Tikkun Leil Shavuot Online!

Image: A group of four people studying around a table. (Jacob/Shutterstock)

Dear Readers:

There’s a very old custom among us Jews to celebrate the feast of Shavuot with an all-night study session called Tikkun Leil Shavuot. We celebrate the memory of our reception of Torah at Sinai by learning Torah all night long. (Follow the link for more background on the tradition.)

This year I’d like to offer the Coffee Shop Rabbi First Annual Tikkun Leil Shavuot Online. We’ll begin at 8:10 pm Eastern Time, 5:10 pm Pacific Time. We’ll go until we’re just too tired to keep going, or until dawn on the East Coast, whichever comes first. I cannot promise to keep going after 10 pm Pacific, but I will do my best.

I will teach Megillat Ruth, The Scroll of Ruth that evening and lead a discussion of the book. It’s a traditional text for Shavuot.  If you want to prepare ahead of time, I recommend reading the Book of Ruth in your Jewish Bible.

Everyone is welcome, Jewish, non-Jewish, Jew-ish, or just curious. I will offer the class via Zoom, so we can see one another.

Alas, everyone will have to bring their own coffee and cheesecake.

If you are interested in joining us at any point in that evening, please do the following:

  1. Send an email with the subject line:  Shavuot to me at adar.ruth@yahoo.com.
  2. In the email, please give me the name you wish to use in the classroom and your email address.
  3. Emails must be received by Noon Pacific Time on May 17, 2018.
  4. I will send you an invitation to the Zoom gathering.
  5. If you don’t follow the directions above I will not be able to accommodate you.
  6. There is no charge for this session, but I ask that you give tzedakah according to your means. Where you donate is up to you.

I hope that you’ll celebrate Shavuot in whatever way is most meaningful to you!

L’shalom,

Rabbi Adar

 

 

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Iyyar and the Wilderness

Image: A wild landscape with hills, rivers, and greenery. (skeeze/pixabay)

 

I like to visualize the Jewish Year as a physical journey. The calendar walks us through the events of Jewish memory, and every year, new insights await as I learn new things and as my perspective changes.

During Passover, we relived the events of the Exodus: slavery in Egypt, the fearful night of the Passover, the mad dash to the Red Sea, and deliverance into the wilderness. We began counting the Omer. We count up the time until we will arrive at Shavuot, where the memory of Sinai awaits us.

On the way, there’s some interesting scenery. Remember, this is the wilderness we’re walking through, so perhaps it is a perfect time to remember great and terrible events in our modern history. Last week we observed Yom HaShoah v’HaGevurah (The Day of Shoah and the Heroism.) It is a terrifying thing to see on our road from Freedom to Responsibility (Passover to Shavuot) but it is necessary if we want to truly commit to Sinai yet again with our eyes open.

Yesterday and today are Rosh Chodesh Iyyar. We have left the month of Nisan behind, and entered the month that falls between Passover and Shavuot. Iyyar is a wilderness of a month, brimming with minor holidays most people never learn. It is spring past the first blush, making a run towards summer.

This week we observe Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut, from sundown Tuesday to sundown Thursday. On Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) we remember all those who have died in the defense of Israel, and those who died in terror attacks. Then, at sundown Wednesday, sorrow transforms to joy when we celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day.)  Again, we remember death and sorrow; but this time there is also the modern State of Israel to celebrate and consider.

So that’s the scenery on our journey from chag to chag, from Passover to Shavuot.  What do you see as you travel along the road? Have you any insights to share?

When Will Passover be Over?

Image: Matzah! Matzah! Matzah! 

Calendar-wise, Passover is complicated.

Some Jews will finish Passover at sundown after the seventh day. Others finish at sundown after the eighth day.  Why?

Inside the land of Israel (the geographic area, not the State) we celebrate 7 days of Passover, with one yom tov on the first day, and one at the end.

In the Diaspora (outside the Land) most Jews celebrate 8 days of Passover, with two days of yom tov at the beginning and at the end. The exception to that is that some Reform congregations (but not all) follow the Israeli practice.

