Archive for Pesach

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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Shabbat Hagadol: Beautiful and Humbling

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion Tzav / Shabbat Hagadol

In the portion Tzav, Aharon and his sons are given instructions for their duties as priest. prior to their dedication as priests, they have a seven day period of separation and preparation. Shabbat Hagadol, the “Great Shabbat,” is the Shabbat just before Pesach; a special haftararah has the theme of future redemption.


It’s a few days before Pesach, and that means this Shabbat is Shabbat Hagadol, perhaps (or perhaps not) named for a phrase which occurs in the final line of the haftarah we read right before Pesach:

“Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before
the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the Lord!”  (Malachi 3:23)

The JPS translation above renders hagadol v’h’norah as “awesome” and “fearful” but other translations are plausible, since gadol can mean big or great and norah could mean amazing, humbling, or inspiring reverential awe.

Elijah the prophet is associated with the coming of messianic times, in the sense of a great healing of the world from evil and war; we put out a special cup for Elijah at the Seder in order to make clear that our reenactment of the past is really about hope for the future. That is, just as there was an “awesome and fearful” day in Egypt, when our ancestors left the House of Bondage, there will be an even greater day in the future, when the entire world will be free of chains and oppression.

Sounds great, but do remember, the day that is “great” is also “fearful.” In other words- don’t forget that change is hard! Even leaving Egypt wasn’t easy- getting used to a new life brought conflict, disorientation and negativity among the Israelites. Even the House of Bondage can be a “comfort zone” if that’s all you’ve ever known; leaving it will require changing oneself from the inside out, which is a tremendous challenge.

There’s a certain strain of religious thinking in America that minimizes the potential pain of spiritual growth – think of New Age books which promise only serenity, or the “prosperity gospel” which promises riches to the faithful. Life isn’t like that, and as the Seder itself teaches, there is often bitterness mixed with the joy, because – it bears repeating- change is hard. Matzah represents our liberation, but we eat it with maror, bitter herbs, because we must not pretend that redemption comes without cost. Think about it: leaving Egypt meant changing everything the Israelites ever knew, about themselves and others and even God.

Is our journey less challenging? We proceed, aware that the work of redemption is both great and awesome, beautiful and humbling, necessary and fearful. That’s what it means to have faith.

With best wishes for a warm and joyous Pesach,

Shabbat Shalom,


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Vayikra: Raise Up What You Already Have

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion: Vayikra

Vayikra, or Leviticus, is the third book of the Torah, and is largely but not exclusively concerned with the laws of the ancient priesthood. This week’s portion teaches about various korbanot, or offerings, including offerings brought for sin and atonement.

Dear Friends: Sorry for my inability to make it to your in-box last week, but I’m glad to be back with a short thought connecting this week’s Torah portion with the upcoming Pesach holiday, and then, in the email which follows, you’ll find an annotated guide to great internet Pesach resources.

Let’s start with the opening verses of our Torah portion:

“The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying: Speak to the Israelite people, and say to them:

When any of you presents an offering of cattle to the Lord, he shall choose his offering from the herd or from the flock. . . .’ ” (Vayikra 1:1-2)

Our friend Rashi explains this verse in great detail, and notes that that the verse seems a bit redundant- if a person is presenting an offering of “cattle” [behemah], then why tell us he should choose it from the herd or flock? Isn’t it enough to simply say, presents an animal? No, explains our French friend, because behemah is a general term for animals and you might then think that a wild animal is also acceptable for an offering. Thus the Torah limits the category by saying, “herd or flock” so you know it means the animals that are close at hand, with no special or exotic requirements.

In other words, Rashi wants to stress that the ancient offerings were not an esoteric or exotic system but rather a matter of taking what was close at hand and raising it up. This, in turn, is very much my own conception of normative Judaism: while we certainly have some unique spiritual practices, like tallit and tefillin, for the most part Judaism challenges us to take what we have at hand- our eating, speaking, spending, working, dressing, giving- and raise it up to the level of mitzvah, or sacred act. Judaism has lots of practices, but in the end, it comes down to a pretty simple (but not easy) idea: love God and love others in all that you do.

