Tuesday, April 24, 2012

You Can't Always Get What You Want, So Don't Ask (for too much) - Tuesday Kavvanah, 4/24/2012

Did you notice? Morning minyan for the past week and a half (since Pesah) has been SIX WORDS shorter! Truly amazing! I have accomplished so much with that extra time.

From whence comes the savings? There are two places in the Amidah where we no longer ask for rain (in Israel). Well, actually only one of them is a request; the other is a mere mention. At the beginning of the Gevurot  paragraph, the second berakhah of the Amidah, we have been saying the following since Shemini Atzeret:

מַשִּׁיב הָרוּחַ וּמורִיד הַגָּשֶּׁם
Mashiv haruah umorid hagashem.
God causes the wind to blow and the rains to fall.

And we have been making the following request since Dec. 4:
וְתֵן טַל וּמָטָר לִבְרָכָה
Veten tal umatar livrakhah
And give us dew and rain as a blessing
The first has been eliminated completely, and the second shortened to the perfunctory and vague veten berakhah / give us blessing.

Why the change?  There is a rabbinic principle (e.g. Mishnah Berakhot 9:3) that one should not offer a tefillat shav, a prayer in vain. That is, we cannot request something from God that cannot naturally occur, like rain in Israel during the summer, or that one's 2-year-old will not throw a tantrum when denied a lollipop.

As a guiding principle to tefillah, I have found that it is more effective to think of statutory prayer as maintenance rather than asking for things that you do not have.  Isn't it wonderful, say the words of the siddur, that the sun came up this morning, that I had the energy to get dressed and venture out, that I had food on my plate, and that this world is filled with unmeasurable quantity of blessing.

There is always a place for making requests outside of the traditional framework, but it is nonetheless a good idea to consider very carefully what we ask for; the reasonable request has a better chance of being heard.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Friday, April 20, 2012

Where are your lines? - Shemini 5772

Two weeks ago, on the first night of Pesah, I did more or less what I do every year.  I went to the evening service here at Temple Israel at 6:30 and then went home to begin the seder with my family.  By 7:45 we were knee-deep in salt water and the rabbis of Benei Beraq.

At that time, about 18 miles away at Madison Square Garden, a seder was concluding, and the Exodus to the auditorium was about to begin.  You may have read about this in the New York Times: a family of Bruce Springsteen’s most loyal Jewish fans, unable to reconcile the inconvenient scheduling of Mr. Springsteen’s MSG show with nightfall on the 14th of Nissan, opted to hold a rock-and-roll themed seder at a restaurant above the Garden.  Thus they could fulfill their obligation to recall the departure from Egypt with matzah and maror and still worship at the altar of the hard-driving guitar  anthems of E Street.  And, in true Passover fashion, they did not delay the evening’s ritual, so that they could make it to their seats within the 18-minute margin.  You might say that they were “born to run.”

Now, I must confess two things: first, although I will always have a soft spot in my heart for rock & roll, and for big concerts, I have never been a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen.  Second, that this is not within what I understand to be an traditional celebration of the Festival of Freedom, for several reasons.  But while the family’s loyalty to Springsteen is indeed impressive, I must say that their loyalty to Pesah is even more notable.  Why?  They could have skipped the seder altogether.  My decade of experience as clergy has taught me that in the choices that modern Jews make, the secular activity almost always wins out over the Jewish one: youth sports trump Shabbat, work trumps minyan, the PTA meeting trumps an adult learning class.  

Had they not held the seder, there would be no story here.  But they chose to mark their liberation from slavery with the traditional meal and discussion, even inviting the band members to join them (one did: saxophonist Jake Clemons, nephew to the late, legendary Clarence; he read from their original, Springsteen-themed haggadah, which they had created for the occasion, stumbling over the word “haroset.”  By the way, in the wake of the story in the New York Times, the Museum of Jewish Heritage requested the haggadah for their collection of 20th/21st century Jewish artifacts.)

