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!

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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!

 

 

 

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?

 

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?

Holiday Blues?

Image: Shiny blue ornaments surround a small white tea light.

Reader Teme reminded me that a lot of people are suffering from holiday blues.

Holiday Blues happen to both Christians and Jews. I don’t know if they happen to Hindus and to Muslims but I suspect they do, because they’re really just an outgrowth of human nature.

Holidays come with many associations, baggage along for the ride. We have memories of actual holidays past and a lot of programming for how holidays ought to be.

Good holiday memories can be a blessing to treasure forever, but if they contrast sharply to our current situation, they can be painful. Remembering good times with a loved one is more complicated after that loved one is gone.

Bad holiday memories (the year Aunt So-and-so said she didn’t like her present, the year an obnoxious cousin made everyone cry, the creepy guy under the mistletoe, the year everything went wrong) can spill into the present moment. It’s reasonable that gift-giving might be fraught after Aunt So was nasty, or that the taste of latkes brings back memories of the obnoxious cousin.

Expectations about a holiday can be particularly difficult. When the bar is set too high, there’s no way actual experience will measure up. If you are convinced that “every normal family has a beautiful Chanukah with tiny, perfect gifts and no grease fires in the kitchen, no crying babies, nothing but cozy warmth” then of course your Chanukah will be a disappointment. Same for Christmas: if it’s supposed to be “the most magical day of the year” you are set up for failure. When cranky old Uncle Ned starts in about politics, or the kids start fighting over a toy, or the special food flops, then yeah, it’s depressing.

And even more so, if you are alone for the holiday, or childless again this year, or this year there isn’t money for special anything – the holidays can be painful.

So what can we do? How to fight back against the holiday blues?

  1. Let reality be real. If there is a specific grief ruining your holiday this year, it may be that all you can do is accept it. Feel the emotions, don’t fight them. Be honest with anyone who asks. Stay away from people who demand cheer from you and hold close those who understand your particular pain.
  2. Count your blessings. Especially if the issue is more diffuse, notice the good things in your life. Instead of holiday cards, write thank you cards. Tell the people who have been good to you specifically why you are grateful for them. Choose to notice what’s right, instead of focusing on what’s wrong.
  3. Look outside yourself. Focus on what you can do for other people. Soup kitchens and shelters need extra volunteers on holidays, so that those who celebrate those days can do so with their families. Call around, and see who needs volunteers. Say kind words to people who need kindness. If you have money, share it. If you have food, share that. Looking outside ourselves can break cycles of destructive thoughts.
  4. Take care of yourself. If you have health issues, do what you can to take care of yourself. Be sure to eat and sleep – but don’t live to eat or sleep. If you need to see a doctor, and that’s possible, then see a doctor. If you can’t afford to see a therapist, remember that the Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255. For those who are deaf or hard of hearing, you can call 1-800-799-4889. It’s OK to call: You are the person they are waiting to help. And yes, if you take medications of any sort, take your meds!
  5. Take a chance. If there’s something you are sort of looking forward to and sort of not, take a chance and go. Reframe “it could be awful” as “it could be pretty good.” Then give yourself an out: it’s OK to leave quietly if it makes you miserable.
  6. Get some exercise. Move more than you have been moving. For some that might be a walk around the house. For others, that might be a six-mile run. Choose something do-able that will push you a bit. You will sleep better and feel better.
  7. Put on some happy music. Hate Christmas carols? Put on some music that YOU like. Maybe dance to it (see #6 above.)
  8. Meditate. When did you last try meditation? The website gaiam.com offers a nice primer for beginners which lists several ways to meditate. Meditation is good for body and soul; for some people, it’s like a “reset button” in their day. Even if it hasn’t worked for you in the past, what do you have to lose?
  9. Pray. One of the great resources for Jews, and for Christians as well, is the Book of Psalms. There are 150 of them, and they address every emotion of which a human being is capable, from quiet happiness to rage. Dig around in there and see if you can find words that express your feelings. Naming a feeling is powerful. Praying that feeling is even more powerful.
  10. Go to services. Unlike the High Holy Days, you don’t need a ticket for Jewish services in December. See what the prayers have to say to you. Listen to the Torah portion (if it’s a daytime service) or the psalms in the evening service. Sing any songs you recognize, even if you are not a singer. Breathe with the congregation. For Jews, services are a respite from the relentless Christmas message in December.
  11. Keep Shabbat. And keep on keeping it. Part of what happens to us with holidays is that we build up those expectations and load them onto one day, or one week a year. Then, as I pointed out above, they are doomed to fail. However, Shabbat comes to us every week with its warmth and light. Figure out what “keeping Shabbat” means to you, and practice it faithfully. Some weeks will be wonderful and others will be “meh.” Some may be a bust – but there’s another Shabbat right around the corner, there to give you rest.
  12. What else? I’m sure readers can suggest some other treatments for the Holiday Blues. What works for you?

