Tag: Passover

Engaging Seders: Give Each Guest a Seder Responsibility

Passover invites us to place ourselves within the story of the Exodus from Egypt. In the Haggadah we read: Bechol or vador chayav adam lirote et atzmo k’eelu hunyatzah mimitzrayim – in each and every generation a person must see him/herself as if he/she went forth from Egypt. The Seder calls us to journey personally to the promised land, from hopelessness to hopefulness, from pain to healing, from oppression to freedom.

As such, the Seder itself needs to involve every person, a feat easily accomplished with one quick email sent to your guests. Imagine asking guests to prepare to share something specific during the Seder. Your email sent even the day before the seder could delineate his/her role, giving each one time to think about a meaningful presentation.

Here’s Our Pre-Seder Email
Our pre-Seder email looks something like this. Like we did, you should substitute your guests’ names for descriptions that fit. Use our suggestions and/or make up your own. In parentheses after each assignment, we suggest times in the seder to make the presentation. To remember the story, check out pages 7-9 of my friend’s online Haggadah.

Dear family and friends:

Lest our seder become boring, we are asking each of you to come prepared to participate actively in our Seder. We will be using a Haggadah but the really meaningful experience will come from what each of us bring from our own lives to the Seder.

So here are your seder participation assignments. Plan for a 3-5 minute presentation. Feel free to email or call me if you have questions or have something different you would rather share. But please, take time to prepare. And know this: no prepared sharing, no food for you. Enjoy preparing:

Infant: You are baby Moses in the basket on the Nile. Have your parent(s) create a costume for you, with a basket to “float” in. Your older sibling(s) – or your parent(s) – can help reenact the Nile moment. [Maggid – telling story of the Exodus]

Video Gamer: You are an accomplished video game player. Your challenge is to connect the games you play with the Passover Seder. Choose one of your favorite online games; print out a few screen shots. Prepare to explain the game, how it works, and two ways that this game illuminates lessons relevant to the story of Passover and the exodus. [Before Yachatz – Creating the Afikomin]

Musically Inclined Child/Adult: You are a lover of music and especially musical theater. Choose one or two modern songs or Broadway show tunes that shed light on the journey to freedom in any of its forms – physical freedom, emotional freedom, spiritual or economic freedom. Be creative. Come with copies of the lyrics or a recording of the song. Be ready to play or sing these songs and to share how they harmonize with the teachings of Passover. [Before Dayeinu]

Dramatically Inclined Child/Adult: Before we sit down to the Seder, please gather all the children and prepare a short dramatic play about the exodus story. I am attaching a brief review of the story. Use costumes from our costume box or clothes from mom and dad’s closet. [Maggid – Telling the Story]

Musician: You can provide musical accompaniment during the Seder where possible and comfortable. Music and words for Dayeinu and other prayer and songs can be found on the internet. Any modern songs you can play that talk about freedom would also be appropriate for our Seder. [Throughout the Seder]

Middle School Student: What have you learned in your history class about ancient Israelite or Egyptian culture? How can lessons from history in general help us love better lives today? You be the teacher and teach us. [Before Maggid – Telling the Story]

Person Who Visited History Museums: You recently history visited museums depicting _________ {fill in the blank}. What did you learn there that sheds light on the important lessons past and future of the Seder/Passover story. (Perhaps guests can report about a visit to a Holocaust museum, museums recounting the civil rights movement, locations of Japanese internment, important places in the LGBT rights movement or other similar locations.) [Before Ten Plagues]

Older Teen or College Student: You are learning about communities struggling with their own enslavement, their own Egypts. Teach us about one such community in the world today. Where is their Egypt, that dark, narrow place which torments them? Who is their Pharaoh, the one most responsible for their oppression? How can we be the Moses and Miriam to help lead them to freedom or how can we help nurture their own leaders? [Before Matzah]

Parent of Young Child: As a new parent, you have an opportunity to use the Seder to mold your child’s spiritual life. What are one or two spiritual lessons you hope will enhance his spirituality in the coming years of Seders together. [After Urchatz – Symbolic Washing]

New Parent: As a new parent, this is your first Passover with your child. What are kind of world do you promise to strive to create so she won’t have to wander so much in life? [After Rachatzah – Symbolic Washing]

Person who Visited Israel: Tell us: In what ways is Israel the Promised Land still today? During your visit, when did you feel like you were spiritually enlivened? Though our people reside in the Holy Land, in what ways are we still wandering in the wilderness? [Before Nirtzach – Next Year in Jerusalem]

Older Adult: Over the years you have celebrated many a Passover, each time focusing on the unique issues of the moment in life. Share with us one example of a Passover gone by which was particularly meaningful in the way it captured the lessons and values of the festival. [After Urchatz – Symbolic Washing]

Older Adult: Over your years you have seen pharaohs rise and fall, enslaving physically and/or spiritually peoples or individuals. Similarly, you have seen people make it to the promised land of freedom. Share with us one example of a journey to freedom – personal or national – that you witnessed in your lifetime. [Before Maror – Bitter Herbs]

Photographer: The Haggadah speaks of four children, representing four ways of connecting to Judaism. Print four pictures – your own or those of others – that capture an interpretation of four ways of engaging Judaism. You may use pictures of people, animals, places. Explain how these teach about Jewish living. [Before Four Children]

Businessman: The karpas or greens are dipped in salt water. The karpas – and the egg – represent the promise of spring and of new life and new hope. From your work in the world of business, share with us how a new spring is dawning for the world through these efforts. [Before Karpas]

Lawyer: As someone who deals with the laws of our nation/community, you know how laws can enslave and laws can free. Describe one way that the law is still used to oppress one subgroup in our country. Explain what is happening to change this law. [Before Ten Plagues]

Medical Professional: You work in healthcare. Access to adequate healthcare and the lack thereof is a plague for our generation. In what ways have you seen access to healthcare become more of a plague and what are hopeful signs that the plague is lifting? [After Ten Plagues]

Grandparent: You have a grandchild and are anticipating celebrating Jewish life with her. What are central Jewish ideas and values that you hope to pass onto her as she grows. How is a Passover Seder an opportunity to do so? [Before Yachatz – Breaking the Matzah]

Thank you all ahead of time for preparing. We will weave your presentation throughout the Seder. Your efforts will make our Seder that much more engaging.

