Human beings like to count things. If you doubt that, watch a toddler learn to count. Our bodies seem made for it: ten fingers! ten toes! We count to quantify (how many fingers?) and we count in cycles to make music. Counting is so fundamental that it is woven into our Creation story. (And it was evening and it was morning, the first day. – Genesis 1)
We’re counting down to Passover as I write this blog: it’s the 11th of Nisan and the 14th is nearly here… three, two, one… !
On the 14th of Nisan we begin counting nights of Passover… 1st night, 2nd night, 3rd night….
On the 15th of Nisan we begin counting the Omer, the period of time between Passover and Shavuot. The Omer is not a countdown but a countUP, because we are counting our steps up Mt. Sinai. Last year I explained the Omer count with this post. In 2012 I wrote Why Count the Omer?
I am counting days since I shaved my head (11) and counting towards my fundraising goal (only $181 left to raise, at this writing!). I just counted my 59th birthday and I’m kind of excited about turning 60 next year.
While we often say these blessings rapidly and by rote, sooner or later every Jew finds her- or himself asking, “Why am I blessing God?” Because that is how the prayer begins: “Blessed are You, God.” In there is also the larger question, “Why pray at all?” since really, if God is God, God doesn’t need prayer or anything else we can produce, right?
My favorite answer to this question – why bless? – is that blessings are not “for God.” Blessings are for the person saying the blessing, and sometimes for others who hear the blessing. When I bless the bread I am about to put in my mouth, I am acknowledging that I did not create the bread. I may have baked it, but many miracles and many hands were involved in that bread arriving in my hand. When I pause to bless, I make room for the acknowledgment that I have my place in Creation, but only my place, that I am dependent on daily miracles and dependent on hands other than my own. When I bless the sight of a rainbow, I remind myself what a miracle it is that the rainbow is there for me – and that it is not there only for me. When I make the blessing for hearing the news of a death, I acknowledge that I am not qualified to judge any other human being.
Blessing is about a sacred pause: a pause to notice, a pause to reflect, a pause to appreciate one’s place in creation. This week, as I hurry about my work, doing all my regular work AND the pre-Passover cleaning, those little pauses remind me that these are sacred actions, even though I have to do them rapidly, even though I do not have enough time to do them perfectly. All of life is sacred, even the moment in the bathroom (yes, there is a blessing for that!)
It is when we choose to see the holiness in each moment, to infuse the ordinary with the sacred, that we open ourselves to the possibility of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” Blessings are one door into that state of amazement: may we all enjoy a glimpse of the Holy as we go about the mundane tasks of preparation for this most amazing holiday!
Once upon a time, I was a potter. I spent all day, every day, covered in clay. My coveralls were coated with clay. My fingernails had semi-permanent deposits of clay. My account books (this was in ancient times, before personal computers) had little daubs of clay punctuating the neat double-entry accounting. I had clay in my eyebrows, for crying out loud. But I did not feel a bit dirty, because it was CLAY!
In the pottery, the whole dirt/not dirt thing was flipped on its head. Clay was not dirt. Clay might get dirty, contaminated by some stray item (a bit of plaster, or my lunch) that fell in the slurry bucket, but clay was not dirt. In the home where I grew up, a bucket of clay was a bucket of dirt. In the studio, the same bucket of clay was a precious raw material that had cost good money or hard effort. Dirt, on the other hand, was stuff that was out of place or out of control, or both. Bits of plaster were especially dirty, since they could cause a pot to explode in the kiln. However, plaster that stayed where it was supposed to be, in a drying cast, was a good and valuable thing.
I learned, in the pottery, that what is “clean” depends on context. It is a designation that depends on the rules of the context I am in at the moment.
The experience of running a pottery was a perfect setup for Jewish thinking about “cleanliness.” Whether it is ritual cleanness (“tahor”) or ritual uncleanness (“tamei”) or cleaning for Passover, it’s all about context. All the grain products in my house have a use-by date of 13 Nisan, the day before Passover, because after that date, it all becomes dirt.
