After the austerity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Simchat Torah provide color and noise and joy . . . and, as the name implies, there is no greater joy (simchah) than our joy in having the Torah.
Our joy in the Torah comes from the unique place this text holds in our tradition: it is through the Torah that we find our collective identity as a people; we learn our history, our values, insights into the human character and insights into God. The Torah constantly challenges us with spiritual and behavioral goals which can engage us for a lifetime. The Torah provides us with hope in our future as long as we have a community with which to study and live with and provides comfort to us through the Torah's many assurances of God's love for us and commitment to our covenant, our brit, with God.
One of the Torah's greatest gifts to us is itself: unlike many other ancient faiths, the knowledge of, engagement with our quintessential sacred text was never reserved for an elite few . . . just weeks ago, as we read the book of Deuteronomy at Shabbat services, we were witness to Moshe commanded that the Torah be read aloud as the entire people were gathered together: men, women and all those old enough to understand. Every single Jewish soul has a direct connection to our Source . . . to God and to sacred text God has put into our hands.
This is one of the reasons why Simchat Torah is so powerful: each of us holds a scroll in our arms . . . we dance and sing and rejoice in our identities as Jewish individuals in a thriving Jewish community . . . . and it is the Torah we embrace that makes us possible.
Our seder night is a brilliantly crafted experience: we are surrounded by evocative smells and flavors, melodies and pictures, all designed to draw us in to the journey from slavery to freedom. Horseradish brings to our eyes tears like those of our slave ancestors. We conclude with joyous verses of praise to God for reaching into the black hole of Egyptian bondage and pulling us to the safety of the far shore of the sea of reeds.
One sentence in the Haggadah expresses the soul of this night:
בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים
In each and every generation, each person is obligated to see him/herself as if he/she came out of Egypt.
We eat the "bread of affliction," we chop up apples and walnuts until they look (but thank God, don't taste) like mortar. We steel ourselves for the bite of the maror and swear that "Dayyeinu", if God had only done half of what God has done for us, we would have been more than grateful. We are trying to throw ourselves into the experience of leaving Egypt.
Our experience in the United States is generally pretty "Ashkenazic." Most of us descend of Jewish immigrants who came from eastern and central Europe. Other Jewish communities have their own evocative moments that help the seder participant to feel the leaving:
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In some Sephardic [Mediterranean Jewish] communities, the cloth-wrapped afikoman [the broken middle matzah that is hidden early in the seder] was tied to the shoulder of a child, who left the company and then reappeared
knocking at the door. In the ensuing scripted dialogue, he identified himself as an Israelite on his way to Jerusalem carrying matzah. On entering the room, he looked at the specially arranged table and asked "Why is this night different from all other nights?"
In North African Jewish communities and in India, it was customary to pass the k'arah
[seder plate] over the heads of everyone at the table in a circular motion. Encompassing all gathered in the historic experience. It was an acknowledgment that as the world turns, first we were slaves, then we became free. www.myjewishlearning.com
The most moving collection of seder customs I have ever experienced was in Jerusalem. One year, I was asked to lead the seder at a battered women's shelter in the neighborhood in which I lived and led a congregation. Women and children from Russia and Morroco and Israel and England and Ethiopia and the United States and France and Argentina all sat together at the same seder table. Only the common denominator of having suffered violence at the hands of husbands and boyfriends and fathers could have created such a miscellaneous and yet homogenous group of people. The women had prepared the seder meal in the shelter's communal kitchen. Each woman had volunteered for a dish: soup, desserts, main dishes, side dishes . . . a Morrocan woman had said that she wanted to make her grandmother's special "seder soup." Everyone was delighted, until an Ashkenazic housemate strolled by the pot, lifted the lid and stirred and asked: "aifo hak'naidlach?" (Where are the matzah balls?). The Morrocan soup-chef asked "What's a matzah ball?" and that started a whole rebellion! All the Ashkenazic women ganged up protested: How can there be a seder without matzah balls? They came to a perfect solution: one of the Ashkenazic women taught the Morrocan woman how to make knaidlach and when we got to the soup course, our Morrocan soup-maker proudly ladled us each a bowful of her grandmother's seder soup with an Ashkenazic matzah ball floating in the middle!