This, in turn, brings us to Pesach, which has its rules and customs and laws and texts and practices, but is, in the end, a simple (but not easy) idea: that which we call God enables our liberation from servitude, and therefore we are conscious, grateful, and responsible for our freedom. The seder expresses this idea using the materials at hand: words, music, food, text, sounds, smells- it’s all commentary on the basic idea of liberation and joy.

Matzah may seem exotic, but it’s the simplest thing: flour and water, baked quickly. It is both the symbol and the actual experience of liberation because it represents simplicity- it IS simplicity. That is, if you can experience tremendous gratitude and joy at a meal of matzah (maybe even matzah with bitter herbs), then your joy depends on no external factor and you are liberated to choose your path of service.

Returning to our Torah portion, Moshe tells the people: “serve God- but don’t make this too complicated- just offer up what you already have.” That’s a message I think we need to take to heart the week before Pesach, when the core ideas of the day can get overtaken by commercialization, logistics, cooking, shopping, family dynamics, competitiveness, and preparations. If Pesach is about joy and liberation, it also means that we can resist becoming enslaved by religious, emotional and spiritual anxiety brought on by the holiday itself! Pesach is really so simple: put away the chametz, tell the story, eat the matzah and maror (which is just another way of telling the story), sing our joyful praises- the rest is all commentary (go and study.)

To be clear: I love the holiday in all its potential complexity. The email that follows this one is all about preparing the home, heart and brain for the Yom Tov- I just want us to do it in simplicity and joy, without fear, resisting commercialization, authentic to the story of the Jewish people and our own individual stories as Jews.

That, to me, is always a great and wonderful miracle!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Neal

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Pesach: On Holy Ground

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pesach

Now, onto the business at hand- which is quite a bit, actually, since
with Pesach falling on Thursday and Friday, we have the unusual
situation of three “haftarah days” in a row- the first and second days
of Pesach, then Shabbat, also with a special reading for Pesach.
You’ll find all the relevant texts at the link below, but for today,
we’ll just look briefly at the haftarah for the first day of Passover.

This haftarah picks up where the Torah itself ends: at the beginning
of the book of Joshua (well, chapter 3, to be precise), with the
Israelites crossing the Jordan River and beginning their journey into
the Land of Israel. The text makes clear that Yehoshua [Joshua] is
truly the heir of Moshe [Moses]:

1) Just as Moshe was told to purify the people at Sinai, Yehoshua is
told to purify the people before they cross the river, which is
stopped up so they can walk across as if it were dry land. (This part
of the story is not part of our haftarah.)

2) Just as Moshe and the people make a Pesach offering and eating
matzah, so too Yehoshua and the people make a Pesach offering and
eating matzah.

3) Just as Moshe has an unexpected encounter with the Divine at the
burning bush, so too Yehoshua is surprised by an angel:

“Once, when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man
standing before him, drawn sword in hand. Joshua went up to him and
asked him, “Are you one of us or of our enemies?” He replied, ‘No, I
am captain of the Lord’s host. Now I have come!’ Joshua threw himself
face down on the ground and, prostrating himself, said to him, ‘What
does my lord command his servant?’ The captain of the Lord’s host
answered Joshua, ‘Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place
where you stand is holy.’ ” And Joshua did so. (Yehoshua/Joshua
5:13:-15, JPS translation)

The parallel with the burning bush is obvious: Yehoshua is told to
remove his shoes in recognition of the holiness of the place, and he
does so. (Cf. Exodus 3)

So our next question is: if the Bible goes out of its way to portray
Yehoshua as symbolically living out the key events in Moshe’s life,
why choose this text as the haftarah for people (that’d be us) who are
not leading the people out of slavery or into the Land?