See you all at the Seder.

How to host a huge Seder without cooking a lot

Although we started out with the smallest guest list in years, we ended up with the most well attended Seder that we have ever hosted. Thanks to technology, tradition and trust, we had more people at our Seder table than ever before.

Although our family is spread all over the globe, we managed to bring them together with the help of a few computers, an iPad and some patience. We Skyped them in – my parents from Cape Cod, my nephew and niece from the Boston-area, and our daughter from Ecuador. My sister and I coordinated a bicoastal seder, though the finicky internet ended the experience far too early. When her turn to read, we even held up our haggadah for our South American-based student to participate.

The world is so big, but technology joyfully makes it feel so much smaller. And since our family is spread out, holidays no longer need to feel so separating. Technology has allowed us to double the size of our Seder without having to set more places or even cook more food.

Our modest home stretched to accommodate the next group of visitors. 2 million Israelites came by to share the experience. Their experience. Reading the Magid (story) of their exodus, we felt their presence wih us. (Here’s the math: 603,550 Israelite men of fighting age counted in the Torah. Double it for similar aged women, give them an average of 2 kids each, add in the old, ailing and disabled, and we get close to 2.5 million.) Of course, from an historical standpoint, it’s unclear if the Exodus actually happened as reported. Still, the mythohistorical Israelites came over for Seder dinner, but thankfully they didn’t eat.

We went interfaith for parts of our Seder, welcoming in 3 million undocumented foreigners living in the state of California. They live in terror, especially when they find themselves victims of crime, because they are fearful that going to the police will lead to automatic deportation. This is a terrible way to live, for any human beings, let alone people who are mugged, sexually assaulted or forced to work without pay by unscrupulous slave-driving bosses.

Using a Haggadah supplement produced by Reform CA, a group of Reform Jewish Rabbis and laypeople, we committed ourselves to standing up for the stranger. Words from Torah became the rallying cry for us; the Trust Act, a piece of legislation before the California Assembly, serves as our vehicle to combat this focused oppression. Even though they left with their bellies empty – apparently not everyone likes matzah and gefilte fish, the cry of the 3 million resounded throughout our Seder.

Guests Kept Coming
We spoke with the women of Israel who monthly pray at the Kotel (Western Wall), in hopes of opening up this Jewish site to prayer and ritual as we liberal Jews experience it.

We talked with Palestinians and Israelis – a passionate bunch they were – who want nothing less than normalized relations as members of two states living side by side in peace.

Lo Dayeinu
It would NOT have been enough if only seven of us sat around the coffee table on living room couches to read through the Haggadah. The Seder is meant to be shared – with far flung relatives, with our ancient ancestors, and with modern victims of oppression.

Because only seven of us ate, we had leftovers for a week. More significantly, with the house cleaned up and the Seder plates put away, we still carry with us the extra responsibility – burden?!? – of our new friends.

Politics on the Bimah

“Keep the politics off the bimah.” We hear this in the synagogue whenever a rabbi speaks on a topic nearing the intersection of Jewish values and public policy. While argued most vociferously by those who disagree with the rabbi’s message, the critique itself that “politics has no place on the bimah” is a decidedly false characterization of the essence of Judaism and Jewish textual tradition. (Note: I am not speaking about endorsing a candidate for public office.)

Judaism speaks to every issue 
Judaism has something to say (often multiple opinions) about any issue. The talmudic rabbis argued about everything — from commerce and capital punishment to property rights and personal behavior, to abortion, contraception and homosexuality. They took on poverty and hunger, distribution of wealth and health care.

From our earliest incarnation as the faith of Abraham, our tradition has spoken truth to power. Who can forget Abraham preaching at God when the Holy One seemed to want to act wholly unjustly toward Sodom and Gomorrah? Later, as we became the Children of Israel, we accepted a legal tradition that set ethical standards for every aspect of our lives. Jewish tradition could not contemplate a separation between the personal and the public.

So when critics — Jews and non-Jews alike — argue that rabbis should be silent on matters of public policy, they are defying the essence of religion from the time of Moses and before. When complainers cry “politics” every time the rabbi speaks out against the status quo, they forget that we Jews have always been the agents for ethical living.

Moses, the ethical agitator 
As Moses stumbled upon a bush that burned unconsumed, the character of the Jew was forever stamped in our souls. Out there in the wilderness, the personal became political. When Moses returned to Egypt to convey God’s message to Pharaoh to “let My people go,” he ensured that Jewish leaders would speak truth to power for generations to come. The life conditions of people — as individuals and a community — became a central concern of Jewish rabbinic leadership.

Who was Moses? Rambam characterized him as a rationalist religious thinker. Chasidic rebbes saw him as the ultimate tzadik (righteous person). There are those in every age who want to remake Moses in their image. But to reduce Moses’ influence to intellectuality or spirituality is to do revisionist history. Moses wasn’t content merely ministering to the broken souls of his people; he spoke out for a community oppressed. Moses wasn’t just a pastoral leader; he was an agitator, working for the freedom of his people.

So let’s stop trying to cleanse from Moses’ story — our story — the very essence of his leadership. Moses was a kind of visionary prophet. Like the prophet Nathan, who called King David on his unethical behavior, and Queen Esther, who went toe-to-toe with Haman, Moses saw reason for hope, and with deep faith spoke out against injustice.

This Passover, be Moses
To properly observe the Pesach seder, one must retell the story of the Exodus. One must recall a time when people were oppressed, and when Moses heard the call of the Divine and stood up to Pharaoh’s oppression. Passover is about bitterness sweetened and salty tears refreshed.

It is no accident that the Exodus features prominently in all movements for freedom and equality, from the anti-apartheid movement to the anti-slavery movement, from women’s suffrage to the American civil rights movement, to freedom for Soviet Jewry. The Exodus narrative, while profoundly spiritual and dripping with mystical insights, is at its root the story of injustice confronted.

Of course, to tell the story is to reimagine ourselves simultaneously as slaves moving toward freedom and also as Moses leading them there. Passover declares that inequities and injustices must be confronted and corrected.

Hear the call of the seder 
So, next time your rabbi speaks up about public policy and Judaism — on economic justice or health care reform, marriage equality or Israel’s responsibility to work diligently for peace, our concern for the environment or our differing notions about when life begins — she is walking in the footsteps of Moses and Abraham, of Esther and the Nathan. Your rabbi is listening closely to the call of the seder, to stand up for the downtrodden and to cry out for the oppressed.

