Mop Bucket Enlightenment? – Yes, Really!

March 24, 2014

Mopping

We’re deep into a season for spiritual growth. Jewish households worldwide are in a frenzy of cleaning. Other Jewish households are guiltily thinking they should be in a frenzy of cleaning. This raises the question, “Where is the spiritual benefit in all this mundane activity?

Passover is an experiential holiday: if you are not a “text person,” this is the holiday for you! Every step of the way, we are offered multi-sensory experiences for learning truths about life and Judaism: tastes, smells, textures, sights, and sounds.

During the seder, we hold up the maror, the bitter herb, symbolizing the bitterness of slavery. We say, “In every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt.” The bitter taste of horseradish is one way to taste that experience.

Cleaning for Passover is another. We feel the mop handle in our hands, and hear the vacuum cleaner. It isn’t fun to do the whole house at once, to search out every possible crumb. If every member of a household pitches in on Passover prep, cleaning and cleaning in our “free” time, shlepping goods to the food drive, digging out the boxes of Passover dishes, boxing up things that shouldn’t be used during Passover, vacuuming everywhere, we get a little taste of manual labor, no matter how sedentary our day jobs. It’s hard work that we are commanded to do: a taste (just a taste) of servanthood. Our sore muscles will read us the Haggadah, if we do it right.

We are seeking out every crumb of stale, puffed-up junk in our lives: not just the cookie crumbs in the toddler’s pockets, but the old grudges in our hearts and the stale notions in our heads. (Trust me, these things smell.)  The mindless work of cleaning offers us undistracted time to reflect on what stinks, if we are brave enough to take it.

This kind of cleaning is humbling. We see our slavery to bad habits, whether they are eating habits or housekeeping habits. We must notice our clutter. We must notice everything, because we have to look for chametz in it!

Now perhaps you are not a person who cleans for Passover. But I encourage you to do at least a little, because it is a uniquely Jewish spiritual task. If you are thinking, “but I just can’t!” try reading Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt. It’s a beginner’s approach to the spiritual journey of Passover.

If we do this, when we reach the 14th of Nisan, we’ll be ready for a fresh beginning, ready to walk out into a life renewed, unburdened by chametz. Then, indeed, we can celebrate!

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Hungry for Passover?

March 23, 2013
A pan of beef brisket, just out of the oven.

A pan of beef brisket, just out of the oven. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Let all who are hungry come and eat.

 

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:

 

Let all who are hungry come and eat. 

 

 

 

 


Making the Seder Count

March 22, 2013
US Navy 030417-N-8273J-010 Crewmembers read fr...

US Navy 030417-N-8273J-010 Crewmembers read from the Passover Hagaddah (prayer book) during the Passover Seder dinner in the wardroom aboard USS Nimitz (CVN 68) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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?


Seder Tips: Alone for Passover?

March 4, 2013
A Seder table setting

A Seder table setting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

WordPress, the outfit that makes it possible for me to post this blog, also provides me with data about the Google searches that lead people here. Today one caught my eye and urges me to write: “how to have a seder alone.”

Jews generally celebrate everything in community. There are even some things we can’t do properly without a certain number of persons present:  say the Kaddish prayer, chant from the Torah, or get married, to name just a few. While there is no rule against reading through the Haggadah alone, “Seder” suggests a group of people around a table, telling the Exodus story together. It was designed by the ancient rabbis as an opportunity to learn and share with other Jews. Yet sometimes circumstances are such that it just isn’t possible to gather with friends for a seder. Here are some thoughts for dealing with Passover solo.

1. IT’S OK TO ASK.  In Western culture, it is generally considered impolite to “invite myself over” to someone’s house, especially for a meal. Passover meals are one of the exceptions to this rule. If you are going to be in a city but don’t know any of the Jews there, call a local Jewish institution (synagogue, the Federation) and tell them that you are alone for Passover and need somewhere to go for seder. Often they can provide a lead to a household where they look forward to keeping the mitzvah of a new person at the table. It’s a mitzvah for them, and a community for you, and you’ll almost certainly make some Jewish friends.  Good all around!  It is also ok, if you are a single in a Jewish community, to let others know that you don’t have a seder invitation. If you are a guest at someone’s seder table, be sure to read Seven Ways to be a Great Seder Guest.

2. COMMUNITY SEDERS. Many Jewish communities offer a second night seder at synagogues or a hotel for which guests sign up and pay a fee. My own community, Temple Sinai of Oakland, is offering such a seder this year (if you are going to be in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can sign up via this link.) Again, call local Jewish institutions and ask! This can be a more comfortable option if you feel shy about going to a seder at someone’s home.

