Friday, May 22, 2015

The True Value of Torah - Shavuot 5775

A curious news story crossed my computer screen last week. My rabbinic alma mater, the Jewish Theological Seminary, which some of you may know that I truly love, has been in a difficult financial position for some time, and has decided to sell off some assets for the sake of easing their budget deficit. Among the items that they are selling is a treasure from JTS’ vaunted Rare Book Room: a fragment of an original Gutenberg bible.

It’s eight leaves of one of the first books ever printed by Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, in the year 1455. This fragment was donated to JTS in 1922 by the Schiff family, Jewish-American financiers of the early 20th century, who purchased it from a rare-book dealer who broke the original copy into pieces to sell it for more money. This particular fragment is the Latin translation of the Book of Esther, and it’s in excellent condition. Sotheby’s expects that it will fetch between $500,000 and $700,000.

Dr. David Kraemer, the librarian of JTS and a former Talmud professor of mine, says that selling the item is not a real loss to JTS because, since JTS is primarily focused on Jewish studies, these pages from a Christian translation are not of much use in the JTS library, and that this fragment has more or less been sitting on a shelf, “collecting dust” for more than 90 years.

The story is interesting, but I think it opens up a wider question that is entirely appropriate for Shavuot: What is the value of Torah? (And, just to be clear here, I’m not limiting the discussion to merely THE Torah, i.e. the five books of Moses, but all the Tanakh and all the interpretation that flows from it).

When I think of studying Torah, which is, according to the Mishnah, the most important mitzvah of all 613, I don’t think of dusty scholars in rare book rooms handling ancient texts with tweezers. On the contrary: you can go into any Judaica shop in the world and purchase brand-spankin’-new editions of the Tanakh with contemporary commentaries, which will be sitting right alongside the ancient and medieval interpreters, volumes of the Talmud and midrash and halakhic works and bookshelves upon bookshelves of perspectives on Jewish text, all reprinted and reprinted. There are, as the Talmudic maxim goes, shiv’im panim laTorah, 70 faces to the Torah, meaning that there are many ways of reading every word, every verse. But really, we have only yet uncovered maybe 28 of those 70. We have not even found half of the perspectives on Torah.

We continue to interpret for today. The Torah is a living document, both a testament to our historical roots as well as a contemporary perspective on our lives. While we in the Conservative movement have traditionally understood that to mean contemporary approaches to halakhah (e.g. As when the movement permitted driving to synagogue on Shabbat, even though doing so is a clear violation of the long-settled traditional halakhah / laws of Shabbat observance), there are other, less circumscribed ways to read Torah for today. These ways may be far more valuable to the average Jew than academic discussions about the details of halakhic observance.

So let me give you an example of the real value of Torah. Last night at our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, Danny Mishkin and I spoke about an idea that should be obvious when we are talking about Torah: immediate relevance.

Why is this important? Because we are living in a world of limited time, limited focus, and the ubiquitous sentiment that if it’s not relevant and/or beneficial to me, I’m not going to invest my time in it. It is a bit of an exaggeration to say that each of us has only 140 characters in which to make our point, but it’s not too far from the truth. Long form is getting to be a harder and harder sell, particularly to our children. And this is a challenge for Jewish tradition, particularly for tefillah / prayer.

But it is a challenge we must face boldly. Times change, and Torah has never been left behind; it is an eternal tradition. (By the way, Gutenberg and others were printing books for a couple of decades before the Jews decided to accept printed works. The first Jewish printed books were volumes of the Talmud produced in Italy in the 1470s, but we soon got over our skepticism about the new technology. That is happening once again as part of the paradigm shift which we discussed last night. Judaism is catching up with the rest of the world. Ein kol hadash tahat hashemesh, says Qohelet. There is nothing entirely new under the sun.)

Here is an item of immediate relevance, one which we discussed on Saturday evening. We study Torah because it helps us make decisions and guide our lives (Pirqei Avot 1:14):
אם אין אני לי, מי לי; וכשאני לעצמי, מה אני; ואם לא עכשיו, אימתיי.
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
If I am for myself alone, what am I?
And if not now, when?
Take a moment to reflect on these words.

What does it mean to us? Is it about the balance of personal commitments vs. communal contributions? Is it about trying to make a living in a dog-eat-dog world? Is it about balancing family and work? Is it about the natural give-and-take of human relationships? Is it about managing one’s anger? Is it about monetary charity, or donating your time?

