Thursday, April 28, 2016

Passover and Dreams of Jerusalem

People often ask me why some celebrate seven days of Passover and others eight. Should we eat matzah for seven days or eight, celebrate one seder or two? The Torah specifies that Passover be celebrated for seven days. “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread…” (Exodus 12:15) In Israel the holiday is observed for seven days. In diaspora communities such as our own it is celebrated for eight days with two seders. Why the difference?

Millennia ago when the rabbis established the calendar they insisted that witnesses attest to the beginning of the new month. Despite the fact that they had already developed mathematical calculations to make this determination, they asked for witnesses to come before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem. “Where did you see the new moon?” they asked a witness. (Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 2:6) Once they were satisfied by the testimony they declared the next day Rosh Hodesh, the first of the Hebrew month. Beacon fires were set on hilltops to declare the news throughout the Jewish diaspora, which at that time stretched throughout the Middle East.

But even then the Jewish people did not get along with each other. The Samaritan sect for example began to light the signal fires at the wrong time in order to sow confusion. So the rabbis resorted to sending messengers to even such far away Jewish communities as those in Egypt and Babylonia. But obviously a messenger takes much longer to deliver this message than a signal fire.

Thus the rabbis established “yom tov sheni shel galuyot—a second holiday day for the diaspora.” Those living outside of the land of Israel were told to observe two days of holidays. In essence this ruling was a safety measure to ensure that people were observing the holiday on its proper day. This custom persisted even after the calendar became fixed and was no longer dependent on the testimony of witnesses or a declaration from Jerusalem.

Centuries later the Reform movement argued that two days of the holiday no longer made sense. Especially in an age of computers when we can determine with extraordinary accuracy and speed the dates for holidays this custom should be cast aside as a relic of the past.

And yet the Jewish tradition has always viewed the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem as the ideal place for a Jew to live. These were always the places associated with our Jewish dreams. Despite one’s judgments about present realities in Israel this dream has remained unchanged. It was from Jerusalem that our holidays were proclaimed. It is the land of Israel’s seasons that continue to dictate our prayers for rain or for that matter the logic of a new year for trees in the middle of our New York winter.

The early Reform rabbis argued that America is our new Zion. They sought to replace the ancient Jewish dream with a new one that revolved around where they presently found themselves. For all my love of America, and my deep commitment to Reform Judaism, I am hesitant to let go of the age-old Jewish dream. Too often we seek to adjust our dreams and ideals so that they match with our current practices and lives. In order to better achieve self-fulfillment we let go of past dreams. We are counseled to adjust our goals so that we can find satisfaction and contentment, so that we can discover present day fulfillment.

I prefer instead to hold on to my people’s age-old dreams, even those I suspect I will never achieve. I observe Passover for eight days if for no other reason than to remind me that my dreams should never remain mine alone. My Jewish dreams must always be tied to others. The ideal place is the land of Israel. The city of our dreams is Jerusalem. This is my people’s dream.

As much as I love living here in New York, as much as I remain enamored of the democratic values the United States represents, my Jewish dream is elsewhere. Our Jewish dream is in another land.

That is exactly how we concluded our seders on Friday and Saturday, nights. L’shanah haba-ah beyurashalayim. Next year in Jerusalem!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Passover and the Cup of Unresolved Questions

Our seder tables are arrayed with many symbols. There is, for example, the matzah, the bitter herbs, charoset and, the four cups of wine. Which of these is the most important?

Is it the matzah? We eat this unleavened bread for the week of Passover to remind us that we were slaves in Egypt. The story is told that when the Israelites hurried to flee slavery the bread did not have enough time to rise and so they ate matzah. In actuality our Egyptian oppressors may have designed this unleavened bread. It is cheaper than regular bread and as many can attest, requires a longer digestion period. It was therefore the perfect food to feed slaves.

The maror and charoset, are these the most important? They likewise remind us about the bitterness of our years in Egypt. With every taste of these symbolic feeds we remember our slavery. The haggadah proclaims: “In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out from Egypt.” These symbolic foods help to make this proclamation a reality. We taste our slavery.