3. TECHNOLOGY. If there is a group in another place with whom you have had the seder in the past, but you’ve relocated, what about Skype? Talk to your friends about setting up a computer near the table, so you can schmooze with the Jews, too.  If Skype is too much tech for you, consider a phone connection via a speakerphone on the distant table. No, it is not traditional or even halakhic, but it will provide an important connection on the holiday. Last year a number of Jews, including rabbis, found ways to use technology to enhance the seder, according to this Wall Street Journal article.

4. INVITE NON-JEWISH FRIENDS. OK, so you are in the middle of nowhere, no Jews around, and Skyping with old friends is not an option. What about getting some matzah, getting out the Haggadah, and inviting some Gentile friends over to share the story of the Exodus?

5. SEDER SOLO. If none of the above will work for you, the real necessities for your seder are some matzah, some wine or grape juice, and a copy of the Haggadah. If you have no Haggadah, a Bible will do.  Read the story. Eat unleavened bread. And then begin to make plans for next year, either in Jerusalem, or with some friends.


Do You Ask Enough Questions?

April 5, 2012

“This is probably a stupid question…”

That line prefaces a good half of the question asked in my Intro classes. Students say it and pause, looking at me for the go-ahead, and then after I nod reassurance, they ask.  It often precedes a really good question, either something basic that should be answered in the class, or my favorite kind of question, something that opens up a good discussion.

I think I understand it. Nobody wants to look stupid, but if you’re the first to say it, it lowers the risk. It also generally gets reassurance from a teacher, and most of us like to be reassured and told that something we’re doing in class is good. And granted, Judaism is intimidating to people who perceive themselves as outsiders or ignorant.

One way I reassure students is to tell them that Jews ask questions. It’s what we do, whether we are the most sophisticated Talmudist or the most rebellious fourteen year old.  We celebrate questions, and put them at the center of the Passover seder, one of the holiest events in our year. The writers of the Haggadah were so concerned that we ask questions that they put four (or is it really one?) of them into the text, to model the behavior of questioning.

One good question to ask ourselves is, am I asking enough questions?

HOW ARE YOU?  is a question we ask, and generally it is assumed to be the social equivalent of white noise. But how often do we ask it again, with real concern?

WHAT CAN I DO?  is a good question to ask myself when I see something wrong happening before my eyes. Am I accepting something I should not accept?  One of the big problems connected with bullying is that too few people question hurtful behavior. We can ask that question to another person, too:  what kind of help do you want from me?

WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME THIS?  is a fine question to ask when someone brings you information you do not need (e.g. gossip).  Listening to information about others that we do not need to know is lashon harah [evil speech] just as much as being the informant.

WHAT ASSUMPTIONS AM I MAKING?  Am I asking myself questions about the assumptions I make?  Why do I assume that one person walking towards me on the sidewalk is more of a threat than the other people?  Is an article of clothing or a tattoo or a way of dressing a reason to be suspicious in this situation?

There are also the grand three questions for editing out improper speech:  IS IT TRUE?  IS IT KIND? IS IT NECESSARY?

And then there is the grand old question of activists everywhere:  DOES IT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY?

What questions would you like people to ask more often?  What questions do you not ask often enough?

Is there any new question you plan to ask at your Seder this year?

 

 


Seven Ways to Be a Great Passover Seder Guest

March 18, 2012

English: President Obama hosts a traditional S...

You are going to your first Passover seder!  Your feelings may range from excitement to dread, depending on why this is your first seder. Here are some tips to make the evening easier on you and everyone else:

1.  KNOW THAT YOU ARE WELCOME. If you have never been to a seder before, that’s OK. Even if you are born Jewish and one of your grandparents was a rabbi, but somehow history conspired that you are now attending your first seder at the age of 35, it’s OK. If you are not Jewish, and you are afraid you don’t belong there, don’t sweat it. When the Haggadah (the script for the evening, that little book by your plate) says, “Let all come and eat” it really means it. At a seder table, of all places, no one needs to apologize for her presence, his existence, or the path that brought you here.

2.  ASK QUESTIONS. The seder is a forum for questions, but really the questions start before the seder. Ask your host, or the person who invited you, LOTS of questions. Ask about clothes:  what will everyone else be wearing? Ask, “What time should I be there?” And definitely ask “What can I bring?”  They may say “nothing” but it is nice to ask.  If the answer is “Yes, bring X” then get them to be very specific about X. Does it need to be kosher? A particular brand? Food is a tricky subject at Passover, so ask questions and follow directions exactly. If you are not sure, it’s OK to keep asking. Passover is all about questions.

