Don’t Forget This Mitzvah before Pesach!

Image: A box for collecting tzedakah funds.

It is a Jewish tradition of long standing to give tzedakah (funds for the relief of suffering and need) before holidays and celebrations. We are approaching one of the greatest holidays of the Jewish year, Passover. In the rush to be ready, don’t forget to give so that the discomforts of others may be less on the holy days.

I’ve been working on a long piece about tzedakah, and as often happens there are texts that I love but cannot use in that particular paper. I thought I’d share them here for your enjoyment and perusal, because darnit, I like them so much!

“What goes around, comes around”:

R. Hiyya advised his wife, “When a poor man come to the door, give him food so that the same may be done to your children.” She exclaimed, “You are cursing them (by suggesting that they may become beggars)! But R. Hiyya replied, “There is a wheel which revolves in this world.” – Shabbat 151b

About fakers and frauds:

Rabbi Chayim of Sanz had this to say about fraudulent charity collectors: “The merit of charity is so great that I am happy to give to 100 beggars even if only one might actually be needy. Some people, however, act as if they are exempt from giving charity to 100 beggars in the event that one might be a fraud.” – Darkai Chayim (1962). 137

A warning against “compassion fatigue”:

R. Joshua b. Korkha said, “Anyone who shuts his eye against tzedakah is like one who
worships idols.” – Ketubot 68a

Do you have a favorite text about the mitzvah of tzedakah?

 

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Begin in Egypt: Preparing for Passover

Image: A waist down view of a man in an apron and blue jeans holding cleaning supplies. (Africa Studio/Shutterstock.)

Six years ago I wrote a piece about Passover preparation called “Begin in Egypt.” It addressed the situation of beginners when preparing for Passover. I repost it today, because I still think it’s my best on the subject:

—-

Rabbi Tarfon taught: It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.  [Pirkei Avot 2:16]

It is very tempting to take an “all or nothing” approach to mitzvot.   Some of us are overachievers, and we want an “A” in everything we do.  Some of us are worried about the opinions of others.  Some worry that if a commandment is not fulfilled properly, there was no point in bothering.  But to any beginner in Jewish observance, my first word of advice about almost everything is: Start Small.

The journey of the Exodus began in Egypt.  The Hebrews could not keep the commandments; they had not yet received the commandments.  Anyway, they were slaves:  they were not free to keep the commandments.

So if this is your first time cleaning for Passover, do not think, “I must do all of this perfectly,” because you are in Egypt.  You are only beginning the journey! If this is your first time cleaning for Passover, think:  What can I reasonably do this year to observe Passover in my home?  Here are some ideas for beginning your journey to Passover, one step at a time.  Even if you do only the first step, or the first two this year you will have made a good beginning.

If, on the other hand, you are looking for official standards on how to prepare a proper kosher-for-Passover home, and you are already an old hand at this, you will be much better served by the Pesah Guide published by the Rabbinical Assembly (Conservative Movement.)  This post is for those who are new to the mitzvah of preparing for Passover.

1.  LEARN ABOUT CHOMETZ.  Chometz / Chametz / Hametz (all spellings are transliterations, all are the same thing)  is a product that is made from one of five types of grain (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, or barley) that have been combined with water and left to stand raw for longer than eighteen minutes.  Chometz is sometimes defined as “leavened products” which is confusing, since that makes modern people think of leavening agents like baking powder and yeast.  But no, chometz is basically wet grain,  or grain that may have been wet at one time.

In short, anything in your home that contains one of those grains (wheat, rye, spelt, oats, barley) and may have had any moisture get to it (on purpose or by accident, no matter) is chometz.  Ideally, a Jew will find and get rid of all the chometz in the places under his or her control before Passover begins.

You can learn more about chometz and Passover observance in an article at My Jewish Learning.  There you will also learn that Ashkenazic Jews also dispose of rice, millet, corn and legumes like beans and soy [kitniyot]because those things often behave like the forbidden grains. Sephardic Jews do not get rid of those things.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK.   