To me, the story above, of Yehoshua and the angel, is so fitting for
Pesach precisely because it’s about encountering the Sacred when you
least expect it. Remember, when Moshe encountered the burning bush, he
was a fugitive, working as a shepherd, on the side of some unimportant
hill that could have been anywhere. Yehoshua, too, when he encounters
the angel, is just “near Jericho”- not expecting any great theophany,
not having any great dramatic moment (yet.)

This is the deeper meaning of the Pesach story: that we recall our
history precisely because it can be a symbolic template for our own
lives. We may not be leaders of armies or makers of great miracles,
but all of us are commissioned for a spiritual task, the unique work
of our lives. We may not be confronting Pharaoh, but all of us have
the capacity to be liberators, of ourselves and others who may be
stuck in a dark and dismal place. We may not be leading our people
across seas and rivers, but all of us have the opportunity to lead
others from darkness to light, from constriction to freedom, through
the power of our compassion and generosity.

Both Moshe and Yehoshua took off their shoes on holy ground not
because the ground was holy in itself, but because their experience
and renewed spiritual consciousness made that moment holy. That’s
what’s important: any ground can be sacred if we experience rededication and
uplifted vision there. Pesach is all about movement, growth, change and hope;
these things can start right now, wherever you are, because the place you are
standing is holy ground.

A happy and healthy Pesach to one and all,


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Pesach: Counting and Seeing

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pesach

This weekend we don’t read a regular weekly Torah portion, because
Shabbat is the seventh day of Pesach, which is Yom Tov (a Biblical
holiday) and Sunday is the eighth day, the extra day observed by
traditional communities in the Diaspora. On Sunday, the reading
includes D’varim/ Deuteronomy 16, which reviews the “Shalosh Regalim”
[three pilgrimage festivals]: Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot in the fall.
Between Pesach and Shavuot [the holiday of “weeks” at the beginning of
the summer], we learn about counting the omer:

“You shall count off seven weeks; start to count the seven weeks when
the sickle is first put to the standing grain. ” (D’varim/ Deuteronomy

The mitzvah of counting the omer is also found in Vayikra/ Leviticus
23, with a bit more detail given. The basic idea is the connection
between the beginning of the season for growing grain and the earliest
harvest in the Land of Israel. Pesach is a holiday that marks the
first growing things of spring and Shavuot is the holiday of the
“first fruits” of summer. The omer itself was a sheaf of new grain
brought to the ancient Temple on the second day of Passover; the
commandment to count until Shavuot links the two holidays as part of a
cycle of thanks for the blessings of the land.

In practical terms, you will note that the verse above talks about
counting “weeks,” while the verse in Vayikra speaks of counting both
days and weeks. Thus, when we count the omer, after the first week, we
mention both the number of days and the number of weeks. Each night we
count the new day (the new day beginning at sundown) by saying the
bracha [blessing] and the appropriate number of days and weeks. If we
forgot at night, we do count the next day without a blessing, and if
we forgot a whole day or more, we pick up again without any blessing
at all- this has to do with thinking of the complete counting period
as a mitzvah.

Early in post-Biblical Jewish history, the omer became a sad period,
with customs associated more with mourning than springtime, but
personally, I prefer to see the omer as orienting us towards two
important truths:

1) The natural world around us is in a constant state of change,
growth and renewal. Paying attention to each day of springtime attunes
us to the daily miracles of creation and the cycles of birth, growth,
harvest and renewal in nature.

2) Pesach is called “zman herutenu,” or “the time of our freedom,”
while Shavuot, 7 weeks later, is the holiday of “matan Torah,” or
giving of the Torah. To me, the omer reminds that our freedom must
have a purpose in order to be meaningful. We were not taken out of
Egypt only to be free from oppression, but to serve God by enacting
compassion and justice in the world. Counting our days from Exodus to
Sinai reminds us to use our freedom, every day, not for trivial
things, but for creating the society intended by the highest ideals of

One can also find in books and on the internet detailed calendars for
doing particular exercises of introspection and contemplation each day
of the omer, but we’ll leave those for another day.

