The Learning Holiday

March 26, 2012
Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIXth centur...

Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIXth century. Русский: Празднование Песаха. Лубок XIX века. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With this post, I’m joining a group of rabbis who are blogging from three days ago (1st of Nisan) to the beginning of Passover:  Blogging the Exodus.  If you want to find some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate those blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus.  Today’s theme is “Learning and Teaching.”

When I am meeting a new person, they often ask me what I do.  I always say, “I’m a rabbi.”  That doesn’t really answer the question so usually they try again, this time by saying, “What congregation do you serve?” and then I say, “I’m a teaching rabbi.”

That’s a partial truth.   I teach classes for Lehrhaus Judaica.  I teach classes at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.  I occasionally teach in odd venues, like Catholic churches, when they invite a rabbi in to explain something about Judaism.  Next month I’ll teach a class on Food Ethics at Temple Sinai, and I’ll teach for a whole weekend about Jewish Time at the congregational retreat  of Temple Emanuel in Tempe, AZ.  Sometimes I even teach in coffee shops (hence the moniker.)

The real truth is that I am a learning rabbi.  I bring information to people, and then we talk and learn things.  That’s how Jewish learning works:  you begin with some raw material, like a text, you put in on the table among you, and then by pulling and pushing at it, talking and listening, everyone at the table learns.  I love learning, so I love my work.

What does any of this have to do with Passover?  Passover is a learning holiday.  The Passover seder is one of the greatest pedagogical devices in history:  it’s been used to build Jewish community and transmit a sense of Jewish peoplehood for close to two thousand years.  Once a year, we sit at the table.  We bring some raw information:  a haggadah, a few songs and stories, our own perceptions and thoughts.  If we seize the opportunity to share them, really share them, to pull and push and talk and listen, then we come away from the table with new thoughts, perhaps with new plans.

They say that at a certain seder in Bnai Brak in the year 132, five rabbis stayed up all night, moving from discussing the Exodus to planning a revolution.  The revolution failed, but we still read about the seder every year at our seders.  Maybe they left the table a little too early.  Maybe they needed to plan some more.

If you are reading this and saying to yourself, “I never learned anything at a seder!”  let me suggest very gently to you that perhaps you were not listening enough.  Or talking enough.  Or perhaps you were so hungry that you forgot to pull and push at the text with the others at the table.  It happens.*

But when, this year, you hear someone read “How is this night different from all other nights?”  Say to yourself (or, heck, say it aloud):  “This seder is different because we are going to talk and listen and push and pull and exchange ideas and make some plans!”

I dare you.

For more information on making a great seder, check out Rabbi Noam Zion’s writings about Passover and seders on My Jewish Learning, or the haggadah and guide he co-authored with Mishael Zion, A Night to Remember.  Ira Steingroot’s wonderful book, Keeping Passover has all the essential information and some more as well.  Or go to your local bookstore and browse the many haggadahs available .  (If you have a local Jewish bookstore like Afikomen, lucky you, but even luckier, they also do mail order.)

*About that “too hungry to learn” problem:  Karpas (the greens on the seder plate) was not meant to be a few strands of parsley wet with salt water.  Think of it as a salad course:  have a nice salad of lettuce, or endive, or whatever green thing you love to eat.  No need to starve on this night of all nights, when we celebrate moving from slavery to freedom!


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