#BlogExodus: Join Us for Dinner

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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.

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#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.”

What’s on Your Seder Checklist?

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Getting ready to host your seder? I am, and I thought I’d share my checklist. If this is your first seder, I recommend reading 7 Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success. However many sedarim you’ve hosted, I still recommend a checklist!

This is my checklist. You’ll need to customize this one to make it suit your customs.

Guest List: This is the first thing to do. The guest list will determine a great deal about your seder. Are there children? What ages? Are there people for whom this is their first seder? Will there be non-Jews at the table? What do you know about the observance of Jews at the table? Any vegetarians? Vegans? Food allergies to consider?

Haggadah: Choose a haggadah [script for the seder] or make your own. Making your own is a great thing to do, but start well ahead – for more about that, David Arnow has a wonderful website with information. If you have a haggadah you use every year, have the person who will lead the seder look through it and plan ahead what they’ll read, what they’ll skip, what may be done by other means (invite some of the guests to put on a skit for the Maggid [story] section, for instance.)  Decide where you can shorten if there are fussy children or restless adults. Remember that this is supposed to be engaging, not a dry recitation or reading.

Also, in combination with the cook, discuss what if anything you will serve during the early part of the seder. Some people think that growling stomachs are part of the experience. Personally, I like to give my guests lots of greens to dip, and lots of dips, so that discussions won’t be cut off because we’re all starving.

Wine/Grape Juice: Remember, everyone drinks four cups of wine or grape juice during the seder! Count your guest list, look at your wine glasses, and use this formula:

[# of guests] X [volume you put in the wine glass] X 4 

Keep in mind, if you have guests driving home, that you may want to make the later glasses of wine smaller or lighter or substitute grape juice. I generally figure on having at least twice as much grape juice as wine available – yes, it’s fun getting tipsy but I want everyone driving home to be sober.

Water: Water isn’t just for Miriam’s Cup. If you don’t have water on the table, your guests may get thirsty and unhappy during the seder. People drinking four cups of wine need lots of water. Plan for water glasses and a water pitcher on the table.

Hardware: Seder plate? Elijah’s cup? Miriam’s cup? Plates or chargers for the pre-meal portion? Wine glasses? Plate for matzah? Cover for Afikomen? Cover for matzah plate? Sufficient dishes for the meal and dessert? Flatware? Napkins? Tablecloth? Serving dishes? Serving spoons?

Note about table linens: Be prepared to see your linens doused in red wine and grape juice, if that’s what you are drinking. If they are priceless heirlooms and don’t already have stains from previous Passovers, you can use white wine and grape juice. Personally, I tend to see faint wine stains on a Shabbat or seder tablecloth as a sign of a household where people take those holidays seriously, but that’s just me.

Menu: Everyone’s menu is different, but sometimes it can be quite rigid in families. If you have a blended family at the table, you may want to check in ahead of time to be sure that if half the people at the table need matzah ball soup for it to be a proper seder, that wish is at least considered. It’s not fun to spend the rest of the meal listening to grumbling. (Hint: if something is essential and you don’t want to or don’t know how to make it, ask those guests to be responsible for that part of the meal.)

Salt water: You’re going to need salt water for the ritual. Make it ahead, and serve it from something other than your regular water pitcher.

Matzah: You will need lots of matzah, preferably Kosher-for-Passover matzah that doesn’t have eggs or salt or other interesting ingredients. Read the box. “Gluten free matzah” is not technically suitable for a seder. If someone is avoiding gluten because their doctor has forbidden all gluten, of course they should not eat regular matzah. However, don’t just automatically buy gluten-free matzah for everyone; it doesn’t fulfill the mitzvah.

Charoset: Always make more charoset than you think you’ll need. Trust me, you will eat it up before the end of the week, or your guests can take some home.

Horseradish: Ditto. More than you think you will need. You don’t want to run out: there’s always someone who wants it on their Hillel sandwich and their brisket, too.

Seder Plate: Read How To: Seder Plate Setup for the checklist for the seder plate and its options.

Toys: If you have children at your seder table, consider decorating the table with things they can play with, or making things appear during the seder for them. P.S. – Adults like toys, too.

Carry Home Containers: I always have a supply of “disposable” containers ready (either repurposed jars from other foods, ziplock bags, or the commercial ones) so that I can send leftovers home with guests without worrying about whether my Tupperware will come home or not.

Sense of Humor: This is a Passover Seder, not a solemn high Mass. If something goes wrong, make light of it, make it work, and above all, make whoever spilled that glass of juice comfortable by telling them it’s no big deal. Bring your sense of humor and apply it liberally.

