Just as we began our celebration of Pesach/Passover about three weeks ago . . . the festival celebrating our redemption from Egyptian slavery . . . over 270 school girls in Nigeria were abducted from their boarding school. The terrorist leader who organized this mass kidnapping declared that the girls would be sold into slavery.
These girls need to be found and returned to their homes. Even if they were to be found this minute, it will be too late to spare them the agony of recovery from trauma, but at least they will be back in the embrace of the families who love them and who made the commitment to educate them (not a given in Nigeria).
When we gather in our synagogues around the world this Shabbat, we will be reading and discussing the parashah/Torah portion Behar. It is a Torah reading that poses profound challenges to us, especially this week, as we wait from day to day for news of the abducted Nigerian school girls. For this passage of Leviticus lays out the ground rules for the indentured servitude of Israelites and the slavery of non-Israelites. We have no choice but to acknowledge that the institution of slavery was a common and morally neutral economic reality in the ancient middle east.
However, the Israelite owner of a non-Israelite slave was permitted this relationship with very specific parameters which required care for the humanity and vulnerability of the slave. Thus, as Richard Elliott Friedman writes in his commentary on this week's parashah:
None of us watching the situation of the abducted Nigerian school girls believe that their humanity and dignity are being respected right now. We shudder to think of what is being done to them.
There is a principle of Jewish law that compels us to be as proactive as possible in bringing these girls back to safety, the mitzvah/commandment of פדיון שבויים / pidyon shvuyim / redeeming the captives. There is some controversy about the application of this imperative for it's roots are in the historic reality of the kidnapping of Jews for ransom over the years. Can we, therefore, consider it a mitzvah to redeem captive Nigerian school girls? Based on the writings of the great halachist [scholar of Jewish law] Rambam/Maimonides, I would say "yes":
We may wish that the US law enforcement experts could have arrived earlier, but at least they are there. What can we do, those of us who are not law enforcement experts on the ground?
There is so very much to be said about the religious significance of Passover: indeed, the event we mark during the festival, יציאת מצרים / y'tziyat mitzrayim / leaving Egypt, is such a core concept that we recall this moment of redemption at services every single day.
We pray that God will reach out and replicate that ultimate moment of redemption which saved us from Egyptian slavery and made possible the moment at Sinai during which we entered into the still in force covenant/brit that informs our daily relationship with God and with each other.
The seder experience reaches so deeply into the Jewish soul that everyone, secular, religious, affiliated and not affiliated, all seem to find themselves at the seder table. It is telling that the secular kibbutz movement has its own Haggadah, it's own source book for the seder night that reflects the significance of the journey from Egypt to the wilderness, from slavery to freedom, from the ideologically driven approach that there are Jews and there is no God. Search "haggadah" on Amazon and you'll find a bewildering variety of offerings: contemporary and traditional, feminist and interfaith and for kids and for scholars. Everyone has an investment in making the seder their own.
Jews who are far from their families, or who have lost their loved ones and are alone, find Passover particularly difficult, much more so than Hanukah or even Yom Kippur. We are all meant to be gathered around a table with the generations of our family to be sharing the story of who we are, how we came to be and hopefully, with children at the table, where we are going. It can be isolating to be a lone Jew on the eve of Passover.
Observant or not, the conclusion of Purim, a month before Passover, launches of flurry of seder placement activity: who is doing the inviting? who is being invited? who needs a seat at a table? It's like a game of musical chairs except that, God willing, there is a chair for everyone who needs one.
The principle of revisiting and re-experiencing that journey from slavery to freedom is compelling and the seder is brilliant because it is so experiential: we dab away the tears of slavery brought to our eyes by the bitter herb, we contemplate the cement-like charoset that, in its sweetness, hints at the promise of redemption, we chew the dry matzah and are humbled by the plenty that surrounds us and that little that so many others survive on.
But I think that what brings us to the seder table year after year is the need to touch base with who we are, to find that deeply-buried core of Jewish soul that needs nourishment once a year. I have attended and led seders in Israel and in the States, with family and with friends and as part of communal experiences, but if you say "seder" to me in a word association sort of exercise, the only place I will go is back to our family seder growing up. Listening to my grandfather sweetly chant the text of the Haggadah (which I try to replicate in at least one passage at every seder I go to), watching my grandmother toggle between the kitchen and my grandfather's side, the tiny little silver kiddush cups kept especially for my brother and me for the seder night . . . I need to revisit those seders to restore my soul.