The cups of wine, on the other hand, give us a taste for freedom. At our seders we are supposed to serve wine to each other. This is patterned after the Greco-Roman banquets upon which the seder was modeled. Wine is a luxury item served only to those who are free. It is the paradigmatic symbol of joy. Wine marks our Jewish celebrations, from a bris and wedding to Shabbat and holidays. Every Friday evening we welcome Shabbat with its taste. We usher in our holidays with the kiddush.

On Passover we do drink not only one glass but instead four.

At our seders each of these cups of wine is connected to a verse from the Torah. God makes four promises in the Book of Exodus: "I will free you.", "I will deliver you.", "I will redeem you.", "And I will take you to be My people." (Exodus 6:6-7) The rabbis, who designed the Seder 2,000 years ago, mandated the drinking of four cups of wine to correspond to these four divine promises.

And yet there is a fifth promise: "I will bring you into the land." A discussion among the rabbis ensued. Some suggested there should be a fifth cup correlating to this fifth statement. Others argued that this fifth promise is connected to the fourth and that they should therefore count as one. The rabbis were unable to resolve their debate. No answer can be found in the Talmud. Some say four cups of wine. Others five.

The rabbis agreed that they could not come to a final decision. They determined therefore that the fifth cup of wine should remain on the table, filled but never sipped. And this cup is Elijah’s cup.

When an argument remained unresolved the rabbis would in effect say to each other, “One day when Elijah comes and heralds the coming of the messiah, our debate will be resolved and we will then discover who is right and who is wrong. Until then let us sit together, savor our meal and drink our wine. Let the answer remain for tomorrow. Today, let us remain together.”

To this day that cup remains on our tables. Now we open the door and sing to Elijah. I fear that we forget the import of this most important symbol.

Its message could not be more important for our own age. We leave the question on the table. We leave the question unanswered. In a world where politicians proffer easy answers to challenging questions we would do well to take note of Elijah’s cup. It means that we eschew easy answers. It means that we affirm ambiguity. Some questions must remain for tomorrow.

We sit together despite our differences. We join together despite our differing interpretations.

The question remains before us. We drink our wine even though not all questions can be answered.

There sits Elijah’s cup. And there sits the question.

Elijah, and the salvation he promises, beckons us. Perhaps redemption can be found in leaving some questions on the table.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Metzora and Misplaced Words

A Hasidic story, although retold through this rabbi’s modern eyes.

One day a man (let’s call him Mike) heard an interesting, albeit unflattering, story about another man (let’s call him Steve). It was an amusing tale and so Mike shared it with others. Everyone found the story entertaining. Mike reveled in the laughter. Soon Steve noticed that people gave him strange looks as he passed by on the street. He quietly wondered why. “Was it his hair style?” Then he noticed that people frequented his store less often. Soon he discovered the unkind words people were saying about him. He asked a friend what they were saying. He could not believe his ears. He soon found out the source of the tale. It was Mike!

Steve confronted the town’s storyteller, complaining that he had ruined his reputation by repeating this one, unflattering episode. Steve remains convinced that he is in fact an excellent dancer and that his gyrations were not inappropriate. Mike tried to make excuses that it was such an entertaining story and that it always got a laugh. “But now,” Steve stammered, “No one will even visit my shop.”

Mike was overcome with remorse and ran to his rabbi (let’s call her Susie) to seek counsel. Mike approached the rabbi and explained the situation. “How do I fix this? How can I repair Steve’s reputation?” The eminently wise rabbi offered a curious suggestion. “Go get a feather pillow and bring it to me.” Mike asked, “A feather pillow? Do they even sell those at Bed, Bath & Beyond anymore?” “Don’t be such a wise guy, Mike!” Susie exclaimed. “Go buy the pillow.”

Mike traveled throughout the greater New York area in search of such a pillow. He wondered how this was going to fix the problem. Still the rabbi offered a solution and he was anxious to repair Steve’s reputation. A week later, he finally found the pillow in a second hand shop in the Village and texted the rabbi about his success. Susie texted him back, “Meet me in Times Square tomorrow evening at 5 pm. Don’t forget to bring the pillow.”

