Archive for Pesach

Let My People Go: Freedom, Slavery, Work and Worship

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Dear Friends: I am pleased that the Pesach thoughts below were published as part of the Spring edition of the The Orchard, a collection of divrei Torah, published by the Jewish Federations of North America.

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Most children or adults who’ve had even a little bit of Jewish education remember that that Moses went to Pharaoh and said, “let my people go!” We tend to think of the Exodus story as a struggle between freedom and oppression, between the liberator Moses and the despotic Pharaoh. Pharaoh in turn becomes emblematic of all the tyrants, dictators, slaveholders, demagogues and corrupt authorities who have abused others from the dawn of history until today. It’s such a familiar story that we take it for granted, but it’s really quite astounding that the basic idea of our most familiar Jewish story is about God on the side of the poor and powerless, the broken and afraid.

This is hardly typical of either ancient or modern texts: think of the ancient myths that valorize heroes, kings, majestic beauties and extraordinary people with godlike powers. It’s not just an premodern problem: think of all the books and magazines you might see in a drugstore or supermarket, and think of who they put on the cover to get your attention. Very few popular magazine covers show us the image of the poorest of the poor, servants and slaves, the suffering and scarred, in order to proclaim the message: these are the people to whom attention must be paid!

If telling the Exodus story at Passover did nothing more than focus our conscience on those who are most often forgotten, dayenu, it would be enough. Yet that’s not the only message of the Exodus and Passover, as seen in the Torah itself. The beginning of Exodus 5 has Moses pleading with Pharaoh not only to let the people go, but to let the people go in order that they may worship God in the desert wilderness. In response, Pharaoh issues new orders to his slave masters, telling them to increase the workload of the Israelites, since wanting to go worship God is an obvious sign of their laziness and sloth. (Cf. 5:8)

The psychologist and theologian Richard Beck points to this as illustrating another polarity in the Exodus story: not only is there the contrast between slavery and freedom, but also, in the mind of Pharaoh, between work andworship. If Pharaoh is symbolic of all those who abuse others, making people into mere instruments of economic or political or military value, then the countervailing force is not only freedom, but worship, which I understand as not just ritual and prayer but as the development of a powerful spiritual consciousness. Knowing that there is a Source of hope greater than our current conditions can lead to courage, perspective, dignity and purpose. The last thing Pharaoh – or any abusive authority- wants is for the people to realize that there is a power higher than Pharaoh!

Of course, Pharaoh can see none of this: to him, spiritual consciousness is just frivolity, nothing that his servants need. In this day and age, when we are constantly pulled towards distraction by our devices and media blaring out from screens all around us, this contrast between work and worship takes on a whole new urgency. It’s not laziness to pray, meditate, study sacred texts and develop our deeper consciousness; in fact, it’s probably a necessary precondition to the really hard work, which is redeeming those still caught in oppression and despair.

The point of Passover isn’t just a nice meal with a good story. The point is to remind us who we really serve. The rituals, narratives, songs and foods of the Seder take us out of our ordinary routines into the realm of “worshiping God in the wilderness,” or seeing the world in a new way, refusing to be scared of Pharaoh anymore. Leaving Egypt- the “narrow place” of restricted vision- means imagining a world wherein the poor are important and the king is not, where meeting the Divine is our greatest goal rather than turning out more bricks and widgets. “Let my people go” ultimately means “let all people go;” Passover is a recommitment to that vision of a redeemed world, which we can only bring about by thinking new thoughts, seeing the world and ourselves differently than before. We see the world as it really is by telling the oldest and best story we have, as we have always done.

A happy and healthy Pesach to all,

RNJL

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Shabbat Ha-Hodesh: Freedom and Giving

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Tazria and Shabbat Ha-Hodesh 
 
Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household.  But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat. (Shemot/ Exodus 12:3-4)
 
Hard to believe, since it feels like it’s barely started to thaw around here, but this week is Shabbat Ha-Hodesh, which denotes some special readings (linked above) read on or before the beginning of the month of Nissan. Hence, ShabbatHa-Hodesh is about two weeks before Passover, which occurs in the middle of the month. It’s not surprising, then, that the special Torah reading reviews the commandments given towards the end of the Exodus narrative: to establish the Jewish calendar, to offer a special Passover sacrifice, to eat it with matzah and maror (bitter herbs.)  
 
