Sunday, April 20, 2014

The True Meaning of Matzah - Seventh Day Pesah, 5774

I suspect that some of you must have a running bet over whether I’m going to begin a sermon with, “I recently heard on NPR…” I’m not sure what the current odds are, but it may be that money is about to be owed:

I recently heard on NPR a fascinating story about a church in North Carolina that really struck me. At St. Albans Episcopal Church in Davidson, a well-appointed outer suburb of Charlotte, there is a new bronze statue on the church grounds, depicting a figure lying, huddled on a bench, wrapped in a blanket. The only body parts of the figure visible are its feet, which display the wounds that, according to Christian tradition, were caused by the crucifixion of Jesus at the hands of the Romans. The statue is titled Jesus the Homeless, and, as you may imagine, has caused no shortage of uproar within the congregation. Some love it, including the church’s pastor, and some hate it. (BTW, the sculptor has a wonderful name that may resonate for some in this holiday season: Timothy Schmalz.)
The Rev. David Buck sits next to the Jesus the Homeless statue that was installed in front of his church, St. Alban's Episcopal, in Davidson, N.C.
What caught my attention when listening to this story is the power of this message. One goal of art, as with religion, is to take us outside of ourselves, to raise our awareness about things that we cannot otherwise see. The message that this statue projects is not the typical theology common to images found in churches - Jesus’s birth or death scenes, or decked out with glorious threads and haloes and rays of light.

Rather, the message here is, remember the needy! You who come to this well-kept suburban church, which could afford to spend $22,000 to purchase the art installation in memory of a deceased member, should remember that there are plenty of people in the world, good, deserving people, who cannot afford a home, much less one in a neighborhood like this. And this is a message that all of us who live in more comfortable environments would do well to remember.

And while some believe that this is an affront to the central character in Christianity, others see this as religious consciousness-raising par excellence. As the church’s spiritual leader Rev. David Buck puts it, "We believe that that's the kind of life Jesus had. He was, in essence, a homeless person."

Now of course, I am not here today to talk about Jesus, even though yesterday was Easter Sunday. Rather, I am going to talk about Pesah, which of course plays a role as the backdrop in the Christian bible for the events surrounding Jesus’ death.

However, I think that the symbolic intent conveyed by the statue is as valent here as it is in North Carolina, and in fact, one of the central mitzvot / commandments of Pesah, the consumption of matzah, is its spiritual analog.

Occasionally, I will admit that we have a problem in Judaism. We try to hit too many buttons at once. When you consider Pesah, for example, you can see how the central message of this holiday might be obscured amidst all the other noise. What are the themes of Pesah? There are several - this is a holiday with at least four names: Hag ha-Aviv (the festival of spring), Hag ha-Herut (the festival of freedom), and Hag ha-Matzot (the festival of flat, tasteless, cracker-like bread), and of course, Pesah, referring to the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb. But the central message of Pesah is even more specific than that. It is reflected in the following statement, which we say during the seder, right before we ask the Four Questions that get the conversation about slavery and freedom started:

הַא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא, דִּאֲכַלוּ אֲבָהָתַנָא בְּאַרְעָא דְּמִצְרַיִם.  כָּל דִּכְפִין, יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכוּל; כָּל דִּצְרִיךְ יֵיתֵי וִיפַסַּח.
Ha lahma anya di-akhalu avahatana be-ar’a demitzrayim.
Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul; kol ditzrikh yeitei veyifsah.
This is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.
Let all who are hungry, come and eat.
Let all who are in need come and celebrate Passover.
Most of us probably rush by this statement on the way to more interesting territory in the Haggadah, or perhaps on the way to dinner, without thinking about it too deeply. It’s in Aramaic, and we all know that when we find ritual passages in Aramaic, it’s because the liturgical framers wanted us to understand. The passage refers to the Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 20b. In enumerating the noble deeds performed by the great sage Rav Huna, the Gemara reports the following:

When Rav Huna was in possession of some medicament, he would take a pitcherful thereof, hang it on the door-post and say: “Whoever wishes to have some, let him come and take it.” … When he was about to sit down to a meal, he would open the doors, saying: “Anyone who desires to eat, let him come in and eat.”

What made Rav Huna a great sage (and not a merely good one) was his willingness to share with those in need. We echo those words when we open our seder, even before telling the Pesah story, by saying, in a language that (at least historically) the Jews understood better than Hebrew, “Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul,” let all who are hungry, come and eat.

