Do You Ask Enough Questions?

“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?

 

 

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#BlogExodus: In the Midst of Chaos

NO CHAOS
NO CHAOS (Photo credit: alles-schlumpf)

Plagues.

I’ve heard many interesting drashot on the plagues, but to me the unifying factor of all plagues is that they are chaotic.  In the Creation narrative, the world is tohu vavohu, “formless and void,” some translations say, but fundamentally, chaos.  God hovers over it all, and speaks, and by speaking, separates dark from light, one thing from another, until the world is organized and peaceful.

Now, in Exodus 8 and 9, here come the plagues:  water turns to blood, frogs swarm out of the Nile, then die and stink.  The dust that is everywhere turns to lice, tormenting man and beast, followed by flies, which bite and swarm and carry filth everywhere.  Then disease:  first the cattle begin to die of anthrax and hoof-and-mouth disease, and their meat and milk are no longer good, then human beings are struck with boils that erupt everywhere on their skin.  The sky goes crazy, raining hailstones that cut the crops to shreds, and locusts gobble up everything that’s left.  Then the sun and moon fail, and the chaos seems complete:  all is dark, itchy, sticky, dis-eased, and there is nothing decent to eat or drink. And then the human promise of a future is erased:  firstborn children die.  Tohu vavohu:  Creation is unmade and all is chaos.

I read those passages in Exodus 8 and 9, and I think of all the suffering people and animals. Pharaoh and the Hebrew God have their confrontation, and I am angry at both of them.  They are like politicians talking about eggs and omelettes.  “You have to break a few eggs, etc.”  — NO.  I understand that I am supposed to root for God, and cheer, and I just can’t bring myself to do it.

In a bad year, on a bad news day, we can feel the chaos all around.  Two days ago a crazy man shot and killed seven people at a little college in the city of Oakland.  I’ve been involved in a conversation on my local Patch.com site (San Leandro) about the fact that little San Leandro seems to be in the midst of a plague of violent crime that has become so commonplace it doesn’t even make the news.  People are angry.  We feel helpless.  We feel like Egyptians.

What are we to do?  I keep thinking of the line from the Mishnah:  In a place where there are no human beings, be a human being.  (Pirkei Avot 2:6)  In the midst of the mess, whoever made it, we have only our humanity, our ability to connect to other suffering beings.

So let’s reach out.  Let’s talk.  Let’s touch.  Let’s quit fantasizing about how great the world would be without plagues and instead, reach across the mess to one another.  I don’t know how else we can navigate, in a time of plague.  We have the example of God in Creation:  the power of words.

Somewhere in there, we seek holiness.

—–

This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project.   A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics.  If you want to discover some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate those blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus.


The Miracle of Parsley

This is a curly leaved parsley plant (the comm...
Petroselinum hortense (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“That stuff has to go visit the devil nine times before it comes up,” grumbled Mrs. Smith.  She pointed to a row of plants in her herb garden, or rather, a row that had been marked as seeded.

“What is it?” I asked, thinking it must be something awful.  Henbane, hemlock, foxglove: one of those plants that can knock you dead, maybe.

“Parsley,” she said, “It’s too valuable not to plant, but it is a slow one.  I planted new this year, and it’s taking it’s own sweet time.”

I had that conversation thirty years ago, one summer when I was living in the Cumberland Mountains, a spur of the Appalachians. Mrs. Smith was a herbalist who had learned her art from her grandmother, back when there were no doctors in that part of the mountains.  She had strong opinions about many plants, but parsley‘s devil-connection made it instantly memorable.  (I’m pretty sure she meant it only as a sort of verbal garnish — pretty sure.)  Certainly I could never again see Petroselinum hortense without remembering Mrs. Smith and her garden.

It’s true that parsley is slow to germinate.  It is slow, and sometimes doesn’t come up at all.  However, once you plant it, it’s difficult to get rid of it, because it has a long tough tap root that goes deep into the soil.  While it is officially a biennial, in the mild climate where I live, once you have it, you have it.  If you don’t want it, tough.  It will just keep coming back, so you might as well pick some and eat it.