Mike thought to himself, “This keeps getting stranger.” The next day arrived and he eventually found the rabbi standing by the TKTS Booth. “I see you have been successful,” she said. “Now what?” Mike asked. “Cut open the pillow and empty out the feathers.” Mike did as he was told. The feathers were soon carried away by the wind, flying up and down Broadway. People stared in amazement and took out their cell phones to post pictures of the beautiful feathers, shimmering in Broadway’s neon lights.

“Now, Mike” Susie said, “Go gather up each and every one of the feathers.” Mike stammered, “That’s impossible.”

“And that’s exactly my point,” Rabbi Susie quietly, but firmly, offered. She returned to her friends waiting in line for tickets. And Mike stood their quietly watching the feathers being carried away by the wind.

Who knows where they might fall? Who knows who might gather up a feather or two and place it in their pocket? “Look at the feather I found one evening on Broadway,” they might one day say when they wish to entertain their friends.

And that is exactly the lesson about gossip and the words we speak about others. Once they are told they can never again be gathered up. They are like feathers floating on the wind. The rabbis teach that even flattering, true words spoken about another can cause harm. Although their admonition is difficult to observe their counsel is too important to ignore.

A misplaced word can injure. An errant word can create a wound that is impossible to heal.

This week’s Torah reading speaks about leprosy. On the surface this would appear to be disconnected from gossip. And yet we read that Miriam is afflicted with leprosy when she spoke against her brother Moses. The rabbis therefore reasoned that a gossip is likened to a moral leper. They become disfigured by the misplaced words they speak.

Their words are carried away by the winds.

Who could imagine that such a light feather can cause so much harm?

Friday, April 8, 2016

Five Suggestions for Improving Your Seder Fun

Passover begins on Friday evening, April 22. This holiday requires far more preparation than most, especially in the kitchen. What follows are some concrete suggestions for enhancing your Seder and adding to its fun. This year spend some extra time preparing to have a great time.

First of all view the haggadah as director’s notes rather than a script in which every word must be recited. Use it as a guide rather than a book that should be read cover to cover. The point is to relish in our freedom.

1. Recite the blessing for karpas (vegetables) early and put out crudités to nibble on to sustain your guests until dinner. It is never a good idea to sit for hours staring at food. Add hummus (the Sephardi are absolutely correct on legumes; the Ashkenazi need to lighten up) and salsa for dipping and of course added sustenance. Let everyone nosh as you make your way through the first part of the Seder.

2. Really act out the maggid (story). Assign parts. Use this as a guide: Sedra Scenes: Skits for Every Torah Portion.  Use the scenes for portions Shemot, Vaera, Bo and Beshalach. It is always fun deciding who gets to play God. Act out the story. Don’t just read the haggadah’s outline and commentary. Most haggadahs assume you know the story so they jump to the commentary. You are supposed to tell the story of our going out from Egypt. That is the mitzvah. Many of the new haggadahs help you do this so this is an important investment to guarantee more seder fun and added meaning.

3. Add red Jell-O shots for the first plague and blue Jell-O shots for hail. Perhaps yellow for boils? You get the point. Of course, if your kids are not in college perhaps you should not choose this route. And if they are older than 21 then be sure someone does not enjoy the plagues too much. If everyone is in college then you can take this path instead: Passover Cocktails for Each of the Ten Plagues. By the way if I ever did this I would not make it to dinner and might remain trapped in that ninth plague of darkness. When our kids were younger we would have all the children bring a pillowcase with the three items they would take if they had to leave in a hurry, just like the Israelites had to do when they rushed out of Egypt. They would then have to tell the group what they brought with them and why. Jell-O shots and cocktails or American Girl dolls and Xbox? You decide.