And all I can say is, “Kol ha-kavod.”  All glory is due to this family.  Even though I would not do it this way, even though others might say that they were mocking tradition, this family stuck to their principles and ate their Hillel sandwiches in the way that made sense to them.  They had their matzah and ate it too...

This is the nature of Judaism: we all make choices.  And while there are people in the Jewish world who claim to speak for God, and will say, “It must be done THIS way,” and will be quick to point out all the “rules” that this family broke, the reality is that we all in some sense make the rules, based on a complicated, subjective mix of text, tradition, communal expectation, and personal autonomy.  As the Talmud tells us (Bava Metzi’a 59b, quoting Deut. 30:12), “Lo bashamayim hi.”  The decision for what is kosher is not found in heaven.  


Our parashah this morning, Parashat Shemini, captured a range of ideas in a few short chapters, and there are two items to which I would like to call your attention.

1.  Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron’s sons, are swallowed up in fire because they did something wrong in performing priestly rituals.  In the face of their sudden, violent deaths, the Torah goes out of its way to point out that their father Aaron, the High Priest, is silent, and his silence seems to speak volumes.

2.  Chapter 11 contains a long list of animals that are kosher and not kosher, what we can eat and what we cannot.  As many of you know, the mammals and the fish have particular features -- split hooves and a rumen, or fins and scales -- that make them acceptable, while the birds are not given blanket rules but are merely mentioned by name as being “pure” (tahor) or “impure” (tamei).

What both of these stories teach us is that our lives and behavior are shaped by God-given lines - some things are in and some are out.  Rashi’s theory about Nadav and Avihu is that they were drunk, and God schmeisted them for a serious transgression, which the Torah describes immediately after Aaron’s notable silence.  But that is only one theory; the Torah does not really tell us.

There has been much ink spilled over the kashrut rules (some of which appear elsewhere in the Torah): one possibility, promoted by Maimonides, the 12th-century physician, is that the “pure” animals are healthier to eat, and that’s what they told us in Hebrew school when I was growing up, although I’ve never bought that.  Noted sociologist Mary Douglas, in her book Purity and Danger (1966), points to the Torah’s interest in clear categories.  We are allowed to eat what is easily defined, and animals that do not fit neatly into one category or another are forbidden (like the pig, which has a split hoof but no rumen, or the camel, which has a rumen but no split hoof).

So yes, the Torah gives us lines.  But there is also a good deal of human interpretation involved with where these lines fall.  The “why,” the reasoning and/or spiritual justification for various mitzvot, is virtually always up for debate.  The “what” is less so, but still the 2,000 years of rabbinic interpretation have yielded various positions, some of which contradict each other.  


All of which brings me back to the Springsteen seder.  Faced with the challenge of two seemingly conflicting loyalties, The Boss’ biggest Jewish fans created a ritual that straddled the line between honoring Jewish tradition and living in the modern, secular world.  The latter has virtually no boundaries; the former has many.

And as I have already pointed out, that is what we ALL do.  Particularly here, in the Conservative movement, where fealty to tradition is greater than in Reform, and immersion in the wider world is greater than in much of Orthodoxy.

But there is something even more here.  The Torah’s lines are as much about food as they are about the human spirit.  On some level, whether conscious of it or not, whether we heed our internal moral guideposts or not, each of us wants to be good, to be holy, to be pure.  The message that the Torah sends, regardless of what we eat, is as follows: you have within your hands the power to make the right choice.  Leviticus (and the other material of Priestly authorship elsewhere in the Torah) urges us to separate the positive from the negative, the light from the dark, the good from the bad.  

Some of you know that I have a good friend and colleague, Rabbi Antonio di Gesu, who is the rabbi of the Jewish community of Japan.  (There are actually three rabbis in Tokyo -- the other two are both Chabad rabbis, one of whom is a messianist and the other is not, and they don’t speak to each other, much less to my friend.)  Japan is a particularly irreligious place.  There are some Shinto traditions and some Buddhist, but these do not really give the average Japanese person the guides to life the way that Judaism does.  