Besides being pretty and green, it’s highly nutritious:  high in vitamin K, vitamin C and flavonoids.  It’s also a source of iron, vitamin A, and folate.  Long before the Greeks began using it as a food, they used it for medicine.  It lowers blood pressure and has a chemical in it called apigenin, which inhibits the growth of tumors.   Eventually, though, someone discovered that it was pretty tasty, too, and the result is a panoply of Mediterranean dishes, including my favorite, tabouleh.

Which brings us back to the dinner table, and the seder plate.  I know that we include parsley as karpas, greens, but it is so much more than just green!  Its roots are deep.  It takes nutrients from the soil, and builds life-giving, life-preserving compounds.  Give it a warm patch of dirt and some water, and it will feed you generously.  Some varieties are quite bitter to the taste, and some are mild.  Dry it out, and it will still flavor food.

It is a stubborn little plant, not unlike a certain stiff-necked people.  This Friday night, when I sit at the seder table, and dip my bit of parsley into the bowl of tears, I will remember Mrs. Smith and her aggravation with the blessing that is parsley.

 

#BlogExodus: Springtime & Memory

Tomb of Joseph at Shechem
Tomb of Joseph at Shechem (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“April is the cruelest month, breeding / lilacs out of the dead land” wrote that brilliant old anti-Semite, T.S. Eliot, and I believe him. Spring is often spoken of as the season of blooming and rebirth, but for me it will always be tinged with loss.

I lost my beautiful grandmother, Mary Fulghum Menefee, on April 17, 1974, and the sights and smells of springtime are hard to take some years. I particularly hate the smell of Easter lilies, because after she died everyone we knew brought some to the house. I remember the white dogwood trees that she planted by the driveway, laced with blossoms, and it just seemed so wrong that anything would bloom after she was dead.

Years have passed and her absence has become a presence of its own in my heart. I doubt that she would have approved, in life, of my becoming Jewish, but many of the impulses that led me to Judaism were learned (or inherited?) from her. She encouraged my questioning mind, my love of scholarship, and my curiosity about the world. She told me a few days before her death that she’d been secretly voting Democratic for years. “Never tell your husband how you vote, it’s a secret ballot and none of his darn business,” she counseled me. Prudent words, coming from a woman in a family where everyone was very noisy about their conservative politics.

After my grandfather’s death, years later, I learned that she was a battered wife and had hidden it from all of us. She longed to get away but she could not, not in that time, not in that place. My grandmother never left Tennessee; twelve years after her death, I drove away and in many ways, never looked back.

I carry her along with me wherever I go. That, too, is very Jewish:  we remember the dead and bring them along with us. These days we do it in memory, by keeping yahrtzeits and attending yizkor services. But in that first Exodus, we are told that Moses actually carried a box with the bones of Joseph (Exodus 13:19) to fulfill Joseph’s prophecy and request in Genesis 50:25: “And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying: ‘God will surely remember you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.'”  Indeed, after many years of travel, Joshua finally laid Joseph’s bones to rest in Shechem (Joshua 24:32.)

Beyond mourning, it is important to honor the memory of family by telling stories about them. Passover seders are a wonderful time for that, a time when children are gathered around the table with adults, when memory  can flow. Was there a passage from an Egypt, a tight spot, in your family’s past?  Was there a beloved grandmother or a scholarly  uncle?  Are there funny stories, or sad stories, or stories with missing pieces that can be shared?

This Passover, tell the Exodus story, all the Exodus stories. Remember those who left Egypt, and those who could not.

—–

This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project.   A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics.  If you want to discover some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate those blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus.

#BlogExodus: Redemption

“Have you been saved?”

I grew up in the Southeast, so I’ve been asked that question a few times.  “Have you been saved?” is a way of sorting the sheep from the goats:  are you a Christian yet?

I am here to tell you that I have not been saved.   I have no intention of “being saved.”  However, I have on my shoulders the ol hashamayim, the yoke of the covenant, and therefore I am on a mission to save, to redeem, this world.  I am not on that mission by myself.  I am on that mission as a member of the Jewish People.

My commitment as a Jew is to action, more than belief.  Jews believe a lot of different things: even the most orthodox of us have latitude in our interpretations.  But all of us, every single one of us, is called to see to it that when we leave this earth it is in better shape than we found it.  We cannot do that with belief or thought.  We can only do that with action:  action with our choices, action with our bodies, action with our use of resources, action with our speech, action in the voting booth.

