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.
The 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.
And 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!
Once we were slaves. Now we are free.
Shabbat is Zecher Liy’tziyat Mitzrayim – a reminder of our Exodus from slavery. On Shabbat, we are meant to embrace freedom, to throw off the shackles of the things that enslave us.
As a Reform Jew, I take seriously the mitzvah of Shamor et Yom Hashabbat – safeguarding Shabbat by refraining from work. Traditional Jews refrain from all manner of “work” on the seventh day: driving cars, flipping light switches, cutting paper, sewing buttons. But these are not the activities that enslave me. These are not the activities that eat away at my time, or from which I need to be liberated.
No, what enslaves me is something different. Something less solid, but more ubiquitous. It is the constant connectedness to the outside world, to my professional life, to the everyday needs and tasks that assault me through the device that I carry in my pocket.
In the 21st century, we are surrounded by information in ways that previous generations could not have fathomed. It’s exciting: technology keeps changing; screens keep getting bigger; download speeds keep getting faster. But the danger of the information age is in the blurring of boundaries. Where previous generations would “leave work at work,” we carry our work with us. Where our parents and grandparents differentiated between office time and leisure time, we struggle to draw that distinction. Our professional obligations have the power to permeate every place and every moment… just like the Egyptian taskmasters of old.
I’d like to say that on Shabbat, I turn off my cellphone. I’d like to say that one day a week, I disconnect from the outside world. But I don’t: I text with friends; I occasionally check Facebook; I am available for congregational emergencies. As a genuine technology addict, I cannot bear the thought of being without it for 25 hours. (And actually, connecting with friends is an important part of Shabbat.) But I CAN bear the thought of being without my work email, of tuning out the ordinary needs and tasks that rule my life on a daily basis.
And so that is what I have begun to do. Every Friday, as the sun begins to set, I open the email settings of my iPhone and simply flip the switch from “on” to “off.” It is the most liberating, most empowering, and perhaps holiest moment of my entire week. It is my way of fulfilling the task of Shabbat, l’havdil bein kodesh l’chol – to distinguish between holy and ordinary.
It is a start.
It was about a month ago that our dog Jastrow died. He was 3. He escaped from the yard and got hit by a car. Our kids were devastated. So were we.
Jastrow’s name was the proof of my rabbi-nerdiness. (Only other rabbis realized that he was named for the Marcus Jastrow Dictionary of the Talmud.) But beyond the name, he was never my dog – he belonged squarely to the kids. Jastrow would play with them, sleep in their beds, lick their faces, and sit right on top of them. We called him our therapy dog because he was always good for providing our son who has Aspergers with the “deep pressure” he needed on rough days! Jastrow was the young, fun dog while April (our 10-year-old lab mix) was the old, boring dog.
So the kids were hit really hard when he died. This was, thankfully, their first real experience with death. (When their great-grandmother died nearly four years ago, they were too young to really be aware of it.) Their reaction was both heartbreaking and fascinating. You could see Kubler-Ross at work as they shuffled wildly between angry shouting, hopeful bargaining, tearful storytelling, and asking the same questions over and over again…. In the end, what they wanted was to “do something” for Jastrow. Maybe we could say a prayer for him, they suggested. Or maybe draw pictures and tell our favourite stories, and find a place in the woods to “visit” him. Without knowing the words Shiva, or Kaddish, or Funeral, our 3, 6, and 7 year old boys were asking instinctively for some ritual to help them through the mourning process.
Even our older dog was mourning. April’s sleeping and eating patterns changed, and she kept trying to run out the front door, apparently in an effort to go find her friend. It was as though she also needed something to happen – some kind of closure to let her move on.
Our need for ritual is deeply ingrained in our psyche. Judaism offers us ceremonies to help mark the emotional moments of our lives – the Brit Milah/Brit Bat, the wedding ceremony, the funeral and mourning rituals. This is part of the particular genius of our way of life – that it is able to provide us with guidance during these universal moments in which we all need it. And if you leaf through the Reform movement’s On the Doorposts of Your House, or search the works of Marcia Falk or the pages of ritualwell.org, you’ll find hundreds of new ceremonies and blessings for moments of life that were never before ritualized: retirement, miscarriage, menopause, sending a child to college, quitting a job, ending a relationship. Some of these are hokey and contrived, but they speak to a need that is very real and very powerful.
I never saw that as clearly as I did while watching my kids mourn their dog. May his memory be a blessing.
Sukkot is the strangest holiday we have, and it has the strangest rituals. It’s one thing to sit around the table and eat and sing (like we do on every holiday). It’s quite another thing to build a shack in the back yard and wave around a bunch of plants in all directions. What’s that all about?!
Of course, what that’s all about is agriculture. A long time ago, our farmer ancestors used to reap their fields during this time of year. The festival of Sukkot was born out of the practice of measuring the yield and giving thanks to God.
Well, I’m not a farmer. (I can’t even keep houseplants alive!) But I do have something that I measure every year on Sukkot, and it has transformed this holiday into the most special time of year for our family.