Most of us have cherished seder recipes and aromas and melodies and stories that we bring to the table. And if we don't, then may we come together this year at seder to start creating them. The seder is a touchstone experience for us as Jews, a Jewish-soul-confirming journey that moves us to the core whether we are observant or affiliated or secular or engaged.
This week's parashah/ Torah reading, Ki Tissa, doesn't offer much tranquility . . . as we have gone from meteorological storm to meteorological storm this week, our ancient ancestors in the wilderness underwent emotional storm after emotional storm.
Moses, descending from Sinai, shatters the Tables of the Covenant just created by God. Fury, frustration, incomprehension are all packed into this moment.
In the aftermath, God tersely instructs the Israelites that they will embrace and adhere to the following:
For you shall not bow down to another god---because Adonay: His name is Jealous, He is a jealous God--that you not make a covenant with the resident of the land . . . .You shall not make molten gods for yourself. You shall observe the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, which I commanded you . . . Every first birth of a womb is Mine, and all your animals that have a male first birth, ox or sheep. You shall redeem every firstborn of your sons. And none shall appear before Me empty-handed. Six days you shall work, and in the seventh day you shall cease: In plowing time and in harvest, you shall cease. And you shall make a Festival of Weeks, of the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Gathering at the end of the year. . . . You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice on leavened bread. You shall bring the first of the firstfruits of you land to the house of Adonay your God. You shall not cook a kid in its mother's milk." (excerpted from Sh'mot/Exodus 34: 14-26, Friedman translation)
This has a ring of the Aseret Hadibrot / Ten Utterances / Ten Commandments of course. Especially in the opening strictures of not bowing down to another God and not making molten images. Clearly, at the moment, these commandments needed repeating: the people had just contravened exactly these commandments in their building and worshipping the golden calf.
The rest of the list is interesting and does depart from the familiar Ten Commandments list:
The unique place of the firstborn of animals and humans as dedicated to God.
The stricture against blood sacrifice.
The first fruits offering.
The prohibition against cooking meat in milk.
The list is quite different from the Ten Commandments list in that the theme of mitzvot guiding the relationship among humans is missing, the "mitzvot bein adam l'havero" commandments between one person and another: there is not "you shall not steal," "you shall not murder," "honor your father and your mother," . . . Every mitzvah on this post-golden calf list is in the category of "bein adam lamakom", "between a person and God." These are mitzvot about our relating to God.
In contemplating this list, it strikes me that this is a list of mitzvot that place our consciousness of our relationship to God before us on an ongoing basis. These are mitzvot that are scattered throughout our day, our week, our year, guiding us to constantly keep in mind that we are in relationship with God at all times.
God has learned, the hard way, that among the frailties of human beings we must count short memories and lack of confidence. After the glory of the redemption at the Sea of Reeds, the awe of the revelation at Sinai . . . within weeks we were building an idol and looking to worship it. Anathema to God and a complete dismissal of the commitment (na'aseh v'nishma . . . we will do, we will obey) we had made at Sinai.
Ours is a tradition that puts our relationship with God before us all day, every day, in a multitude of ways. Ours is not a one-day-a-week tradition or a tradition that can easily be pigeon-holed. Judaism is at its richest and most meaningful and most inspiring when we engage with it every day.
Every year, within a week of emerging from Passover's journey from slavery to freedom, we gather together as a community to remember and to mourn on Yom HaShoah: Holocaust Memorial Day.
The proximity of these two days is thought-provoking: truly for neither our ancient Israelite ancestors in Egypt nor for our more immediate forebears in Nazi Europe did "Arbeit Macht Frei" . . . did work generate a state of freedom.
For much of the last half of the 20th century, Jews all over the world (although less so in Israel) suffered from a form of collective Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We were well and truly traumatized by the truths revealed about the Nazi campaign to create a Judenrein Europe . . . a Europe stripped of any Jewish presence. The truths revealed by the mountains of human hair and eyeglasses and suitcases . . . the emaciated prisoners liberated by Allied Forces . . . the testimony recorded at the Eichmann trial . . . it was all stunning, shocking, too much to take in.
In the Torah, in the books of Shmot/Exodus and Bamidbar/Numbers, we are witness to some dramatic expressions of faith, doubt, fear, backsliding and commitment coming from the released slaves following Moses through the wilderness. Considering all that they had been through, and no doubt suffering from some PTSD themselves, our ancestors who did not die at Egyptian hands had a lot of processing to do before they could formulate a new, coherent, positive Jewish identity and commitment to the Torah and the covenant with God.