So Rabbi Antonio, in addition to serving the Jewish community, mostly expat Americans and Israelis, also serves a good number of non-Jewish Japanese seekers, people who are looking for something that their tradition does not offer.  They come to services, they come to his office with questions, they try Judaism on for size for a while.  Some stick around.  Perhaps what draws these typically young Japanese adults to our tradition, so alien to them, is the lines that we have, the physical and spiritual lines that are our guides to making us better people.

You see, we have a rich tradition of story and song, of text and context, of law and custom.  It is so much more than eating matzah and singing Dayyenu once a year.  We have the Torah, the Mishnah, the Gemara, the midrashim, the commentators, philosophers, poets, payyetanim / liturgical poets, hazzanim, and on and on.  We draw inspiration from writings that span millennia.  

Part of that body of text is law, yes.  There are many parts of the Jewish world for whom halakhah, Jewish law, where those physical lines are drawn, is the ultimate expression of their relationship to God.  Some might look at this parashah and see only what you can eat and what you can’t.  But the goal of Judaism is higher than that.  Ramban, aka Rabbi Moshe ben Nahman, aka Nachmanides, the 13th-century Spanish commentator, urges us to extrapolate from what is stated in the Torah to what is not:  
“In matters about which God did not command you,” says Ramban, set your eyes to “do what is right and good in the eyes of God” [Deut. 6:18]... It is impossible to mention in the Torah the entirety of human conduct with neighbors and friends, in all business activities and all the improvement of society and of the state.” (Ramban, comment to Deuteronomy 6:18)

And after listing many explicit mitzvot / commandments, he continues, the Torah tells us to make good choices about the unstated things, says Ramban.  It is up to us to determine what the laws of kashrut imply about the rest of our choices.

That is our stock in trade as Jews.  Not kashrut, per se, but the wisdom and discipline that come with boundaries.  Our tradition, through its many channels and historical currents, offers the lines that we need, physical and spiritual.  How we relate to others.  How we honor our parents.  How we treat our business partners, our clients, our patients, our vendors. How we respect ourselves and our loved ones.  These things are as much a part of being Jewish as what we eat.

As we sail into the openness of the future, of the growing secular wave of American society, I challenge each of us to draw on our tradition to help us navigate.  There will always be a tension between attending the concert or the seder, the Shabbat haMishpahah service or basketball practice.  Let’s hope that we all find ways to bring some holiness into our lives, balancing whatever we need to balance to make it work.  Let’s make Ramban proud, and make the choices that are “right and good in the eyes of God.”  Where are your lines?

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Shabbat morning, 4/21/2012.)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Honesty in Tefillah on Yom HaShoah - Thursday Kavvanah

Today, Yom HaShoah, the one day of the year on which we specifically recall the horrors of the Nazi genocide, is unquestionably the hardest day of the year for tefillah / prayer.  Chanting the Psalms of the morning service, which speak of God's delivering us from danger and frustrating the designs of our enemies, I find it difficult to achieve a sense of kavvanah / intention that reflects the mood of the day.  Even venerable Ashrei, Psalm 145, which Jews recite three times each day, includes the following:

שׁוֹמֵר יְהוָה, אֶת-כָּל-אֹהֲבָיו;    וְאֵת כָּל-הָרְשָׁעִים יַשְׁמִיד
Shomer Adonai et kol ohavav, ve'et kol haresha'im yashmid.
God guards all who love Him, and destroys all wickedness.  (Psalm 145:20)

If this were objectively "true," then how could Hitler and his murderous partners have killed so many of our people, 2,000 times the number that Al Qaeda managed on 9/11?  Shouldn't God have interceded after the first righteous person was martyred?  Or even after the first million?

Theology being an inexact science, there are no good answers here.  And tefillah too, on this day when liturgy fails us, falls flat.