The mitzvah of counting the omer seems rather archaic in a 24/7 world
of linked internet calendars and constant electronic communication,
but perhaps that’s the point. We are all creatures of the Earth,
living with nature, linked to its cycles, which move on a different
schedule than email and text messages. Counting the omer makes us
aware of time in a deeper way, orients us towards the small beauties
of life, asks us to let the season unfold over days and weeks and
months until we are ready for the fullness of summer.

Counting the omer demands that we take just a few moments a day to ask
ourselves: for what have I used these precious days and weeks? What I
have learned, what have I seen, what have I taken in and what have I
given back?

Seen this way, the mitzvah of counting the omer is not only about
what’s growing in the barley fields, but what’s growing in the human

A happy conclusion of Pesach to all,


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Pesach: Dry Bones Reconnected

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pesach

We’re in the middle of the Pesach [Passover] holiday, and you know what that
means (all matzah jokes will be disregarded at this point) – that’s
right, it’s time for the “dry bones” to get reconnected in the vision
of the prophet Yechezkel, or Ezekiel, as we know him in these parts.
I’m referring to the haftarah, or prophetic reading, that the ancient
rabbis chose for the Shabbat which falls during Pesach, which comes
from the teachings of the aforementioned prophet, Yechezkel, who
preached to the Jewish community in exile in Babylonia sometime after
597 B.C.E. In this passage, from chapter 37, Yechezkel is taken,
perhaps in a vision, to a “valley of dry bones,” where God asks him if
the bones can live again.

It’s a rhetorical question, given Who is asking it! God tells
Yechezkel to make a prophesy that the bones will live again, and lo
and behold, the bones get reattached to each other and are resurrected
to life while the prophet looks on in amazement. Again, it’s not clear
whether we are supposed to understand this as a vision or dream, or
whether the Bible wants us to believe this literally, but in either
event, the text tells us what the event is supposed to mean. In verse
11, God tells Yechezkel that the revived bones represent the “House of
Israel,” which will be released from its grave to live again- that is,
released from exile and brought back into the land of Israel to live
again as a nation.

OK, so far, so good, and it’s not that hard to connect a prophesy of
national salvation with Pesach, since we tell the story of the Exodus
from Egypt in order to strengthen our faith in future miracles of
liberation and freedom. Yet the Bible is full of passages and
prophesies which speak of hope for the messianic age, so there had to
be some reason why this particular text, with its fantastic images of
skeletons coming to life, was chosen as part of the overall set of
Pesach texts and teachings.

One answer from classic rabbinic theology is the idea of “techiat
hametim,” or “revival of the dead,” which has been understood to be
part of the hoped-for messianic age. In our day, many interpret this
idea metaphorically: that no matter how “deadened” one’s senses or
spirit is, and thereby alienated from from God, nature, or the human
community, one can always “come alive” through prayer, study, and acts
of loving-kindness. This widens the metaphor of the “dry bones” from
the life of the nation to the life of a person. This, in turn, fits
well with a similar widening in the meaning of the Pesach symbols,
from a story of national enslavement to a more personal narrative of
being freed from whatever is our individual bondage or “narrow place.”

So coming back to the valley of dry bones, perhaps we
can understand this image as complementing the story
of the Exodus from Egypt and reinforcing our faith
that when one seeks a “revived” life, no spiritual “hibernation” (it’s
springtime, after all) is too great to overcome. Even when our low
places may be as low as a valley of dry bones in their
graves, the Divine Presence can bring true life,
through a life of connection and service.

You might notice that the image of the bones coming to
life is itself a visual metaphor of connecting, which
is itself part of the path to spiritual healing. In other
words, both the Exodus and Yechezkel’s vision teach us
different aspects of the same truth – that renewal,
healing, and restoration to the fullness of
life are miracles which are present and possible for each of us, not
only at this time of year, but anytime we reconnect with hope and
love, practiced with community and in the Divine Presence.