2.  CHECK YOUR CHOMETZ.  The Hebrew name of the process of looking for chometz is bedikat chometz, literally “checking for chometz.”  The first step is to figure out where the chometz is.  You can’t get rid of it if you don’t take stock of it, right?

Go into the kitchen, open the cabinets, and make note of all the chometz products you normally own and use.  There may be bread, and flour, and mixes, and cereals.  There may also be processed foods that contain grain products.  Notice what they are, how many they are, how basic to your cooking and consumption these products are.  Notice, also, all the beer and spirits and other grain-based fermented products you may have: those, too, are chometz.  Then close the cabinets, and move on.

Go into the rest of your home, and think about all the places that crumbs can hide:  sofa cushions, carpets, pockets, shoes.

Contemplate the ubiquity of chometz:   It’s really everywhere.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK. 

3.  GET RID OF BIG CHOMETZ.  I said “start small” but at this stage of the journey, we’ll just get rid of what I call “big chometz.”  Set aside all thechometz in your kitchen and say, “what can my household consume before Passover?”  All the rest of the chometz will need to go for you to complete this third step.  Eat it up, give it away, or throw it out:  those are the chometz choices between Purim and Passover.  Locate a donation dropoff for your local food bank, and use it.

If you have gotten to this stage, you will also need to think about “What will my household eat during Passover?”  This does not mean that you must buy many specialized products for Passover.  Maybe you will choose to buy matzah, and otherwise stick to unprocessed non-grain foods for the week of Passover:  salads, fruit, meat, fish, etc. If you live with other people, you need to include them in the menu-planning for Passover week.  The average child (or adult, for that matter) will not feel loved if you simply announce that we are out of Cheerios and will be out of Cheerios until next week, tough luck!  If you have animals, you will need to plan for them as well.  However, keep in mind that an animal that eats grain needs proper nourishment:  consult your rabbi if you have questions about how to meet the needs of pets during the holiday.

If this is all you can do this year, that’s OK.   

4.  DISHES AND UTENSILS  If you are even more serious about keeping a kosher for Passover home, you will want to seal up or pack up all your usual utensils and dishes, and use either “Passover dishes” that you keep boxed up the rest of the year or use disposables.  This is more or less expensive depending on how you go about it.  My everyday Passover dishes are not particularly nice (they were on sale at Target)  and I only have a few of them, since other than the seder, I don’t entertain during Pesach.  However, I only look at them for one week a year, so I wasn’t picky.

Another possibility is to buy a package of paper plates. This is less wasteful if there is some way to compost them instead of putting them in the landfill after use. During Passover, I use more disposable products than at other times of the year, but I try to use them responsibly.

If this is all you do this year, it is more than OK. 
 

5.  FIND AND DESTROY HIDDEN CHOMETZ.  This brings us to something that looks suspiciously like “spring cleaning.”  Remember the chometz you thought about back at #1:  the crumbs in the carpet, your pockets, the car, the back of cabinets?  At this level of cleaning for Passover, you will get rid of as many of those as you can.  Take a moment to think a grateful thought for  all the clever inventors of the vacuum cleaner.  Most observant Jews will get their carpets cleaned in the week before Passover. Wipe surfaces down.  Dust everywhere.  Vacuum out the shoes in the closets.

If this is all you do this year, it is more than OK. 
6.  RECONSIDER “CHOMETZ  There are Jews who observe Passover by refraining from eating chometz, and who may or may not be meticulous about cleaning out their houses, but who take other understandings ofchometz very seriously.  To learn more, consider these articles on the web:
7.  REMEMBER, LIFE, LIKE EXODUS,  IS A JOURNEY.  In the beginning, start small.  Don’t tear your home up and then collapse in despair.  Pay attention to the mitzvah that you are doing, to whatever degree you can perform it.  Remember that at different stages of life, our abilities are different:  a beginner, starting out, will not approach Passover in the same way that a person who has grown up in a kosher observant household will approach it.  In a year with illness, or money troubles, or other challenges, our ability to observe the mitzvah will change.
Instead of judging ourselves for what we cannot do, and comparing to others who “do more,” we accomplish the most when we approach the task with kavanah [intention] and do what we can to the best of our ability.   Remember the words of Rabbi Tarfon that opened this post:  It is not your responsibility to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it either.