Hearing this call is often uncomfortable. But Passover is not about feeling good; it is about being ethical. Not about consuming good food, but feeding our hunger for righteousness. Pesach calls us to critique our world, our country, our homeland and our community. It pushes us to imagine a better way. It goads us to remake the world as it could be, as it should be.

So make your Passover meaningful. Hear the call to justice. And demand our leaders help bring it to fruition.

This d’var Torah was originally posted in the Jewish Journal.

Why is there an Oyster on the Seder Plate?

The following Seder reading was adapted from the New York Times article by Paul Greenberg, An Oyster on the Seder Plate?

[Lest anyone think otherwise, we did NOT really put an oyster on our Seder plate.  However, based on the lesson it teaches, we might have.]

Download a printable version of this Haggadah insert.

Why is There an Oyster on our Seder Plate?

ALL: Tonight we might have put an oyster on our Seder plate.

Reader: While I didn’t particularly want to put something traif atop that most kosher of dishes, this Passover falls on the first anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. And since BP, the leaseholder of the failed well, seems intent with its new television ads on making us forget about the spill, I felt that something drastic was in order to help us remember. Combining the memorial powers of the Seder plate with the canary-in-the-coal- mine nature of the oyster seemed a good way to keep the disaster — and BP’s promises to clean up its mess — in mind.

Reader: In March, I spent a week in Louisiana’s bays and bayous. All over the region I encountered oyster dredges full of dead, empty shells and broken oystermen with equally empty pockets. Many of the oystermen I interviewed reported that 80 percent of their beds had been killed.

ALL: Ecologically speaking, this is huge: a single oyster can filter 40 gallons of water a day, and the millions of oysters in Louisiana’s waters are one of the things that make the gulf work as an ecosystem.

Reader: True, many oysters died not from the oil directly, but rather from the consequences of a desperate attempt to counter the spill’s effects. As oil rushed shoreward last spring, Louisiana’s coastal coordinator opened gates along the Mississippi River and released millions of gallons of freshwater, hoping the surge would push the oil away. It’s hard to say whether this worked; what it definitely did do was make some coastal waters too fresh for oysters to survive. Many beds were decimated. It will take years for them to recover.

Reader: Freshwater wasn’t the only thing dumped into gulf waters to mitigate the spill: more than 1.8 million gallons of Corexit, a chemical used to break up oil slicks, transformed the floating, possibly recoverable oil into an invisible angel of death that sank and claimed not just the first born but perhaps the first million born of many gulf creatures — a considerable blow to what is arguably America’s most important fish nursery.

ALL: Indeed, oysters are just the beginning.

Reader: The delayed effects of oil and Corexit will likely be seen for years. In 2012 the number of blue crabs — which many people associate with the Chesapeake Bay but in fact often come from the gulf — may significantly drop thanks to the spill. In 2013, the redfish that Paul Prudhomme famously blackened may not be there for fishermen and diners to enjoy. In 2017 we could see a considerable drop in the population of bluefin tuna, the missing adult fish having been killed as fragile larvae in 2010.

Reader: And even if by some miracle there is no significant decline in the gulf’s sea life, its harvest might still suffer from a sullied reputation. In a recent poll of 18 national restaurant chains released by Greater New Orleans Inc., an economic development organization, found that only 19 percent of those restaurants’ customers held a favorable view of gulf seafood in 2010, compared with 75 percent in 2004.

ALL: Oystermen weren’t the only ones affected by the spill, of course.

Reader: But while BP has compensated waiters and hairdressers for work lost during last summer’s ruined tourist season, most oystermen told me that aside from an emergency payment last fall, they have yet to see compensation that approaches the value of their lost oysters.

Reader: Fortunately for BP, it can take decades for the aftereffects of an event of this scale to appear. And it will be a long time before the Natural Resources Damage Assessment, put in place to determine BP’s true liability, will be made fully public with any sort of conclusion about the company’s liability.

Reader: Although we might have put an oyster on the Seder plate, we might also find a less controversial, less treif way to mark the disaster.

Reader: We might put a small dish of oil next to your glass of wine. After we’ve dipped our finger in our wine to count out the 10 plagues that brought down Egypt’s tyrannical pharaoh, we could dip our finger in the oil and dab out an 11th plague.

ALL: In so doing [we] remember that in A.D. 2010, the Jewish year 5770, humanity damaged a valuable, nourishing ecosystem to maintain the tyranny of oil. Until we throw off that tyranny, we will mark many more plagues in the years to come.

[Paul Greenberg is the author of “Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food.”]

Glee-ful Seder, Got a Bone to Pick with Passover, and Grandparents Recount Pesach Past: Kipnes/November Seder Ideas 2011

Each year, we try to come up with variations on the Seder’s rituals and themes so that our seder participants will experience anew and reflect more deeply on this year’s Seder.  This year’s Seder ideas include a reading on Glee characters as depictions of the Four Children, a new ritual for the Zeroah (shankbone) and presentations by grandparents and college students.  Make sure to peruse previous years’ seder ideas (including my favorite – Why is there a football and a corkscrew on the seder plate?).

Secrets to Success: Most excitingly, our Seder made the jump from child-focused to adult-focused. Our secrets to success included:

  1. Providing enough dipping foods to keep us sated (and not starving) during the Haggadah reading
  2. Embracing a healthy flexibility ensuring that while we did ever ritual and blessing, we moved things around as the story and stomachs determined necessary
  3. Preparation that included giving more than half the participants responsibility for sharing their answers to a question.

Setting Expectations for Thoughtfulness: Now that we are all older (no kids to roll around on the floor), we have an opportunity to experience the Seder in a profoundly new way. We are called together once a year – only once – to really think about our mytho-historical past as part of a people who went from slavery to freedom, from oppression to pain, from hopelessness to hopefulness. We will consider where and for whom freedom still is but a dream. And we will consider how our Biblical memory goads us to be agents of change. So for one meal we will talk, think, listen, and argue,  and only then sit down for the meal.

Preparing Grandparent and College Student Presentations in Advance: We asked the grandparents each to be prepared to talk about one of these questions:

  • What were the Passover Seders like when they were children?
  • How did the messages of the seder influence their lives?
  • In what ways do they value the freedom we have in America?