Each of us might see something different in this mishnah. But I would suggest that this is one of hundreds, or maybe thousands of quotables in Jewish tradition that would be worth keeping on a mental index card, and pulling out whenever you are faced with the challenge of choosing yourself over others, or vice versa. And these decisions come up every day, many times a day for all of us.

Hillel’s words are a mantra of balance, of figuring out where to put our energy and focus in this time-poor, over-stressed, over-stuffed world. This piece of wisdom is immediately relevant. I can use it to improve myself and my life, particularly if I refer back to it in the moment of need.

You cannot put a dollar amount on any word or page of Torah. It is truly priceless. OK, so some pages are worth more than others. But it is possible to glean personal meaning and yes, value from every page of commentary, halakhic analysis, midrash, and so forth.

This is the true value of Torah; it reflects back to us who we are, and compels us to change our behavior for the better.

So, while JTS might be selling off rarities for a few quick bucks, the real worth of those eight leaves, which tell the story of the Jewish woman who challenges authority, maintains her identity in a potentially hostile, non-Jewish environment, and leads her people out of danger, is not to be found at Sotheby’s. The intrinsic value is not the impression of the Latin words by the world’s first printing press. It is in the content, the meaning, and the lessons that we learn from Esther and Mordecai and the Jews of ancient Persia.

What makes Torah valuable is that every word means something different in each person’s mouth, mind, heart and hand, and that it brings those things together to improve our lives and repair this broken world. Furthemore, what makes it truly priceless is that it is completely ours, and every perspective it gives us is true. As we chant after a passage of the Torah is read in the synagogue:
… אֲשֶׁר נָתַן לָנוּ תּורַת אֱמֶת וְחַיֵּי עולָם נָטַע בְּתוכֵנוּ.
… asher natan lanu Torat emet, vehayyei olam nata betokheinu.
… who gave us the Torah of truth, planting within us life eternal.
Our Torah of truth gives us eternity as a people because Torah itself is eternal, and as long as we continue to (in the words of Ben Bag Bag, Pirqei Avot 5:24) “turn it over and over,” we too will continue to reap its benefits forever. It is both immediately relevant and timeless. And that is its true value.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, the first day of Shavuot, May 24, 2015.)

The Desert Still Speaks to Us - Bemidbar 5775

One night in 1999, while I was living in the small Israeli city of Arad, I took a hike in the desert by the light of the full moon with a few friends. We had no flashlights. Maybe one of us had a cell phone. But that was truly one of the most beautiful hikes I have ever taken (and I’m an avid hiker, so that’s saying a lot), over the rolling hills of Judea and through a wadi, a dry riverbed. The moon provided ample light, once our eyes were adjusted, and I had the sense of ancient-ness, the primitive nature of this moonlit walk, in which the desert landscape stood out in bold relief against the dark blue shadows.

Was it dangerous? Maybe. Foolhardy? Probably. We had been given clear directions by our madrikh, a fearless young man from Arad named Yoni, who was skilled in guiding hiking, climbing, and camping trips of all sorts. But Yoni could not join us that night, so we were just a bunch of naive Americans twenty-somethings marching silently through the eerily powerful light, quietly challenging ourselves and hoping that nobody tripped and fell or got stung by a scorpion or ambushed by one of the seven remaining Arabian leopards in Israel.

No such horror occurred. But it was a transformational experience, one which I will probably never be able to repeat.

The desert speaks to me. Really, it speaks to all of us.

We started a new book of the Torah today, the fourth book: Bemidbar Sinai (in English, it is Numbers, which is a very poor title, since the numbers are really only found in the opening chapters. Then it gets much more interesting). Bemidbar is entirely set in the desert, as the Israelites are between the Exodus from Egypt and the arrival in Israel. The story of our wandering in the desert is as essential to who we are as the Exodus. We are a desert people. We received the Torah in the desert. Our patriarchs lived in the desert. Our prophets received their prophecy in the desert.

In the desert, you need stories to connect you to civilization. You need to connect where you have come from to where you are going. This is an essential part of who we are as Jews - we need those connective stories, which bring us together, which keep us committed to who we are.

The Torah is a desert document. Not only did we receive it in the Sinai desert, but we also actually had to leave the fleshpots of Egypt (see Exodus 16:3), the lush green of the Nile delta, and prepare ourselves as a people by purifying our physical and spiritual selves for three days in the desert before receiving it.