Note:  If you wish to bring a “hostess gift,” or contribute to the meal, pre-packaged food in its original wrapping is the safest bet. Look for the words, “Kosher for Passover” on all packaged foods, including candy. Flowers are an even safer bet.

3.  ARRIVE WITH AN OPEN MIND. No two seders are alike, so the one you saw in a movie is not the seder you will attend tonight, even if the movie was a documentary. Every seder is a new experience, even for the “old hands” at the table.  One way to think of a seder is as a partially scripted piece of performance art. The Haggadah is the script. The grandmother who seems to know everything is one of the players. The fourteen year old who doesn’t want to be there is one of the players. The three year old who  has a great time crumbling matza is one of the players. And you, too, are one of the players, even though you hardly know what to ask. Ask about what you see. If you have an insight, share it. If you notice you are talking a lot, sit back and listen for a while. Treat every person at the table as someone who has something important to say.

Note: Some parts of the seder may be in Hebrew. Don’t worry if you don’t read Hebrew; just listen to the sound of it, and ponder the fact that these words have been said around seder tables for almost two thousand years. Your copy of the haggadah may have a translation that you can read. If you get lost, ask your neighbor for help. If you are unsure what to do, copy the other adults at the table, or ask one of the children what to do. Remember, questions are good!

4.  BE PREPARED TO STAY A WHILE. A Passover seder is not a quick thing. Even the speediest takes a while: first there are ceremonies to do and a story to read, then a festival meal to eat and savor. You are not going to get home early. If you are hiring a babysitter or have other time constraints, that’s another question to ask your host. Do not ask the question as if you are looking to eat and run; rather, you are asking for the sake of the babysitter. Yes, there is a book on the market that advertises a thirty minute seder. A good Passover seder is like a great evening of theater, only friendlier, with good food. There’s no point in rushing.

5.  BE PREPARED FOR UNFAMILIAR FOOD. Food at the seder is not simply sustenance. This is not an evening of “eating to live.” Nor it is an evening of “living to eat.” This is an evening of multi-sensory experience, and food carries enormous symbolic freight. Matzah, which looks a bit like a huge saltless saltine, is the “bread of affliction.” It is food made by slaves to be eaten on the run. You are only required to take a bite of matzah, but it is rude not to take a bite. Charoset is a fruit and nut mixture eaten with the matzah. Maror is horseradish, and watch out for it:  some families compete to see who can find or grind the hottest  maror. You may be served gefilte fish, which is a ball of  stewed minced fish. It is better with a lot of horseradish, if you didn’t grow up with it. You can say “no thank you” if something is just too unfamiliar, but you may be surprised at the things you like.

Note: If you have food allergies, let your host know ahead of time. Nuts are in a lot of Passover foods, as are eggs. Matzah and its gluten are found in surprising places, so it is important to communicate with your host.

6.  BE PREPARED TO DRINK WINE OR GRAPE JUICE. Four cups of wine are served at the seder, to underline the fact that we are slaves no more. They are an essential part of the seder, but it is OK not to drink full glasses. If you don’t drink wine, that is OK; your host should have grape juice available. It is OK to drink small glasses of wine. It is not OK to get drunk. People at the table may express strong opinions for or against kosher wine; try the various kinds, so that you can form your own strong opinions for future seders.

7. BE PREPARED TO BE SURPRISED. The Passover seder is a meal, a ritual, an event, a happening. It has almost two thousand years of history, and a good one is as fresh as tomorrow’s news. It is personal and political. It speaks to one of the great human yearnings, freedom, and it teaches the great Jewish values. It is delicious, thought-provoking, and exhausting. It is a great piece of communal art. It contains many of the secrets of Jewish survival through the centuries. Whatever you think it is, it is more.

Enjoy!

P.S. – Afterwards, send your host a note thanking them for including you.   Hosting a seder is a lot of work, and it deserves thanks.

What suggestions would you give a person attending their very first seder as a guest?


Seven Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success

March 17, 2012

Image

So:  This year you are going to host your own Passover seder!  You’ve decided that this year it’s going to be at Your House.  Alternatively, someone else has decided that this year it’s going to be at Your House. Either way, you are now feeling a mixture of excitement and dread, because this is the first time you’ve hosted.  Here are seven tips for making your first seder one that you will remember with a smile, or maybe a laugh.