Similarly, we told the college age participants to be prepared to speak about:

  • One place or situation in the world where freedom still does not exist. 

We lovingly told them that they will be singing for their supper so the meal would not be served until each of them spoke.

The results were fabulous. Grandparents reveled us with stories of their childhood sedarim; the college-age participants spoke about immigrants and the Dream act, anti-semitism around the world as seen through the eyes of college roommates, and marriage equality. A mixed race relative spoke about racism while growing up in the deep south while her child talked about anti-semitism experienced in his middle school.

Dayeinu: We explained that this song Dayeinu (“it would have been enough”) recounts the many blessings brought by God into the lives of our ancestors – the plagues, the exodus, the Torah at Mt. Sinai, manna in the wilderness, arriving in the promised Land – and that how any one blessing would have been enough.  So we invited each participant to recount one blessing – great thing that happened – in his/her life. After each person spoke, we said “dayeinu”.  Then, we sang Dayeinu.

Got a Bone to Pick with Passover: A New Ritual Reading for the Zeroah/Shankbone.  We explored the move from idol worship to monotheism and potentially back to idol worship.  What are the things we worship today?

Glee-ful Passover: On my wife’s suggestion, we adapted the article The Four ‘Sons’ as Characters from Glee into a Seder reading: Glee, the Passover Four Children and How We Connect to Judaism.  Then the leader asked people to respond by either answering the questions at the beginning of the reading, or just saying what it said to them. The discussion continued for a while as people spoke about their own connection to Judaism, how Jewish self-perception  changed when they went off to college or to Israel, and how Jewish connections were different in open and diverse areas like the Bay area but less so in small towns.

Got a Bone to Pick on Passover: Try this New Shankbone (Zeroah) Ritual

The Zeroah or Shank Bone on the seder plate reminds us of the pascal sacrifice, the sacrifice of a lamb on the eve of the Exodus from Egypt.  It served many purposes, including as a thanksgiving offering to God for (soon) bringing us out of Egypt.  It also recalls the lamb’s blood that our Israelites ancestors put on their doorposts, just before the 10th plague, so that the Angel of Death would pass over their houses.

[Other Passover Resources and Ideas here.]
[Can We Eat Bean, Rice, Corn and Peas on Passover?]

Think about the far-reaching power of that simple act.  In Egypt, many things and many animals were considered to be gods. Pharaoh was a god; the sun and the Nile were gods. Lambs were also considered gods. So, as one of their final acts before they left Egypt, the Israelites were instructed to sacrifice a lamb and place its blood on their doorposts. In doing so, they passed an important test of faith.  By sacrificing the lamb, they were admitting – as much to themselves as to others or to God – that the lamb was not a god, but merely an animal.  With this simple, uncommon act, our ancestors evidenced their willingness to reject all the (false) gods of the Egyptians.

Tonight, as we raise this shankbone, let us follow the lead of our Israelite ancestors.  We can declare our willingness to reject the false gods of our world: We can dismiss the gods we make of celebrity and sports figure, just because they were born with talent, yet irrespective of the morality of their actions. We can pledge to move beyond our worship of the false gods of money or power.  What else – what other kinds of false gods – do we worship?

(Invite others to list those things that our world worships mistakenly…)

May we have the strength, as did our Israelites ancestors, to reject these false gods.  May we worship only the One that leads us to justice and compassion, to truth and peace.

Unchain Your Faith: One Rabbi’s Radical Ideas about God

Originally published in Tribe (February 2010)

When our Israelite ancestors participated in the Exodus from Egypt, they liberated themselves from much more than just slavery and Pharaoh’s taskmasters. By means of the Ten Plagues, which dismantled the Egyptian pantheon, the Israelites witnessed the defeat of the Nile god, Sun god and Pharaoh’s (false) god complex. Crossing Yam Suf (“Sea of Reeds”), they left behind 400 years of Egyptian-influenced preconceptions about religious faith.

In the intervening 3,000 years, we Jews again have found ourselves enslaved by a host of oppressive ideas about our Jewish religion. Some of these misconceptions arise out of selective misinterpretation of our sacred texts; others result from the growing misguided fundamentalism that has steadily seeped into our Jewish and non-Jewish worlds.

As Passover — our festival of liberation — again approached (and passed), perhaps it is time for our generation of Jews to liberate ourselves from a new set of preconceptions about what Judaism really holds to be true.

1. God Shaved the White Beard
With all of the Torah’s anthropomorphisms, it is difficult to escape the tendency to think about God as the guy with a white beard in a white robe. But God, as far as our Jewish tradition is concerned, ain’t no white guy and ain’t got no beard. In fact, if we take the Second Commandment seriously (“make no idol or image …”), we soon realize that God is a “nobody” and literally has no body. We Jews accept that God is the most real “nothing” around. God just is.

2. God Lacks Name Recognition
Contrary to popular belief in Jewish circles, God’s name is not Adonai, Yahweh or Hashem. “God” isn’t even God’s name. “God” is a title, a job description. According to Torah, our ultimate sourcebook for all things Jewish, God’s name is a four-letter word: Yud-hey-vav-hey (known as the Tetragrammaton). Like most four-letter words, it is unpronounceable. Literally. Each of these letters is silent until combined with a vowel, but since the Torah was written without vowels, it is impossible to figure out exactly how to pronounce God’s name. Some people pronounce Yahweh based on the vav being vocalized as the German “w.” Others read the yud as the German “j” and get Jehovah. Lawrence Kushner, the Reform Jewish rabbi-mystic, notes that each of the letters represents the non-sound of air moving through the throat and mouth. He once wrote that God’s name is the sound of breathing.

4. God Is Known by a Euphemism
Adonai means “my Lord” (or “my Lords”). Since we do not know how to pronounce God’s name, we need a creative way of addressing God. Adonai — “My Lord” — is a highly respectable, important-sounding euphemism. Adonai conveys that God is hierarchically the top dog. Within its Old World, aristocratic context, the lord was more powerful than the rest of us. It is like calling God the “Celestial CEO.” Of course, Hashem, favored by the Orthodox and the superstitious, means “The Name” and is a euphemism for “Adonai,” used lest we misuse the Holy Name.