The story of Moses concludes in the desert; Moshe Rabbeinu, our Teacher, never enters the Fertile Crescent. And the prophets who follow him are desert-dwellers; Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and the whole gang drew all of their prophecy from the power of the wilderness. For example, the haftarah we read on the Shabbat after Tish’ah Be’Av, known as Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of comfort, includes the following (Isaiah 40:3, Etz Hayim p. 1033):
קוֹל קוֹרֵא--בַּמִּדְבָּר, פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ ה'; יַשְּׁרוּ, בָּעֲרָבָה, מְסִלָּה, לֵא-לֹהֵינוּ.
Qol qore bamidbar: panu derekh Adonai; yashru ba’aravah mesillah leloheinu.
A voice rings out: “Clear in the desert / A road for the Lord! / Level in the wilderness / A highway for our God!
And what does this Heavenly voice say? (Is. 40:6-8)
כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר, וְכָל-חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה... יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם.
Kol habasar hatzir, vekhol hasdo ketzitz hasadeh… Yavesh hatzir, naval hatzitz, udvar Eloheinu yaqum le’olam.
“All flesh is grass / All its goodness like flowers of the field… Grass withers, flowers fade - / But the word of our God is always fulfilled.”
What I felt as I was walking through the desert in the moonlight, listening to that quiet wind, was the eternality of that scene. The desert is the same as it always has been, as it always will be. Just as the desert is eternal, so too is God eternal, so too is the Torah eternal, so too is the burning fire of desert heat; the unconsumed, flaming bush that Moses found in the desert is still burning. A hint of it is in that light up above the ark.

You may know that the logo of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the primary rabbinical school and teaching institution of the Conservative movement, is a stylistic rendering (!) of the burning bush.

One idea that this symbol suggests is the eternal nature of God’s revelation, of God’s voice coming through to us. Our movement grew out of a group of 19th-century German-Jewish scholars known as the Positive-Historical school, and among the principles they espoused was the idea that history is an essential player in Judaism, that our traditions, our customs, our law - in short, our Torah - have continued to develop and change throughout the centuries. We have never read our text devoid of its historical context. And we continue to hear God’s voice, in our contemporary context, as we strive to interpret the Torah for today, acknowledging that although the ancient voice still comes from the desert, the rest of the world has changed

As contemporary Jews, with an eye toward history and the continuous unfolding of revelation, we continue to draw on the inspiration of Abraham, who pitched his tent near Be’ersheva, and welcomed in visiting angels in the desert. We continue to learn from the complaints and misbehavior of our ancestors as they trudged across the wilderness for forty years, driving Moses to the point of anger and thereby denying him from ever leaving the desert.

Once again, Isaiah tells us (12:3):
וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם-מַיִם, בְּשָׂשׂוֹן, מִמַּעַיְנֵי, הַיְשׁוּעָה.
Ush’avtem mayim besasson mima’ayanei hayeshu’a.
Draw water in joy from the wells of salvation.
That is, the desert wells, from which spiritual nourishment continues to flow.

And hence the need for those ancient stories. Without our desert connection, we would be rootless. Hence the power of the State of Israel for us today. This is, perhaps, why David Ben Gurion insisted that he be buried in Sde Boqer, south of Be’ersheva, deep into the Negev.

Another brief memory: When I visited Israel for the first time at age 17, I remember being on a tiyyul in the desert south, hiking through Wadi Tzin, just south of Sde Boqer. Our teacher told us that this was the place where Moses struck the rock in anger to placate the Israelites, who were dying of thirst. I was positively blown away. How cool is that?

Did it really happen that way? I cannot say; I wasn’t there. But the very presence of this story, the residual vibrations after thousands of years, crept into my soul and have lodged there since. The desert stories are timeless and powerful.

And here’s another: not far from that location, at the “Bedouin tent” lodging for tour groups called “Khan HaShayarot,” Danny Mishkin and I took our Youth House group outside of the camp under the stars when we were there last year for a ma’ariv service in the desert that blew them all away. The desert is powerful, mystical; it resonates with stories. Its very emptiness enables you to hear yourself in the quiet wind.

The Slonimer Rebbe, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky, a 20th-century Hasidic rabbi, taught that the reason the Torah was given in the desert is because we can only merit the true acquisition of Torah when we have canceled all of our attachment to material things.