Tonight we are going to have pasta for dinner, while that pasta is still clean – on 14 Nisan, it will become CHAMETZ, and it shouldn’t be in the house (DIRT!). One way to get rid of it is to eat it up before Passover. Another is to give it away. A third possibility is to compost it. A fourth possibility is to destroy it or sell it. Whatever I do with it, it must be gone before Passover.
This goes for all grain products: anything made of wheat, barley, oats, spelt, or rye. Chametz includes liquids like beer and whiskey, foods like pasta and cookies, even the processed foods I keep for convenience in the cabinet. It all has to go, because after 13 Nisan, it’s essentially dirt. The stuff I normally see as dirt also has to go, because it might have chametz in it: dustbunnies, dust, crumbs, the shmutz on the tile backsplash behind the stove, all of it. This is the original deep spring cleaning: get rid of all the chametz! Get rid of the dirt!
Right now, my house is full of chametz, perfectly harmless at the moment. I have a week to get rid of all of it before it turns to dirt. Pardon me while I go CLEAN!
Want to join in? We’re sharing #BlogExodus for the next 2 weeks. All you have to do is use the hashtag and there are suggested prompts on the graphic above (feel free to grab it). Maybe you just want to post on your Facebook or Twitter about these topics…or maybe you want to try #Exodusgram, posting photos related to these themes? I am late to the party but I’ll be posting my #blogExodus posts here from now till Passover. Many thanks to the clever rabbi who started this pre-Passover celebration of words and images, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, who blogs at Ima On and Off the Bima.
In a few days, we will read those words from the Haggadah.
Very soon, Jews all around the world will sit down to a seder meal, to listen to the story, to ask questions, to laugh, to share one another’s company, and to eat. Every family has its own favorite recipes: for my family, it is the brisket I slow-cook every year, 8 hours at least in a low, low oven, simmering with tomatoes and root vegetables until we all go crazy smelling it.
But there are other families, Jewish and not, where there will be no feast that first night of Passover, where the phrase “bread of poverty” is not simply a ritual observance. In 2011, over 50 million Americans lived in “food insecure households.” Stop and ponder: Fifty million Americans were unsure of their next meal last year.
That means that if you live in the United States, somewhere within easy driving distance of your home, someone is going hungry.
I have learned, as a rabbi, as a person to whom people tell their secrets, that many of the hungry are not the stereotype in your mind. Some of them are your neighbors. Some of them do everything they can to keep their dignity, to not let on. But they line up for some free vegetables behind a church where they think no one will recognize them. They don’t tell their kids where the food came from.
Let all who are hungry come and eat.
How can we keep our words at the seder from being a cruel farce? In the long run, it will require political action, and we are yet to come to agreement about how to proceed about that as a nation. In the short run, there is much we can do, and it is easy to do. Find your local food bank (the link will lead you to an online tool). Send what you can afford. Food banks are organizations that do the buying and gathering of food for many local agencies, to make every dollar go the farthest. If you want your tzedakah dollar to go far, to be a “good investment,” give to your local food bank. It’s very easy to give: most food banks offer an online donation link.
It is a Jewish tradition to give tzedakah, to give charity funds for the relief of suffering, before every holiday feast. The Torah tells us in no uncertain terms, Lo ta’amod al dam rei-acha — don’t stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds (Leviticus 19:16). People in our neighborhoods suffer from food insecurity – they are not sure of their next meal. It is up to us to act. It is up to us to make sure that the words we read aloud from the Haggadah are true:
We gather once a year around the seder table to eat matzah, to tell the Exodus story, and to fulfill the commandments. At some tables, it’s just that: a traditional trip down memory lane. But if we are going to take the words of the sages seriously, to rise from the table feeling as if we ourselves have been delivered from Egypt, if we want to make this experience count for something, we might want to think outside the limits of the bare minimum.