Perhaps we should remember the following: the words of prayer reflect an ideal, a vision of what could be.  But this is a deeply fractured world, a universe that has never functioned according to the Neo-Platonic perfection that some in our tradition have cited.  The language of tefillah remains unfulfilled until we ourselves make this broken world whole once again.

And so, to draw my attention away from the empty words of the Psalmist, I found myself repeating the next to last verse of the book of Eikhah / Lamentations, the same words that we said when we put the Torah away this morning, the same way that we repeat it on Tish'ah Be'Av / the Ninth of Av, when we conclude the reading of that book:

הֲשִׁיבֵנוּ יְהוָה אֵלֶיךָ וְנָשׁוּבָה, חַדֵּשׁ יָמֵינוּ כְּקֶדֶם
Hashiveinu Adonai elekha venashuvah, hadesh yameinu keqedem.
Help us turn to You, Adonai, and we shall return.  Renew our lives as in days of old. (Lamentations 5:21)

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Happiness Index - 7th Day of Pesah, 5772

A member of the congregation forwarded me a video from The Daily Show this week, wherein the host, Jon Stewart (a Member of the Tribe), compared Passover and Easter, and concluded that, at least for kids, Easter seems much more fun.  After all, chocolate eggs and bunnies win out over matzah and maror, hands down.  Of course, we’re not in competition, but he has a point.  Somehow, the Easter basket seems much more, well, joyful than the seder plate.

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Faith/Off - Easter vs. Passover
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Nevertheless, Pesah is the most popular Jewish holiday by far.  It is a time of gathering, of bringing families and friends together for good times.  Sitting around the Passover table, telling the Jewish story of freedom, dining on traditional foods is time well-spent, and continues to draw most American Jews.  So even without the bunnies and chocolate, it works somehow.

Today we read Shirat HaYam, the song that expresses the joy of the Israelites upon crossing the Sea of Reeds and escaping their Egyptian taskmasters.  They have attained freedom, they are on the way to their own land, and they will soon receive the Torah.  This is the first moment of redemption, the initial achievement of geulah  for which our enslaved ancestors yearned, but it is also symbolic of the redemption that (at least, traditionally speaking) as Jews we continue to seek, as we look toward the messianic age.  It is this joy of prior redemption and anticipated salvation that Judaism invokes throughout our rituals and liturgy, not only on Pesah, but throughout the year.  (e.g. Friday night qiddush, the third paragraph of the Shema, etc.).

But rabbi, you might ask, from what are we seeking to be redeemed now?  We are free people in a free land, with everything available to us 24/7 (even though some of us prefer to avail ourselves to it only 24/6).  What could be better than this?

Without getting into messy, messianic theory, let’s just say that we are enslaved to an imperfect world.  The life that God has given us is perfect; the world in which we live is not.  Redemption, we hope, will bring perfection to this world - no more slavery, no more oppression, no more war, and so forth.

Shirat HaYam is a lovely and unique piece of Torah that captures the elation that the Israelites must have felt after escaping Egypt.  Its Hebrew is poetic and luscious, its tale of the Israelites singing and dancing together with Moshe and a reprise by Miriam HaNevi’ah, Miriam the Prophetess leading the women alone with timbrels and choreography, is inspiring.  And when we chanted it this morning, we included the call-and-response melody that incorporates congregational participation, lending to our own excitement at re-enacting this holy moment in our national story.

However, I wonder how many of us can actually connect this joy with our own, living as free people in a wealthy, open society.  Although one of the goals of Pesah is to contrast the value of freedom with the pain and bitterness of oppression, I wonder whether talking about this for one or two nights per year can really get the point across.  

Are we happy with what we have?  Are we too comfortable to appreciate our gifts?  Do we take too much for granted?  Are we truly capable of outright joy, or have we been jaded by the monotony of abundance?

In a moment, I’m going to open up the floor.  What are the things that make you happy?