Seasons of Shabbat

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Shabbat experiences are part of our lives, and they change over the course of a lifetime. The Shabbat we remember (or don’t) from our childhoods is not the Shabbat we will have as new parents. Single adults will have a different Shabbat, as will empty nesters.

There is no “perfect” Shabbat. Stop looking for it. Instead, experience the Shabbat that comes. Sometimes it will seem peaceful and holy, and sometimes the sink will stop up or the baby will wail half the night. Sometimes we are surrounded by people, sometimes we are alone.

Shabbat simply is. She comes with the sunset and will leave 24 hours later. In between it is up to us to make of her what we can, what we will.

Shabbat shalom.

Psalm For a Very Dark Night

"another sleepless night" by elias quezada, some rights reserved

Today was an awful news day, with terrible events that left families in mourning.

Jewish tradition has given us the book of Psalms, ancient prayers that address every imaginable human emotion.

Sometimes people are put off by the God-language, which may not align with their beliefs about God. However, if we focus on the Psalms as expressions of human experience, they can offer the comfort that we are never truly alone with our feelings. Whatever I feel, many others have had that hurt or that joy before me.

Here is Psalm 77.  The speaker is in agony and sleepless, and he describes it in terms that are still quite fresh.  He used to feel secure, but now he does not. On a day like today this Psalm speaks to me:

To the leader: according to Jeduthun. Of Asaph. A Psalm.
    ¹ I cry aloud to God,
    aloud to God, that God may hear me.
In the day of my trouble I seek the Eternal;
    in the night my hand is stretched out without rest;
    my soul refuses to be comforted.
I think of God, and I moan;
    I meditate, and my spirit faints. Selah!

You keep my eyelids from closing;
    I am so troubled that I cannot speak.
I consider the days of old,
    and remember the years of long ago.
I commune with my heart in the night;
    I meditate and search my spirit:
“Will the Eternal spurn forever,
    and never again be favorable?
Has God’s steadfast love ceased forever?
    Are God’s promises at an end for all time?
Has God forgotten to be gracious?
    Has God in anger shut down compassion?” Selah!
10 And I say, “It is my grief
    that the right hand of the Most High has changed.”

11 I will call to mind the deeds of the Eternal;
    I will remember your wonders of old.
12 I will meditate on all your work,
    and muse on your mighty deeds.
13 Your way, O God, is holy.
    What god is so great as our God?
14 You are the God who works wonders;
    you have displayed your might among the peoples.
15 With your strong arm you redeemed your people,
    the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah!

16 When the waters saw you, O God,
    when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
    the very deep trembled.
17 The clouds poured out water;
    the skies thundered;
    your arrows flashed on every side.
18 The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind;
    your lightnings lit up the world;
    the earth trembled and shook.
19 Your way was through the sea,
    your path, through the mighty waters;
    yet your footprints were unseen.
20 You led your people like a flock
    by the hand of Moses and Aaron.

Is there a psalm or a prayer that speaks to you during very difficult times? Why that particular one?

Bal Tashkeit: Do Not Destroy

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Looks fancy to me.

Today my cell phone company taught me how to do a mitzvah. Who knew that they could help with mitzvot?

My old phone had many bad habits that were getting worse. I asked the customer service rep if I could repair it. I could, Mike said, but that would take two weeks. Can you give up your phone for 14 days? I can’t.

I fussed at Mike that I hate buying a new cell phone every two years. It’s wasteful of my money, it’s wasteful of rare minerals, it’s wasteful of the labor to make the phone, and so on. I’m sure poor Mike has heard it all before. Then the miracle happened: Mike informed me that there is another way.

Step 1: Buy a used reconditioned phone. Someone sold it back to the company, probably to buy something newer and fancier, and the company fixed it up and slapped a nice warranty on it.

Step 2: After I transfer all my contacts and dog photos to the new phone, I can sell the old phone back to the company, presumably to be fixed up and sold again or to be parts for other fixed-up phones.

Now I have a smartphone that meets my needs and cost much less. Better yet, it did not use additional scarce materials from worrisome sources. Best of all, I can continue this cycle. If the phone were simply old, not crotchety, I could donate it to a nonprofit and they could use it. Either way, it’s a mitzvah.

The name of the mitzvah is Bal Tashcheit: do not destroy. We derive this mitzvah from a curious source, the rules for war in Deuteronomy:

When you lay siege to a city for a long time, fighting against it to capture it, do not destroy its trees by putting an ax to them, because you can eat their fruit. Do not cut them down. Are the trees people, that you should besiege them? –Deuteronomy 20:19

Our sages determined that the sin in cutting down those trees is waste. They expanded their understanding of those verses to include household waste and today it is a source for talking about the sin of environmental waste. We are stewards of the earth, not owners of it. We must not destroy resources just because it suits us to do so or is convenient.