We borrowed this text directly into the Haggadah because it speaks to the values that we highlight on this holiday. We should be more like Rav Huna. When we sit and discuss our departure from Egypt, an abundant meal awaiting us in the kitchen, we should not forget that we are a people whose nationhood was forged in slavery and oppression, and that we should remember (א) there are plenty of others out there who are still suffering, and (ב) that we might just as easily end up in Mitzrayim, the narrow place of Egypt, once again. It is our duty not just to recite this line, but to really mean it. If we do not open up our doors to those who lack food and shelter and clothing, then we must, in subsequent days and months, open up our hearts and our wallets.

And thus, reciting this line at the seder is far from the end of fulfilling our Passover obligation. Think about it for a moment: the first seder was nearly a week ago, and we’re still eating matzah, and (at least for the Ashkenazim) a range of meager foods.

Eating is so central to our lives - those of us who can afford to, do it almost all day long. It’s such a huge part of our personal and macro-economies that we often do not realize how omnipresent it is - how much time and energy we spend eating, or preparing, or shopping for, or growing and harvesting and transporting and all the other tasks associated with food.

So it is remarkable indeed that we eat this lehem oni, this bread of poverty, for eight whole days. Not just one or two evenings, but for about 2% of your calendar year.

Matzah is, or at least should be, something akin to the Jewish version of the homeless Jesus: a reminder: a symbol of what we have vs. what we might not have; a beacon calling us to be at once grateful for our freedom and our ability to dine like free people as well as mindful of those who have no freedom and cannot dine like we do.

Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. This potent message of the seder continues to resonate, even as this festival winds to a close.

My sister, who is living in Budapest, Hungary this year, put together a seder for some family and friends last week. She told me that the matzah that she procured in Budapest was somehow much worse than the matzah that she has been accustomed to in the States.

Now, I’m not sure how that can be - matzah, lehem oni, the bread of poverty, is not something to be enjoyed. But whether you like eating matzah or not, and regardless of its quality and relative tastiness, the meaning of the matzah is consistent: we emerged from oppression so that we can extend a hand to others.

We do not often step over homeless people here in Great Neck, nor are we frequently approached by people asking for money on Middle Neck Road. But there are needy among us here, as there are everywhere. The matzah should remind us of that, as well as our obligation to be like Rav Huna, and figuratively, if not literally, open the doors to those in need.
And so, to conclude, we should use these last two days of Pesah (and for many of us the last days of consuming matzah until the next 14th of Nisan) to consider how we might emulate Rav Huna, how we might fulfill our obligation to care for those who have less than we do. How can we carry the message and symbolism of matzah into the other 98% of the year? Can we commit to the following?

  • Bringing food to Temple Israel when our Chesed Connection collects, or directly to the food pantry at St. Aloysius church here in town
  • Participating in Midnight Run, which we host here at Temple Israel, and helping with Hatzilu, which distributes food to those in need locally
  • Donating to charitable organizations that feed the hungry (e.g. Mazon here in America, Meir Panim in Israel)
  • Helping our children and grandchildren to understand the importance of giving by demonstrating our willingness to do so. Get them involved!
  • Educate yourself on what the issues are surrounding hungry and homeless people. Find your own way to help out. Seek out other initiatives and promote them to your family and friends. Raise the bar of dialogue.

Don’t let the message of the matzah get lost in all the other messages of this season. Let all who are hungry, come and eat.

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Temple Israel of Great Neck, Monday, April 21, 2014.)

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Recipe: Pesah Eggplant Parmesan

Great for hol hamo'ed!


  • 1 eggplant, in ½” slices
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cans tomato sauce
  • ¾ cup freshly-grated parmesan
  • ½ cup grated mozzarella
  • oil for frying (safflower)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • matzah (for extra fiber - a good thing during Pesah! - use whole wheat)
  • matzah meal
  • misc. add’l vegetables
  • salt
  • pepper
  • garlic powder

Mix matzah meal, salt, pepper, garlic powder on a plate.  Break eggs, put on second plate (best to use one at a time).
Heat safflower oil, enough to cover bottom of pan.
Dip slices of eggplant in egg, then in matzah meal mixture, then fry until golden brown on each side.

Layer as follows:
  • One layer of matzah
  • Pour some olive oil on matzah
  • Spread some tomato sauce
  • One layer of fried eggplant slices
  • More tomato sauce
  • Sprinkle some parmesan
Repeat as necessary.