Before that, however, I would like to point out a fascinating initiative in the United Nations from the smallish, mountainous nation of Bhutan.  Bhutan is in the Himalayas, sandwiched between India and China, not far from Nepal and Bangladesh.  It’s about twice the size of Israel (without the territories), and with one-tenth the population (about 800,000 people), who are primarily Buddhist and Hindu.  It became a constitutional monarchy just five years ago, having been an absolute monarchy.

Why am I telling you about Bhutan?  Because in 2005, Bhutan made the pioneering decision tomeasure the happiness of its citizens, and created a new indicator to describe the Bhutanese state of joy.  Following the model of the standard economic metric, gross national product (GNP), Bhutan dubbed their new emotional indicator the Gross National Happiness, or GNH.

Two weeks ago, the UN held a special “High-Level Meeting,” organized by Bhutan’s UN delegation.  The meeting was attended by Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and other key diplomats, and addressed raising the worldwide happiness quotient.  The chair of the meeting, former PM of New Zealand and current Administrator of the UN Development Programme Helen Clark described the concept as, “a new economic paradigm, which places sustainability and the well-being of people at the very center of development.”

Last week on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer show, I heard Bhutan’s Secretary of the Gross National Happiness Commission, Karma Tshiteem (that sounds vaguely Hebrew, doesn’t it?) speak about what this indicator measures.  He pointed to the economy, of course, but also that sustainable growth is a greater contributor to happiness than growth alone.  Mr. Tshiteem also mentioned the things that give joy and meaning to life: community vitality, cultural diversity (Bhutan is apparently quite a diverse place), and psychological well-being.  But he emphasized that the most important factor is our use of time: time is life.  Time is decidedly NOT money.  How well we spend our time, how we balance work, family, recreation and so forth, that is where real personal happiness is found.

“Aha!” I thought.  This is where Judaism enters the picture.  Our tradition sanctifies time, far more than space or material.  One of the essential things that differentiates us from other religious traditions is our obsession with time.  Holidays, rituals, eating, study -- these are all tied to time.  The whole of the Talmud opens with the question, “From what time may one recite the evening Shema?”  

It is the sanctification of time that made Judaism portable in the wake of the Second Temple’s destruction, 1941.7 years ago.  Without a permanent dwelling place for the Shekhinah, God’s presence on Earth, we brought that emotional mishkan / tabernacle with us, opening space in our lives and hearts wherever we were around the world, welcoming the Sabbath Queen each Friday evening at sunset in Baghdad and Rome and marking the Exodus from Egypt on the night of the 14th of Nissan in Barcelona and Mumbai and afflicting our souls for the entirety of the 10th of Tishrei in Warsaw and Johannesberg.  The Shekhinah travels with us wherever we go, residing in our sanctuary of time.

The goal of Bhutan’s GNH is that ultimately it will replace the GNP as the primary economic indicator of a nation.  Happiness, after all, is not measured in how many widgets one produces or owns or sells.  But it is measured in how we spend our time.  Great Britain, Costa Rica, New Zealand and Australia are looking into their own happiness measures.  And that is also the benchmark that Judaism strives for.

Says the second-century Palestinian sage Ben Zoma in Pirqei Avot (4:1):
איזהו עשיר? השמח בחלקו
Who is rich? He who is content with his portion.
The key to happiness, suggests Ben Zoma, is to want what you have.  Once we are finished with wanting what we do not have, we can get on with the business of balancing our time such that our metaphysical needs are met.  Karma Tshiteem said on the radio that the greater the alignment between how we spend our time and what we truly value, the happier we are.  Judaism enthusiastically promotes the value of time spent in spiritual pursuit. Sanctification of time, says the collective body of Jewish tradition, makes for happier Jews. Being mindful of that temporal balance leads to greater spiritual satisfaction, and even true joy.

