Divre Harav – April/16

One of the findings from last summer’s congregational survey and the ongoing strategic planning process is a desire for more social connections within the congregational family. When people walk into a synagogue for a service, a class, a program, or a party, they want to feel connected to the other people in the room.

All Jewish holidays, Shabbat, and Passover in particular, are appropriate times to reach out and extend hospitality to another person or family in the congregation or beyond. I know that many families already do this, but I want to throw out a challenge. If you invite the same people year after year, I’d like you to consider the fact that every congregation changes over time. Some people leave, and new people come in. For Ahavas Israel to be as warm as welcoming as we know we can be requires that each of us periodically break out of our closed groups and welcome in someone new. I challenge you to invite someone you’ve never had over to your home. If you need a hand finding someone, let me know. I can connect you with a more recent member, potential member, individual or family.

I saw a beautiful story about the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who founded a synagogue in Berkeley during the 1960’s in order to reach out to the many young Jews who had drifted away from Jewish tradition. He named it “The House of Love and Prayer.” In the summer of 1967, he was asked to explain his vision for this synagogue.

He answered: “Here’s the whole thing, simple as it is. The House of Love and Prayer is a place where, when you walk in, someone loves you, and when you walk out, someone misses you.” 

Our synagogue is named “The Love of Israel.” How powerful would it be if each of us embraced the idea that love is a fundamental part of our identify as a congregation, the core of our mission statement! The essential meaning of Passover is tied up with the idea of transformation, from slave to free person, from a loose collection of individuals to a community. I wish you and your families a Passover of blessing and liberation from all that enslaves you.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • SederOrder. The Passover meal is so named because of the well defined order of the ritual.
  • SiddurPrayer book, so named because of the useful arrangement of prayers within each service.
  • Mazhor – Best known as a High Holiday prayer book, but also can refer to a special prayer book for Festivals. From the root hazar, meaning return, referring to the calendar cycle.
  • MitzrayimEgypt, from the root Metzar, meaning a narrow place, so named because of the narrow habitable area surrounding the Nile river. In addition, Mitzrayim in the Bible is a symbol of narrowness, oppression, and slavery.

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – April, 2015

I have a picture of spring in my mind, although as I’m writing this article, looking at the snow and ice covering the ground, the memory feels like an old, faded sepia-tone print of spring. In my distant memory, the temperature is in the mid 60’s, the same as it was back last fall, but whereas the fall air felt chilly, the spring air feels warm. Fall smelled of moldy leaves, but spring smells of sweet blossoms. Fall reminds me of the heavy labor of putting away the bicycles, building and tearing down the Sukkah, and stowing the grill and deck furniture against the winter. Spring is the time to get on my bicycle, sit out on the deck with a beer and a burger, and celebrate Passover (although not with a beer and a burger!).

All my life, even during the times that my Jewish behavior was less serious, I looked forward to Passover. The story of the exodus, the lessons that flow from the Hagaddah, and the way that the

subjugation to redemption narrative infuses Torah, to me at least, form a compelling argument for Jewish engagement. I know that there are Jews who do not have a Seder or celebrate Passover by putting away the bread and cereal and other leavened grain products for eight days in favor of matza. No matter what you do for Passover, I encourage you to take the holiday experience, especially the Seder, seriously.

The critical element of the Passover Experience is not the elaborate food eaten for dinner at the Seder, but rather the thought that goes into preparing food without leavening and the symbolism behind it. One common take on hametz, leavening, is that it symbolizes the ego. The opposite of hametz, matza, symbolizes humility. Passover can be seen as an exercise in reducing the ego and developing a humble attitude towards caring for others.

The critical element of the Seder is not the brisket or the matza ball soup, but rather the retelling of the story of the Exodus, with the focus on how that story moves us to see and address oppression in the world around us.

I regularly speak to people of other faith traditions who envy the rich holiday life that Judaism offers, giving us times not only to connect with family and friends but also points in the year to reinforce our basic human values that reaffirm our covenant with God. We have chosen to embrace a 3500 year old religious tradition, some on our own and some because that’s what our parents or grandparents taught us what to do. Let’s all do our best to celebrate with joy and pass along our love for Jewish practices to others in our family and community.

