Shabbat and Pesakh and more, oh my!

Hag sameakh! Today and tomorrow are hagim, holy days that end our Pesakh Festival. Jewish offices are closed today and tomorrow, and Passover ends tomorrow evening at sundown with the end of Shabbat. On this Shabbat, the Shemini or 8th day of the holiday, we depart from our usual Torah parashat hashavua (reading of the week) and read from the Book Devarim. The text includes reminders of the mitzvot associated with the holiday, including travel, offerings, and inclusion. In every Jewish community, not only do we devote time and energy to its observance for ourselves, but also those who have the wherewithall must take care to ensure that those who do not have are also able to celebrate the holiday.
It’s interesting in this context to note that the Yizkor prayer for our beloved dead is recited on this eighth day of Pesakh as well. In Jewish tradition, the dead are considered impoverished – for they have no ability to do mitzvot. When we include them in our prayers we bring them back into the living circle of us mitzvah-doers, and when we give tzedakah in their memory (another Pesakh tradition) we cause good to happen in the world in their name. This is why the yizkor prayer includes this phrase: “may their souls be bound up in eternal memory.”
Today, Friday, we are in the 6th day of the Sefirat haOmer. The mystical pattern offered us for this day invites us to meditate upon the intersection of Yesod and Hesed.
Yesod is the foundation of the individual and of the world. It is associated with loyalty and reliability, as well as with generativity and with the genitalia, the seat and source of physical life.
Hesed is the emotional expression of overflowing love and the mercy it brings; the feeling of one’s arms opened wide in love and trust to the world and in generosity without stint.
It’s a lot to take in, but it comes down to one simple lesson: in the face of death, only love matters. On this Shabbat, the last day of Pesakh 5778, consider what tzedakah you can do to keep a loved memory alive; what mercy you can offer the living to increase love in the world; and who is in need of the generosity and richness you have in such abundance.
Shabbat shalom and hag Pesakh sameah,
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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?

Shabbat HaHodesh: Say His Name

This Shabbat carries so much significance – it is Shabbat HaHodesh, the Shabbat of The Month, that is, the first month of the Jewish year, the month in which we will commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. That escape occurred on the 14th day of the month we now call Nisan, and every year we gather to tell the tale. The power, we are taught, is in the words that we share.

And when your children ask you, “What do you mean by this ritual?” you shall tell them, “this is the Passover.” (Ex.12.26-27)

Our Rabbis taught that even those who know the tale well are considered praiseworthy if they tell it at length, this story of how one moves from slavery to freedom. Tell it again, tell it over and over, tell it until it is heard, and recognized.

We are so much in need of that story today. When we retell it, we remind ourselves of the importance of saying what is important out loud. From the beginning of creation, when the first people helped G*d create the world by naming all its creatures, Jewish tradition has understood the great power of speaking truth in words, out loud.

When I visited City Hall on the morning of March 1, I witnessed the power of speaking words directly. A group lifted up the simple chant:

Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes! 

No matter how you feel about the tactic of refusing to allow regular city business to proceed as usual by showing up during open city council sessions and disrupting them, it is powerful to realize that a simple, repeated chant cuts right through such attempts to proceed with business as usual.

There is a tremendous power in speaking truth directly. Alas, we also know that there is a great deal of power in refusing to speak what should be spoken, and thus recognized as real and significant.

Our Jewish tradition decries the act of remaining silent when speaking up is the needed moral act, even as it denounces those who speak falsely in order to manipulate the truth to their own advantage. We have a surfeit of the latter, but what do we know about the former? 

For Zion’s sake I wil not be silent, for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be still, until her justice shines like a light, and her help like a burning torch. (Isaiah 62.1)

That chant continues to ring in my ears: Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes! Say his name! Quanice Hayes! 

On this Shabbat HaHodesh, we are called to consider the importance of saying our truth out loud, and supporting the rights of others to that same speech. The words of G*d echo through every person’s truth, even – probably especially – the truths that disturb our peace and quiet. 

And on this Shabbat which is also called VaYakhel-Pekudey, after the Torah parashah that we are reading in the yearly cycle, we cannot but also note that VaYakhel, which means “gathering”, reminds us that words must not only be spoken aloud, but also heard, and witnessed, by the gathered community. Only in such a community of shared meaning and purpose do our words fulfill their purpose: to tell the story, and tell what it means.

Today at 2pm Quanice Hayes will finally be laid to rest – a horribly long time after he was tragically killed. His name joins too long a list of other young African American men killed at the hands of police. To say his name is to insist that we listen, and that we tell that story too, as many times as necessary until we finally discover the way from slavery to freedom for all.

In every generation we are commanded to consider that we ourselves are going out of Egypt. (BT Pesakhim 116b)

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other,

Shabbat shalom

The Most Important Mitzvah

It’s a Portland kind of question: What do you do for Passover when you’re gluten free? 

In order to answer this question it’s best to first consider a more fundamental question: What is the Most Important Mitzvah of Pesakh?

There are several mitzvot that all might be considered primary: 

1. have a Seder and tell the story

2. clear the house of all forms of the five grains: wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt

3. eat matzah

4. observe the first and last days of Pesakh as sacred occasions and do no work

All four of these mitzvot are d’Oraita – an Aramaic phrase that means of Biblical origin, as opposed to Rabbinic (we all know what happens when the Rabbis get started on the halakhah of Pesakh – many many more mitzvot are developed!)

