Posted on March 28th, 2012 No comments
As we look towards Pessach and the S’darim, Rabbi Larry Bach asks us to think about the meaning of freedom.
At Kiddush time at our Seders, we will proclaim the days of Passover z’man cheruteinu, the “season of our freedom.” And the question is, who belongs to that collective “our?” Who is becoming free?
At the most obvious level, the entity doing the talking, and proclaiming its freedom, is the Jewish people. Pesach celebrates our liberation from Egyptian bondage. We — the Children of Israel — were redeemed at this season, all those years ago. Pesach, at this level, is a powerful exercise in communal memory. We celebrate it each year, so that we’ll never forget that we were freed.
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson saw the text a little bit differently. He sought to expand the reach of the “our” in that passage a bit. For him, “our” implies that there are two entities involved, and they turn out to be us and God. Passover is the season of “our” freedom, ours and God’s. We celebrate our freedom from Egyptian bondage, to be sure; but we also celebrate the freeing of the divine within us. Pesach is our celebration of freedom from enslavement to habit, anger, and small-mindedness, all of which are the very opposite of liberation. In his words: “Freedom is two-fold. There is a physical liberation of the Jewish People, and a spiritual liberation of the Divine Presence, which is to say, the divine within each and every one of us.”
Another “member of the club” may be at work as we celebrate “our” freedom: everyone else. For many of us, it’s not enough to talk about “our” freedom and limit the conversation to Jewish concerns. We are part of something larger, that encompasses all people, indeed all beings. To speak about “our freedom” and exclude other people seems to run counter to the spirit of the season and the story. Our children’s prayerbook says it well in the reading that introduces Mi Chamocha, the Song of the Sea: “When we sing it we say, ‘Let everyone be free.’”
Ultimately, I believe, all of the freedoms contained within that little possessive pronoun — the safety and security of the Jewish people, the releasing of the divine spirit within us all, and the universal redemption for which we work and hope — are connected. It is only from a place of physical security that I can develop the habits that connect me to God within me, and everyone else around me.
It is my hope that each of us will be challenged by the words of the haggadah and the symbols of the seder to expand our sense of belonging this year. May the Seder work its ancient magic, bringing us — all of us — from slavery to freedom, from darkness to great light.
Posted on March 21st, 2012 3 comments
Rabbi Joel Soffin‘s experience on the streets of New York, recalls the classic Hassidic tales. It is a modern classic.
It was the day of the first seder 2011. I was off on an errand to purchase an afikoman-finder gift. There would be no children with us that night, so we would reverse the numbers in our ages (51=15; 60=6) to identify the three “youngest” who would do the searching. That would require an adult gift for the finder. And so I was on the way to buy the synagogue cookbook as the gift. The synagogue office was some fifteen Manhattan blocks away, and I was speed-walking my way there, hoping to arrive before it closed for the holiday.
On the street, I passed a homeless man with his hand reaching out to me as he asked for money. I knew that the Rema (R. Moshe Isserles, note on Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah, 249:3-5) had taught that it is forbidden to turn away a poor man empty-handed without giving him something, even if it were but a fig. I promised myself that I would give him some money on the way back. I made the same promise as I raced past a second poor man – “on the way back.”
Then I came to a third man, sitting there on the curb. He was the first beggar I’d ever seen in the city wearing a kippah. I slowed my pace as he asked me softly, “Do you have $26?” I smiled to myself and pushed onward. $26?!
I reached the synagogue office just in time. Then with afikoman gift in hand, I was ready to help the three men. I kept thinking about the $26. No one had asked me for so much money before. Such chutzpah! $26?! $26?! And then it came to me. The gematria for Y-H-V-H is 26. In the guise of a poor man, it might have been Elijah reaching out to me.
I retraced my steps, giving money to the first two beggars. But I couldn’t find the man with the kippah. I walked around the area for nearly an hour up and down every side street, before giving up and returning home to finish the preparations for the seder.