Two thousand years later, there was a wide spectrum of reactions within the Jewish world as we emerged from World War II: some Jews found their faith reinforced . . . only a caring God could have succeeded in seeing any remnant of the targeted Jewish communities survive. Other Jews lost their faith . . . there could not be a God after all if a horror like Auschwitz could have come into existence. Yet others simply remained angry at God for the rest of their lives . . . how does the God described in Deuteronomy as אל רחום וחנון . . . as a merciful and caring God . . . remain silent and inactive as that God's covenantal partners, the Jews, are brutally enslaved, tortured, slaughtered, traumatized for life, marked for life . . .
As a Jewish kid in New Jersey growing up in the 50s and 60s, I was being educated as a Jew at a time when the adults in my community were still figuring it out: they were figuring out what really happened; they were figuring out how to take care of the survivors and their families; they were figuring out what this horrific attack meant for us as a people; they were figuring out what to tell us kids. I have a very vivid memory of sitting in the sanctuary of my New Jersey synagogue as an elementary school student, watching a film about the Holocaust that no Jewish educator today would be allowed to show to anyone under the age 16. Those images seared themselves on my brain . . . perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. I can't say I was traumatized by those images more than I was traumatized by other events in my life; but I did "get the message": being Jewish from now on was going to have to involve living with the shadow of the Holocaust.
It is 2013. World War II started almost 75 years ago. Like our ancient ancestors who came back home to Canaan after 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, we are a generation informed by, but not directly touched by, our experiences of slavery. We are about to celebrate the 65 anniversary of the establishment of the State of Israel. We are making history in East Greenwich opening up the town's first synagogue since the town was established in 1677. We are comfortable and safe here . . . more comfortable and more safe then our ancestors were when they followed Joshua into Canaan.
Our journey has led us into and out of Egypt, into and out of Auschwitz . . . and where will our journey take us next? What need we take with us from our history as we create our renewing identities as Jews today?
Twenty, thirty years ago, we were still talking about the importance of preserving Jewish tradition and community and observance in order not to hand Hitler a posthumous victory. It was a compelling image at the time, but I find that I need much more than the specter of Hitler to inspire me as a Jew. Hitler's dead, we're still here. Pharaoh is dead, we're still here. Titus is dead, we're still here. Stalin is dead, we're still here.
Surviving is great . . . but it is not enough. As we gather as a community to contemplate the incomprehensible chapter of Jewish history called the Shoah, let us also come together to integrate our past experiences into a positive Jewish identity that inspires us and infuses our lives with "kedushah" / holiness and "simchah" / joy.
"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.
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 Aharei Mot Torah Reading: Leviticus 16:1-18:30
I had a wonderful rabbi when I was a little girl. Rabbi Avraham Soltes was charismatic, passionate about tradition, Jewish music, and Jewish scholarship. I was only aware of some of these qualities when I was a child.
It is only recently that I discovered that he had published a small volume of prayers he had written himself. From my perspective as a rabbi, as well as a young person drawn to Judaism by my rabbi, I am deeply moved by these prayers written by my first spiritual leader.
A traditional name for Passover is "Chag Ha'Aviv", "The Spring Festival." I offer Rabbi Soltes' original prayer "Rebirth" as a Passover gift to you . . . perhaps as a special reading to add to your seder, perhaps as a private meditation that will enrich your own journey into spring.
O God of the fragrant flower
and the flickering leaf:We call upon Thy Name,
at this renascent season,
when Thy life-giving spiritquickens the silent earth,and our cold, slumbering world
is born anew
in the golden glory
of jonquils an forsythia.
the humble denizens
of this earth,
to find rebirth of hope and meaning
in our lives,
at this season,
to see the world with new-born eyes
,to believe deeply
that life and rapture
can begin again
for those whose faith
matches their need.
is not this,
Thy first commandmentto us,
the Children of Israel:
"I am the Lord,
Thy God,Who brought thee
out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house
If our fathers,
sunken in the mire of Egyptian slavery
for four hundred years
the strength and the inspiration
to cast off the maiming manacles
that slashed their wrists and ankles
and surge forth to freedom
on that memorable spring night
thirty two hundred years ago,
no creature is so lowly,
no lot so hopeless,
that we cannot,
with Thy help,
find in it
and new cause for adoration.
Open our eyes,
to Thy wondrous works,
that we may discern Thee in our lives
and behold the world,
and burgeoning with hope
as it was to Noah and his clan
after weeks of endless storm,
when the sun smiled over the
in a golden dawn.
Praised be Thou,
who bringest forth
the bread of life
from the dust
of the languid earth.
Rabbi Avraham Soltes
Invocation: A Sheaf of Prayers, 1959
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.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.