That is why we stay up late tomorrow (Saturday) night for our Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, a night of dedication to our history, our textual heritage. The first night of Shavuot is a time that we put our physical desires aside to listen for that still, small voice emanating from the desert, calling to us from the wilderness.

Shavuot is not just a celebration of the receiving of the Torah. It is a joyous time, on which we eat sweet, rich dairy foods to recall the sweetness of Torah and its connection to the land flowing with milk and honey. But it is also a sober festival, a reflective stretching of the mind to reconnect with our national tales, to bring us back, in some sense, to Mt. Sinai.

I hope that you will be joining us as we consider new perspectives on the Torah, which will connect our ancient words with who we are today. Come with us as we return, just for an evening, to the moonlit desert, to the burning bush, and to our unfolding tradition.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, May 23, 2015.)

Friday, May 8, 2015

Seek the Holy Moments - Emor 5775

What does it mean to be holy? (Take a moment to answer that question for yourself.)

This is a parashah entirely about holiness. There are instructions for the kohanim / priestly class, who are subject to particular laws based solely on their lineage and increased expectations for holy behavior. There is the cycle of holidays, which shape the seasons with holiness. There is the admonition against blasphemy, the obligation to ensure that only holy words leave our mouths. And so forth.

Holiness is an alien concept to us today. We are living in a very concrete world. Thanks to technology, industrialization, the scientific method, and all the ways that we have squelched the mystery out of our daily existence, everything is quantifiable. Everything is measured. Explanations regarding how everything works can be easily found. There is very little room left for the unseen; very few cracks through which the light - the Divine light - can enter our lives. 

forget your perfect offering. quote. Leonard Cohen.

And our understanding of Judaism has been likewise quantified, analyzed, researched. What was an organic folk tradition has, for at least a century and a half, become another field of academic study. This is the tradition from which the Conservative movement emerged; the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism was founded by American congregations led by rabbis trained, for the most part, at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where I studied to become first a cantor and then a rabbi.

The modern movements that we know today, Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodoxy, all emerged from the intellectual ferment of 19th-century Germany, and particularly the approach to Jewish studies known as “Das Wissenschaft des Judentums,” literally, the science of Judaism. It used the tools of rigorous academic inquiry to analyze Jewish texts, history, rituals, laws, and customs. And it appealed to the newly-emancipated, newly-educated Jewish elite of Western Europe, who sought to be Germans on the street and Jews in the home. And its scholarly appeal soon reached across the Atlantic to take root here in America. Temple Israel and synagogues like this all across North America grew out of this modern approach. (JTS in New York was modeled after the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, which featured scholars from Rabbi Zacharias Frankel’s Positive-Historical school, who had left the Reform movement in 1845 because it was too radical.)

I am about to admit something big. Actually, huge.

I love the history of the Conservative movement. I love the scientific, historical approach to Judaism, the style of teaching and relating to our tradition that views everything on a time line. I love the approach that values the original context of every piece of our unfolding tradition.

But I think that as a guiding principle for the Jewish people in the 21st century, it no longer resonates.

Why? Because it is possible to know a lot but feel little. We may be able to speak authoritatively about our ancient texts, or about the development and structure of our liturgy, or why the eating of qitniyot on Pesah is permissible even for Ashkenazim, and still not have an emotional connection to our heritage. It is possible to invest yourself in the meaning of the siddur or the humash, and still only hold it at arm’s length, rather than in your heart.

I spoke last Friday night about the seven big things that I have learned in Great Neck. The first item on the list was this: that rabbinical school does not teach you how to be a rabbi. What you have all taught me over the last eight years is to connect through feeling, through finding ourselves in our ancient texts, through emotional rather than academic engagement. What they failed to teach me at the Seminary is that Judaism is a coin with the emotional on one side and the scholarly on the other. Judaism cannot be relevant without both sides.

What we need to embrace is the decidedly anti-scientific concept of the holy moment.  

Why do many synagogues today have difficulty filling the pews? Because, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said in famous speech to the members of the Rabbinical Assembly in 1953, we have become more concerned with the technical aspects of the execution of the service than with the Godliness, the holiness therein. We are very worried about getting it right:
“There are many who labor in the vineyard of oratory; but who knows how to pray, or how to inspire others to pray.  There are many who can execute and display magnificent fireworks; but who knows how to kindle a spark in the darkness of a soul?”
This is all in service of God, my friends. It’s not about perfection. It’s not about the recitation of words or the singing or chanting. It’s about communication - with ourselves, with each other, with the Divine. It’s about baring our vulnerability. It’s about sincere pleas for mercy and justice and salvation. This is a holy pursuit. It’s not about the how, it’s about the why.  The how matters, but only inasmuch as it is meant to get us to the why. What we do in a Jewish context is a means to an end.

