Thoughts for the 4th of July

I listened this morning as the announcers on NPR read the Declaration of Independence aloud.

I noticed something I’d never noticed before: Passover and the Fourth of July have a lot in common. Both celebrate the moment when a small group of people made the decision to take an enormous risk. In both cases, the leaders went out on a dangerous limb and miraculously, the people went with them. In both cases, they defied a government with overwhelming power and resources.

Moses had defied Pharaoh repeatedly and to his face, but while that was going on, the average Hebrew was still making straw bricks to build Pharaoh’s monuments. Only on the first night of Passover did that average man and woman throw down their burdens and walk away. Surely there were skeptics who grumbled over the first Passover meal that Moses was crazy and the whole bunch of them were doomed. Not until the reception of the Torah and the forty years in the wilderness did Israel become a nation, and even then, a work in progress.

And so it was on July 4, 1776: not everyone thought that it was a great idea to defy the British Parliament and Crown. But eventually  the cruelties of the War of Independence forged a new nation, a nation that continues, fitfully, to pursue the ideals articulated in the Declaration.

Both acts, while daring, were incomplete. Freedom alone is not enough to sustain a nation. Passover’s liberation requires Shavuot’s Torah to sustain and propel the nation forward. The Declaration of Independence similarly requires the Constitution with its Bill of Rights. Otherwise “freedom” would have disintegrated into chaos and there would be nothing to celebrate – in fact, nothing to remember.

The Declaration of Independence is a soaring document written by a flawed man, signed by similarly flawed men. The Hebrews who downed tools and followed Moses into the desert were imperfect, too. In both cases, the journey begun in daring led later to the acceptance of responsibility, and continues in an ongoing pursuit of the ideals articulated by limited human beings.

So as we grill our Hebrew National hot dogs, as we watch the fireworks, let us remember that 0ur work is incomplete. Until we build societies that live up to our fine words, we are not done.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

A Different Sort of Haggadah


Both the article that this post links to and the post itself moved me deeply. What can I accomplish in my own Jewish life? There’s a question well worth asking.

Originally posted on A Humanistic Jew in Indianapolis:

I’m tempted to do no more than link to an article, because it’s almost a case of res ipsa loquitur–the thing speaking for itself. But I think it’s important to talk about this issue a little more: making your own Haggadah.

The prompt for this post? This article at Tablet Magazine. (The link will open in a new window.)

Take a close look at that Haggadah. What do you see in its language?

View original 357 more words

What’s the Omer, and Why Count It?

We are now “counting the Omer,” the days from Passover to Shavuot. In case you’d like to know more about it, here are two posts from past years that should answer some of your questions, and perhaps raise more:

How To Count The Omer

Why Count the Omer? Five Reasons (and counting!)

Do you count the Omer? Do you use an app or other aid to do so? Have you ever made it all the way to Shavuot without an error? What do you get out of counting the Omer?

I look forward to your replies!

For A Very Hard Year: The Movie Seder

Passover 2009 was a time when it seemed like we could not get a break. I don’t remember all the troubles – it’s a fog now – but I had been struggling with depression and after six years in rabbinical school, I had only part time work as a rabbi. One son had a job so scary that I couldn’t think about it. The other son was having a tough time with bipolar disorder, and we were still adjusting to it. The previous year California voted in Prop 8, saying, yeah, you lesbians are worthless.

We didn’t have energy for a seder that year. Looking back, I think we were in the depths of Egypt and it was hard to even imagine a seder. I didn’t feel like going to someone else’s seder and smiling and making nice, and neither did Linda.

But we still had the commandment to observe the chag (festival.) I take these things seriously, and so does Linda. It wasn’t OK to just ignore it, no matter how tattered we felt.

So we came up with what I remember as The Movie Seder. Purists will be horrified, but that year it was perfect for us. We had a box of matza, we made a green salad, charoset and something basic for dinner, I think roast chicken.

At the kitchen table, we did the preliminaries: lit and blessed the candles, made kiddush, and washed without blessing. Then ate our salads and broke the matzah, moving to the living room couch. There we had more matzah, horseradish, greens, charoset and the roast chicken. We put on a recording of The Prince of Egypt and settled in to watch as we munched on the ritual food. When they got to the red sea, we broke into dessert (chocolate matzah!) We sipped wine all the way through; I’m sure we had four cups.

And I have to tell you, while it wasn’t a proper seder, at the end we felt hopeful. The music and the beautiful messages of the film had lifted us just a bit. Watching it together, eating together, talking about the movie reconnected us in ways I still don’t entirely understand. I just know that I rose from that seder “table” ready to trudge on through that year’s personal wilderness.

That seder was years ago. A lot has changed. We aren’t nearly so worried about either son. Prop 8 and DOMA are gone (good riddance) and we feel like citizens at last. I’m in a good place emotionally right now, and I have work I love. Linda survived cancer, again. Linda and I are solid, baruch Hashem. But I think of that funny little seder with great affection: it got us through a very bad time.

When you are deep in Egypt, sometimes your seder has to be basic. If you are having a rough year of your own, I encourage you to buy a box of matzah, a jar of horseradish, some salad greens, and a bottle of wine. Make the blessings. Put on a good Exodus film (I recommend The Prince of Egypt or The Ten Commandments) and relax with one of the great stories of all time. Be in it; in a rough time, that story tells us things we need to know.