One thing we can do is to ask the “wicked child’s” question over and over again as we read through the Haggadah: What does this have to do with US? The sages criticize that child because of the way he asks the question: he separates himself from the community. But what if we were to ask the same question in a different spirit, to say, “Where do we fit into this story?” Then more questions will open up:
When have I been a slave?
Am I now a slave to someone or something?
Have I enslaved someone?
Do I benefit from slave labor?
What is slavery? Does it still exist?
What is real freedom?
What are the plagues in my life?
Who is not welcome to come and eat at my table? Why?
Who is hungry within 5 miles of my house? 10 miles?
and the biggie:
• When I rise from the table, what am I personally going to do about my answers to any of those questions?
What questions are you going to ask around your seder table? How will you make your seder count?
THE PLATE – The plate may be your great-grandmother’s silver seder-plate, or it can be a paper plate from the grocery store. Truly. If you have a large, pretty plate, great, and if you don’t, just use a plate or platter or something. The point is to arrange some mysterious objects that will spur conversation and questions. If it’s pretty, good. If it is actually a bit weird, that’s not bad, either.
Things to go on the Plate:
Note: the things you put on the plate are to look at, and to provoke discussion. Those foods which you will eat, serve in regular serving bowls that can be handed around. The loaded seder plate will be a disaster waiting to happen if you try to pass it around. Think of it as a centerpiece, or conversation piece.
KARPAS – Karpas is a green vegetable. It is supposed to remind people of spring. Parsley is often used for karpas; get a big bundle of it, put some on the seder plate, and put some in water glasses (sort of as you would flowers) to pass out, because the group will need to “dip” the greens into salt water at one point in the seder. The water will keep the parsley crisp, and it will be drippy with the salt water, anyhow. For more about the symbolism of parsley, read this.
CHAROSET – (also pronounced ha-RO-set or cha-RO-sis).There are lots of good recipes for charoset. It’s nuts chopped with apples and sweet wine plus whatever you want. If you have guests who are allergic to nuts, have chopped apples with cinnamon. Put a spoonful on the seder plate. Since it is there to remind us of the hard work of slavery, you can shape it into a little pyramid if you like. (If your charoset is too runny to do this, you are putting too much wine in it.) Again, put the charoset to serve in bowls, and make more than you think you will need, because some of your guests will want lots.
MAROR – Maror (mah-ROAR) is a bitter herb, to remind us of the bitterness of slavery and to fulfill the commandment to eat bitter herbs with the matzah. Many Jews use horseradish for this. Put either a spoonful of ground horseradish on the plate, or a chunk of horseradish root. You will want to have another bowl of horseradish to hand around to actually eat from.
ZEROA – Zeroa is a roasted lamb shank bone. You can get these from a kosher butcher (and often from other butchers) right before Passover. Or you can save one from the last time you had lamb for dinner, clean it, and keep it in the freezer. This is in memory of the Passover sacrifice, back when we had the Temple. It is only for show. Vegetarians may opt to replace the actual bone with a beet root.
EGG – Technically, this egg should be roasted. I have seen people do it by holding the egg, with tongs, in a gas flame until the egg turned odd colors (grey, brown streaks). I have also heard of people boiling the egg with some onion skins to give it color. Leave it in the shell. This egg is not fit to eat, it is just for show. It reminds us of the hagigah sacrifice, and of springtime. Many families eat hard boiled eggs as part of the Passover meal.
HAZERET – This one is optional. Some families do it, some do not. It’s an additional bitter vegetable, usually romaine lettuce, for the Hillel sandwich. Families who do not put hazeret on the plate use the horseradish for the Hillel sandwich.
That is the traditional seder plate. (See photo at the top of this article.)
In modern times, there have been several additions, which you may or may not choose to have:
ORANGE – Some people put an orange on the seder plate as a protest against sexism in Judaism. You may hear a poignant tale about the daughter of a famous rabbi, who was not allowed to say kaddish for her father. That story is not true. For the true story, read this article.