5. God Is Not a Being; God Is a Verb
Torah understands God’s four-letter name as a meaningful combination of three verbs: Hey-vav-hey, or hoveh, signifying the present tense and meaning “Is”; Hey-yud-hey or haya, meaning “Was”; Yud-hey-yud-hey, or y’heyeh, meaning “Will Be.” In Torah and for Jews, God is that which was, is and will be forevermore. As we sing in the prayer “Adon Olam,” God is the sum total of existence. Don’t worry about whether you believe in God. It doesn’t matter. Because God just Is-Was-Will Be. The question, instead, should be whether you are willing to open your eyes, your mind and your heart to the continuously sacred flow of Existence.

6. The Best Place to Find God Probably Isn’t in the Synagogue
With apologies to the very institution that employs me, the synagogue probably is not the best place to find God. Although we usually expect to find God there (after all, God did say in Exodus “build me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among you”), the overabundance of ritualization and the proliferation of wordy ancient prayers often impede a person’s natural ability to bond with the Divine. God is best found everywhere in every moment. That’s why the ancient rabbis knew God as HaMakom, “The Place,” meaning God is in every place, everywhere: here, over there, up there (pointing skyward), down there (pointing earthward), in there (pointing inside you and me). Wherever we can stop focusing on ourselves and our own material needs as well as open our eyes to the reality and beauty surrounding us, we might find God. The kabbalists know God as Ein Sof (“No End”) because God is everywhere, the Essence that is without end. Moses found God on a mountaintop, and so can you. Miriam encountered God at the shores of the sea, and so can you. The Levites — originally ritual singer/musicians — heard God in the sweet multi-instrument musicals they played, and so can you. Elijah experienced God in the still small voice within that spoke to him and, yup, so can you.

7. Ordered Jewish Prayer May Not Be the Best Way to Talk to God
Almost two millennia ago, a bunch of now-dead white Jewish rabbis, culminating with Rav Amram Gaon (died 875), laid out a series of required prayers and prayer themes, which became the order of the service as we know it. They were concerned with creating a unified order of service for the far-flung Jewish community. Like the biblical ancestors who created a system of worship — animal sacrifices — that mimicked but Jew-ified the surrounding practices, these rabbis did what everyone else was doing, wove together words and biblical passages into prayers to create a new way of talking to God. Although the ancient words can be engaging intellectually, they are theologically 2,000 years old and feel like it. Even for a fluent Hebrew speaker, praying those words and allusions can feel like trying to talk to your friend using Shakespearean English. The words sometimes don’t let us speak the praise in our hearts.

8. The Big Secret Your Rabbis Don’t Want You to Know
You can talk to God using normal language as easily as you iChat with a friend. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (grandson of the founder of Chasidism), taught his students hitbodedut, an intimate way to connect with God. He told them to go off into a field and talk to God, aloud, just like you would talk to your neighbor. God listens, Nachman contended, and, following his lead, his students experienced deeply this powerful spiritual reality. I regularly practice hitbodedut out in the field. Or while driving in the car. Or sitting, waiting in the carpool pickup lane. It is wonderful and very Jewish. I feel listened to, heard and appreciated. I don’t ask for things; I seek understanding and strength. I pour out my heart and speak of my problems. God listens. I gain clarity. My thanks are spoken; God hears my praise. Try it. While you are alone. Or while sitting silently in the sanctuary while the cantor intones the ancient prayers. You might find a new friend in God.

9. God Facebooks,Tweets and Texts Along With Us
You won’t find God by friend-searching “God,” even if some jokers misappropriated the name. Instead, God Facebooks us through our friends. After all, our rabbis, responding to the question about how we can fulfill the commandment to love God, turned to Leviticus 19:18, equating loving God with v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha (loving your friend as yourself). If you love your friends, treat them well, deepen connections that uplift but do no harm; then you have Facebooked the Holy One as well. The friend of your friend is … God. God also tweets us regularly. Those short 140-character messages come to us from all over — through the loving words of friends, the inspiring lyrics of songs, the uplifting news stories of people helping people, the wordless sound of wind blowing through trees or water crashing on the Malibu seashore. Those pithy little messages are easily ignored if you don’t read them for what they are — tweets from Tetragrammaton. Oh, and God texts us regularly. Choose a text — Torah, Talmud, Midrash, siddur — and get to know it. Like a message from a lover, God’s texts must be explored on multiple levels to uncover any hidden meanings or delicious nuance.

10. The Messiah Has NOT Come Yet
Let’s tell the truth. The Messiah — that figure who will bring an end to hunger, homelessness and violence and will lead us to universal piece — has not come yet. We Jews long ago rejected the idea of a Messiah who could die before accomplishing his/her tasks. That’s why Jesus, an inspiring teacher, was not our christ (Greek for “messiah”); why Bar Kochba, the second-century revolutionary once called messianic by Rabbi Akiva, was not the Messiah; and why Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, who died in 1994, is not the Messiah either. For Jews, the Messiah does not die. Instead, take a page from the Talmud: If you are planting a tree (or doing some other life-affirming act) and someone comes running to say that the Messiah is coming, complete your holy task first, and then go look later. Give tzedakah. Talk to God. Treat others with kindness. Don’t let all the Messiah talk turn you away from your holy work.

Redemption Comes Thru Singing

For me, Congregation Or Ami is most compelling when we are singing together. Music uplifts, inspires, teaches, transmits values, is joyous, is fun, can be transformational. Our Cantor Doug Cotler encourages and invites others to sing with, play with, and create the music that celebrates holiness and the Holy One.

Our Vision and Values place “musical” within the first lines of self-description:

At Or Ami, people matter. Congregation Or Ami is home to a warm and welcoming, innovative, musical Jewish community. We deepen relationships with each other, while immersing in Torah, Israel and the Source of All Life. We travel together down Jewish paths which inspire our hearts and souls, and transform us to seek justice and nurture compassion in the world.

Our High Holy Day services were once referred to as “Yom Kippur, the Musical”, in recognition of how central a part music – traditional, innovative, contemporary – plays in these Days of Awe.