Purim, Passover, Packing!

Image: These two little guys “helped” me pack for home in May of 2003. 

The staff at the Jerusalem campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion have a saying: “Purim, Passover, Packing!” What they mean by that is that the velocity of the school year increases beginning with Purim. Assignments and tests loomed on the horizon for Year-In-Israel students as soon as we’d finished our hamantaschen. When Passover arrived we had a week out of class to catch our breath, then we hurried to hand in assignments, take final tests, and pack for the long trip back to the United States.

I still have dreams about that stretch of time between Passover and June.

I experience it again, every year, because as soon as Purim is done, I begin preparing for Passover. That’s an involved process, and you can read about it elsewhere in this blog at Passover Prep for Beginners.

When do you start your Passover preparations? How do you begin?

Happy Purim! Purim Sameach!

Image: Drawing by Emily Meghan Morrow Howe, all rights reserved. 

[A question from Mordecai to Queen Esther, who has pointed out that approaching the king carries very high risks:] “Who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis?’ – Esther 4:14

I wish everyone reading this a happy, fun, inspiring Purim. May we address ourselves to the challenges of the present moment with the courage and imagination of Esther!

The Four Mitzvot of Purim

Image: Photo of Purim mishloach manot basket. Photo by Yoninah via Wikimedia.

There are four mitzvot [commandments] for the feast of Purim.

  1. Read the Megillah: Read or hear the story. Going to a Purim spiel is better than nothing at all, but ideally Jewish adults will read or hear the megillah itself. It’s short, and public readings are a matchless experience – check with local synagogues for times. Even if you don’t understand the Hebrew, make noise when everyone else does at the name of the villain Haman (ha-MAHN.) A good megillah reading is pure performance art.
    1. Attend to listen live if you possibly can. If you have no better options, though, there is a lively Megillah reading on You Tube from Congregation Har Tzeon-Agudat AchimCongregation Har Tzeon-Agudat Achim, a Modern Orthodox congregation in Maryland.
    2. Don’t read Hebrew? Follow along with an English translation. You can even do it on your smartphone or tablet – search your app store for “Megillat Esther” or for a regular Tanakh. Be sure to get a Jewish translation – Christian Bible translations are from a different text.
  2. Seudat Purim [Eat a festive meal]: Get together with your community, or some friends, and celebrate the survival of the Jewish People.
    1. Most synagogues have a festive meal of some kind.
    2. We can also fulfill the mitzvah by inviting friends over for a shared meal.
    3. Traditionally the meal includes meat and wine. Your mileage may vary, but the food should be a treat of some kind.
  3. Matanot L’Evyonim [Gifts to the Poor]: Money, food, drink or even clothing are all appropriate gifts. We are talking about actual presents. We can fulfill this mitzvah by giving money, clean clothes, or good food to individuals.
    1. This does NOT mean clean out our closets for a trip to Goodwill. If you don’t want it, it is not a true present!
    2. Since one of the customs of Purim is drinking, for one day do not worry about what a poor person is going to do with cash, or heaven forbid give the “gift” with a lecture.
    3. A gift to the local food bank is indeed a “gift to the poor” and much better than nothing but it is more in the spirit of the holiday if we perform this mitzvah personally if possible.
  4. Mishloach Manot [Gifts to Friends]: We send prepared food or drink to friends to enhance their festive meal. The food should not require further preparation, and there should be at least two portions. A gift of clothing or money does not fulfill the mitzvah. Normally it is better to do a mitzvah in person than to send it by messenger but since the Book of Esther mentions “sending” gifts, on this holiday the custom is to send by messenger.

For a more complete discussion of these mitzvot I recommend the article Purim and Its Mitzvot on the Orthodox Union website.

A Different Kind of Purim

Image: Demonstration organized by Teens For Gun Reform, an organization created by students in the Washington DC area, in the wake of the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Photo by Lorie Shaull, some rights reserved.