Note in the passage above that the commandment of offering the Passover sacrifice was directed not so much at individuals but at a household, or even a set of neighbors, if a single household was too small to support the offering of a lamb or kid. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a great leader of modern Orthodoxy, offers a beautiful insight (found here) as to the meaning of this first Pesach sacrifice in Egypt. 
 
As I understand R. Soloveitchik, the sacrifice itself was meaningless to God, who needs nothing and certainly not an animal offering. Rather, the meaning of the sacrifice was to bring the slave generation into the possibility of sharing with others, both within their household and with neighbors. A slave doesn’t have enough to share and might zealously guard his small portion, but a free person is able to give, to share, to be confident in the future, to find purpose in kindness and generosity. The intent of the Passover sacrifice was to bring the slaves into emotional freedom from being (understandably) self-centered and too anxious to care for others. 
 
Note, however, that what brings the people into that emotional freedom is the act of giving to others. They don’t share because they are free, they are free because they share. Actions change our perspective; the slaves may have thought they were merely obeying a ritual command, but the mitzvahtransformed them from within. 
 
So too with us: we always have the opportunity to become more free by giving more away, to become more loving by doing deeds of kindness, to become more moral people by doing things that are right and good. By acting as free people, the slaves became free people. By giving without fear, we ourselves may become people of true compassion. The story of liberation isn’t just then, it’s now. 
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
 
RNJL 

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A Pesach Question

Dear Friends:

About a month ago, I was at the gym when the movie Gladiator was playing on one of the channels. I had seen it before, though I don’t remember exactly when, but this time I was struck by the historical reality of slaves in the Roman period. The film portrayed, accurately enough, that the slaves chosen for combat were valuable only in the entertainment value of their deaths. Their lives were worthless, but their deaths were celebrated by the Roman elite and even populace. The movie didn’t even show the full extent of the Roman revelry in death, nor the casualness with which slaves and others were killed by the most gruesome means.

This, of course, contrasts profoundly with Judaism and the Pesach story in particular. The Torah tells the most amazing and unusual story: a story in which slaves- not the elite, not the gentry, not the full citizens of a powerful empire, but slaves- were heard and saved by a God who cared for the powerless. The radical notion of the Torah- not always fully realized in every Biblical story, to be sure- is that every human being is made in the Divine Image, and therefore social status is irrelevant to spiritual worthiness or inherent dignity.

Yet it is not only the ancient Romans who would have found the idea of a God who values the poor and powerless to be absurd. A quick scan of magazines and newspapers at the local supermarkets reveals much concern for the wealthy, famous and beautiful,

and scant reporting on human trafficking in the United States, extreme poverty, even hunger, in the richest nation on earth, or the scandal of our indifference to grotesque violation of human rights across the globe, including allied nations and even sometimes by our own government.

So my question to you is: do we take the message of Passover seriously? Do we really believe that the God of Israel cares about the poor, the enslaved, the marginalized, the oppressed, and the hungry?

If so- if Passover is to be more than brisket and family gatherings- how will the experience of reliving the redemption from Egypt be transformative rather than merely satiating?

Jews believe in a God who cares about life, even the lives that nobody else cares about.

Do we?

That’s another question for your Passover table.

With blessings for a provocative, yet warm and wonderful holiday,

Rabbi Neal

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Pesach Resources

Dear Friends:

It’s a rare two-post-without-fixing-a-mistake-day at rabbineal.net!

I’ve put together some recommended Pesach resources for guidance, learning and inspiration; I’ve deleted some parts from the congregational email that are Poughkeepsie-specific but I can sell your chametz from afar if you like. (Not sure what it means to sell chametz? Click here, then email me.)

If you are in or near the Hudson Valley and do not have a place to go for seder, please be in touch. We have families who would love to host guests.

While making your Pesach preparations, it’s helpful to review the laws and practices in advance of cleaning and shopping. The Rabbinical Assembly (our Conservative rabbi’s group) has prepared a page of Pesach resources here, including a brief guide to the relevant laws and an explanation of the ideas of chametz and matzah. The blessing for burning chametz is in most haggadot but there’s a PDF here.

Now, one perennial question for many families is that of kitniyot– seeds and beans and the like- which are eaten by many Sefardim on Pesach but not most Ashkenazim. Last month the magazine of Conservative Judaism published an article arguing against the custom not to eat kitniyot. This raised some controversy- see here for the rebuttal and make up your own mind. If your family is Sefardic or you decided to embrace that tradition, you can find a Sefardic Pesach guide here.