Thus I was particularly grabbed by a South Jerusalem posting about a Midrash (rabbinic story) which suggests, according to Haim Watzman, that singing the Song of the Sea (Mi Chamocha) was not a reaction to redemption, but part of its cause:

…at the end of the midrash, God says that he has been waiting for someone to sing to him. That seems to imply that, in some sense, the Song at the Sea was not a reaction to redemption, but part of its cause. In other words, the physical redemption from slavery could become the spiritual redemption from slavery only when the Children of Israel found a way to use language not to complain, not as an instrument for achieving some practical result, but in order to express gratitude, wonder, and joy. In turning everyday language into poetry, they completed the circle that connected them to their God. In singing, they raised themselves toward heaven.

No doubt that singing at Or Ami – with Cantor Doug Cotler, with our Or Ami chorale, with our band (currently Blue Suede Jews), with our many lay-led shlichay tzibur (worship leaders) – is the reason that so many feel so spiritual when we are together. Redemption comes through singing. Redemption comes FROM singing!

Seder Redux: Deal or No Deal, Where’s Your Egypt? Game, What Doesn’t Belong on the Seder Table, Progressive Seder

We had a fantastic Seder this year. Engaging, inspiring, relevant.

After collecting all the resources, reviewing the Haggadah and planning the Seder activity/discussion inserts, I am always amazed at what actually does and doesn’t happen at the Seder. Since the Seder is an organic gathering – part keva/fixed traditional text; part kavannah/inspiration – the plans for the evening give way to inspired discussion, activities used while others are shelved, and more. Read on for this year’s favorites, including:

  1. Deal or No Deal: Passover Edition
  2. Where’s Your Egypt? Game
  3. What Doesn’t Belong on the Seder Table, and
  4. Progressive Seder: Moving Around during the Seder

Deal or No Deal: Passover Edition
My youngest son created a game, based on the successful TV show. In 18 numbered envelopes (briefcases) taped to a board, he placed post-it notes with dollar values. Each dollar amount was accompanied by a mathematical problem. The bolded number defined the actual number in play. So it might say “$4,000,000 – 4o x 100,000”. The seder participant who chose that briefcase (envelope) had to explain the connection of the bolded number to Passover. In this case, 40 might represent either the number of years wandering in the wilderness, the number of days Moses was up top Mt. Sinai, or one third of Moses’ lifetime (120/3). Some numbers were easier; some more difficult. Almost everyone at the seder got to pick a briefcase.

The numbers included:

  • $10,000,000 = 1 x 10,000,000 = One God
  • $4,000,000 = 4 x 1,000,000 = 4 children, 4 cups of wine, 4 questions
  • $2,000,000 = 2 x 1,000,000 = 2 times we dip, 2 times we wash our hands
  • $603,550 = 603,550 x 1 = number of Israelite males of fighting age who left each, according to the census (which, if you include the same number of females plus children, elderly and the infirmed, yields 2 million people leaving Egypt)
  • $400,000 = 40 x 10,000 = 40 years Moses in Pharaoh’s court, years Moses in Wilderness, years wandering in Wilderness, days Moses on Mt. Sinai
  • $400,000 = 400,000 = 400,000 people murdered during the continuing Darfuran genocide
  • $120,000 = 120 x 1000 = 120 years that Moses lived. Extra points for the 3 period of 40 years (according to tradition, he spend 40 years in Pharaoh’s court, 40 years in the desert after killing the taskmaster before the Burning Bush, 40 years wandering after the Exodus before the Israelites entered the promised land)
  • $98,000 = 49 x 2,000 = 49 days of Counting the Omer, 49 days between leaving Egypt and receiving Torah at Mt. Sinai
  • $61,300 = 613 x 100 = 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah
  • $48,000 = 48 x 1000 = 48 or 1948, the year that Israel was reborn
  • $10,000 = 5 x 2,000 = 5 books of Torah
  • $72 = 36 x 2 = 36 Ladmed Vavnikim, 36 righteous people of each generation because of whose acts of justice and kindness the world continues to exist
  • $18 = 18 x 1 = 18 minutes the flour can be in contact with water when making matzah
  • $13 = 13 x 1 = 13 things that Who Knows? (also age of Bar/Bat Mitzvah)
  • $3 = 3 x 1 = 3 pieces of matzah in the matzah holder during the Seder
  • $2 = 2 = 2 zuzim used to buy a goat in Chad Gadya

Where’s Your Egypt? Game
To introduce guest to each other as a way to begin the seder, we played “Where’s Your Egypt. We told everyone that we are taught b’chol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’eelu hu yatzah mimitzrayim – that in each and every generation, we each must see ourselves as if we went forth from Egypt. Egypt or Mitzrayim is that narrow, darkened place, from where it is difficult to venture forth, where (initially) you see only pain, problem or hopelessness. Your Egypt could be something personal, something in the world, something in between.

Anyone could answer in any order, but we could not begin until everyone shared their Egypt. They should say their name and answer “Where’s Your Egypt?” Answers included:

  • The pressure of school
  • The economy, no jobs, people getting laid off
  • The genocide in Darfur
  • The anxiety of SAT’s and ACT’s
  • The earthquake that hit Italy
  • The threat from Iran
  • So much homework
  • The rockets that were being shot from Gaza into Israel
  • Friends struggling with cancer
  • The speed with which grandchildren were growing up

What Doesn’t Belong on the Seder Table?
This year, we placed a variety of unholy objects on our seder table: fancy sunglasses, a frisbee, a Guitar Hero guitar, pineapple, watermelon, funny winter hat, extension cord, and more. Before we sang Mah Nishtanah or The Four Questions. I taught that the number and types of questions asked in Mah Nishtanah actually changed over the course of history (the reclining question was added in the Talmud because the rabbis liked the number 4 but, since the destruction of the Temple, it no longer made sense to ask the Mishnah’s question about why we eat certain meats). I explained that the great scholar Maimonides would even remove a table from in front of the children so that they would recognize something unique and different. This would provide the entre into the Maggid, or telling the story.

So we divided everyone into teams (mixing people up with people they did not know). Each team received a piece of paper and pen. They had to find at least 6 things on the seder table that did not usually belong. They then needed to decide what this object taught about Passover or the lessons of Passover. After ten minutes of moving around (including the opportunity to eat some of the foods that we dip – veggies, fruits, artichoke dip, sweet dips, etc.), everyone shared something from their list as well as their explanation. If someone had a different interpretation of the object, we shared that as well.