In the past, the Book of Esther and its holiday of Purim have mostly been celebrated as a party in the United States. We’ve been in an extraordinarily peaceful time for the Jews of North America.

So much has changed since last Purim. Some of us may not feel in our usual Purim mood, wondering what festivity is really suitable. Every community has to decide that for itself.

It is quite certain, though, that the themes of the Scroll of Esther, themes of threat and dramatic reversal are very much with us right now. The sages speak of both the book of Esther and the holiday of Purim as hafuch – upside down, topsy-turvy – and we seem to be in the midst of reversals.

Anti-Semitism and White Supremacy: In August, Jews in the United States were faced with the spectre of a president who said, and repeated, that he thought “there is blame on both sides” in Charlottesville, where white supremacists threatened a synagogue while the local police declined a call for help.  Like the Jews of Shushan, the Jews of Charlottesville were left unprotected. The fact that a non-Jewish woman who was attempting to counter the messages of hate was murdered by white supremacist violence underlined the fact that this was not paranoia, not drama, but genuine danger.

All manner of bigotries are on the rise. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports 957 hate groups currently active in the U.S.  Wholesale hatred of African-Americans, Latinx persons, immigrants, Jews, Muslims and LGBTQ people has not been this open and shameless in decades.

#MeToo: In October, a different set of Esther themes resonated as a series of high-profile, powerful men lost their jobs when men and women began to speak up about their experiences of sexual harassment at the hands of those men. It seemed that the rules changed overnight: the accounts of victim/survivors were taken seriously. We are still in the midst of comings-out and revelations, and we are also beginning to see some backlash, but the situation is filled with echoes of the reversals in Esther, and the story of Vashti, the shamed queen from Chapter 1.

 

The Youth of Parkland: Then on February 14, 2018, we have witnessed yet another mass murder in a school, carried out by a white man armed with an assault rifle. At first it seemed much like the mass shootings that preceded it: white male uses legally acquired AR-15 to mow down an unthinkable number of students going about their business in what should have been a safe place. Then the story changed, with an Esther-like reversal: the victims have refused to behave like victims. They have already traveled to the state government in Tallahassee and to the federal government in Washington. They are organizing school walkouts and marches in the coming weeks and months. They are absolutely serious about fighting back against the horror of mass murder by AR-15, and they have rallied the hearts of many Americans.

It remains to be seen what comes of all of this. On the one hand, dark forces have been set loose in our society, given permission and encouragement by people at high levels of the government. On the other, the new willingness to listen to and believe victim/survivors of sexual violence is astonishing to many of us who had despaired of change in that quarter. The voices of the young men and women of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School seem downright miraculous. I am reminded of the line from the prophet Joel 3:1:

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, [while] your old men dream dreams, your youth shall see visions.

However you choose to observe Purim this year, whether with the usual Purim spiel or a more solemn observance, pay attention to all that is hafuch – upside down – in our world at the moment.

We can allow the spirit of Mordechai’s words to Esther to percolate through our being:

Who knows whether you are not come to royal estate for such a time as this? – Esther 4:14

Like Esther, we must use the tools at our disposal to right the wrongs in our world.

Purim sameach!

Adar and the Fight Against Evil

Image: A figure in a Venice Carnival mask. With his three-cornered hat, he could be the villain Haman!  (xxxmax/Pixabay.)

I was born in the month of Adar. About 20 years ago I decided that I wanted a new last name to mark a new chapter in my life.  It seemed logical to choose “Adar,” since it was the month in which I was born. However, a famous line from the Talmud gave me pause.

 משנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה

When Adar enters, joy increases.  — Taanit 29a

I resolved that if I was going to take the name Adar as my own, I had to take this famous teaching about the month of Adar very seriously. I needed to live life in such a way to affirm and not contradict it.  A line from the Mishnah has been my guide in this matter:

שַׁמַּאי אוֹמֵר, עֲשֵׂה תוֹרָתְךָ קֶבַע. אֱמֹר מְעַט וַעֲשֵׂה הַרְבֵּה, וֶהֱוֵי מְקַבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאָדָם בְּסֵבֶר פָּנִים יָפוֹת:

Shammai says, “Make your Torah fixed, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant countenance.”