Why the difference? When the Temple still stood the calendar, was set by astronomical observation from the Temple Mount. Signal fires were lit to let Jewish communities farther away from Jerusalem know that the holiday had occurred. Since long distances were involved (think Jerusalem to Babylon, Jerusalem to Rome, Jerusalem to Spain) the second day was added for the Diaspora. Later on, the calendar was set by mathematical calculation, and we could have gone back to one day of yom tov for everyone, but by then the custom was set. Local custom (minhag hamakom) is a powerful element in halakhah (the Jewish way,) so the double yom tov was set for most Diaspora Jews.

That’s why some Jews are a little vague about the end of Passover. To be sure about it, check with your local community, your congregation.

Whether they end Passover on the seventh or eighth night, one thing remains constant: by then the matzah has gotten a little stale and everyone is looking forward to eating bread and other chametz. I don’t know what percentage of Jewish families will be eating pasta or pizza on that first night after Passover, but I know there will be many!

Are you tired of matzah? What are your favorite things to eat during the week of Passover? What are you looking forward to eating when it’s over?

What does “Chol HaMoed” mean?

Image: On Chol HaMoed Pesach, many Israeli families visit the beach in Tel Aviv. (Some rights reserved, via wikimedia.)

Two Jewish holidays run for a week, or eight days, depending on how you do them. One is Sukkot, the other is Passover.  Those days begin and end with special days, and the chol hamoed are the “ordinary” days in between.

The holidays begin and end with a yom tov (literally “a good day,” but in reality a very special day.) Those days are very similar to Shabbat: they are days of rest, days to spend in joyful observance and study. Ideally we do no work on those days, nor do we handle money, run errands, etc. They are days of enjoyment, with good food and friends. They are also days of celebration: we celebrate the holiday at hand.

Outside the Land of Israel, we celebrate yom tov in pairs, 2 at the beginning of Passover, and two at the end. Inside the Land, we celebrate only a single day of yom tov at the beginning and end of Passover. (If you are curious about why, see Why Some Holidays Last Longer Outside of Israel.) The exception to this rule is the practice of Reform Jews in the United States, many of whom follow the custom of the Land of Israel. (For what your congregation or community does, ask your rabbi.)

The days in between the yamim tovim (plural) are called chol hamoed, meaning “ordinary days of the festival.” We still celebrate the holiday (during Passover, we eat matzah and refrain from eating chametz) but even the most observant Jew can drive the car, handle money, and so on. In Israel, schools and many businesses are closed during chol hamoed, so it is a time for family vacations. In the Diaspora, we may go to work, but we still make time for the spirit of the holiday.

Now you may be reading this, thinking, “I can’t do all that!” and perhaps feeling a little guilty. The truth is that not all of us have yet reached this ideal of celebration. Especially outside of Israel, it’s hard to do, because the secular world around us doesn’t stop to celebrate Passover or Sukkot. Please don’t beat up on yourself or feel bad about it – and don’t give up on it as an ideal. Perhaps not this year, perhaps not next year, but sometime in your life you may have the opportunity to take some vacation time and truly inhabit the holiday.

Jewish observance is not a pass-fail test, even though some people may talk about it that way. Ideally, if we observe the Jewish year to its fullest, we will reap spiritual rewards – but as the saying goes, if it was easy, everyone would do it! Instead, focus on doing what you can do to experience the holiday to the fullest level available to you.

May you have a meaningful holiday, and grow daily as a  member of your community and Am Yisrael, the Jewish People!

 

Many Seders, Many Egypts

Image: The Weighing of Souls, from the Papyrus of the Book of the Dead, Egyptian museum, Turin Italy (photo by Souza_DF/Pixabay)

Each year, when I come to the seder table, I experience it a little differently.

At my very first seder, before I even thought I could become a Jew, I was mystified. I was the Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask at a seder that was mostly in Hebrew and completely opaque to me. What I did know was that I had been invited to join that household for something precious to them. I listened, I followed directions, I drank four cups of wine and I left feeling a little sick. I look back on that seder, and realize that I was there as an observer, not as a participant, and four cups of wine is a lot of wine, so OK.