Some of their explanations included:

  • fancy sunglasses: the sun was overpowering during slavery, the fanciness shows that overindulgence that threatens to overpower our focus on our basic needs
  • pineapple: though can cause pain from its outside but is sweet inside, it reminds us that even though we experience pain, we can move inward to find the sweetness to sustain ourselves
  • frisbee: we sailed out of Egypt once the exodus began
  • extension cord: Passover connects Jews around the world and throughout history, our central story of going from slavery to freedom empowers us to change the world

Progressive Seder: Moving Around During the Seder
We are taught that we recline (or lean left) during the seder because free people would recline on couches when they ate (think “Roman salon”). But even leaning left, a few hours around the Seder table (eating, reading, singing) can seem oppressive. Too uptight. Too formal. So we bring freedom and relaxation to our seder.

Because we live in California, we can take advantage of the beautiful weather to sit outdoors in nature (like the springtime represented by the Karpas). Because we are supposed to be free people, we shouldn’t have to sit in one place around a table for however long it takes to go through the haggadah and eat. So in our home, we felt free to enjoy a progressive seder:

Part One: Chairs in a large circle around two coffee tables. On the coffee tables were seder plates, things to dip and munch on, and other non-traditional items. We enjoyed the beginning of the seder through the Mah Nishtanah outside in nature. The only downside was that a bunch of knats plagued our seder, even dive-bombing our kiddush cups.

Part Two: We brought the food into the kitchen, grabbed our wine cups, and retired to the comfort of the living room. In the living room, chairs and couches surrounding a coffee table with a seder plate, we enjoyed the Magid (story), the symbols explanation (Pesah, Matzah, Maror), read the Jewish World Watch seder inserts, and made our Korech (Hillel Sandwiches).

Part Three: We sat around tables for the Shulchan Aruch, the meal.

Part Four: We returned to the Living Room for the last part of the seder. Relaxed on couches to sing about Elijah, to sing songs, and to enjoy the last two cups of wine.

Four Daughters Worth Mentioning at Pesach

Four daughters worth mentioning at Pesach

Professor Rachel Elior,who teaches Jewish philosophy and mysticism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, offers in Haaretz a new ritual for Passover: mentioning four daughters. Instead of the traditional – wise, rebellious, simple, and one who does not know how to ask – Professor Elior suggests we talk about four women who are: silenced, forgotten, ignored and excluded.

The Book of the Generations of Adam (Genesis 5) describes the world’s 10 male forebears, from Adam to Noah; but not one word is devoted to their mates, the world’s mothers. The Haggadah, too, speaks of four sons without mentioning the daughters. And these are not the only examples: Jewish memory usually focuses on the history of men, while female experience is doomed to oblivion.

She decides to

celebrate the memory of four 20th-century female authors, who undid the generations during which women were relegated to silence and obscurity and illuminated unknown corners of men and women’s physical and emotional lives…

Her four daughters:

First I might mention Dvora Baron (1887-1956), who wrote wonderful stories and was the first to show that a woman could write literature in Hebrew, although no woman before her had done so, from the end of the biblical period to the early 20th century. When she began to write, she shed light on previously unseen aspects of Jewish family life in the Russian townships and described moments of human torment and grace as they had never been described before.

The second is the mystically oriented poet Yocheved Bat-Miriam (1901-1980), whose enigmatic language captured both the visible and the hidden world and whose poems contained prayers about the eyes of the spirit opening in the depths of the material world. Bat-Miriam wrote the lines that inspired my study of mystical thought regarding the unity of opposites: “And greater than visible is the invisible, and more wonderful than ‘being’ is the secret of infinite nothingness on high, command me, Lord, and I will see / what lies beyond the border of the eye.” Her poetry fell silent after her son, Zuzik, died in the 1948 war, leaving her inconsolable.

The third is Dahlia Ravikovitch (1936-2005), who sang wonderfully from a woman’s perspective of happiness in the depths of pain in the poem “Hemda,” which appeared in the 1959 collection “The Love of an Orange.” She dared to speak of the affront and pain felt by a girl, an outsider, who comes to live on a kibbutz, thereby shattering the idealized, unreal image of kibbutz childhood, in her 1976 book “Death in the Family.”

Ravikovitch wrote penetratingly of women’s unheard-of plight in her chilling poem “Hovering at a Low Altitude,” challenging society for remaining silent about the anguish of raped and murdered women. Her far-reaching, probing, critical gaze and the depth of her compassionate, iconoclastic humanity found expression in her poems about the pain of Arab mothers who lost their children in the first Lebanon war: “This is the history of the child / who was killed in his mother’s belly / in the month of January 1988 / for reasons of national security” (“A Mother is Walking,” from the translation by Rachel Tzvia Back, published in the collection “With an Iron Pen”). In her writing about the fate of war casualties and the victims of human society, she expressed human empathy beyond all accepted boundaries.

Fourth I will mention Amalia Kahana-Carmon, who brought forth a new voice and a unique viewpoint while at the same time creating an unprecedented language in her 1966 book “Under One Roof.” Thus, for example, in her story “Naima Sasson Writes Poems,” written from a double perspective, of a child and of a grown up, she created a new language and paved the way for gender-focused criticism long ahead of its time.

The “four sisters” I have commemorated here were artists who sought freedom and knowledge and refused to accept the place tradition accorded them. All four broke through male-decreed conceptions of knowledge, truth, equality and justice as these relate to women’s place in society, and they did so while making audible the silenced female voice that had been excluded from written memory.

Traffic to the blog has been way up this week, due mostly to the plethora of Passover resources up on the blog. I would be interested in hearing from readers about which Passover posts were most interesting and which, if any, of the resources you used (or plan to use) in your seder. Toss me a comment.

For visual learners, the picture on the left is a visual of the Haggadah text, courtesy of Tamar Fox, by way of Ima on (and off) the Bima

Rav and Shmuel at the Gym: How Should We Begin the Passover Seder?

Haim Watzman, in South Jerusalem blog, connects the dots from the past to the present, using the lessons of Passover past to goad us toward justice in the present:

Rav and Shmuel at the Gym: How Should We Begin the Passover Seder?

Between sets of arm curls, Nahum walks over to me and says, “You’re familiar with the disagreement between Rav and Shmuel about the way the Seder should begin?”

Nahum doesn’t look like the kind who works on his biceps—he’s a slender guy in his mid-thirties who wears a black kipah and glasses. He resembles a teacher at a religious high school here in Jerusalem, which in fact he is.