Passover is absolutely about the journey: for these women and children, on their own journey from oppression to a new life of self-determination, that seder night was particularly evocative. We all saw ourselves as if we each had left from Egypt . . . and found some very moving milestones along the way.
"The Song at the Sea"
The Shabbat immediately preceding Passover is referred to, in the Jewish calendar, as Shabbat HaGadol / the Great Shabbat.
With so much time and energy devoted to preparation for Passover, one might wonder why we need a Great Shabbat right now. What makes this Shabbat so great?
Historically, when the role of the community rabbi was conceived differently, Shabbat HaGadol was one of very few Sabbaths during which the rabbi would give a major D'var Torah, a major sermon. The subject for this particular Shabbat was meant to be the ins and outs of Passover observance, in order to ensure that there would be no chametz found anywhere within the defined boundaries of the community.
Today, a Great Shabbat might be one in which the rabbi does not give a major D'var Torah! Sermon or no, I suggest that there is still something Great about this Shabbat.
Many of us are engaged in preparing for Passover. We're finishing up the crackers and vacuuming behind the couch. Those of us who are hosting seders are polishing the silver and hunting out last year's hit recipes.
All of this physical preparation is very absorbing, and it's pretty easy to get fixated on the small details of cleaning, shopping, switching out dishes and cooking. The huge spiritual gift that is Passover can easily get lost among the kugels.
This is why Shabbat HaGadol is Gadol, this is the greatness of the Great Shabbat: the essence of Shabbat as a day of rest provides us with a well-deserved hiatus from the shopping and chopping. Shabbat HaGadol is a day to anticipate the spiritual high of the seder. Anyone who has planned a wedding or a bat mitzvah or a fiftieth wedding anniversary party knows that the profound simchah at the heart of the celebration can easily get lost as we focus on the logistics.
The simchah of Passover is much too important; Shabbat HaGadol helps us shift our focus back to the reason for all the preparations: the simchah we celebrate on Passover is the unique, momentous moment of "yitziat mitzrayim." God, "with an outstretched arm" reached across the borders of the ancient world to scoop us up out of slavery and set us down on the safe side of the Sea of Reeds. We looked back and, like the young couple in the painting above, we rejoiced. We sang, we danced, we thanked God for this profound act of love.
When we gather this week at the seder table, amid the shining kiddush cups and the steaming matzah balls, we will, God willing, revel in the love around the table shared with our family and friends . . . and we will, because God willed it, sing and rejoice and remember that the core of our identity as a people is rooted in God's love.
Bernie at Purim 2009
Mardis Gras. Halloween. Carnevale de Venezia. Masquerade.
It seems everyone loves a chance to dress in costumes.
Purim is such a fascinating and unique moment in the cycle of the Jewish year: It's our "let loose" moment . . . costumes, songs, raucous audience-participation during the reading of the Megillah (the Scroll of Esther), even some condoned adult tippling.
When we read the Purim story in the Scroll of Esther, however, some engaging, substantive themes emerge:
It is in this book of the Hebrew Bible that we encounter a new model of women's leadership. Vashti, King Ahashuerus's rebellious queen is banished from the throne for her non-compliance.
"Back in the day" active Megillah-listeners would hiss at the sound of Vashti's name. Today, women are more likely to cheer for the female sovereign who risked her crown to preserve her dignity.
Over the course of the Scroll, we witness Esther's transformation from a shy, self-deprecating beauty to a royal-court-savvy, assertive champion of our people, more successfully risking her crown for principle than her predecessor.
Jewish Identity in the Diaspora
Purim shares a significant distinction with the festival of Shavuot . . . neither festival takes place within the Land of Israel. What does it mean that we received the Torah (celebrated at Shavuot) and defended the security of our community (at Purim) outside the borders of the Land of Israel? This may be a question that we here in the United States may see differently than our peers living in Israel.
Too Much Bloodshed?
Whether hyperbole, fantasy or historical fact, the ninth chapter of the book of Esther relates the mechanism by which the Jews of Shushan and the Persian Empire survived. The King's order to slay the Jews (provoked by Haman) could not be revoked. There existed no mechanism for revoking a royal decree. So, the best King Ahashuerus could do was to order a second decree permitting the Jews to defend themselves. Which they did. Effectively. Enthusiastically. Throughout Shushan and its 127 provinces, over 75,000 enemies were killed by the Jews . . . who did not touch the spoils of war.