BREAD – Some have suggested putting a piece of bread on the seder plate to protest discrimination against homosexuals. Bread is used precisely because it is forbidden by the laws of Passover, just as Leviticus is interpreted to forbid homosexuality. However, this may be extremely problematic to anyone who expects there to be no chametz in the house, much less in the centerpiece. It might be more effective instead to have a discussion about marriage diversity at the table.
TOMATO – Some put a tomato on their seder plate, in solidarity with agricultural workers in the U.S. who do not have to imagine what slavery is like. This article from the Jewish Week says more about that practice, and lists other objects which some people put on the seder plate.
An editorial note: If you consider putting one of these protest items on your seder plate, please also take some actual action on behalf of the people who suffer. Putting a tomato on the seder plate is nice, but it by itself does not do anything for farm workers. Send a little tzedakah (charitable gift) to an organization that works for freedom of those workers, or works to relieve their suffering.
The purpose of almost everything at the seder, but especially the seder plate itself, is to inspire questions and stimulate conversation. There are no “right” answers — perhaps in your discussion this year, you will think of a new way that one of these objects illuminates the story of the passage of a people from slavery to freedom.
“Turn it and turn it for everything is in it.” – Ben Bag Bag, Pirkei Avot
Have you ever had a story go stale? Someone starts reading a familiar story from Torah, and your mind goes numb? We read the Torah every year, pole to pole, and when we finish, we start over again. Some stories we read multiple times, like the Akedah [binding of Isaac, Genesis 22] and the story of the Hebrews leaving Egypt, which we get not only in Exodus, but also in the Haggadah. Year after year we read these stories again and again – how to keep them fresh? Here are some techniques that work for me:
1. CHANGE FOCUS. When we read a story, we usually identify with one character in it. Figure out with whom you identify in this story — then choose someone or something else for your focus. The Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai did this to brilliant effect when he refocused on the ram in the Akedah, in The Real Hero of the Isaac Story. Ask yourself, whom am I overlooking? Then look at the story through his/her/its eyes.
2. READ A COMMENTARY. There are many different understandings of every story. Are you still stuck on the one you learned in school as a kid? Try searching the Virtual Jewish Library for insights on the story by searching the characters’ names, or check out a commentary in your synagogue library.
3. FOLLOW THE STORY ON A MAP. Use online resources (again, Virtual Jewish Library is great for this) to research place names in your story. Some locations in the Bible are unknown, but we have a pretty good idea where many things happened. Even the unknowns are interesting: what does it mean that we are not sure where the actual Mt. Sinai is? The day I figured out what it really meant that Naomi and Ruth walked from Moab to Bethlehem the story transformed for me. Two lonely women walked 46 miles through the Judean desert with no protection from wild animals or predatory humans – wow. It says something about both women that they survived the trip.
4. READ WITH A PARTNER. It is truly amazing how differently two people can read the same story, especially from Torah. Read it with someone else and listen to what they think of it. I always thought of Joseph as a hero, and was really shocked to discover that some readers think he was a horrible kid and deserved what his brothers did to him.
5. PLAY DEVIL’S ADVOCATE. This is a variation on the first tip. If there is a villain in the story (think Haman in the Esther story) try to read the story with sympathy for him. What was the Exodus story like from Pharaoh’s point of view?
6. ASK: HOW HAVE I CHANGED? One thing is for sure: while the letters on the Torah haven’t changed over the years, we human beings change over the course of our lives. The story about Jacob scheming to get his father’s blessing reads differently to a child than it does to a parent.
All of these approaches have rejuvenated stories for me. Reading Torah is a little like squeezing fruit: if you only squeeze it one way, you aren’t going to get all the juice. Try turning it a bit, as Ben Bag Bag suggests, to get a new flavor from an old story.