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Go Ahead and Try: Why Pesach (and Judaism) Aren’t All-or-Nothing

April 12, 2017 Leave a comment

I’m going to risk the wrath of the Star Wars gods and disagree with Yoda.yoda_lulav

In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke Skywalker is required to lift his ship out of the Dagobah swamp using only his mind. Skeptical of his own ability to wield the Force, Luke says, “Alright, I’ll give it a try,” to which Yoda famously responds: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

OK, Master Yoda, I get what you’re trying to teach us: Luke needs to believe in himself if he’s going to be successful. He needs to set his bar at “do” and not just at “try” in order to send himself the message that he’s capable. I can buy that in theory. I definitely agree with the notion that if you believe in your own ability, you have a great chance of success. But here’s the problem: What if Luke fails? Does that mean he’s hopeless? If “there is no try,” then Luke might think he should just give up.

I think we do that in our religious lives all the time.

We are two days into Passover, and I’ve already seen at least 3 Facebook posts that said something like “Damn, I forgot and ate a bagel. Guess Pesach is over for me,” or “Got tempted by pizza – better luck next year.” These are really natural and human responses – we try; we fail; we throw in the towel. It was “do or do not” and we did not.

But what if Judaism isn’t “do or do not?”

Why do we keep kosher for Passover? For that matter, why do we perform any Jewish ritual – praying, wearing a tallit, saying a blessing, lighting Shabbat candles? https://i1.wp.com/crossfitkernersville.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/no-bread12.jpgThe traditional paradigm was one of obligation – you fulfill it because God commands it. (That’s what the word “mitzvah” means – commandment.) But for most progressive Jews today, ritual is about more than ticking off a box on God’s big mitzvah list. We do these things because we gain something from them. They connect us with one another and with our ancestors; they help promote gratitude and mindfulness. These benefits don’t disappear when our observance is “less than perfect.”

It might be helpful to think in terms of “practicing” Jewish rituals rather than “fulfilling” them. Jewish living really is meant to be a practice – something that evolves and changes, and that teaches us things. In that sense, it’s very much like sports, academics, and meditation. In our academic and athletic lives, we understand failures as learning opportunities: when you strike out at the plate, it makes you a better batter. If you get a D on a physics text, it shows you what you need to learn more about.

I think it’s the same with our Jewish practice. Failing to live up to our own religious standards, and evaluating the feelings that come along with that, can give us a sense of what matters to us: what is important, what is edifying, and what is sustainable in our lives. And that can help us build a more meaningful ritual life for the long term.

(For what it’s worth, I actually think Yoda knew this – he had 900 years of accumulated wisdom, after all – but he conveniently left out for Luke that you can’t always “do” on the first attempt.)

When we have an all-or-nothing view of Judaism, we will be more likely to be afraid of failing, and maybe more likely to refrain to participating entirely. But you can’t “fail” Judaism. As long as we are thoughtful about our practice, and as long as we continuing to learn and grow and challenge ourselves, then we are doing exactly what Judaism demands of us.

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My Father Was a Syrian Refugee: Pesach & Freedom in 2016

April 21, 2016 Leave a comment

NOTE: This essay was cross posted at Kol Ami.

In the Passover seder, we are commanded to tell our story of freedom beginning with the words: “Arami Oveid Avi – My father was a wandering/escaped Aramean.” There are differences of opinion regarding whether this line refers to Abraham or to Jacob. But either way, its meaning is clear. Our people got their start as escapees from the land of Aram, which is now in northern Syria. We begin our Jewish story as Syrian refugees.

In fact, the Jewish experience is one of being the stranger and welcoming the stranger. Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews, were known for keeping their tent open on all four sides, so that they might rush out and bring passersby into their home. It’s known as Hachnasat Orchim – Welcoming the guest. Later, as our people emerged from slavery, we were commanded “V’ahavtem et Hageir – You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And only 8 decades ago, our people once again were the strangers and the refugees, trying to escape the dangers around them in Europe, and often labeled as security threats or subversives.

As Jews, that’s the religious and historical experience that we bring to the current refugee crisis. As Canadians, we also bring a deep respect for pluralism and for the immigration mentality that has made this country what it is. Aware of the security risks, aware of the challenges that immigration can bring with it, we approach the world with a desire to uphold Tzelem Elohim – to uphold the image of God in each human being.

May this season of freedom be a harbinger of freedom for all people, in all corners of the world. Someday may there be a time when no one will every have to say “Arami oveid avi – My father was a refugee.”

Moses and “Moses” – Celebrating Harriet Tubman

April 21, 2016 Leave a comment

They say that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I’m not so sure about that.