Four years ago, my wife and I decided to designate one pole of our sukkah as a “measuring stick.” Each year, when we build our sukkah, we make sure that pole ends up in the doorway, and we mark each child’s height on it in permanent marker. That way, every Sukkot they get to see how much they’ve grown in the past year, and we get to celebrate the fact that they got a little taller and a little older.
I know there’s nothing novel about measuring your kids every year. Plenty of parents do it on birthdays, or on New Year’s Day. But for me, the connection with Sukkot is really important. Judaism tells me that on this holiday, I’m supposed to measure and be thankful for the yield of the past year. I think that’s exactly what we’re doing.
Plus, it makes us really look forward to putting up our sukkah!
Here are 2 readings I put together for this year’s seder. Feel free to use them at your own tables, or to pass them on.
Chag Kasher V’sameach!
Freedom and Slavery
Avadim hayinu. Once we were slaves in Egypt Ata v’nei chorin. And the Eternal took us out of that place.
With freedom comes responsibility. God brought us out of Egypt, but it is up to us to build the Promised Land. God created us in the Divine Image, but it is our job to create a society worthy of that image. God gave us freedom, but we must discover what that freedom means in our day.
Ata v’nei chorin – We will be truly free when we choose brotherhood and respect over hatred and fear.
Ata v’nei chorin – We will be truly free when we ensure that every person has access to basic health care.
Ata v’nei chorin – We will be truly free when no child sleeps without a roof over her head.Ata v’nei chorin – We will be truly free when we respect each other’s right to free speech; when we listen with open ears even to those with whom we do not agree.
Ata v’nei chorin – We will be truly free when we choose what is right over what is comfortable.
May we recognize the slavery that is still part of our lives, and begin to work together toward freedom.
Dayeinu for the Recession
Like our ancestor Joseph, we have known years of plenty and we have known lean years. Even as our country begins to emerge from recession, we in Charlotte find ourselves still in the midst of hard times. Yet the experience of these past years has changed us fundamentally. We have begun to realign our priorities, to reexamine what we hold most dear. The recession has taught us to appreciate what we have and helped us to understand how much we once took for granted.
Kama ma’alot tovot lamakom aleinu! How many gifts has God bestowed upon us!
If God had only given us our families and our loved ones… Dayeinu!
If God had only given us our friends and community, to whom we can turn in difficult times… Dayeinu!
If God had only given us a roof over our heads… Dayeinu!
If God had only given us a beautiful city; a city of trees and flowers that are bursting into bloom all around us… Dayeinu!
If God had only given us a world filled with natural beauty and man-made wonders… Dayeinu!
If God had only given us the freedom to be Jews, to worship and believe in accordance with our conscience and with our tradition… Dayeinu!
If God had only given us the drive to make the world a better place… Dayeinu!
If God had only given us the ability to make ourselves better people… Dayeinu!
Only a fraction of these blessings would have been enough, but God has given us all of this and more. For all that we have, we are thankful.
Is there anything worse than “going through the motions?” Is there any stronger description of emotional emptiness and lack of meaning? Marriages end because “we were just going through the motions.” People abandon religious practice because they were “just going through the motions” at church or synagogue.
But is that a fair way to treat religion? Author Karen Armstrong doesn’t think so. In an interview with Religion News Service, she argues that faith is often born out of action.
…none of our doctrines or beliefs make sense unless they are translated into practical action. Religion is a form of practical knowledge, like driving or dancing or swimming. You can’t learn to dance simply by reading a book. You have to do it, and practice hard. (Full interview here.)
Armstrong is a former nun, but she’s hit on a very Jewish idea here. In the book of Exodus, the people enter into covenant at Sinai with the words “Na’aseh V’nishma – We will do and we will hear.” The Rabbis make a big deal out of this formula because it is a statement of total faith; it puts following the commandments before hearing/understanding them.
As liberal Jews, this isn’t an entirely comfortable idea for us. We aren’t thrilled with the idea of signing on the dotted line before reading the fine print, even if it is God on the other side of the table. In fact, Reform Judaism’s notion of Informed Choice is essentially opposite:
We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of (mitzvot) and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community. (CCAR “Pittsburgh Principles”, 1999. Full text here.)
In Reform, our choices are based on knowledge and understanding, and a determination that a particular practice holds meaning for us. We might say “Nishma V’Naaseh – If we understand it, and then we will do it.”
But rejecting Na’aseh V’nishma is bad for us and for our Judaism. If we remove all traditional Jewish ritual except that which has a rational purpose, then not only do we lose our sense of ownership over it, but we lose the opportunity to find the role that it can play in our lives. In fact, “trying things out” is one of the ways that we learn. This is exactly Karen Armstrong’s point, that understanding and internalization often are born out of action. And this is the context in which we liberal Jews should understand Na’aseh V’nishma: “If we do it, then we may come to understand it.”
So what’s so wrong with going through the motions? Certainly we shouldn’t spend our lives performing empty rituals that have no meaning, but if participating in religious life can, over time, bring us to an appreciation of religious meaning, then we should find ways to participate. If trying out kashrut, or kippah, or tallit, or daily prayer, might bring the meanings of those rituals into our lives, then we should try them. We may just find that we like them.