I had the opportunity to live in England for a year. A friend involved in the administration of Great Britain's equivalent of our Reform Movement explained that their tradition was to hold a board meeting the night of Purim in order to demonstrate to their non-Jewish neighbors and friends that this Jewish community would not gather to celebrate the deaths of their non-Jewish enemies.
Clearly the juvenile and family-friendly versions of the Megillah skip this chapter, but here, among adults, we are left to ponder: is the story of Purim meant to convey to our diaspora neighbors that God will protect us one way or another no matter where we live? Has the story of Purim generated hostility directed at diaspora Jewish communities over the centuries? Should we read Chapter 9 and take pride in the fact that our ancestors stood up for themselves instead of allowing themselves to be slaughtered? Do we cringe a little and wish the text of the book of Esther expressed some regret for the bloodshed?
The Priority of Community
The annual celebration of Esther and Mordechai's triumph over Haman is described in the final verses of the book of Esther. Purim is to be an occasion for feasting and merrymaking . . . for sending gifts of food to one another and sending donations to support the poor. The feasting and merrymaking are not unexpected expressions of joy, relief, celebration. I find the last two elements . . . Mishloach Manot, Sending Portions of Food to neighbors and friends and Matanot l'Evyonim, Sending Gifts to the Needy to add a quality of significance to our celebration. As we indulge in, perhaps, a little too much rich food and a little too much to drink, we are also equally expected to share our bounty with family and friends and make sure that the vulnerable among us also have cause and the means to celebrate.
Purim is most definitely fun . . . and we here at Torat Yisrael are hoping the snow won't get in the way of our celebration this year. And, between the snowflakes, we can also pause to consider some of Purim's "meatier" themes.
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Yes, I do. I love Torah.
If you know me at all, or if you peruse my writings over the years in this blog, you know I am not a Torah-thumping fundamentalist. But I do love Torah.
That makes Simhat Torah one of my favorite holidays.
So, why do I love Torah so much?
Here's my big 5 countdown:
5: Genesis/Breishit 9:16-17 -- "And the rainbow will be in the cloud, and I [God] will see it, to remember an eternal covenant between God and every living being of all flesh that is on the earth." And God said to Noah: "This is the sign of the covenant that I've established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth." Torah teaches us that every human being stands before God on equal footing . . . no human soul is holier than any other or is created any differently than any other. All living creatures are treasured as creations of God.
4: Genesis/Breishit 11:5-8 -- "And Adonay went down to see the city and the tower that the children of humankind had built. And Adonay said, "Here, they're one people, and they all have one language, and this is what they've begun to do. And now there will be no challenge to anything they initiate together. Come, let's go down and babble their language so they won't understand each other's language. And Adonay scattered them from there over the face of the earth. . . " God blesses our diversity, our different approaches to life and expects us to exercise our intellectual and spiritual and creative gifts. God does not intend for us to be homogenous and of one opinion or one outlook. (Which is a good thing considering the "two Jews three opinions" principle!)
3: Genesis/Breishit 15: 9-10, 12-14, 17-18 -- And God said to Avram, "Take a three-year-old heifer and a three-year-old she-goat and a three-year-old ram and a dove and a pigeon for Me. And he took all of these for God and split
them in the middle and set each half opposite its other half . . . And the sun was about to set, and a slumber came over Avram . . . and God said to Avram, "You shall know that your seed will be alien in a land that is not theirs, and they will serve them, and they will degrade them four hundred years. But I'll judge the nation they will serve, and after that they'll go out with much property. . . . and the sun was setting, and there was darkness, and here was an oven of smoke, and a flame of fire that went between the pieces. In that day, God made a covenant with Avram, saying, "I've given this land to your seed . . . . " This takes a little "unpacking." Scholars of ancient near eastern history tell us that when neighboring local landowners made a treaty, they would take an animal, cut it in half, spread the two halves apart, and then each landowner would walk between the parts of the severed animal. This was ancient near eastern choreography expressing: "May my fate be like that of this severed animal if I do not keep up my part of our treaty." With that insight, the flame of fire passing between the pieces becomes a breathtaking divine declaration and commitment to Avram: May My fate, God is saying, be like that of these animals, if I do not keep My part of this covenant with you and your descendants, Avram." God is with us for the duration.