Later, I would tell of my experience and donate $26 to tzedakah. I’ll be doing that this Passover, too, but only after I retrace my steps once again to try to find the beggar in the kippah and to invite him to join us.
Posted on April 12th, 2011 No comments
This year, the story of liberation from Egypt is being told on the back drop of a contemporary story of liberation in that same country. In 2006, Rabbi Ruth Sohn who is the Director of the Leona Aronoff Rabbinic Mentoring Programas well as the Rabbi of the Lainer Beit Midrash at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, spent 6 months living in Egypt with her husband Reuven Firestone. Sohn is currently working on a book about that experience and took some time to share some thoughts on how the ancient story and the modern reality come together. -Ruth Abusch-Magder
The bitter and the sweet
Everyone loves charoset and I have always been intrigued by the tradition of dipping the maror in charoset before we offer the blessing and ingest the bitterness of slavery. Only in the presence of something sweet can we fully take in the bitterness of the maror. Only when hope glimmers can we allow ourselves to feel the full force of the bitterness of our suffering.
While we now know that some of the young Egyptian activists had been preparing for months and even years for a moment such as this, when the time would be ripe for mass protests against the regime, what made this moment the time? More than the sad, desperate self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit-vender in Tunisia, it was the success of Tunisian protestors in overthrowing their ruler of 23 years sparked hopes in Egypt. Suddenly, people could taste the sweet hope, that the freedoms that had for so long seemed unattainable, might now be within grasp. And suddenly, thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets in Cairo and other cities and towns in Egypt, ready to risk beatings and arrest and worse, to stand up and say No More.
Freedom from… Freedom for…?
In calling for the end of the regime of their modern day Pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptians were able to come together in inspiring and moving ways, across lines of religion, gender, class, and education. Their ability to stand together against forces that sought to divide them, even in the face of violent attack, and their success in ousting Mubarak stands as an enormous achievement. And yet, there is no time to lose celebrating. Freedom from the oppressive regime has not yet been fully accomplished. The military, first celebrated by the Egyptians as supportive of the revolution, is now increasingly coming under attack as Egypt’s reviled Emergency Law is still in place, allowing for the continuing arrests and imprisonments, sexual harassment, and torture.
And even as the Egyptians continue to push for freedom from the oppressions of the past, the next question is already upon them, and will shape the formation of political parties going forward. What should this freedom be for? What kind of society do they want to build? What is the vision of a modern Egypt that calls them forward? For many, the idea that Islam should play some kind of role in their society is appealing. But what kind of Islam? And what kind of influence? And at the same time, for many, the experience of protest in Tahrir Square holds an important piece of the vision: a celebration of the diversity of the Egyptian people, and the dignity of every human being. But the vision needs to be given fuller shape and expression, which will include but not be limited to the establishment of new laws. Moving toward Freedom For involves even harder work and is a lot messier than fighting for Freedom From. The Egyptians and the rest of the world need to be prepared for a sometimes slow and circuitous journey.
Freedom from… freedom for…? The experience of the Egyptians points us back to one of the great challenges of our own Exodus. We relive and celebrate our own humble beginnings as slaves with a transformative journey from slavery to freedom, but we are reminded that this freedom is only the first step of a long journey through the wilderness, toward a fuller freedom that still needed to be defined. From our first steps into freedom from slavery, we had to begin to chart that journey, a journey that took us to Sinai and beyond, that included far-reaching laws and teachings, toward a fuller redemption for us and the world. If our journey had not included Sinai, (or Shabbat, or Israel, or a few other things listed in Dayenu?) would we still be around to tell the tale of the Exodus?
So the journey continues, and in every generation, every year, we ask ourselves at Pesach, how, this year, are we enslaved? What is the liberation that calls to us most deeply? What do we need freedom from? What do we need freedom for? And what is the path to this liberation? What is our maror, and our charoset? What is the bitterness for us, and what offers the sweetness of hope that can wake us up to the full bitterness of our current oppression, and galvanize us forward to seek liberation? We are invited to look inward and outward in asking these questions, to consider the broadest political landscape as well as the deepest inner spiritual terrain, and to realize that we do not need to choose between them, but rather can seek new connections between the two realms we too often see as separate.