This weekend, Jewish families all over the world will sit down at their tables for the Passover Seder. This season celebrates freedom; it acknowledges that somewhere in the depths of our history/mythology we were slaves. And that through forces human and divine, we were made free.

https://745515a37222097b0902-74ef300a2b2b2d9e236c9459912aaf20.ssl.cf2.rackcdn.com/77377beeeb64db9152e1b3ffc12109ae.jpegThe main character of this drama is, of course, Moses. Moses the miracle baby. Moses the Egyptian prince. Moses the freedom fighter. Moses the reticent leader. Moses the prophet.  Moses the philosopher. Moses the rabbi. He plays more roles in Jewish tradition than any other figure. He is the archetype for EVERYTHING.

Which makes it exceedingly curious that as you make your way through the traditional Haggadah – the prayerbook for the Passover Seder – the name of Moses appears not a single time.

Why is Moses absent from the seder? Maybe the framers of the Haggadah wanted to attribute the miracles to God. Maybe they didn’t want to encourage Moses-worship. Maybe they wished to universalize the story, allowing it to speak to oppressed peoples in every time and place. Whatever the reason, there is a sense that Moses’ actions are so extraordinary that they speak for themselves. We don’t even need to mention his name.

Moses is lucky – we know he’s there even when he’s not mentioned. But that’s not usually the meaning of absence. And that is what the US Treasury Department acknowledged this week when it announced that for the first time, a woman will be featured on an American bill. Finally, a woman’s presence on US currency! Finally, an end to this glaring absence of female voices and faces in an important federal institution.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/5/5d/Harriet-Tubman-248x300.jpgAnd appropriately for Passover, the US Treasury department chose none other than Moses. The abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and then committed her life to shepherding other slaves to freedom, was known in the abolitionist movement as “Moses,” because of her commitment to freeing her people. A human rights activist, a suffragist, and a symbol for freedom, her actions – like those of the original Moses – have long outlived her own lifetime.

By placing Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, we acknowledge the central Jewish value that individuals have the power to repair the world. That where there is slavery or oppression or hatred, brave women and men can to change it. It reminds us that that our presence is felt through our actions.

May the name of “Moses” – and her picture on our currency – inspire us to be our best, and to bring freedom and peace to our world.

Chag Pesach Sameach – Happy Passover to all!

Maggid: Telling the Story (A Seder Supplement)

April 2, 2015 Leave a comment

NOTE: The primary purpose of the Pesach Seder is “maggid” – telling the story of the Exodus. According to the Talmud, we are meant to do so by expounding on Deuteronomy’s words of slavery and freedom – “My father was a wandering Aramean.” Here is my attempt for this year to find modern meaning in those ancient words:

אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי
My father was a wandering Aramean.

What is an Aramean? It is someone from Aram – the land north of Israel. Someone who came from elsewhere, whose journey began as something else. The Jewish story begins with wandering that is both physical and spiritual – just as Abraham and Sarah made their way toward the land of Israel, so did they make their way toward a new way of thinking and believing and understanding the universe. Away from idolatry and toward TIkkun Olam. Today, we continue that journey of questioning and learning and growing. We are still wandering Arameans.

ַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט וַֽיְהִי־שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם
He went down to Egypt with small numbers and lived there, and there he became a great and very populous nation.
The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which means “narrow places.” We all have narrow places in our lives, times of pain, loss, and confusion. And in those moments, we may feel as though we are surrounded by “m’tei m’at” – by very little in terms of support and strength. Yet those are the times when we need our loved ones the most. When people we care about are in mitzrayim – when they are in narrow places – our role is to turn m’tei m’at into atzum v’rav – to turn little strength into much strength, to surround them with support so that they can continue make their way.

וַֽיְהִי־שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָֽב וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים וַיְעַנּוּנוּ וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ עֲבֹדָה קָשָֽׁה
And there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians were cruel to us and oppressed us, and imposed heavy labour upon us.
Why does it matter that we were populous in Egypt? Because it made us frightening to the Egyptians. Because we were many and because we were different, they oppressed and enslaved us. Today, we live in a society that is perhaps the most diverse in history. But we are still too afraid of the differences between us – differences of belief and practice, differences of culture and skin colour. On this festival of freedom, may we work to free ourselves of our preconceptions and assumptions about people who look, believe, pray, vote, or speak differently than we do.

וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָֹה אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ וַיַּרְא אֶת־עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת־עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶֽת־לַֽחֲצֵֽנוּ:
We cried to Adonai, the God of our ancestors, and God heard our voice and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression.
God couldn’t see our misery beforehand?! God didn’t know we were slaves until we cried out?! Why did God allow 400 years of slavery? Why does God allow anyone to suffer? It isn’t God who “allows” people to suffer; it is us. And it isn’t only God’s role to hear the cries of our fellow human beings and act on their behalf; it is also ours. If there are hungry children in our schools, we must feed them. If there are homeless in our cities, we must shelter them. If we wait around for God to do God’s work, it may never get done.

וַיּֽוֹצִאֵנוּ יְהוָֹה מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל וּבְאֹתוֹת וּבְמֹֽפְתִֽים:
Adonai freed us from Egypt with great strength, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and amazing things!
There are wonders and signs of God’s presence all around us:

  • The loving family and friends who surround us
  • The earth that gives us life and fulfills all of our needs.
  • Our human capacity to grow, to learn, to dream, and to build.

On this Pesach may we challenge ourselves to better appreciate the miracles in our world, and may we commit ourselves to the task of building a better world.

Chag Pesach Sameach!

The Four Children (of Star Wars)

April 19, 2011 7 comments

In the section called the “Four Sons,” the Passover seder very wisely recognizes that different children learn differently, depending on their disposition, level of knowledge, age, etc. Here’s how I got my kids to care about the Four Sons at our seder last night:

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The Wise Son

The wise son almost always follows the rules.  He wants nothing more than to learn from his teachers and to use his learning for the good of others. A lifelong learner, he embodies the spirit of tradition, and uses his skills to live those traditions and pass them on.

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The Wicked Son

Why is he wicked? Not because he is not learned; he knows enough to ask questions! And not because he doesn’t care; he is sitting at the seder table (or the Jedi council, as the case may be). His problem is that he separates himself from those around him, and in so doing, he becomes increasingly self-centered. The wicked son’s choices are about what is best for him and him alone. If others have to suffer to accomplish this, so be it.

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The Simple Son

The simple son is not the cleverest or most knowledgeable, but his heart is in the right place. He asks unsophisticated questions, but he cares deeply about what is right. If we explain simply, and encourage him to participate as an equal, he will grow in his understanding and skill and can make a real contribution.

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The Son Who Does Not Know How to Ask

The fourth son has not had the benefit of having been taught. Either because he is too young, or because he simply had no access to the proper education (or because he was being hidden from his Sith Lord father in an effort to save him and the galaxy from destruction). He is not simple, and he is not wicked, but he lacks the knowledge that he needs and does not even know where to begin asking questions. He can be taught, and he can become a great leader, but he needs guidance.

Slavery and Freedom

April 15, 2011 Leave a comment

Avadim Hayinu, Ata V’nei Chorin. We were slaves. Now we are free.

These words ring true in every age. In ancient times, we gained freedom from slavery to Pharaoh. A century and a half ago, African American slaves were freed, a process whose social reverberations we can still feel. And today, as we look on, we see the people of the Middle East attempting from bring freedom from the oppressive rulers who have enslaved them for decades.

Our ancient ancestors had never heard of “Freedom of the Press” or “the Right of Free Speech.” They were unfamiliar with Freedom of Religion and they were unacquainted with the idea that a free people can and should criticize its leaders. But today, those ideas are precisely what we mean when we speak of “liberty and freedom.” They are precisely the rights that our soldiers protect and that our politicians tout. And they are the precisely notions for which the people of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria are now fighting.

But the real test of freedom comes not when it arrives, but the next day. How a people stands up for liberty matters, but what they do with that liberty matters more. And that is the question that we are now waiting to see answered: Do these revolutions represent a new dawn for the Arab world? Will we, decades from now, know a Middle East that prizes human rights and pluralism? Or are we witnessing the transition from one form of slavery to another, from one oppression to another?

Avadim Hayinu, Ata V’nei Chorin. We were slaves. Now we are free.

We hope that the people of the Middle East, and all people, will soon be able to sing those words along with us. And that this remarkable time in which are living will signify the beginning of an era of freedom, peace, and understanding in a troubled area of the world.

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Pesach Songs – What’s Your Fave?

March 28, 2010 5 comments

My favorite Passover song is Adir Hu. (Click on the words to  listen. I don’t know who that guy is, but he sings a mean Adir Hu.) I like it for no other reason than that I love the melody. The optimism of the tune matches the optimism of the lyrics, which mean: “May God who is mighty/exalted/great/distinguished/learned/righteous/etc rebuild God’s house soon. Quickly. quickly, God, build Your house soon!” Although I don’t believe literally in the rebuilding of the Temple, the metaphor of that rebuilding – that the world can be made a better place – is very powerful. Plus, this song always makes me happy.

What’s your favorite Passover song, and why?

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