2: Exodus/Sh'mot 4:25 -- And Zipporah took a flint and cut her son's foreskin.... This is part of one of the most abstruse and puzzling passages in the Torah, but the one clear element of the story is that Zipporah, Moses' wife, took the transmission of the covenant into her own hands by ritually circumcising their infant son. Women's spiritual insight and religious initiatives are just as much a part of our tradition as are the spiritual insights and religious initiatives of the men of our communities.
1: Exodus/Sh'mot 24:7 -- And Moses took the scroll of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people, and they said, "We will do everything that Adonay has spoken, and we will obey/listen." This is the moment we made the transition from a collection of individuals and extended families to a people, to a community. In an unprecedented (and yet-to-be-reproduced) moment of consensus, our entire people committed to the covenant offered to us by God at Sinai. נעשה / na'aseh: we will do it. נשמע / nishma: we will hear/internalize the terms of the brit/covenant. And here we are, three thousand years later, celebrating the eternity of our covenant with God. Wow.
Ok. I admit, there are way more than 5 reasons I love Torah . . . maybe I'll share another 5 with you next year in my pre-Simhat Torah blog . . . but there is so much to celebrate in our Torah, and I can't wait to celebrate it with you. The wisdom, the perspective, the compassion, the eternal values, the roots of community, our very identity . . . it's all in our Torah.
This week's parashah/Torah reading concludes with a review of the liturgical calendar as determined by God and conveyed to the Israelites through Moses. Shabbat and the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot are described. God declares: אלה הם מועדי / eileh heim mo'aday / there are My festivals.
Today, we mark the beginning of each of God's festivals with a blessing over wine. This blessing is called "kiddush" / קידוש which is based on the Hebrew root קדש which is the basis of every form of the word holy. As we raise the kiddush cup and recite the kiddush blessing for the festival, what are we saying?
In the course of this blessing, we praise God for sanctifying us through God's mitzvot (v'kidshanu b'mitzvotav / וקדשנו במצותיו). Holiness is added to our lives as we fulfill the mitzvot, the commandments that are part of our brit, our covenant with God. Holiness is great . . . but it's a little obscure. What does it mean to be holy, to seek to integrate holiness into our lives? A great subject for a future blog!
What are these festivals of God for? Why has God invited us to God's festivals? Our kiddush blessing goes on: Lovingly have You given us the gift of Festivals for joy and holy days for happiness... Here, embodied in the most ancient, enduring holidays of our tradition we are, in essence, invited to party with God! There are My festivals, says God . . . and I want you to come! We stand with wine in our hands and acknowledge that these holy days are given to us as days of joy and happiness to share with God.
Remembering the exodus from Egypt at Passover, reliving the revelation of the Torah at Sinai on Shavuot, revisiting the experience of wandering through the wilderness at Sukkot . . . the kiddush blessing shared by all these festivals reminds us that, as theologically significant as these moments are, these moments are meant to be joyous. Like anniversaries and birthdays, the festivals give us the opportunity to gather together in community and relive great moments with God: "remember when?" Remember how relieved and grateful we were when You released us from slavery behind? Remember how awed we were to stand together and commit to Your Torah at Sinai? Remember how You got us through forty years of wandering even when we complained? Those were the days! Those days are our heritage!
It's not a festival, a party, a celebration of great moments for God if we're not there to celebrate, too. Even God can't party alone. Our recitation of the festival kiddush is our acceptance of the invitation to rejoice with God. Amen!
Our next opportunity for celebrate a festival with God is Shavuot, beginning at sundown on Saturday, May 26th. If you'd like to practice singing the festival kiddush with it's special melody, click here
for a special online lesson on our TY website!
There is a great old joke about a guy who is determined to learn the meaning of life from the greatest spiritual authority in the world. He travels thousands of miles, spends a fortune, interviews spiritual leaders of every conceivable tradition and finds no satisfaction. All along the way, he keeps hearing about this one guru who lives in an inaccessible cave high in the Himalayas who is purported to truly know the meaning of life. Our guy is determined to get there. He travels to the Himalayas. He finds a guide who says he knows upon which mountain the guru resides . . . Three mountain treks later, they finally identify the right mountain. They are pinned down to the side of the mountain for two weeks because of blizzards and then finally, finally reach the mouth of the guru's cave.