The Haggadah teaches us that “in each generation, each person is obligated to see himself or herself [lirot et atzmo] as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt.” Part of the reason this works is that over the course of a lifetime, most of us will have an experience of our own personal Egypt. If you are in Egypt today, I wish you deliverance.

L’shanah haba’ah birushalayim!

Next year, in Jerusalem!

Escape the Passover Anxiety Trap!

Passover is coming at us like a freight train. I’ve gotten rid of my chametz, but my kitchen is buried in preparations: pans and ingredients are in piles only I understand and the refrigerator is filling up fast. I’ve located the Passover boxes with dishes and linens and seder-stuff.

Company is coming and I can feel some old anxieties rising. Will they have enough to eat? Will they like what I’ve planned? Are there enough dishes for everyone? Who will sit where? Will so-and-so behave nicely? What will I do if they don’t?


I invite you to take the moment I took earlier this evening and go through your anxieties. Separate them into three lists: (1) things I can control, (2) things I can’t control, and (3) things that don’t matter anyway. The only worries that are worth my precious time right now are the things I can control.

It will be OK. There will be food. If I burn all of it, we’ll eat Hillel sandwiches and have a story to tell for years to come. They’ll all like something, and if they have any manners at all, they won’t announce what they don’t like. I have enough dishes. They can sit where they want, since that is what they’ll do anyway. And if someone misbehaves, that is their bad behavior, not mine. Again, maybe a story to tell someday.

It’s easy to get so wound up over a “perfect seder” that we forget what we are really doing: We’re gathering to tell the story and make it our own.

“I Hate That Part of the Seder!” Four Solutions

What part of the seder do you wish would disappear?

For one friend of mine, it’s the Four Children. She cringes every time she hears about the “wicked child.” As she points out, somewhere there is a child who identifies with that child, and she worries that there are children who internalize those words and never feel connected to the Jewish people. I think she has a point. The Four Children need some explanation to make a constructive point.

In a proper seder, we don’t just read through the haggadah like radio announcers reading the news. We encourage conversation at the table. We encourage feelings. We ask questions – not just the Four Questions, but lots of questions. We make it clear to the children at the table that adults ask questions, too.

When there is a part of the seder that we don’t like, we have choices:

Replace it. If there’s something that really bugs you, check out other haggadot and see how they handle that section. If you find something better, use that haggadah instead, or maybe use some hybrid of the two.

Rewrite it. If you can’t find a text you like for that section, rewrite it yourself! You can get help – make an appointment with your rabbi to talk about the section of the seder that bothers you, and ask for help in figuring out what you’d rather say instead. Or just do it.

Refer it. Look at your guest list. Is there someone coming who might enjoy the project of tackling that section? If you are going to do that, you can’t control how they do it, but you can say, look, that section doesn’t work for me, can you come up with something different?

Reframe it. Many of the commentaries on the haggadah and books about Passover suggest alternate ways of understanding the traditional text. For instance, one popular way of reframing the Four Children is to see them as four aspects of every human personality. In some of us, one or another of the “children” is dominant, but most of us have all of them. Then incorporate that explanation into your seder, either by reading the commentary aloud or by paraphrasing it.

The Haggadah is a script for the seder. Like any script, we can adjust it to our situation, to the actors, and to the moment in time. Some years a very simple children’s haggadah is really the best thing for our table. Other years, something else will be best. And some years, parts of it need to be done as improv.

#BlogExodus: Join Us for Dinner

Kol dichfin yeitei v’yechul.

“Let all who are hungry come and eat.” – The Haggadah

As Robert D. Putnam pointed out way back in 1995 in Bowling Alone, Americans have ceased to be joiners. We do things alone from home, or we do them with our friends. We don’t join clubs and we pride ourselves on being private, perhaps because there is indeed so little real privacy in our lives.

Passover is a curious holiday. In some ways, it is the most private of Jewish observances. We keep it primarily at home. Its central observance, the Passover seder, is a retelling of our foundation narrative, the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Also, because the seder involves seating and food and other limited resources, even when it is a community event, it’s by invitation or reservation only.

And yet the Haggadah, the script for the Passover seder, pushes us towards a greater sense of community: “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” At one point in the seder we open the front door “for Elijah,” an act that at some points in Jewish history has been literally dangerous, since there were roaming antisemites in the street looking for Jews. Even in our darkest hours, the Haggadah has pushed us to open doors, to invite strangers in, to expand our circle while at the same time maintaining the boundaries of identity.

And that, too, is true to the story. The Torah tells us in Exodus 12 that “v’gam erev rav alah itam” – “and also a mixed multitude went up with them” out of Egypt. Significantly, the text doesn’t specify who they were. They were the “all” who are welcome to come and eat, to share the danger and the promise of exodus, to taste the sweetness of charoset and the bitterness of the herbs.  Our horseradish will bring tears to their eyes just as it does to ours. And with any luck our tears will mingle, joined together so that next year, in Jerusalem, they will be our old friends.


#blogExodus, the brainchild of Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, invites participants to chronicle the weeks leading up to Passover through blog posts, photos, and other social media expressions. The topic for the 10th of Nisan is “Join.”