Shabbat Shalom, and Hag Sameach [Happy holiday],


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Pesach: Wine of Joy, Wine of Conscience

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tzav and Pesach

This week is Parshat Tzav, which is largely concerned with the
dedication of the priests to serve in the Mishkan (portable Sanctuary)
and also Shabbat Hagadol, so named for a special haftarah (prophetic
reading) which ends with the promise that God will send Elijah the
prophet to announce a “great and terrible day” in which evil is
requited and Israel is restored. The connection to Pesach is the image
of Elijah announcing the coming of the messianic age; Elijah also
shows up at the Pesach Seder, connected with the hope that God will
bring a future redemption even greater than the Exodus from Egypt.

That’s the Torah reading for this week. Next week is Pesach itself,
and Monday night being the first Seder, the Executive Steering
Committee of rabbineal-list made the decision to offer a Pesach
thought now, so that those who wish to bring it to their Seders would
have time to do so. It also happens that the paragraphs written below
were prepared for the spring e-bulletin of the Coalition on the
Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL – linked below.)


“Wine of Joy, Wine of Conscience”

One of the most well-known customs of the Pesach Seder is to spill or
pour out a drop of wine during the recitation of each of the ten
“plagues” ( the blood, frogs, boils, lice, etc. . . ) There are
various ways this is accomplished: with a spoon, tipping the cup, or
using one’s finger, but the basic point, explained in most printed
Haggadot [Seder booklets], is that our feelings of sweetness and
gratitude (represented by a full cup of wine) are diminished by the
sufferings of others.

Given that the “others” in this case are the very people who enslaved
and oppressed our ancestors, the act of spilling wine is rather
remarkable- it’s not so easy to truly feel that one’s joy is
diminished because of the sufferings of one’s enemy. In fact, the
natural human reaction is the opposite, to rejoice in the sufferings
of one’s enemy; this ritual calls us to confront the moral
implications of believing that all people are “b’tzelem Elohim,” or
made in the Image of God.

Many modern Haddagot provide commentary or alternative readings for
the traditional plagues, often reframing the Biblical story in terms
of modern problems, such as pollution, deforestation, war, famine, and
other social and environmental causes of suffering. The desire to
connect the moral worldview of the traditional Seder ritual with
conditions in the modern world is exactly the goal, but to me, naming
“modern plagues” which diminish our cup of joy sometimes misses a
crucial point, which is that the traditional “ten plagues” caused
suffering to others in order to bring liberation to the Israelites. In
other words, in naming the plagues, we remind ourselves that something
which was good for us had a cost to somebody else. It might have been
a cost demanded by justice, but the suffering of the Egyptians, as
portrayed in the Biblical account, was real and worthy of remembrance.

With that in mind, I’d propose that any naming of “modern plagues” be
oriented towards reminding Seder participants that one person’s
freedom may be another person’s suffering. For example, North
Americans enjoy the opportunity to purchase fruits and vegetables,
flowers, and meats produced abroad, often under brutal labor and
environmental conditions; our luxury is somebody else’s suffering. Our
freedom to drive as much as we like “drives” a world market in oil
with obvious connections to huge political, military, and
environmental problems. Even the clothes on my back may have been
produced in a sweatshop eerily similar to conditions of slavery – and
of course, the meat on many Pesach tables came from animals raised and
slaughtered under conditions which should cause anyone to stop and
think about the cost of their comfort.

Seen this way, the Seder ritual of spilling the wine is a profound
moment of introspection and conscience, confronting each of us with
the reality that in a rapidly globalizing world, one person can never
be disconnected from the systems which literally enslave others and
distress our planet. The good news is that it’s in the celebration of
our freedom that we find the courage to change our ways and work for
social and environmental justice- such freedom is truly something to

Hag Sameach,

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