Please note that the time to start thinking about how to deepen, enliven and enjoy your seder is now- not the day before the seder! Maybe you need to brush up on parts of the haggadah and review some of the melodies? Here are audio clips with the relevant texts right in front of you! As I’ve done before, I recommend downloading the Valley Beth Shalom haggadah for free- it’s got some wonderful discussion questions and conversation-starters and commentaries. The Shalom Hartman Institute is an amazing institution of Jewish learning- they have a whole page of Pesach articles, lectures and videos. (If you want to make a youtube video into an mp3 for portable learning, it’s very easy- just email me.)

Closer to Poughkeepsie, Yeshiva University has its annual collection of Pesach articles called Pesach-to-Go, but a Conservative rabbi in Philadelphia has put together the Mother of All Passover Collections at his Jewish Freeware site. There are seder readings, audio clips, recipes, many downloadable haggadot, song sheets- you really need to check this out and find something new to add to your Pesach table.

Finally, I’m proud to announce that some of my own writing and commentaries will be shared on The Daily Rabbi, an pluralistic online Jewish magazine. There are several great articles and commentaries on Pesach up right now and there will be more every day until the holiday- so check it out.

I hope you find these resources helpful and even more I hope your Pesach is one of happiness, family, friends and new appreciation for our freedom. I look forward to seeing each of you soon.

with blessings for a joyous holiday,

RNJL

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Pesach: Beauty in Simplicity

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pesach

“And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves. . . “ (Shmot/ Exodus 12:39)

Dear Friends:

Earlier today, the New York Board of Rabbis shared some thoughts from Rabbi Marc Angel regarding the symbolic foods of Passover: matzah, maror, and the shankbone or reminder of the ancient Pesach offering. You can find his interpretations here, but let me quote from his explanation of matzah:

“Matzah is a basic, no-frills item. It is flour and water, without leavening. It stands for our basic selves, unpretentious, not inflated with vanity or pride. . .
Because of its sheer simplicity and honesty, Matzah symbolizes freedom. When we really know who we are, we gain a fine sense of our own freedom. We can be strong unto ourselves; we can rise above the fray; we can stop playing games of who has more, who has better, who has control. When we are free within, we have the confidence to live our own lives, not the counterfeit lives that others would impose on us.”

It occurs to me that Rabbi Angel’s explanation of matzah is taken one step further by applying the idea of hiddur mitzvah, or “beautifying the commandment.” I’ve written about this idea before (see here, where you’ll also find links to further explorations of the concept), but the basic idea is rather simple: when we have an opportunity to do a mitzvah, we should try to do it in an appealing and pleasing way. Thus we make kiddush in a nice glass or silver cup, or perhaps have embroidered covers on our matzah at the Seder table, or wear a colorful tallit of nice fabric rather than a plain or rough cloth.

So far, so good. The interesting thing about matzah, though, is that you can’t really make it more “beautiful” or adorned without making it not matzah. If you add anything other than flour and water to the – eggs, sugar, fruit juice, chocolate- it’s suitable as a unleavened treat (depending on your custom) but not appropriate to use as matzah at the Seder, when we eat only regular matzah to remember the liberation from Egypt.

However, there are people (myself included) who do buy a special kind of matzah, called shmurah matzah, as a “hiddur” or extra beautifying of the commandment. This matzah is usually round, hand-made, often with special flour that’s guarded against moisture, and it’s not, in fact, more “beautiful” in a conventional visual sense than the perfectly square, perfectly consistent machine-made matzah you get from a box. Hand-made matzah is often bumpy, sometimes burned, sometimes odd roundish shapes, sometimes tougher to eat- and yet for me, precisely because it is closer to that “essence” of matzah, a remembrance of what our ancestors would have made from leftover dough as they streamed out into the desert, it is, to me, an adornment of the commandment. Not in a visual or sensual way, but as an expression of that simplicity and honesty that Rabbi Angel teaches is the core idea of matzah.

In other words, sometimes to make something more beautiful and sacred, we have to strip it down to its essence, to its most basic form and concept. This then becomes an object lesson not for our food but for our lives: in order to become glorious, not physically but spiritually, we have to work on discarding our distractions, moving aside anything extraneous or contrary to our essential being and deepest self. Matzah is a radically simple thing; even the machine-made squares are remarkably similar to what matzah has always been for thousands of years. When we encounter it during our Feast of Freedom, it calls us back to ourselves, as individuals and as a people. When we celebrate and give thanks over the most simple food, it teaches us to focus on what’s essential in life, and be grateful. That’s ultimately not about our bread, but about our souls.