And we live in a time in which the why, the meaning of the words and the rituals and how they are supposed to make us feel and influence our behavior, is the most important thing. Maybe that wasn’t so important to my parents or grandparents. But it’s important to me, living here in 5775 (also known as 2015).

Why do we count the omer? Why do we recite the Shema (other than because it says to do so in the Shema itself)? Why must we avoid using dairy implements for meat meals? We have a million such whys. You might be able to think of many yourself right now.

It’s not enough to answer those whys by saying, “Because it says so in the Torah,” or, “Because we have always done this.” It’s definitely not enough to say, “I don’t know, but I do it anyway.” It’s not enough to respond this way, even though all of those are legitimate answers in Jewish tradition.

Why do we do what we do, as Jews? Because that is how we become holy people. And every person here in this room could use a little extra holiness. Even the diehard skeptics among us.

Counting the omer, for example, gives us a framework through which we connect freedom with Torah. As we rise from 1 to 49, counting off daily for seven weeks, we anticipate the spiritual fulfillment given at Mt. Sinai. We heighten our expectation; we count our blessings; we look forward to ascending yet another rung of self-improvement, of learning, of yearning. Imagine adding an extra moment of holiness to your evening for seven whole weeks! That’s why we count the omer.

New York Times columnist David Brooks published a moving essay this week. In it, he identified the paradigm shift through which we are all living with respect to how we understand ourselves and our purpose on this Earth. He points to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel as having been a public theologian, among others in the middle of the 20th century, and how the era of such thought leaders has passed:
“Public discussion was awash in philosophies about how to live well. There was a coherent moral ecology you could either go along with or rebel against. All of that went away over the past generation or two…
These days we live in a culture that is more diverse, decentralized, interactive and democratized. The old days when gray-haired sages had all the answers about the ultimate issues of life are over. But new ways of having conversations about the core questions haven’t yet come into being.”

The difficulty to which Brooks points is that while our great public sages have set like the sun, we have filled that space with Big Data: knowing everything about everything. Concreteness. There’s an app for that. We have much knowledge, but little wisdom. And hence Brooks says that there is a real hunger for change in this regard:
“People are ready to talk a little less about how to do things and to talk a little more about why ultimately they are doing them.”
We have an answer to the why. And that answer is holiness. The answer can be found in every holy moment that we encounter. And we have to broadcast that message at every opportunity.

And here’s the really good news: the fact that we are all sitting here, on a day when we celebrate the stepping up of a young man into the big leagues of Jewish tradition, indicates that there is still an interest in, and a forum for engaging with holiness. Our tradition offers wisdom. It offers mystery. It offers connection. As we said at our Passover tables a month ago, in Aramaic, kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. Let all who are hungry, come and eat. Come and devour those brief moments of holiness, when the cracks in our reinforced walls of knowledge let in the Divine light.

This synagogue, and others like it stretching back for 2,000 years, have been places where our people have come to seek connection. We have to make sure that it’s not only about the how, but about the why. We need purpose. We need meaning. We need to find the holy moments in our lives.

Shabbat shalom.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, May 9, 2015.)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Responding With All Your Might: A (Post-) Lag Ba'Omer Thought

Lag Ba'Omer*, the 33rd day of the counting of the omer (the 49-day period from Pesah to Shavuot), marks a joyous occasion in the midst of an anguished period of Jewish history. The Talmud (Bavli Yevamot 62b) tells us that this period was marked by a plague in the 2nd century CE which took the lives of 24,000 students of the great sage Rabbi Akiva. Only a handful survived, among them Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai, considered by some to be the father of Jewish mysticism. As such, Lag Ba'Omer has become in recent years a celebration of Shim'on bar Yohai: tens of thousands of Haredim march from Tzefat, in northern Israel, to Mount Meron, where bar Yohai is traditionally thought to be buried, and light bonfires to honor his legacy.