Jerusalem Post Magazine – Is deodorant Kosher for Pesah?

Do Spray Deodorants Require Pessah Supervision?

Why does Pesah = insanity in much of the Orthodox world? This question should be simply answerable. The answer should be a clear no, deodorant doe NOT need kosher for Pesah supervision, based on Biblical/Talmudic sources. However, the writer of the article, an Orthodox rabbi, is unable to just say NO!

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – April/2011

I’m posting this a bit early, because I’m also going to post an article from the Jerusalem Post magazine that perfectly illustrates my point.

No holiday encourages fanatical Jewish behavior like Passover.  It’s not bad that many people keep kosher for Pesah much more strictly than they keep kosher the rest of the year.  However, the almost pathological behavior of scouring the home of every microscopic crumb of leavening can obscure the beauty of the meaning of the holiday.  I hope the following exchange will help you enjoy a serious Seder without having exhausted yourself by its preparation.

Dear Rebbe

Question: We had two wonderful seders, but this year particularly, it seemed that the last two days of preparation – Sunday, a day which lasted twelve hours as we turned the kitchen over and Monday, the day we spent in preparation for the first seder – left us crippled with exhaustion and pain.  It was very much like forced labor with this uncompromising deadline.  I kept thinking, “why did we leave the fleshpots of Egypt? Let’s return to Egypt where we eat for free.”  And then I remembered Rush Limbaugh’s warning that socialism is slavery and nothing comes for free, so I put my head down and continued scrubbing.

But a serious thought crossed my mind.  Is this our age showing?  What will Pesah preparations be like when we are seventy or eighty and have no children to do this work.  As it was, at age 63, I found myself incapable of davening either day.  I tried, but I couldn’t focus my mind.  I don’t understand how one can do it all, I certainly can’t. I think even we lived next to the shul, I would not have had the strength to make it through the davening.

We had a student at our table on Tuesday.  He doesn’t observe much, but he goes to shul on major holidays and his self-image is one of a Jew who is loyal to our traditions.  Once we got to the meal, he took out his cell phone and started to send a text!  I told him to put it away and he sheepishly set it aside.  I understand that teachers in classrooms have similar problems with students who can’t seem to let go of their cell phones. But I was surprised to see its appearance at my seder!

Answer: I think you have bought into the Orthodox trend to make Pesah more and more difficult by multiplying the humrot, the ways to be more and more restrictive in Jewish observance.  Marisa and I, over the past several years, have cut way back on the cleaning, returning to the Mishnaic model of Pesah.  You clean the rooms that you eat in – you don’t need to search out and sterilize every surface of the house.  You rely on biur hametz, the ritual destruction and nullification of hametz, so if you miss a few crumbs here and there, you have not endangered your eternal souls with karet, spiritual excommunication.  Our kitchen doesn’t look like a 1950’s spaceship, covered in $100 worth of aluminum foil.  We clean counters and pour boiling water on them, relying on the fact that we don’t cook on the counters or eat food off of them.  Self cleaning ovens are great.  We are relaxed about the refrigerator – hametz doesn’t contaminate like the bubonic plague.  We don’t serve a 6 course gourmet feast – 3 courses is enough! – so we can focus more on the hagaddah and less on the food.  We, especially on the 2nd night, are not hung up on the hagaddah.  At the proper candlelighting time, we tell the story of Pesah in a very abbreviated way.  In keeping with the mishnah’s instructions to tell the story from degradation to redemption, we basically tell the story by reading the key passages of the Hagaddah from Deuteronomy 26:5-8, reciting the plagues, the teaching of Rabban Gamliel and the beginning of Hallel.  Before candlelighting, we do the 4 questions and 4 children and singing songs.

Regarding the student – before the Seder, send out a note to your guests making your expectations clear.  Here’s a sample, sent by one of my colleagues, Rabbi Arnold Resnicoff:

To our Seder Guests

I am delighted — and honored — that all of you have agreed to join me at this year’s Passover/Pesah Seder.