God redeemed the Jews from Egypt, and then, at Sinai, God handed us our part of the deal:  we are here on earth to perform mitzvot, to fulfill our sacred duties, to act.  It is in doing, in acting, that we will be sanctified, we will become holy.

So no, I have not “been saved.”  I’m here in the Jewish mode, in the active voice:  I’m here to save.  I’m here to act, when I see my neighbor bleeding.  I’m here to act on behalf of the widow and the orphan. As Hillel taught us in Mishnah Avot 2:6, “in a place where there are no decent people, be a decent person.”  That’s an interpretive translation:  literally it’s “In a place where there are no men, be a man.”  Either way, action, not passivity, is what Hillel advocates.

May this Passover be a time of rededication to that sacred mission:  to perform mitzvot and make a real difference in the world, a difference for the better.  It is for this that we were brought out of Egypt.

Shabbat shalom!

——–

This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project.   A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics.  If you want to find some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate those blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus.

 

What is Freedom?

Image: A man sits under a tree, thinking.

Freedom.  I have to admit that after hearing that word used as a mantra by every imaginable flavor of politician, I have trouble connecting with it.

So I tried looking back at the story, to get this idea back into context.  The Hebrew people followed Moses out of Egypt after a huge struggle between their God and Pharaoh.  Once they got to the far side of the Sea of Reeds, they celebrated because they were “free.”  And then almost immediately they began kvetching because life was hard, and the food was really bad.

What I learn from this is that whatever freedom is, it will not necessarily make me happy.  Back in Egypt, the Hebrews had taskmasters to tell them what to do.  They had guys with whips to preserve law and order.  They did not have to contend with the desert.  They did not have to take responsibility for themselves.  All of this suddenly turned into “the good old days” as soon as they were free in the desert.  They became noisily, chronically unhappy.  And yet this is the freedom we celebrate on Passover:  leaving Egypt.

So what did freedom mean, at that first Passover?  We had to learn to survive in the desert.  We had to learn to stick together.  We had to learn to look out for one another: midrash tells us that when we left stragglers behind at Rephidim, Amalek attacked (Exodus 17:16-18).  We had to learn to take responsibility for ourselves, plural.  We received commandments that underlined this: in Leviticus 19:16 we were told, “Lo ta’amod dam re’echa”:  “Do not stand [still] by the blood of your neighbor.”

Freedom is not being able to take breaks when I want, or to raise as many male children as I want, or to carry a gun, or to burn a flag.  Freedom is not merely being free to indulge myself.  And the “freedom” of the U.S. Constitution, whatever it is or will become, is not necessarily the freedom of Exodus.

The freedom of Exodus was the freedom to walk into the desert, with my people, and to be responsible for ourselves and for one another.

And before I write anything more about that, I need to think about it some more.


Am I a Slave?

Crumbs

To whom or what am I a slave?

The question is on my mind as I clean for Passover.  The evidence lies before me, in trails of crumbs.

There is chometz by the computer.  What is a slave, if not someone who cannot rise from her task long enough to eat a meal?  Is that addiction to work, or addiction to mindless wandering on the Internet?  Addiction to netflix or addiction to facebook?  Make a note and find out.

There is chometz in the car.  Again, I could not stop to eat like a civilized free person?

My addictions/slaveries are writ large on the kitchen shelves:  I buy processed food for “convenience” but the question is, does it nourish?  Some does, some does not.  A free person would have the time to find out.  That is, if she were truly free from her addiction to the tastes of processing:  sugar, salt, and who knows what unearthly thing from the likes of ADM.

Then there is the source of all this bounty I am pondering:  where did my food come from this year?  Did I enslave anyone, or benefit from their slavery?  Did the crunch in my salad come cheap because someone else was in chains?

Passover is about the passage from slavery to freedom.  The question is, Will I make that passage to genuine freedom?  And whom shall I bring with me?

This post is part of the Blogging the Exodus project.   A group of rabbis are blogging from the 1st of Nisan to the beginning of Passover on Passover topics.  If you want to find some great rabbinic blogs, or some interesting things to ponder as you clean up the chometz, you can locate those blogs via the Twitter hashtag #BlogExodus.