And guess what?  Ben Zoma and the Bhutanese happiness gurus are right on.  According to one recent poll, Bhutan is the 8th-happiest nation in the world.  Over the last few years, the Gallup polling people developed a “statistical composite for the happiest person in America, based on the characteristics that most closely correlated with happiness...”   They found that men are happier than women, older people happier than middle-aged, and so forth.  As it turns out, the statistically happiest person in America is a 5’11” 66-year-old, married, Chinese-American, observant Jewish man living in Hawaii (the happiest state).  His name is Alvin Wong, and he was profiled by a number of news outlets when Gallup came out with the results last year, and Mr. Wong happened to have all of the top characteristics of people who are happy.  Go figure!

In all seriousness, the lesson that both Pirqei Avot and the Bhutanese government teach us is that we all have it within our power to be happy.  Just as the Israelites were besieged miminam umisemolam, on the right and the left during their hasty departure from Egypt, and just as the bold Nahshon ben Aminadav plunged into the water of the Sea of Reeds (as the midrash tells us) and waded in until the water was up to his neck before the sea parted, we too can fend off the attacking forces of disappointment and disillusionment that come with misalignment of our time and values.  Happiness is within our grasp.

OK, Jon Stewart, so no bunnies and chocolate eggs (unless they are kosher for Passover).  But we have something much deeper: time.

I’ll say it once again, and please note that I really mean this: Hag sameah!  Happy holiday.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Friday morning, April 13, 2012.)

The End of the Exodus - Thursday Kavvanah, 4/12/2012

Where does the Exodus story end?  With the conclusion of the book of Exodus?  When the Israelites enter the land of Israel?  Or, as one of today's morning minyan attendees quipped, is it still going on?

Tomorrow is the last day of Pesah.  (OK, so not really, except in Israel.  The Torah tells us that this holiday is seven days long, and we in the Diaspora must suffer an extra hametz-free day just to remind us that we are in exile, so it really ends on Saturday night, April 14.  That's 14% more Pesah*.)

One would think that we would conclude this festival with a Torah reading that marks the conclusion of the story, and we do.  But it is something of a judgment call on the part of the (ancient) rabbis as to the conclusion.  To make Pesah fit neatly into the rabbinic overlay of the year, it can't be the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, because that goes with Shavuot.  It can't be the end of the book of Exodus, because all that happens is that the mishkan / tabernacle is built and the Shekhinah, God's presence, moves in, and what would we do with that?  It can't be the entry of the Israelites into Israel because, frankly, that does not occur until the book of Joshua, which is not among the Five Books of Moses.

Instead, we mark the end of Pesah by chanting Shirat HaYam, the song that the Israelites sang upon crossing the Sea of Reeds and arriving safely at the other side (Exodus 15).  It's a good choice: celebratory, joyous, and marking the conclusion of a difficult chapter while hinting that there is more to come (Ex. 15:17):
תְּבִאֵמוֹ, וְתִטָּעֵמוֹ בְּהַר נַחֲלָתְךָ--  מָכוֹן לְשִׁבְתְּךָ פָּעַלְתָּ, יְהוָה; מִקְּדָשׁ, אֲדֹנָי כּוֹנְנוּ יָדֶיךָ
You will bring them and plant them in Your own mountain
The place You made to dwell in, O Lord.

Is it clear that this is the end of the Exodus?  No.  But it is certainly a milestone on the path home, a kind of euphoric rest area on the Sinai-Israel highway.

Hag sameah!

Rabbi Seth Adelson

* This year there is no real Israeli advantage because the seventh day is followed immediately by Shabbat, and one may not prepare non-Pesah food for Shabbat during Pesah, even with the "eruv tavshilin," the permission to prepare food on yom tov for Shabbat.  So the whole Jewish world is suffering for all eight days.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Tasting the Bitterness of Slavery: The Hazeret vs. Maror Debate

I have often been puzzled by the presence of two reserved spots on many seder plates for the same role during the evening's festivities.  The "Maror" segment (just after making the berakhah over the matzah and just before eating the Korekh, the sage Hillel's sandwich), includes the unique berakhah,

Barukh attah Adonai, Eloheinu melekh ha'olam, asher qiddeshanu bemitzvotav, vetzivanu al akhilat maror.
Praised are You, Lord, our God, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified our lives through His commandments, and commanded us to eat maror.  