And as for Mike, I thanked him. I don’t know where he is, but I hope he sleeps well tonight, having helped a rabbi do a little mitzvah.

Ask the Rabbi: Hostess gifts at Passover?

Ask the RabbiA reader asks: What can I bring as a gift to a Passover seder?

First and foremost, unless you are certain of your hosts’ Passover practices, don’t bring any food that is loose or homemade. While there are basic rules for Passover that apply in most households, no two families are exactly the same. Food marked “Kosher for Passover” in an sealed, unopened package is probably all right but for myself, I tend to avoid all food gifts at this time of year unless I have special knowledge of tastes and Jewish observance in that home.

Some good non-food items to bring:

  1. An interesting Haggadah is a nice gift. Some have beautiful illustrations, some have texts or commentary by famous rabbis, and some are just unusual.
  2. Small housewares are welcome this time of year: dish clothes, napkins, placemats, salt-and-pepper shakers, etc. Many families pack away their “regular” wares in favor of “Passover” things and so something new is particularly welcome at this time.
  3. Flowers are always lovely.
  4. If there are children in the house, bringing a Passover book, puzzle or toy for children is a very nice thing to do.
  5. Books or games are a fine idea.

If nothing on this list appeals to you, perhaps it has given you other ideas. Readers, can you suggest gifts you have given at Passover time that have been particularly welcome?

Mazal Tov!: Some Thoughts on Growing Pains

Zodiac mosaic in a 6th century synagogue in Beit-Alpha, Israel.  (Image: maksim)

“Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow! Grow!'”

Lovely, no? This quotation, attributed to “The Talmud” appears in various places online. The only trouble with it is that it was translated so sweetly that it has lost its meaning. The moral of that  story: be careful about alleged quotations on the Internet, especially if translation is involved.

“The Talmud” is huge. The closest I’ve been able to come to locating this alleged quotation is something from rabbinic literature, but not in the Talmud. It’s from a collection of midrash called Bereshit Rabbah:

“Ben Sira said: God caused herbs to spring forth from the earth: with them the physician heals the wound and the apothecary compounds his preparations. R. Shimon said: There is not a single herb but has a mazal [constellation] in the heavens which strikes it and says, “Grow!” – Bereshit Rabbah 10.6 (my translation)

Translation is an art, and sometimes the most literal translation is not the most accurate in transmitting the meaning of a passage. However, sugar-coated translations can do more harm than good when they virtually reverse the meaning of a passage. The literal translation suggests that even plants have a destiny [a horoscope, at a time when rational people put faith in such things,] Rabbi Shimon adds that living up to destiny is not always a pleasant process: this mazal* “strikes” (and yes, that’s the verb, from the same root that gives us “flogging” for punishment) the plant and says to it, “Grow!”

Certainly it is more pleasant to think of angels whispering to blades of grass than it is to think of the stars whipping medicinal herbs into shape. Unpleasant or not, this midrash has something important to teach about growth: it often hurts. Leaving Egypt was a painful process: Pharaoh increased the workload, then God started bringing the plagues, most of which affected Israelites as well as Egyptians, then the scary night of escape, then the scary passage to and through the Reed Sea. Then everything else. If there was a pleasant, quiet “spiritual” moment in all that process, the Torah doesn’t record it.

We call them “growing pains” for a reason: growth hurts. That is why it behooves us, out of the mitzvah of kindness to suffering creatures, to treat those who are learning with kindness. No angels are bending over them whispering. No, whatever Torah they are called to do in the world is calling to them, striking them, saying, “Grow! Darnit, grow!”

And when we feel own growing pains, we must remember that like the medicinal herbs in this midrash, we are called to something important, in our case, lives of Torah. Growing in Torah is sometimes a painful process. Feeling the pain is not necessarily a sign that we’re on the wrong road: sometimes it is a sign that we’re actually feeling the growth.

That’s why we need teachers and advisers, why it is often said that “Every Jew needs a rabbi.” We must talk with our guides, reflect with them, when we feel growing pains. They may just be a sign that we’re well on our way to that “mazal,” the destiny which is ours to fulfill.

*Mazal did not mean “luck” in the time of Bereshit Rabbah. It meant “constellation” or “arrangement of stars” and “mazal tov” meant something along the lines of “the stars were in your favor!” It has survived as an idiom of congratulation in both Hebrew and Yiddish, even though we no longer believe that our fates can be predicted or manipulated with astrology. 

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#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.