#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.


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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.

Cleaning for Passover: Begin In Egypt

Image: Feather duster and cleaners by stevepb.

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.

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 the chometz 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 of chometz 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.
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