There is no denying the fact that since Biblical times, since before the Tanakh achieved its final, two-thousand-year-old form, Pesakh has always been a central, vitally significant holy day period for our people. It is the time when we remember that we were strangers in a strange land – Egypt – and then slaves, and then, somehow, in a way that seemed miraculous then and perhaps more so now, we were free.

That reality leads us to one more central mitzvah of Pesakh:

5. “In every generation we must see ourselves as going out of Egypt” – we ourselves. This Rabbinic mitzvah is not so easy to understand. A command to remember is one thing; that, we Jews know how to do. But how are we to see ourselves, literally, as going out of Egypt?

The answer to our question is found, wonderfully enough, in a tradition which has evolved around the Seder. The Rabbis ruled that we are to raise our cup of wine four times during the Seder – once for each of the expressions of our redemption from slavery which we find in the Torah (Shemot 6.6-7):

הוצאתי אתכם – I will bring you out of Egypt

הצלתי אתכם – I will free you from slavery

גאלתי אתכם – I will redeem you from bondage

לקחתי אתכם – I will take you to be Mine

And of course since we have a tradition of questioning everything in Judaism, another Rabbi asked, “but aren’t there really five?” And suggested the very next words that appear in the text (Shemot 6.8): 

הבאתי אתכם – I will bring you (into the Land of your ancestors)

The Rabbis ruled that since not all Jews lived in the Land of Israel then (or now), as long as some Jews live in Exile, the 5th cup was to be poured but not drunk, in recognition that freedom is not yet completely real. So we pour that fifth cup and leave it on the table, following the Rabbis’ gesture, and wait for the Prophet Elijah whose coming one day will symbolize the complete freedom toward which we look for all people.

בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את אצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים – “In every generation we must see ourselves as going out of Egypt.” 

To fulfill this 5th mitzvah is to bring about the completion of the other four. And this year brings us a clear and compelling illumination of that mitzvah

that when you see a person who is a refugee on a boat in the Mediterranean, 

a person who is in a holding area at an airport, 

or a person being handcuffed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, you are in that person’s shoes. 

You can feel the waves and the terror of drowning; 

you can feel the confusion of not knowing the language or why you are being detained and the fear of what you do not understand; 

you can feel the anguish of being torn away from family and treated like a criminal only because you want to live,

and you do not turn away, either emotionally or mentally. You stay with the anguish just enough to let it mediate your choices.

Our ancestors crossed borders illegally, time after time, in order to escape death. This is part of who we have been, and it is part of our Passover story. If we are able to feel that this is also who we are, and must be, we will come a bit closer to understanding what this 5th cup means, and what we must do in order one day finally to raise it high.

Gluten free? not a problem. Give the money you would have spent on matzah to HIAS, or IRCO, or IMirJ, and raise those four cups with all the kavanah you can muster for matzah as well as maror and zaroa as symbols whose importance is in that they guide all of us toward the 5th mitzvah.

Getting Ready for Pesakh: What Is Matzah Really About?

It’s all about the matzah. The official name – and the  most ancient name – of our early spring festival is Hag haMatzot, the Festival of Matzah. Eating matzah is a mitzvah, an obligation for every Jew.

But what if you’re gluten free? this question has of course already been answered by the matzah industry: along with all the other varieties, there is gluten-free matzah. 

But this answer is too quick; it doesn’t give us the chance to really consider the question of why we are obligated to eat matzah in the first place. After all, we are forbidden the five grains wheat, barley, spelt, rye and oats. but we can eat them in a matzah state, so the grains themselves are not forbidden….or what?

The answer is not about food at all, but about our illusion of control over our lives. Why matzah, i.e. unleavened bread, bread that is entirely untouched by the natural or introduced presence of yeast? 

Our ancestors lived and died by the amount of grain they were able to grow, gather and store by the hard work of their own hands. One can imagine the care they took in storing grain so that it would last as long as possible without fermenting, which after all is the first step in rotting.

And now imagine a festival which is marked by the cleaning out of all the old grain – even before all the new grain is gathered in. This is our ancestors’ ultimate leap of faith – to clean out the old before the new was a sure thing was to demonstrate with their lives and that of their families that they trusted the old Jewish idea that if you take great care with today, tomorrow you will be all right. 

Note the interesting verb tashbitu in the verse: 

שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, מַצּוֹת תֹּאכֵלוּ–אַךְ בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, תַּשְׁבִּיתוּ שְּׂאֹר מִבָּתֵּיכֶם:  כִּי כָּל-אֹכֵל חָמֵץ, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל–מִיּוֹם הָרִאשֹׁן, עַד-יוֹם הַשְּׁבִעִי.

“Eat matzah for seven days – on the first day, tashbitu the grain from your houses. Anyone who eats hametz from the first day until the seventh day will be cut off from Israel.” – Exodus 12.8

The root of tashbitu is sh.b.t. This hint of Shabbat is possibly meant to remind us that we are not in control; that you can store up all you want against life’s contingencies, and you are not, after all, going to be able to control them.

The eating of matzah is a positive obligation; that is, it is not about avoiding something, it is about doing something. In this case, eating matzah. That is why, even if you are gluten-free, it is incumbent upon you to do so. There is something profoundly symbolic about it, so much so that if you do not, you cause yourself to be alienated from the People of Israel. You do not have to eat matzah all week; just an amount equal to the volume of an olive. If you absolutely cannot eat even that small amount, it’s best to get together with others who are truly gluten averse and 

invest together in one box of that expensive gluten free matzah – one more way to demonstrate our absolute need for each other, and the reason why the idea of being cut off from Israel is the worst outcome our ancestors could possibly envision