I loved the fact that the speaker in this case was grumpy old Shammai. He understood that it was no easy thing to greet everyone cheerfully every day. However, if he could do it, then I could certainly try to learn this mitzvah.

But Adar is not always a joyful month. This Adar, Adar 5778, began with a tragedy: a young man took an assault weapon and killed 17 people in Florida. Many of them were Jews, for whom Adar is supposedly a “joyful” and “lucky” month. Unfortunately, Feb 14 and the month of Adar will never again be a time of joy for their families.

24 years ago, in Adar 5754, a Jewish physician and IDF reservist named Baruch Goldstein opened fire in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, Israel. He murdered 29 Muslims at prayer, and wounded 125 others. His actions set off a wave of violence in the West Bank. Mainstream rabbis and politicians condemned his actions, and the State of Israel took steps to see to it that in future Muslims and Jews could both pray in peace at the holy site.

I was still very new to Talmud study when I changed my name. I knew the saying, “When Adar enters, joy increases” but I did not know the context of the saying. It is an important principle of text study to pay attention to context, never more so than in this case. 

As you can see above, the line appears in Taanit, “Fasts,” the volume of Talmud having to do with days of fasting. If you look at the page on which the line about Adar appears, you will see that it comes only at the bottom of the page. What preceded it is a long list of disasters that have befallen the Jewish people during the month of Av. The line about Adar is almost an afterthought, mentioned in contrast to the horrors mentioned before it.

There is nothing magic about the month of Adar. It has the reputation of being “lucky” and “happy,” mostly from the association with Purim, but in fact bad things happen in Adar, too. So why talk about Adar as a time of joy? Is it just superstition?

Adar and Purim are a reminder that we are not helpless in the face of tragedy. In Esther, the Jews fought back and survived. The ninth chapter of Esther is not a pretty story – the Jews fought back hard and killed a lot of Persians. That chapter is there to remind us that fighting back is not a happy fantasy; it is mostly an ugly necessity.

The rabbis insist (at the beginning of tractate Megillah) that we must, must, must read the story every year because they wanted us to remember to stand up for ourselves in the face of evil. They wanted us to realize that Purim wasn’t a party; it was a struggle against evil, and it cost a terrible price.

This Adar, this Purim, I encourage us all to think about how we will fight back against the wave of school shootings over the past 20 years (Columbine was in April, 1999.)  We are commanded in Leviticus:

לֹא־תֵלֵ֤ךְ רָכִיל֙ בְּעַמֶּ֔יךָ לֹ֥א תַעֲמֹ֖ד עַל־דַּ֣ם רֵעֶ֑ךָ אֲנִ֖י יְהוָֽה׃

Do not deal basely with your countrymen. Do not stand upon the blood of your fellow: I am the Eternal. – Leviticus 19:16

Many, many innocent children have died or been maimed by these shootings, and it is long past time that we began fighting back against them. Whatever our opinions about the Second Amendment, surely we can agree that these shootings must stop.

  • If you believe that NRA lobbyists are to blame, demand that your lawmaker stop taking contributions from the NRA.
  • If you believe that better security in the schools is the answer, write your lawmaker and insist that funds be allocated for security measures.
  • If you believe that better mental health care is the answer, write your lawmaker and insist on free mental health care for anyone who needs it.
  • If you think the above three are not good ideas, ask yourself: what am I going to do?

If you want to make a public commitment to doing something in particular, you can use the Comments section to do so.

And don’t forget the words of Shammai: “say little and do much” – talk is cheap.  Insist on more than talk from public officials. We must insist on doing more than talking inside our circles of agreement: we must call, we must write, we must vote, we must show up to make our point. Social media is a means, not an end to action.

Purim is not just a children’s party. Listen to its call and take action!  Take action so that in future there might be joy.