With warmest wishes for a healthy and happy Pesach,

RNJL

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Shabbat Hagadol: Ethics First

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: TzavShabbat Hagadol 

Greetings!

Every year, on the Shabbat before Pesach, we read a special haftarah, which from which this Shabbat may get its name: Shabbat Hagadol, or “The Great Sabbath.” (See alternative theories here and a summary of the haftarah here.)

There are many themes in this selection from the prophet Malachi, including a future day of redemption and the coming of the prophet Elijah, but what struck me this year were the opening verses:

“Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of yore and in the years of old. But [first] I will step forward to contend against you, and I will act as a relentless accuser against those who have no fear of Me: Who practice sorcery, who commit adultery, who swear falsely, who cheat laborers of their hire, and who subvert [the cause of] the widow, orphan, and stranger, said the Lord of Hosts.” (Malachi 3:4-5)

Before we even get to more obvious connections to Passover, like redemption, reconciliation of families, and justice brought to oppressors, this text reminds us of a basic Jewish principle: ethics precede spirituality. Before we can enter the Templeto bring its offerings- or our local “temples” to bring our prayers and religious acts- we have to be right in our relationships and dealings in community. To put it another way, before we can clean up our chametz, we have to clean up our act.

This calls to mind the famous haftarah from Yom Kippur:

” Is such the fast I desire,

A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush . . . . 
No, this is the fast I desire . . . .: 
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
 It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home . . . “
  (Isaiah 58:57, abridged)

Note that  Pesach and Yom Kippur, which are probably the two most complex religious events of the Jewish year, days in which  we go through elaborate texts, prayers, rituals, laws and customs, also have texts which remind us that religious acts do not advance us at all if we haven’t first done the inner work of ethical recommitment. How can we sit down on Seder night and remember the slavery inEgypt if we’re still acting in ways that oppress others today?

Please note, the prophets were not saying that religious acts are of no use; on the contrary, they saw the ancient Templeservice as a sign of covenant between God and the Jewish people. A renewed spirituality was their goal; ethical renewal was the price of admission. Amid all the cleaning, shopping, cooking, arranging, traveling, preparing that typically happens in the weeks before Passover, the prophet reminds us: religion without ethics is an empty shell. Preparing for the holiday means looking within, and asking at least a few questions our own roles in bringing freedom, compassion, and justice to a world that needs it now as much as our ancestors did then.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

 

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Passover: The Festival of Learning

Dear Friends: 

Passover is almost upon us, and there’s too much to do: shopping, cooking, arranging, traveling. . .if we’re thinking about the meaning of the holiday at all, we’re probably thinking about the basic outline of the story: Moshe confronted Pharaoh, there were plagues, we got out, let’s eat! 

Yet the traditional Haggadah is a remarkably subtle document, full of interesting characters and narrative turns. One of my favorites comes right at the beginning, when we meet an ancient Jewish leader named Elazar ben Azariah: 

Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah said: “I am like a man of seventy years old, yet I did not succeed in proving that the exodus from Egypt must be mentioned at night-until Ben Zoma explained it: “It is said, `That you may remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life;’ now `the days of your life’ refers to the days, [and the additional word] `all’ indicates the inclusion of the nights!”

This little story is actually a quote from the Mishnah, or early Talmud, which occurs in the context of a discussion about saying the Shma at night.  So why include this in the Passover seder

First, the obvious teaching: that we are obligated to recall the Exodus at night year-round, and so especially so at the seder, when it is the centerpiece of our holiday. Not only that, but recalling the Exodus is so central to who we are as a people that even in the days of the Messiah, we’ll still remember the Exodus. Being grateful and not taking our freedom for granted isn’t something we do just one night a year, but is a constant spiritual discipline, central to what Judaism means in our lives. 

Yet I think the story above teaches us one more thing, which is that even if you are like Elazar ben Azaryah, the head of the Sanhedrin (high council), wise and learned and entrusted with great responsibility- you can, and must, always be open to new learning. Not only was Elazar open to learning from Ben Zoma, but he freely admitted it, and sets the example for us at our own sedarim: we can learn something new every year, from anybody who may be able to teach us a new insight, and this openness is a proud virtue. 

So have a seder tonight with wonderful discussions, new teachings, interesting commentaries, digressions and interpretations . . . . and rejoice that we are all teachers and students of Torah. 

Many blessings for a warm and healthy holiday, 

Rabbi Neal 

P.S.- for a little more about R. Elazar, go here and here

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