On some seder plates, you will find only a spot for maror.  On others, you will find an additional one for "hazeret," which is also a type of maror.  Confused?  Me too.

The source for this mitzvah is Exodus 12:8, which states that the Israelites were commanded to eat the Paschal Lamb with something called merorim, the plural of maror, and it is unclear what was meant here.  According to the JPS Torah Commentary, maror "probably referred originally to the kind of pungent condiment with which pastoral nomads habitually season their meals of roasted flesh."

But the rabbis of the Mishnah, trying to interpret for their day (that is, the first couple of centuries of the Common Era), stated that this mitzvah can be fulfilled by eating one of five different types of vegetables.  Problem is, we do not know what most of them are!

Today, the practice among most of the Diaspora is to use horseradish, which for my entire life has been the traditional understanding of the word maror.  Israeli Jews, however, generally use Romaine lettuce, which is known as hazeret.  Hence the presence of the additional spot on the seder plate.

Rabbi David Golinkin just produced a new teshuvah on the subject, and it makes for a great historical romp through the pungent condiments of the Middle East and Eastern Europe.  Check it out here.

I won't spoil the surprise, but remember that whatever the answer, your family's custom is still your family's custom, and I wouldn't go changing anything at home merely on the basis of one rabbi's deduction.  Pesah is a joyous festival of freedom, not an opportunity to tell your grandparents that they have been misled for their whole lives.  Enjoy! 

חג שמח!

Rabbi Seth Adelson

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Slavery, Then and Now: How Matzah Can Change the World

Ha lahma anya,” we chant in Aramaic as we open the Maggid / storytelling section of the Passover seder.  “This is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.  Let all who are hungry come and eat.”  

I must confess that I truly loathe matzah, and love good quality, fresh bread.  I dread this time of year with the same passion that drives men to produce great sandwiches - the TLT, for example: baked tofu, lettuce and tomato, ideally with red onion and wasabi mayonnaise on a hallah roll.  Matzah is not merely unsatisfying; it’s downright painful, and somewhat unsettling.

But that, of course, is exactly the point.  For eight days out of the year, we forgo not only the sourdough, whole wheat, rye, pumpernickel, pita, tortillas, and of course pasta, decent breakfast cereals, soy sauce, and a whole range of other hametz-laden edibles.  This is supposed to be a challenge, one that brings us down a few notches from our usual comfort range; although we are free, we should continue to look back over our shoulders to those whom we left behind in Egypt, those who even in this day are oppressed and suffering, like modern-day slaves.

There are an estimated 12 million to 27 million slaves on the planet today: 80% are female, 50% are minors.  Some 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year, and more within their own countries.  Contemporary slaves falls into two major categories: those that are forced into prostitution, and those in forced-labor arrangements.  Both of these types exist within our borders, but our lifestyles support slavery all over the world.  If you want to see how your choices keep slaves and their taskmasters in business all over the world, go to the website slaveryfootprint.org.

Why is it that Jews have often been at the forefront of humanitarian causes?  Why is it that we have such a long track record of remembering the poor and disenfranchised, of taking steps to repair this fractured world?  Perhaps it is because the Torah exhorts us no less than 36 times to protect the stranger that dwells among us, far more than keeping the Shabbat or avoiding pork.  Or maybe it is the matzah.  The bread of poverty reminds us that slavery is still a part of us, and that redemption comes when all of humanity comes forth from Egypt.  So please, don’t enjoy your food during the week of Pesah; allow the hard, unpalatable staple to bring to mind the suffering of others, the oppression of those who are figuratively as well as literally enslaved.

Let all who are hungry come and eat.

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally published in the Temple Israel Voice, 4/7/2012.)