Divre Harav – April/2020

A Passover thought.

 The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is related to the root tzar meaning “narrow.” Most of Egypt’s population lives in a narrow band on either side of the Nile or its delta. When you are in mitzrayim, you are confined to a narrow, constricted space. That’s what it means to be in slavery – to live in confinement.

Slavery can be physical, financial, emotional, or intellectual. We can be enslaved to an idea, unwilling to entertain that we might be wrong, or unwilling to hear alternative points of view that might change our position. We can be enslaved to a dead-end job we can’t afford to leave or a well-paying job whose stress is slowly killing us. We can be enslaved to fear, anger, jealousy, mistrust, or even love.

What is it that enslaves you? Are you held hostage by your memory? Were you hurt or wronged year ago, and even today are still carrying the pain? Consider the lesson of this Zen story of two Buddhist monks:

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a beautiful woman, fine dressed in silk, also attempting to cross. She asked if they could help her cross to the other side.

The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman.

Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman on his shoulders so her dress would stay dry, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on with his journey.

The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them.

Two more hours passed, then three, finally the younger monk could not contain himself any longer, and blurted out “As monks, we are not permitted even to touch a woman! How could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river a long time ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

A good memory can be a curse. Forgetfulness can be a blessing. What are you holding onto from your past that is keeping you from living a mentally and physically healthier life?

Think of the things that keep you imprisoned in mitzrayim. Make a list. Write them down. And this Passover, choose one of them and free yourself. Celebrate the seventh day of Passover, the day of crossing through the Reed Sea, by singing a song of freedom from something in your past that enslaved you.

This is the message of Passover. Free yourself from the things that enslave your body and mind, physically, financially, emotionally, and intellectually.

Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • mitzrayim – Egypt
  • av’dut – slavery
  • heirut – freedom

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.

Psalm 79

Pour out Your fury on the nations that do not know You, upon the kingdoms that do not invoke Your name. (79:6)

This verse from Psalm 79 was added to the Passover Seder in the Middle Ages, sometime after the ugly series of persecutions beginning with the crusades in 1096 CE. We recite these words as we open the door for Elijah at the time when the Seder begins to come to a close with Messianic overtones of redemption. An early modern addition (probably from the late 19th century) supplies the inverse of our verse, “Pour out your love upon the nations that know you and on kingdoms who call Your name.”

Some liberal-leaning Jews omit the verse from Psalm 79, disliking its violent nature. They might understand it as a Judeo-centric call for God to eliminate all non-Jews from the world, or perhaps they understand it as a verse to protect Jews and Christians but eliminate all others. Perhaps might include Moslems in the “protected” category, reading the verse as a call to eliminate only non-monotheists. In any case, there is a tendency among some religious liberals to eliminate liturgy that they find offensive, and if you read this verse as a call for the wholesale slaughter of groups of people by God, it is certainly offensive.

I read the verse differently, not as a call for God to engage in slaughter or for Jews to do so in God’s name. When reading the verse, I don’t think of atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, or followers of non-monotheistic religion, all people who either reject God, are indifferent about God, or envision a different kind of Divine than the one in the Hebrew Bible which guides my life. I think of people who commit atrocities in the name of God. Such people disgrace God’s name. Even though I am fully aware that God is not going to strike out at them with a carefully-directed bolt of lightning, I want it known that the God in whom I believe has nothing to do with the false god in whose name those people murder, rape, steal, cheat, and in other ways subjugate and oppress others. To those who desecrate God’s name by such acts, I avow that God has nothing to do with you.

Therefore, I read this line at the Seder in a loud voice – certainly not in a whisper, as if I’m embarrassed by it. The door is wide open at this point so, symbolically, I am shouting out to the world my desire that God wipe out those evil people who, despite their professed faith, don’t really know God. And, of course, I also read the inverse paragraph praising people who do acts of courage and conviction and love in God’s name.

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!