Add vegetables here and there (mushrooms, artichokes, olives, peppers, onions, etc.)

On the top add an extra layer of tomato sauce, then parmesan and the mozzarella.
A wee bit more pepper on top, and a few sprigs of fresh basil couldn’t hurt.  

Bake at 375 for 20 minutes uncovered.  Enjoy!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Equal Access to God - Pesah 5774

My eldest son’s bar mitzvah was in Israel two-and-a-half weeks ago. He lives at Kibbutz Ein Gev, which might just be Gan Eden (the Garden of Eden), located on the eastern shore of the Kinneret, the Sea of Galilee. We put together complete, Conservative-style, fully egalitarian Shabbat evening and morning services there for family and friends and kibbutzniks, but we started the process in Jerusalem, two days earlier at the Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. There, on Thursday morning, we held a service where Oryah laid tefillin and read Torah, accompanied by his immediate family.

What was particularly unique and interesting about this day for me, in addition to my son’s bar mitzvah, was that this Thursday morning service took place not at what most of us think of as the Kotel, but at what might be described as a new ancient location: the southernmost area of the Western Wall, just under the archaeologically-significant outcropping of the wall known as Robinson’s Arch. (It was named after the early 19th-century American biblical scholar, Edward Robinson, who identified the arch on a visit to Palestine in 1838 as part of the ancient bridge that led to the Temple plaza from Jerusalem’s downtown prior to the Roman destruction in 70 CE.)

To distinguish it from the main plaza in front of the Western Wall where most people congregate, this area has come to be known informally in recent years as “HaKotel HaMasorti,” the Conservative Western Wall (Masorti being the international term for the Conservative movement).  But now it has a new name: “Ezrat Yisrael.” It’s really a very clever name: it’s the name of an area in the Second Temple that was open to all Israelites (i.e. those who were neither Kohanim or Leviim). However, to the speaker of modern Hebrew it suggests a place that is open to all Jews, differentiated from the women’s section in an Orthodox synagogue called the ezrat nashim, the women’s section that is separate from that of the men in any Orthodox synagogue; this name also derives from ancient Temple, where there was also an ezrat nashim.

Since last September, when the Israeli government finally agreed to make access to the Masorti Kotel easier, there are a couple of new features at the Robinson’s Arch area. There is now a huge, expansive platform with several rolling lecterns overlooking the site, which may be reserved in advance by anybody wishing to hold an egalitarian service there. There is also a special, separate entrance adjacent to the main entrance to the Kotel Plaza, with a sign saying “Ezrat Yisrael” and a security guard (although no metal detectors, as for the traditional Kotel). These innovations have made the whole experience far more pleasant and convenient and accessible than the site had been previously. As I passed through the new entrance, I thought, Pithu li sha’arei tzedeq, avo vam odeh Yah. Open for me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter to praise God. (Psalm 118:20 - We sang those words a few minutes ago in Hallel.) It has been a long time coming that this prayer space of equality, where women and men may worship in contemporary style, where all can be seen as equal with respect to God, where all may participate fully, is now open to the public and functioning respectfully.

We held our service on the new platform, overlooking the ancient walls built by King Herod nearly 2,000 years ago, and enjoyed the relative peace and serenity of the scene as compared with the hubbub of the traditional Kotel area.

A little basic history is called for here: Prior to the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, Judaism was mostly centralized. Worship was governed by the kohanim, the priests, and included pilgrimage and agricultural sacrifice.  When the Temple was destroyed and the role of the priesthood effectively nullified, a new group of leaders, scholars that went by the title of “Rav” or “Rabban” or “Rabbi” developed a new way to engage with God: through words of prayer and words of study. As a result, they redefined what it means to be holy for Jews. Holiness would no longer be assigned to one central place, but would be carried with the Jews in their hearts and minds wherever they went throughout the world. We each carry within us the spark of holiness, and wherever we gather to sanctify time or to engage with the ancient words of our tradition, that holiness multiplies itself to make a miqdash me’at, a little place of holiness.

(As an aside here: It was this portability and effective democratization of Judaism that enable us to survive. As I referenced on Shabbat Hagadol, we could have disappeared when the Romans ceased the Temple service. But instead we found a creative workaround. This is why the Dalai Lama convened a bunch of Jewish leaders back in the early 1990s to learn strategies on how a people may maintain its faith in exile; this tale was the subject of Rodger Kamenetz’s book, The Jew in the Lotus.)