1.  PARTNER, DIVIDE, and CONQUER!  Your partner may be your spouse, your beloved, your roommate, your best friend, or the other Jew in your book group.  The point is, you don’t want to do this alone.  One of you is going to be in charge of food  and the other in charge of setting the table and leading the seder.  Don’t be fooled by the word “leader:” these two roles are co-equal and equally critical to success.  During the first part of the seder, both of you will be busy.  One of you will serve as Maestro/a of Ceremonies, making sure that things move along, that everyone participates, that everyone has a good time, etc.  The Food Czar will be monitoring final developments in the kitchen, or monitoring the warming of potluck dishes, or making sure the cat stays out of the kugel, while supervising the movement of greens, salt water, wine, grape juice, and other necessities.

2.  CHOOSE a HAGGADAH.  Your first seder is not the time to roll your own Haggadah (that’s next year.)   You need at least one Haggadah for every two participants, and really, each guest having their own is best.  This is one reason the Maxwell House Haggadah and other free ones are so popular.  The Maestro/a of Ceremonies should read the Haggadah well ahead of the actual seder, cover to cover.  Consider possibilities:  if you find, mid-evening, that you need to skip, where do you intend to shorten things?  Are there other readings or stories or games you have experienced at other seders you’d like to include?  If you are adding things to your seder, make sure to have as many copies as you need.

3.  PLAN YOUR GUEST LIST.  Yes, I know that your Great Aunt Sadie always had at least 50 people at her seders.  Trust me, she started small too.  In my experience, a minyan [10 people] is a nice maximum for a first seder. Think about dishes.  Think about where everyone will sit.  Think about whether you can cook for this number, or if you will be potluck.  Think about the ratio of seder “veterans” to newbies.  A minyan of people who have never been to a seder trying to have a seder is adventurous but might result in 40 years lost looking for the afikomen, or even trying to figure out what the afikomen is.

Note:  if you have inherited the family seder, and like it or not you will have 50 people in your home for your first time seder, grab the relative with whom you feel the most comfortable and level with him or her about exactly how freaked-out you are.  Ask for help. Humbly accept help. Keep reading this list, there is still stuff here that will be useful to you.

4.  PLAN THE MENU.  Rabbi Noam Zion, in his wonderful book, A Night To Remember, pointed out than in the ancient seder, no one sat starving for hours while we told the story. The scrap of soggy parsley you had at seder years ago could also be a bountiful plate of crudités with dip for everyone to nosh [snack] on while you tell the story and talk about what it means. Keep the parsley on the seder plate, and have a nice plate of celery, endive, and other crunchy goodies for everyone — then you won’t need a salad for the meal.  As for the meal itself, let the Food Czar decide what he or she wants to wrangle and how.  Whatever you choose, avoid foods that require last minute fussing.

Note:  Not all of your guests may be of the same mind about what constitutes kosher-for-Passover food.  Check in with any guest you expect will have a strong opinion on the subject, so that you can plan for everyone’s comfort.  If the meal is potluck, make sure that guests who may not know anything about Passover food are assigned something specific, lest they show up with home baked bread or some other labor-intensive inappropriate food.  Hospitality is a Jewish value, and embarrassing a guest is a Jewish sin.

5.  CONSIDER THE TABLE.  Maestro/a of Ceremonies: if your group has several young children, plan entertainment for them:  crayons, finger food, costumes, age-appropriate activities.  Join in the children’s activities, lest the children suspect they are being snookered.  If you have a table full of adults, the Maestro/a of Ceremonies should be ready with some leading questions or statements or a clipped article to get a lively discussion rolling.  Most adults have at least one part of their lives in which they feel they are in servitude, or one wild plan for a jailbreak from that servitude:  the trick is to free them to talk about it.  The wine will help. Speaking of which:

6.  PREPARE THE WINE.  The seder is planned around four cups of wine.  Even if you are absolutely certain that everyone at the table will be over 18 and is not a recovering alcoholic, have a bottle of grape juice handy.  No one should have to drink a glass of alcohol after they feel they’ve had enough.  By the same token, make sure your table setting includes water glasses and water.  Sweet kosher wine is a love/hate thing: some love it, some hate it.  I put both Manischewitz and a “nicer” kosher for Passover wine on my table, to accomodate both.

The Maestro/a of Ceremonies might want to have a joke about the Red Sea ready for the almost-inevitable spilled glass of something.

7. REMEMBER, THERE IS ALWAYS NEXT YEAR.  The purpose of the seder is to tell the story of freedom in a way that will make it a part of everyone around the table.  It is a shared experience that will build memories for the group at the table.  Have fun with it.  Some of the best seders I’ve been to involved spilled wine, crumbs everywhere, a burnt side dish, and a lot of laughter.   If you skip something in the haggadah, or you forget a dish, or the dessert melts, it isn’t the end of the world.  After all, every year at the close of the evening, we remind ourselves that Passover will come again next year.

What advice do you have for someone hosting a first seder?


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