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 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 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 HaGadol: Being Commanded isn’t Enough, and Neither is Being Free

The days before and after Shabbat haGadol, “the Great Shabbat,” are meant to be a time of excitement and joy, of running around to find the best ingredients and the nicest symbolic foods for our Seder. It’s a time to clean house, to bring out the Pesakh plates and the “good” utensils in honor of the holy day, and of looking forward to being with people we love for the special evening. It’s also a time to review the Haggadah, to prepare to sell the hametz, and to remind ourselves – or enjoy learning for the first time – all the laws and customs and habits.

Shabbat haGadol is always the Shabbat just preceding the Seder. This year the parashat hashavua is Tzav, “command.” And it’s worth taking a moment to let that word remind us that for our ancestors, the preparations for and the observances of Pesakh were not something to decide upon but obligations to fulfill and commands to obey. We are on the other side of an abyss from that world, a would defined by the certainty that one’s life was plotted out with clear rules and duties. It may sound burdensome, but Jewish tradition insists that there is a freedom inherent within submission to the mitzvot. 

We live on the other side of that abyss, in a world of choices that we believe we make freely – until we consider the impact of the influences upon the choices we make: what our friends do, what we believe is expected of us, what our parents formed in us from an early age which we either strive to fulfill or are still in reaction against. Then there’s marketing, advertising, and all the other ways in which our society creates the conditions for psychological suggestion. In a world of so many influences, how are we supposed to know what the best choice might be? And what makes us think that we are really free to discern and make that choice?

The great Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz (brother of the great Torah teacher Nehama Leibowitz – what was that family’s Seder like?) taught that freedom is an illusion. “Cows grazing in a meadow are free,” he said, “they have no obligations at all. Neither are they capable of achieving anything at all. Do you want to be as free as a cow?”

We human beings have obligations, not least to those cows. But that realization is not enough, just as the sign posted in the gym where I exercise five days a week is not, in its urging me to “Live With Intention – Be Bold and Fearless – Make a Difference.” One following these promptings could just as easily apply them to intentionally using the nuclear option in the Senate to force a Supreme Court confirmation, boldly and fearlessly gutting the EPA, and making a difference in the Syrian conflict by bombing refugees.

It’s not enough to be free, and it’s not even enough to know you are commanded, if you do not have a sense of how, and and community to check yourself with. Mitzvot offer a valid and beautiful way to answer the question of “how”,  and the community, through which law is adumbrated and flexed, is the way that the Jewish people developed a meta-ethic of “love your neighbor as yourself” which is meant to communally overrule (by practicing, or, more to the point, not) some of our eternal Torah laws which are not so appropriate.

The sacred Jewish community isn’t perfect, and neither are its laws – both are holy inspiration, though, faithfully if imperfectly transmitted by human hearts and hands. It makes our review of the Pesakh laws comforting – we’re going to do once again something our people has done for millennia – and it guides our free choice, narrowing down the options to something more relevant, coherent, and, even, safe, in the face of all that chaos of what might otherwise seem an endless, meaningless flow of equally valid choices.  

May you find comfort in the mitzvot and the excitement of Pesakh, and be reassured that in the face of unimaginable tragedy wherever it exists in our world, these mitzvot have Eternal meaning. We may not always know what that meaning is – but we’ll only discover it by immersing ourselves in the doing. Consider it your thread of sanity and certainty in all this rain.

hazak v’nithazek, let us be strong and strengthen each other,

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.

Shabbat Ki Tisa: What Are You Doing For Pesakh?

As we know, the days marked as holy for recalling and reliving the Exodus from Egypt have marked the Jewish people and Jewish culture profoundly; for thousands of years the Jewish story has been retold every year as part of our human celebration of the spring season.

We need to tell this story; we need to share this story.

We begin to remind each other of the approach of Pesakh way back before the month of Adar begins, with Shabbat Shekalim, which served as a public service announcement to Jewish communities that the new year would soon begin (it was tax time for them, thus the reference to shekels). No less than four special Shabbatot keep our attention turned to the preparations for what was arguably the most significant holy day our ancestors celebrated.

No matter what we are reading as the parashat hashavua, every year for many generations the question has gone around the community at this time of year: 

What are you doing for Pesakh? Where will you hear this story? How will you tell this story?

Parashat Ki Tisa begins with a count of the People of Israel. That it is read as a special extra Torah excerpt added to Shabbat Shekalim, way back before Purim, should draw our attention to it now as it comes around again. What is so important about this reading that we should read it twice in such proximity?

The answer is in how one says “count” in Hebrew: tisa is part of an idiom which literally means “lift up the face.”  In English we might “count heads,” but in Hebrew each person is counted by the act of lifting up the face to make eye contact, it seems, with the one counting. Imagine that moment of eye contact: it is a recognition of the individual soul. And it’s more – it is the recognition of the gift of one’s presence. In the same way, we count ten for a minyan, and we notice exactly who has gathered to be with each other. Jewish tradition teaches that this gathering evokes a synergy that brings the Presence of G*d into our midst.

This kind of counting is an act of taking account of each other. It is the same gesture by which we have learned as a community to notice each other’s situation and ask: do you have a place to go for Shabbat? What are you doing for Pesakh?

This year especially, let’s take account of each other. The way you tell this story counts; it needs to be heard.

Start with the people you know best – your family, your friends, your havurah. What are they doing for Pesakh? Where will they encounter our story?

What are you doing for Pesakh? Is it your turn to host a Seder? It’s not difficult: you can potluck it just as you do a Shabbat dinner, and invite someone who knows how to lead if you don’t feel you can. Just make room for the telling of the story.

All it takes is a Haggadah, and the symbols of matzah (even if you’re gluten free you need the symbol there), maror, and a representation of the zaroa (shankbone). All the rest is improvisation.

What are you doing for Pesakh? On Pesakh, we take account of those with whom we share the journey all year along the Jewish path, and we listen to each other’s version of the story we carry together into our future.

It’s not a story if no one hears it. This Pesakh especially, may you recognize your ability to ensure that every voice is heard – including yours.