Our searcher is informed that the guru only steps out of the cave to encounter spiritual searchers on alternating Thursdays . . . And this Tuesday of the "off" week. Finally the great day has arrived, the attendants announce that the guru is about to emerge from the cave and our spiritual seeker dusts off his clothing, slicks down his hair and prepares to learn the meaning of life. He hears a bit of a shuffling noise and a tiny little bald guy wrapped in saffron colored robes comes blinking out into the sunlight. He contemplates his visitor and asks: "My child, what do you seek?" our friend straightens up and responds: "I've searched the world over, explored every spiritual tradition, I am driven to learn what life is...". The guru sits cross-legged on the ground and goes into a trance. Three hours later he opens his eyes and declares: "Life......life is a fountain."
The spiritual seeker stares aghast at the guru and exclaims: "Life is a fountain??!!!?!!?"
The guru focusses on his visitor and asks: "You mean, it's not??!?!?!"
All of that is to say that I don't believe that life is meant to be a fountain, either. I believe that our tradition teaches us that life is a journey.
Our annual cycle of biblically-ordained festivals (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot) steep us in "journey":
This time next week we will be putting the finishing touches on our family sedars, Passover is upon us. This is, of course, the festival during which the journey begins. We begin the journey feeling the bitterness of slavery as we bring tears to our own eyes by eating the maror/bitter herb. We experience the urgency of the rush from Egypt as we eat the dry, unrisen matzah. We wonder at the miracles of the plagues and join in Psalms of praise to God as we contemplate our gift of self-determination as a people and set off for the uncharted journey through the wilderness.
In seven weeks, we will mark the encampment at Sinai and stand together once again to accept The Torah as God's greatest and most loving gift to us.
In the autumn, we will gather within the trembling walls of the sukkah to experience the vulnerability of our ancestors' journey through the wilderness and acknowledge the same vulnerability as we journey through our own lives.
It's all about the journey: from where do we draw our values and inspiration? To whom do we make and keep commitments? How can we find unconditional love and an eternal source of strength? We are meant to grow in soul as well as in cognitive knowledge and maturity as we make our way through life's journey.
May this Pesah to come next week serve as inspiration for us to keep our hearts and souls moving and growing in our life journeys.
This Shabbat is particularly joyful as we are celebrating Rosh Hodesh Nissan, the first day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. The beginning of every month on the Jewish calendar is observed as a special day, but this particular month holds special significance for us.
Indeed, the first Shabbat of the month of Nissan (whether it is also Rosh Hodesh or not) is celebrated as a special Shabbat . . . it is called "Shabbat HaHodesh" / The Shabbat of THE Month.
THE Month: the best of months, the paragon of months, our favorite month. What is so "THE" about Nissan?
A hint lies in the name itself: ניסן (Nissan) includes the word נס (neis).
Those of you who are dreidl aficionados, may recognize this powerful little word. Remember the letters on the dreidl?
נ = neis / miracle
ג = gadol / great
ה = hayah / was
ש = sham / there
"A great miracle happened there!"
So נס (neis) means "miracle!" And the word נס (neis) is the basis of the name of this month of Nissan.
There are a lot of miracles associated with Nissan . . . we learn in the Torah that this month is also referred to as חודש האביב / hodesh ha'aviv / the month of Spring.
My dear Rabbi, teacher and friend, Rabbi Neil Gillman, recollects a powerful moment he experienced when still a rabbinical student at The Jewish Theological Seminary of America in Manhattan. One spring, student Neil Gillman was walking in Riverside Park with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (one of modern Judaism's greatest theologians). Suddenly, Rabbi Heschel stopped short, pointed to a tree and declared: "There is God in that tree!"
Understandably, Mr. Gillman was a bit disconcerted and confused, until Rabbi Heschel continued: "look at the buds on that tree, there is God, generating new life right in front of us!"
Hodesh Ha'aviv / Nissan, the month of Spring, is full of miracles for us to savor if we just stop to notice them.