Every year since I began my journey into Judaism, the seder sneaks up on me. The first few years, I was worried about performance, from the dishes to the text. I wanted it to be “perfect.” I wanted it to be a correct seder. It never was, and finally it dawned on me that I was missing the point.

In the midst of the Maggid, the portion of the Haggadah where we retell the events of the Exodus, there’s the following passage:

בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרַיִם. לֹא אֶת־אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בִּלְבָד גָּאַל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אֶלָּא אַף אוֹתָנוּ גָּאַל עִמָּהֶם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָּׁם, לְמַעַן הָבִיא אוֹתָנוּ, לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶת־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשָׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵינוּ.

In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he left Egypt, as it is stated (Exodus 13:8); “For the sake of this, did the Lord do [this] for me in my going out of Egypt.” Not only our ancestors did the Holy One, blessed be He, redeem, but rather also us [together] with them did he redeem, as it is stated (Deuteronomy 6:23); “And He took us out from there, in order to bring us in, to give us the land which He swore unto our fathers.”  – Haggadah from Sefaria.org

This is the passage that finally explained to me what I was supposed to be doing at seder. I began digging at the concept of Egypt, and the results have been coming for over 20 years. Each year, sometime during the seder, I identify an Egypt that I have left, or in which I am still trapped and in need of deliverance.

  • One year I suddenly flashed on my flight from a bad marriage and an abusive parent. I remembered my terror and my fear of the unknown. I burst into tears at the table and couldn’t bring myself to tell anyone what was happening with me.
  • One year I realized that I was still in the Egypt of racism and a beneficiary of racism. There were bad things in my head that were never going away. Leaving that Egypt would mean reschooling my behavior and hoping that my mis-trained brain would follow.
  • One year I burnt myself rather badly kashering the kitchen. I felt grumpy at the seder table until it hit me that here I was again, in Egypt! I had let my ego take over my observance of mitzvot. I resolved to let the sea part and let it take my ego with it. My house has never been that perfectly cleaned for Pesach since, but my observance has been a lot more authentic.
  • One year I fled Israel for Passover. (I know, irony.) I was not sure that I was going back to finish rabbinical school because I was miserable. I felt too Other to be useful as a rabbi; too lost in Egypt to be any good to anyone.  Then I sat at seder in NYC with some Jews who hadn’t done a seder in years. I rose from that table, ready to go back to school, convinced that I had something to offer.
  • One year I was too exhausted for seder. I wrote about that seder in the post For a Very Hard Year: The Movie Seder.

I don’t know what Egypt I will be delivered from this year. All of us have “narrow places” in our lives, places that we’ve gotten out of, or can’t get out of, or ways in which we are stuck. The message of the seder is one of hope: wherever I’m stuck, whatever is sticking in my throat, the situation is not hopeless. The sea may or may not part (I’m open to a miracle) but Pharaoh cannot hold me: I am free.

What Egypts have you left? What Egypts remain?

The Haggadah is not a Straightjacket!

Image: Silhouette of a family celebrating Passover on a matzah background. (ayelet-keshet/Shutterstock)

The Passover seder is meant to be an evening of delight.

If that does not match with your Passover experience, maybe it’s time for some upgrades. Here are some common issues and some contemporary fixes:

  1. It’s so long and it is all in Hebrew!  Not every American Jew is fluent in Hebrew. There’s no shame in reading the English translations. If someone at the table knows the Hebrew and wants to, let them choose some sections to read, but break it up with language everyone can understand.
  2. We’re starving! It’s too long till we get to the food!  That’s a very good point. We can’t enjoy the goodies of the seder when we’re hungry. There’s a part of the seder called karpas (greens) where in most haggadot (plural of haggadah) we are told to say a blessing and dip some parsley in salt water. But the truth is, that’s a great time to serve a veggie platter of foods to dip: greens, carrots, celery, maybe cherry tomatoes and cauliflower, whatever your family likes. Serve dips with the veggies (guacamole is good!)  and let everyone munch while we enjoy the seder service.  That’s how the karpas section was meant to be.
  3. None of us know any music. MyJewishLearning.com has a whole list of places to find Passover music in time for the seder, whether you want to play it on your smartphone or sing it yourselves.  Check out Where to Find Songs for your Passover Seder, which is just a click away.
  4. But it’s loooong and it’s booooring! Read through the haggadah ahead of time. (Anyone leading a seder should do this anyway.) If there are parts you know put everyone to sleep, shorten them. I promise I will not tell if you even skip a bit.
  5. But it’s boring! Is there someone in the family who secretly longs to host the Oscars? Who loves to do standup? Let this person lead your seder. Empower them to liven it up with props, skits, whatever works! Tell them to think of the haggadah as a script for an evening of improv.
  6. But it’s boring! One more idea: divide up the haggadah. Give each part to a different leader (you’ll still need someone to remind Cousin Fred that it’s now time for his part.) Encourage them to do it however they want, from whatever sources they like – do that part THEIR way. At least then, the voices will change, and you can accommodate both Aunt Sarah who wants to read her part in rapid Hebrew and Cousin David who really wants to do standup.
  7. But I hate our haggadah! Clearly you need a new haggadah. Yep, it’s an investment, but check out some of the new haggadot. There are also some free ones to be had online here and here. Organize a haggadah swap at your synagogue (ok, maybe next year.) Free haggadot are one-size-fits-all, and just like those pantyhose in the eggs, that means they don’t really fit anyone. Maybe next year, make your family its own haggadah.

The haggadah was never meant to be a straightjacket. Like many Jewish texts, it evolved over time and then at some point, someone printed it and it froze a bit. Just remember that it is your heritage: you can do with it what you want. If you have a family full of Torah scholars, you’re going to have one kind of seder. If you have a table full of beginners, you’ll have a different seder. The whole idea of the seder is to make the story come alive – so if it feels dead, it’s time to take off the straightjacket and do something new.

I wish you a zissen (sweet) Pesach!

Don’t Make This Seder Mistake!

Image: Grapes, grape leaves, and a pitcher of red liquid. (Photo via Torange.biz, some rights reserved.)

My seder table every year is really crowded: there’s the seder plate itself, the haggadahs, the individual place settings, the wine glasses, the two kinds of wine (Manischewitz and not-Manischewitz),  along with little plastic frogs for the kids and all sorts of other paraphernalia. It’s a lot of stuff!

However, there are two other things that must be on every seder table, One is a pitcher or carafe or bottle of grape juice, and the other is a pitcher of water. And yet often when I’ve been a guest at seder, neither of those was in evidence until I asked.

In the haggadah, we read “Let all who are hungry come and eat!” And yet when we leave off the grape juice, or when we have it in the kitchen as an afterthought in the plastic Kedem bottle, we are putting some of our guests at a disadvantage, and possibly embarrassing them.

Some people don’t drink wine. Some are friends of Bill W. – they are addicted to alcohol, and they absolutely must not drink wine. Some (like me) are on medications that make alcohol dangerous. For those guests it is really important for the grape juice to be out on the table, easily available, and if possible, staged as attractively as the wine.

I can tell you from personal experience that it’s very tempting to say to a host, “Oh, sure, I’ll just have a little wine” if it looks like getting the grape juice is going to be a lot of trouble. I can also tell you that I feel like a bit of a second-class citizen when my grape juice comes out of a plastic bottle with a torn label, when everyone else is drinking out of a pretty bottle.

Oh, and no, apple juice isn’t just as good. This is the blessing for the glasses of wine:

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time-and-Space, who created the fruit of the vine.

It doesn’t have to be fermented, but it does have to have grown on a vine, for the blessing to be correct. Other vine-grown alternatives are tomatoes, melons, and kiwi fruit.

So why the water?  All of your guests will feel better if they have the option of water to drink between cups of wine. Also, some of your guests may wish to water down the wine a bit, so that they can stay sober enough to enjoy the seder and drive home after.

So please, add water and grape juice to your overcrowded seder table. Your guests will thank you!