... holiday is known as Lag b ' Omer . The mourning practices of the omer

I was once at the grave of Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai, not on Lag Ba'Omer, and experienced there the most peculiar behavior that I have ever witnessed in the context of tefillah / Jewish prayer. It was an otherwise ordinary afternoon, and there was a standard pick-up minhah (brief afternoon service) going on nearby, attended by a handful of guys who seemed to be from the same Haredi sect.

They arrived at the end, and one of them began saying the Mourner's Kaddish, the prayer recited by those who have recently suffered a loss or are recalling the annual observance of a relative's passing. They came to the congregational response, usually similarly intoned in a spoken-word form - no music, marking the mourner's sadness. And then something truly wacky happened: all of the assembled began to SHOUT WITH ALL THEIR MIGHT, "Amen! Yehei shemei rabba mevarakh le'alam ul'alemei alemaya!" "May God's great name be praised throughout all time!"

I think I jumped. I had never heard anything like that.

A few years later, as I was studying liturgy seriously at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I encountered a real gem of Talmudic wisdom, and experienced a brief moment of revelation (Bavli Shabbat 119b):
אמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: כל העונה אמן יהא שמיה רבא מברך בכל כחו ־ קורעין לו גזר דינו
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: One who says, "Amen! Yehei shemei rabba mevarakh..." with all his strength, any [negative Divine] decree against him is torn up.
In other words, if you scream this line when responding to a mourner, you get a whole lot of Heavenly credit, and a guaranteed place in the world to come. I realized, in retrospect, that this is exactly what was going on during that otherwise ordinary minhah: they were taking this piece of wisdom literally.

I do not necessarily recommend shouting in synagogue. Depending on the congregation, the reactions by others might vary from discomfort to shock to bodily removing you from the building. But we might want to think, not only as we respond to those in mourning but throughout our tefillah, about Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai, about the bonfires of the soul, and about pouring all our might into forming those words of prayer.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

* "Lag", ל''ג, is not a word but a number: the Hebrew letter lamed has a numerical value of 30 and the gimmel a value of 3.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Slavery is not an Ancient Abstraction - Pesah 5775

There is a certain amount of debate in the pages of Jewish commentary about a verse that appeared in yesterday’s Torah reading, Exodus 12:42:
לֵיל שִׁמֻּרִים הוּא לַיהוָה, לְהוֹצִיאָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:  הוּא-הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה לַיהוָה, שִׁמֻּרִים לְכָל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְדֹרֹתָם.
That was for the Lord a night of vigil to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the Lord’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages. (JPS translation)
I have also seen “leil shimmurim” translated as, “a night of watchfulness,” playing on the apparent connection to the simple form of the verb, lishmor, to guard or keep.*

The debate in interpretation is regarding the watchfulness. Who is being watchful? Is it, as Ibn Ezra suggests, that God was watching/guarding the Israelites in Egypt on the night of the 14th of Nisan, when the Angel of Death swept through, to see them depart safely? Or is it, as Ramban states, that the Israelites are to be watchful on this night when we commemorate our departure from Egypt, as we have done for the last two nights?

Our Etz Hayim commentary (p. 389), by the way, splits the difference: it is a night of vigil both for God and for us. Regardless, Pesah is unquestionably meant to be a holiday of awareness. Awareness of ourselves, of God, of our freedom, of spring. Pesah is about paying attention, about guarding, about being ready to act.


I remember leading a seder at my home a few years back, and leading a discussion (yes, I lead discussions at home as well with my family - I am, after all, their rabbi. They pretend to listen and occasionally participate as well). We were talking about the passage that I think is the most essential line in the entire haggadah (After Mishnah Pesahim 10:5):
בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם
Bekhol dor vador hayyav adam lir'ot et atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza miMitzrayim.
In every generation, each of us must see him- or herself as having personally come forth from Egypt.
It is a direct quote from the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:5), and the imperative to me seems clear: the whole point of Pesah is not to speak about the journey from slavery to freedom in the abstract, but rather to understand it as our current reality. We are all former slaves. We have all earned our freedom, with God’s help. And we must actively recall that redemption every day of our lives.

So there we were, talking about the import of this statement, when it suddenly occurred to me that we had, sitting at the table with us, a person who had actually been a slave. So I asked, has anybody here ever been a slave? And my father-in-law, Judy’s father, who spent seven months in a labor camp in the Auschwitz/Birkenau complex, said yes. And that very moment was so powerful that no more questions were required. He had lived that very journey. He had survived the Exodus.