For me, the Seder has always been one of the highlights of the year — and one of the most important rituals of the Jewish faith.  It is a reminder, to me, of the fact that we cannot change history, but to a very large extent, we can control its impact on us, so that memory becomes a springboard to move us forward toward better times, not a trap, to hold us prisoners of the past.  We understand that no one can be told to “forget and move on,” but we can help others, and ourselves, understand HOW to remember, so that our memories become a blessing, not a curse, and history becomes part of a rich and treasured heritage, that reminds us of the hope we must have for the future….  And so, at the seder, we remember stories of Israelite slavery in Egypt. But we learn not to hate Egypt, but instead, to hate slavery…and value freedom.  We learn from our memories of pain not to hate others, but to reach out to them, including all those treated like strangers, or feel like strangers, so that their pain might be less.

This is a reminder, in part, of the fact that the essence of the seder is discussion.  The evening is based on the Biblical verses that command us to tell the story.  “Haggadah,” the book that helps us remember the story and its traditions, comes from the Hebrew word for “telling.”  “Seder,” which means “order,” reminds us that there is a traditional order to the evening’s discussion, but, as the Haggadah states, “the person who elaborates is to be admired.”  In other words, no two seders are ever alike, because all those involved elaborate in terms of what the very ideas of slavery and freedom mean to them, and how their individual memories can come together with the memories of the Jewish people — or humanity itself — so that, as we remember, we share the lessons we have learned from the past, and then join together to work for the future.

As I look forward to seeing all of you, here are a few “house-keeping” notes:

“Bringing” do’s and don’t’s.  Please do NOT bring any food, drink, or flowers.  The laws of Passover food and drink are so complicated, and we are stocking up with so much, that there is no room for anything else (even flowers!).  However, DO BRING something: bring a story you might have of another Passover seder — or another holy day that taught you something that has helped you struggle with values and ideas, and with life; bring a question — about Passover, about Judaism, or about faith; bring an insight about the different kinds of slavery that still exist, and what freedom really means…. These will be gifts that all of us will treasure, for the seder, and for the future. Just as we focus on freedom from Egypt at our Seder, we also focus on freedom from various other enslaving devices of modern day society, such as cellphones and texting devices.  I ask that you refrain from using such devices at the table, so we can focus on being fully present for each other.

Stuck in a Rut? Pesah Tells You to Get Unstuck!

Divre Harav, Words from the Rabbi – Bulletin article, March, 2010

I am grateful to the leadership of Congregation Ahavas Israel for giving me a three month Sabbatical.  The time away from active rabbinic work was renewing and refreshing, but it is very good to be back at the synagogue.

While away, I visited with a number of pastors to learn about the creation of a sermon from a fresh angle.  Within Protestant churches, the sermon is the focus of the service much the same way that the Torah reading is the focal point of a traditional Jewish Shabbat morning service.  We devote about 1/3 of the service time to the Torah reading, and about 1/2 of our time on Shabbat morning is devoted to the Torah service, adding in the Haftarah and the sermon.  In the churches I visited, the pastors devoted an equivalent amount of time within their service to the sermon.  Because their sermon functions as the main vehicle for hearing sacred Scripture, they tend to be longer and more carefully structured than most synagogue sermons.  They also tend to use Biblical verses to appeal to the emotional and moral sense of the congregation, often teaching a specific belief or theological approach to God, while most synagogue sermons tend to appeal to the intellect and teach a specific Jewish practice or behavior.

I don’t believe that one style is inherently better than the other.  What I learned from the project is that it is easy to get into a rut, preaching and teaching in the same style and appealing to the same part of the brain week after week, just because it is familiar and comfortable.  The work I did as a graduate coach in a Dale Carnegie program reinforced the same message — that most of us are stuck in a rut, doing the same things over and over again, repeating the same habits and the same mistakes, because we are afraid of trying something new.

This is a good lesson to be reminded of in conjunction with the celebration of Pesah.  The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, a word that connotes narrow places  (probably taking its name from the fact that the fertile part of Egypt is a narrow strip of land on either side of the Nile).  In a metaphorical sense, when we are stuck in Mitzrayim, we are living our lives in a constricted place. We are stuck inside a narrow box.  Pesah is the time to look at the narrow box in which we are living, look at those behaviors which keep us stuck in a rut, and free ourselves.