Our seder tables may hold the best possibility for exploring these questions together, so we can all experience again the promise of the holiday, and perhaps, be able to take a few real steps forward on our journeys.
Chag Pesach sameach.
Posted on April 8th, 2011 No comments
by Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder PhD.
I often think that Passover is the Jewish equivalent of Christmas. Both are holidays for which there is significant preparation, anticipation and expectations. Both are holidays when we make a special effort to reach out to family and gather together in celebration. Both have rituals and customs but also meanings that go beyond what is openly stated and done. And both holidays share much in the way of culinary and entertaining/ritual advice to be found on how to do the holidays ‘right.’ But one place where Christmas has the advantage is in the acknowledgement of how the reality of these expectations and family gatherings –or in many cases lack there of- mixed together with the pressure of doing it ‘right’can create its own stress and disappointment.
In addition to helping Jews understand the importance of Passover, it is incumbent upon Jewish professionals to help provide tools and frameworks for coping with our anxieties and the very real complexities of the holiday. Recently, I spoke with Sarah Spencer a Marriage and Family Therapist in San Francisco and a director of Camp Be’chol Lashon who pointed out that many of the rituals and forms of the Seder provide a fantastic structure for dealing with difficulties. Discussing her understanding of the Seder as a model of how to create diverse community, I have a new appreciation for how the Seder might provide a some clues to diffusing the tensions it creates.
1. Our stories are the starting point, they resonate with other and echo through the generations. The whole reason to have a Seder is to tell our story so that we can embrace freedom and revelation. Long before Sigmund Freud made it popular, Judaism recognized that in order to be free we need to In order to be free we need to tell our story. We must speak of that which is difficult in order to move forward. But we need not see this speaking, nor even the existence of difficulties as out of the ordinary. Indeed according to our traditions, each of us is obligated to recall our places of slavery and darkness. The presumption is that we all have those places and difficulties and that we all have the potential to move beyond them. Keeping this in mind, we can embrace the Seder not for the perfection it represents but as the opportunity to move forward which all of us need.
2. We are opening our homes to strangers. The assumption that we know those who are sitting around the table, is often just that. When real strangers join us at the table, we understand that there will need to be listening and patience to help bridge the lack of familiarity and we work towards doing that. If however, those at the table are family, we may not extend the say level of courtesy and patience. Given that there are many families that come together only a few times a year, and even those who know each other well may make assumptions about who the others at the table are, we would do well to approach those invited to Seder as though they were strangers and treat them with thoughtful courtesy as opposed to presuming we already know and understand them.
3. Ask questions. Many of them. How are we to know the strangers with whom we travel? How are we to understand the stories others tell? As Spenser reminds us, asking questions is the essential ingredient for speaking across differences. An expert in diversity and community building, she reminds us that asking questions about differences is the only way to really understand and engage with others. The asking can start before the Seder. Talk with guests and ask how they want to make this night different from other nights. Using the four questions as a guide, encourage the framing of question of curiosity not of accusation. Remind yourself and your guests that questions can lead to hurt or openness; the difference lies in how we ask and how open we are to answers.
4. There are 4 children. We know this so well that sometimes we forget that at every table, and within each of us, there are indeed 4 different children. If we are hoping just to have wise sons and daughters gathered then we have not really prepared and anticipated the difficulties that are inevitable. If we can step back and remember that the challenges, the indifference, the inability to pay attention is not personal, but universal then we can gain important perspective on the matter and formulate responses that are appropriate and able to be heard not just reactive and ignored.
There is no short cut around the stress of Passover. The tensions are built into the anticipation and the importance of the holiday. Yet if we are able to frame and understand the difficulties within the contexts set up for us by our tradition, then we will find that we hold many tools for approaching the hard places and setting ourselves free.