4. Assign your guests different charoset recipes. Use this as a guide: Five Charoset Recipes from Around the World. Take a vote over which variety wins and give a prize to the winning charoset recipe. Our family has aged out of afikomen gifts so perhaps a bottle of wine or simply accolades will do. Remember charoset just has to look like bricks not taste like bricks. Again the Sephardi recipes win hands down. (For those with nut allergies there are a lot of alternative recipes to be found.) We do the same thing with the matzoh balls in our soup. We usually have four different varieties: Persian gundi, Pitigliano (otherwise known as Italy's little Jerusalem) meatballs, Hasidic non-gebrokts potato balls and the traditional Ashkenazi. Spice up the menu and learn some Jewish history in the process: The Passover Table: Delicious Recipes for Your Seder Table and Beyond.

5. For the fourth cup of wine bring out a prized dessert wine. Personally I like Vin Santo and although traditionally paired with biscotti I think macaroons will do just fine. If you are committed to staying with this Italian theme, and still keeping the Passover restrictions, you can of course bake Ricciarelli instead. (If you have had enough to drink by this point try instead this favorite recipe for sorbet: Scooped Charoset Sorbet.)

Now try to recite the last verse of Who Knows One in one breath. I don’t know about you but a lot of those concluding songs sound like drinking game songs to me. 100 bottles of beer on the wall, 100 bottles of beer…

Enjoy! Celebrate! Worry about the chametz on Thursday. Enjoy the fun and celebration on Friday. The point of the Seder is to taste freedom.

And yes, fun requires preparation.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Tazria and Sharing Our Pains

People often treat illness as a private affair. Disease is only to be shared with the most intimate of friends. Judaism holds a contrary view. Although I would never share such confidences, we should understand, and appreciate, that our tradition believes sickness is a public concern. Alleviating pain is incumbent upon every person.

Once the Gerer Rebbe asked his disciple. “How is Moshe Yaakov doing?” The disciple shrugged his shoulders and stammered, “I do not know.” “What!” screamed the Rebbe, “You don’t know? You pray under the same roof, you study the same texts, you serve the same God, you sing the same songs—and yet you dare tell me that you don’t know whether Moshe Yaakov is in good health, whether he needs help, advice or comforting?”

The Torah relates. “When a person has on the skin of his body a swelling, a rash, or a discoloration, and it develops into a scaly affection on the skin of his body, it shall be reported to Aaron the priest or to one of his sons, the priests.” (Leviticus 13:2) In ancient times the priest was both the religious and medical authority. He determined whether or not a person was infected with leprosy. The well-being of the community rested upon his determinations.

The mitzvah of visiting the sick, bikkur cholim, is incumbent upon all. Too often we rely on today’s priests. We seek out doctors. We call experts. We reach out to rabbis. But then we allow our mitzvah, our duty, to become professionalized. The Talmud suggests that visiting the sick is considered a religious duty without limit. A person is rewarded both in this world and in the world to come for performing it. (Shabbat 127a)

Still we resist, thinking to ourselves, “It is better left to professionals.” Thousands of years ago the rabbis upended our reliance on priests. They argued, who better to lift someone’s spirits and offer words of comfort and encouragement than a friend. This is why, despite its extraordinary difficulty, they ruled that bikkur cholim is an obligation all must carry.

We live in a highly professionalized society. Expertise is cherished. It is sought after when facing life’s greatest challenges. We also live in a personalized world where the individual and his or her rights and feelings are most prized. Judaism stands in opposition to this contemporary ethos. Judaism chooses instead the community. All must shoulder caring for the sick. Judaism counsels: you must never go it alone. To allow someone to be alone at this time of need would be a community’s greatest failure.

There will come a day when each of us will face illness, when we will confront the sickness of a spouse or the disease of a family member. No ritual, no pill, can offer complete protection. While our souls might be capable of achieving wholeness, our bodies can never be made perfect. We can promise each other this instead. We must never allow people to feel that they should stand outside the community, to feel that at their time of greatest need they are most isolated. We must pledge to never allow a friend to keep their illness a private affair and shoulder it alone.

The Talmud counsels: Whoever visits a sick person helps him or her to recover. (Nedarim 40a)

We are always stronger together. No one should ever be alone.

Never alone! Always together!