But Nahum, like me, is a regular at the small weight room at the Jerusalem Pool on Emek Refa’im Street. We get a diverse crowd—men and women, jocks and schoolteachers, retired people and teenagers, Jews and Arabs, religious and non-religious; there’s even a macho ultra-Orthodox guy who lets out whoops when he lifts—but I’ll save him for another story.

The conversation, like the crowd, can come from all directions. Nahum is referring to the two leading Babylonian rabbis of the third century CE, whose disputes form part of the first layer of the Gemara, the Talmudic discussions of the laws laid down in the earlier Mishna. The Torah commands the Jews to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt at a discussion-meal conducted by families on the first night of Pesach (Passover). Rav and Shmuel disagreed on how to begin telling the story, and their disagreement is recorded in the Haggadah, the book forms the framework of the Seder night.

The Mishna rules that the story should begin by telling of the dishonorable events and end with the honorable ones. The two sages differed on which dishonorable event begins the story of the liberation from slavery and the formation of the Israelite nation.

I’m doing leg stretches, so I hace to crane my neck to look at Nahum.

“Rav says we should begin with ‘Our forefathers were idolaters,’” he reminds me, “and Shmuel says we should begin with ‘We were slaves in Egypt.’”

“Yes, I remember,” I say, wiping my face with my towel. “So, like usual, we do both.”

“But Shmuel actually won,” Nahum points out, beginning another set of curls. “We say both, but we say Shmuel’s first. Now, what do you think they were arguing about?”

I’m grabbing on to the bottom of one of the elliptical machines with my legs spread apart as far as I can, trying to force my tight leg muscles into some semblance of flexibility.

“I guess Rav is saying that slavery didn’t begin with physical slavery in Egypt,” I suggest. “There was also the intellectual slavery of worshiping false gods, generations before Pharaoh enslaved us.”

“Think of it this way,” Nahum says. “If God saved us because we were slaves in Egypt, that means he saw us suffering, had pity on us, and freed us. That’s a God who hears the cries of the oppressed and comes to their aid. Whoever is oppressed can count on God’s help. That’s why the black slaves in the U.S. sang spirituals about Moses and Pharaoh.”

“Okay,” I grunt.

“But if the story of our freedom begins with the fact that we were idol worshipers, then it means that God didn’t save us because we were oppressed. And he didn’t save us because we were any better than anyone else. Everyone worshiped idols back then. God chose us simply because he chose us, and he took us out of Egypt for his own purposes, not because we were oppressed. He saved us, but he wouldn’t save other slaves.”

By this time, we’ve stopped our respective lifting and stretching.

“That’s jives with something else I think of every year when I’m preparing for the Seder,” I tell Nahum. “Every year I’m struck by the fact that the passage ‘our fathers were idolaters’ is followed by one in which we, following the sages, deliberately misread a passage from the Torah. I mean the one that begins Arami oved Avi. In the Haggadah, we read it as a reference to Laban, the father of Leah and Rachel who cheats Jacob by forcing him to work for him for twenty years in order to receive Rachel as his wife. But the verse obviously doesn’t refer to Laban the Aramean. The grammar and the syntax are such that it must mean ‘my father was a wandering Aramean.’ In other words, it refers to Abraham, who was in Aram when God first spoke to him. Abraham was originally an idolater. That’s what the verse tells us to remember.”

“How does that fit in?” Nahum asks.

“It tells us that Abraham wasn’t chosen by God because he was intrinsically better than the other people of his time. He proved himself to God by his actions, not because he was born better or born with some special gift from God. It’s a message a lot of religious Jews today seem to forget. Why do we deliberately misread the passage?”

“Maybe the Jews needed to hear about Laban oppressing Jacob more than they needed to hear about Abraham beginning life as an idolater,” Nahum suggests. “After all, in Babylonia they were a minority and often oppressed. The same for generations and generations afterwards.”

“Maybe that’s why Shmuel’s opinion got accepted,” I say. “His message resonated better with reality.”

“We were slaves in Egypt and we were like slaves in the Exile,” Nahum agrees.

“But maybe that’s the wrong way to begin today,” I muse. “Today, here in Israel, we’re not oppressed. In fact, harping on our past oppression can blind us to the fact that we’re a majority here and that we haven’t proven ourselves to be much better than other majority peoples in other places. We’ve done our own share of oppressing.”

“Well, if you want to get political about it…” Nahum says warily.

“Today we need to be told that we’re not intrinsically any better than any other people. We need to be reminded that God measures us by our actions, not our origins. And maybe that’s why both opinions got preserved in the Haggadah. Shmuel’s version is for the Exile, and Rav’s for the Jewish polity. Don’t forget that you, too, were idolaters—no different from Laban, no different from Pharaoh.”

“Okay, I see it,” Nahum says.

“I think I’ll use that at my Seder,” I tell Nahum. “If you don’t mind me plagiarizing you. And if I can get a word in edgewise.”

Nahum goes to do some bench presses. I head for the shower. I’ve done my daily workout.

Why is There a Football and a Corkscrew on the Seder Table?

(Daily News, 4/3/07): The dinner table at Rabbi Paul Kipnes’ house was topped Monday night with more than the ceremonial food associated with commemorating the Exodus from Egypt. The arrangement of bitter herbs, parsley and matzo also included a football, history book and corkscrew. The purpose of Passover, which began at sundown Monday, is to remind Jews of their deliverance from Pharaoh and to educate Jewish children about the seminal story of their people. So Kipnes, leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, regularly uses props to spark discussion on Passover.

The football, his guests usually say, refers to the angel of the Lord passing over the Jewish homes and sparing their first-born sons. The history book often incites debate about whether the Exodus is the literal history of the Jewish people or a mythical story. And the corkscrew, well, some say it represents the work required to release the joy of life; others the treatment Pharaoh gave the Jews. “It’s the story of the Jews throughout history,” Kipnes said. “My kids are pretty comfortable and well off, and they need to learn from our history and our traditions that their responsibility is not to sit back and enjoy it but to bring others to the table, into freedom.”

[Hint: At various points throughout the seder, I invited different teams to share two of their most creative explanations. During the meal, I collected all the sheets, tallied the answers, and gave out additional prizes to… everyone. If you do not write on Passover, do this same activity verbally throughout the seder.]