'After the Sale: Slaves going South' by Eyre Crowe (c.1853)

I mention this because slavery is not something that is only in the past. It has always existed, and still exists today. In fact, estimates vary widely, but despite the fact that it is illegal in every country in the world, there are between 20 million and 36 million slaves. That’s somewhere between the population of New York State and California. About three-quarters of them are located in India, China, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Russia, Thailand, Congo, Myanmar, and Bangladesh. India alone has about 14 million slaves, around one percent of the population.

There are different types of slaves, among them bonded labor, where people take loans under the condition that they work off the debt, but are never successful in doing so; sexual slavery, including forced prostitution and the like; and child labor, which is the predominant category in India.

Now, you may make the case that challenging circumstances (war, economic hardship, and so forth) create slaves, and that is surely true. But this is what is more troubling is this: however slaves came to be enslaved, we keep them enslaved. Many of the products that we buy - food, clothing, electronics - have slaves involved somewhere along the production line. Just as the Nazis used my father-in-law and perhaps millions of others to keep their balance sheet in the black, so too do the economic engines of today’s global marketplace. You can read all about it on the Internet - simply type “contemporary slavery” into your favorite search engine. And it’s not just products, of course. The US State Department estimates that about 50,000 people, mostly women and girls, are trafficked into the United States each year to be forced into prostitution.

So when we discuss slavery as free people around the seder table, we should be aware that it is not an ancient abstraction. Slavery is very real, and still an ongoing scourge. It is even in our midst. And hence we need to be watchful. We need to pay attention to where our money goes, who it benefits, and who it punishes.

OK, Rabbi, thanks for the bad news. Now what can we do?

First, be aware. On this holiday of awareness, when we decrease our joy by removing drops of wine from our cups while mentioning the ten plagues, when we only recite a partial Hallel to account for the suffering of the Egyptians, when we stay up late at the ready, when we make it a point to teach our children about freedom, we need to remind ourselves that there are oppressed people in horrible circumstances in the world, even as we recline as free people at the seder table. And we should know  how our spending habits affect the lives of others.

Second, act. The Torah exhorts us over and over to recall that we are slaves, and to behave accordingly. I counted these instances a few days ago: there are at least ten instances in the Torah where it says a variation on the following, “Do not oppress the stranger/poor/slave among you, because you were slaves in Egypt.”** And add to that the Torah’s imperative, also recurring in many places and forms, to care actively for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the stranger in your midst. We read one such example in today’s Torah reading (Lev. 23:22 - identifies the mitzvot of Pe’ah / leaving the corners of your fields un-harvested, and Leqet / leaving gleanings for the poor). Our tradition requires us to act. And action can take the following forms:

  1. Donate to organizations that work to free slaves, end human trafficking, and work for human rights all over the world. Here are a few: (I can’t make any claim as to whether or not these are good charities)
It may be just a drop in the bucket, but every life that is reclaimed from slavery brings our own redemption one step closer. Think of it as a mitzvah in the category of piqquah nefesh, saving a life, which takes precedence over all other mitzvot.
  1. Consider buying “fair trade” products when possible. This is not necessarily a cure-all, but may have an impact, particularly if many of us do it. The most visible fair trade products of late are coffee and chocolate, but certification labels are now appearing on textiles and other products. Look for them. We have the potential to change the world merely by altering slightly our spending patterns.
  2. You may want to consider submitting a suggestion to the companies that supply the goods that keep us fed, clothed, and digitally connected. Some of the websites listed above allow you to do this directly from the website.

Our obligations in this season go beyond recalling the Exodus. Pesah is a festival of freedom for the entire world, but it is also a journey of awareness. Be watchful. Be aware. Take action.

Hag sameah.

~Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Sunday morning, 4/5/2015.)

* Back in cantorial school, they taught us a melody, a “mi-sinai” tune (not actually from Mt. Sinai, but so old that it might as well be) for the series of piyyutim that begin with “leil shimmurim,” recited on the first two nights of Pesah, inserted into ma’ariv service. I’ve never actually used that melody in a synagogue, and the piyyutim do not appear in our siddur, but they are still bouncing around in my head.

** The ones I found, using a concordance, were:
Exodus 22:20, 23:9
Leviticus 19:34
Deuteronomy 5:15, 10:19, 15:15, 16:12, 23:8, 24:18, 24:22