Our month of miracles, ניסן / Nissan, also contains Hag Haheirut / the Festival of Freedom. Passover, of course. There are so many miraculous events involved in our people's redemption of Egyptian slavery: Moses' very survival as an infant was miraculous. Our people's survival as a functioning ethnic community in the face of centuries of slavery was miraculous. The intervention of the Israelite God in the natural order of Egyptian life was miraculous. And, of course, the miracle of miracles: the actual Exodus . . . our redemption from slavery and the splitting of the Sea of Reeds. A miracle so vivid, so awe-inspiring, so breath-taking we revisit it every single day in our liturgy.
No wonder Nissan is referred to as THE month, a month packed with large and small miracles . . . what other month could possibly compete?!?
The Intermediate Shabbat of Passover / Shabbat Chol Hamo'ed Pesach
Torah Reading: Exodus 33:12 - 34:26 & Numbers 28:19 - 28:25
When we gather together for Shabbat and Pesach services tomorrow morning, we will devote a few moments to reading "Shir HaShirim" / The Song of Songs.
Each of the three Pilgrimage Festivals of the Jewish year (Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot) are established in the Jewish calendar in the Torah and are enhanced by the reading of a book from the third section of the Hebrew Bible, The Writings. On Passover we read The Song of Songs (Shir Hashirim), on Shavuot we read the book of Ruth and on Sukkot we read Ecclesiastes (Kohelet). Each of these additional readings relates to some element of the festival it enhances.
Shir Hashirim, the text assigned to Passover, highlights one of the names of this festival: Chag Ha'Aviv . . . the Spring Festival. Much of the imagery in Song of Songs conveys the sights, sounds and colors of spring in the Land of Israel. But there is an even more profound connection between the Song of Songs and Passover.
In the Babylonian Talmud, we have a front row seat as the sages of the late antique period debate the virtues of the book, Song of Songs. Their discussion centers on whether this enchanting text belongs in the official canon of the Hebrew Bible or not. Why is there any question about this? One reason is that the name of God does not appear at all. Another reason is that the book is largely a passionate love poem! Most of the sages were against including this book in the Hebrew Bible. Until Rabbi Akiva spoke up. Rabbi Akiva explained that this is the story of the passionate love between God and Israel and as such should have pride of place in the Hebrew Bible.
So here we are, in the middle of the Festival of Passover . . . the holiday in which we relive that iconic moment that demonstrates God's love for b'nai Yisrael, the children of Israel. The events of Passover, when God saves Israel from Egyptian slavery, has become the iconic moment of God's love for us. How fitting that our celebration of this moment should include the "love poem" of Song of Songs on the Shabbat of Passover.
Parashat Tzav Torah Reading: Leviticus 6:1-8:36
Think for a moment of an episode in your life that terrified you but from which you survived, overcame, emerged stronger. Do you revisit that moment in your mind? Has that moment become one of those iconic stories of your life that you tell to people who are beginning to get to know you?
In just a few short days, we will join Jews all over the world in re-enacting just such a moment in the life of our people. "Yitziyat mitzrayaim," the Exodus from Egypt, is such a powerful, iconic moment for us that our liturgy brings us back to that moment every single day in the morning recitation of "Shirat haYam," the Song at the Sea, sung by the Israelites at the far bank, the safe bank, of the Sea of Reeds. "Ozi v'zimrat yah," "My Strength is God to whom I sing."
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, a Masorti/Conservative rabbi in Great Britain, writes: All people seek the secret of their own continuity. This is the power of the seder night: it lights up the past as the full moon illumines the path in the forest. The light of where we come from shines into the uncertainty of who we are. For where we come from is always at the heart of who we are, and until we understand the greater journey of our family and people we cannot recognize the direction of our own life.
The Eternal Journey: Meditations on the Jewish Year
The first millennium rabbis who shaped our seder experience through their innovative Haggadah . . . which we read to this very day . . . understood very well the essential role of the Exodus story. They instruct us: "In every generation all of us are obligated to see ourselves as if we left Egypt." The seder night is meant to be more than a recounting of the story . . . it is meant to be a journey to freedom that we take together as a family, as friends, as a community and as a people every year.
It is the story of where we have been and where we are going.