposed to be a covenant community where we learn to work on the essential human values of trust and love.
Haman is not some caricature; it is the part of you that does not stop to think of the hurt you cause another when you feel justified in your act. Who are you to choose not to risk trust? What will it take for each of us to figure out how to blot out the selfishness of the yetzer hara’ within us, that focuses only upon our own well-being?
This Shabbat, the Torah calls out to us to learn from what are too many examples of selfishness and blindness in our people’s past, and consider the real damage each of us can do unless we are ready to really learn this truth we have been taught to repeat from an early age.
Forgive as we would be forgiven,
extend the courtesy that we expect to receive,
and be kind; be kind; be kind to each other.