That said, I must confess that I have become, in recent years, somewhat disenchanted with whole Kotel experience. It has become an obsession for our people - these ancient stones. Certainly, they are laden with history, and certainly, it is a place that speaks with great emotional power. But since the Roman destruction, there really are not holy places in Judaism like there are in, say, Islam. Holiness is where the Jews are, and is not tethered to any particular location.

But the fascination with that big, open-air, continuous pick-up minyan adjacent to an ancient retaining wall is challenging to me. It has a faint whiff of avodah zarah, idolatry. The history of the Temple Mount is powerful and inspiring, incorporating the ancient Jewish tale of destruction and rebuilding coupled with hope and Divine connection, but it has never been, and was never intended to be what it has become in recent years: an Orthodox synagogue. We do not worship rocks, ladies and gentlemen. We worship only God.

Today, the Kotel has a mehitzah (that was not always the case) and an Orthodox rabbi appointed by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, who has expressly forbidden mixed minyanim, or even women-only services that feature women singing out loud like men do. I continue to read accounts of how some of the worshippers there have become increasingly bold about telling others how to behave / pray / walk / dress and so forth in the plaza. Ladies and gentlemen, there are many paths to God, and if my approach differs from yours, that’s fine. We should make an effort to accommodate each other where possible, and respect each other’s path.

When I am at the Kotel, I too feel the ancient reverberations of our history and our tradition emanating from that wall. And I feel the sadness of loss, the hope of rebuilding, and the yearning of two thousand years of exile. Indeed, the ancient ruins of Israel, the wellspring of our heritage, made it not just possible but mandatory that the Jewish state be located there, and not in Madagascar or Birobidjan or Brooklyn or Vilna.

But even more, I feel the pain of divisiveness, the arrogance of those within our midst who want to tell others what to believe and how to act, the anger at the insulting and even dangerous behavior of those who have somehow incorporated intolerance into their religious zeal.

If those Herodian rocks could speak, what would they say? Can’t you people all just get along? Can’t you just accept that there are many paths through Judaism, that every Jew should be entitled to visit this venerated, historical place and access God through whatever means he or she chooses? If those rocks could speak, wouldn’t they remind us of the Talmudic passage that tells us that the Second Temple was lost due to sin’at hinam, causeless hatred?

The victory of the last year, when the Netanyahu government agreed to created this open prayer space for egalitarian groups at Robinson’s Arch, is of utmost importance because of the message it broadcasts to the Jewish world: Women count too. And this message, which is a bridge we crossed at Temple Israel in 1976, has not yet infiltrated into much of the traditional Jewish world. Pesah in particular is a time when we should actively recall this, because of a passage in the Talmud related to the seder (Pesahim 108a):
ואמר רבי יהושע בן לוי: נשים חייבות בארבעה כוסות הללו, שאף הן היו באותו הנס.
Ve-amar Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: Nashim hayyavot be-arba’ah kosot halalu, she-af hen hayu beoto hanes.
R. Joshua ben Levi said: Women are obligated for the Four Cups, because they too participated in the same miracle.
It may be hard to believe for the frummer residents of Beit Shemesh and Boro Park, but half of those who were redeemed from Egypt were female. And so they deserve a place at the table as well, not relegated to another room or behind a mehitzah. And not just on Pesah, but in all aspects of Jewish life.

Why do we need to continue to focus on the equality of women? Because there are Yiddish signs in neighborhoods of Brooklyn asking women to step off the sidewalk in deference to a man. Because there is an ongoing campaign in Jerusalem and other primarily Haredi cities to remove women from sight: prohibition of women on advertising billboards, or when they do appear, vandalization by anonymous zealots. Because an eight-year-old girl, Naama Margolis, was harassed and spat upon by Haredi residents of Beit Shemesh two years ago because they felt that her dress was was not sufficiently modest. Eight years old!

This is all the more reason why the Ezrat Yisrael is so important. While certain quarters of Judaism are busy trying to make women invisible, we have succeeded in elevating them by actually building a raised platform. We have physically elevated those choosing to worship adjacent to the ancient site of Beit HaMiqdash, and thus raised them spiritually as well.

Chairman Mao famously said, “Women hold up half the sky.” Well, they did in ancient Israel too, and in Egypt, and they do so today. (Maybe even more than half.) But that does not mean that our work is done - on the contrary, we must continue to strive to make men and women equal partners in holiness, with equal access to God.
By bringing together the sparks of holiness found within every one of us, male and female, we can only raise ourselves higher.

Hag sameah.