I’m sorry you have the Holiday Blues. I am having a nice Chanukah this year, but I have had my years when Christmas or Chanukah or Passover or the High Holy Days have worked on my last nerve. The feelings are real. I hope that something on this list helps.

 

Out, Out, Damn Tamei!

Image: A red calf. Photo by bluesnap/pixabay.

Moses said to them, “Stand by, and let me hear what instructions the Eternal gives about you.” – Numbers 9:8, Parashat Beha’alotecha

In Numbers 9, the Israelites celebrated Passover in the wilderness, following the instructions of Moses. One had to be ritually clean (tahor) to participate in the sacrifice. Some of the men approached Moses with a problem: they were ritually unclean (tamei) “because of a corpse.”

The modern reader may wonder  why they don’t just take a bath? But in fact it’s a serious problem and not easily repaired. We won’t learn details of the problem until Numbers 19, which is another issue* but for now let’s just look at the rule regarding ritual purity and corpses:

He who touches the corpse of any human being shall be unclean for seven days. – Numbers 19:11

There is a ritual for purification, however. First we have to prepare the materials for purification:

This is the ritual law that the LORD has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting. The cow shall be burned in his sight—its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned, its dung included— and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow. The priest shall wash his garments and bathe his body in water; after that the priest may reenter the camp, but he shall be unclean until evening. He who performed the burning shall also wash his garments in water, bathe his body in water, and be unclean until evening. A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for cleansing. – Numbers 19: 2-9.

This is what is known as the “Ritual of the Red Heifer.” Notice that it requires a very special cow, a priest, and the proper setting for a sacrifice. The only such place is the Tabernacle, and then after the Temple is built, the Temple in Jerusalem.

Once you have the ashes, then the unclean person can take action:

He shall cleanse himself with it on the third day and on the seventh day, and then be clean; if he fails to cleanse himself on the third and seventh days, he shall not be clean. – Numbers 19:17

“With it” in this verse refers to the ashes mixed with water, according to Rashi. So we are to take the ashes of the cow, and mix them with water for cleansing. This, too, is a ritual:

Some of the ashes from the fire of cleansing shall be taken for the unclean person, and fresh water shall be added to them in a vessel. A person who is clean shall take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle on the tent and on all the vessels and people who were there, or on him who touched the bones or the person who was killed or died naturally or the grave. The clean person shall sprinkle it upon the unclean person on the third day and on the seventh day, thus cleansing him by the seventh day. He shall then wash his clothes and bathe in water, and at nightfall he shall be clean. If anyone who has become unclean fails to cleanse himself, that person shall be cut off from the congregation, for he has defiled the LORD’s sanctuary. The water of lustration was not dashed on him: he is unclean. That shall be for them a law for all time. Further, he who sprinkled the water of lustration shall wash his clothes; and whoever touches the water of lustration shall be unclean until evening. Whatever that unclean person touches shall be unclean; and the person who touches him shall be unclean until evening. – Numbers 19: 17-22

So the person who touched the dead body (to perform a mitzvah) can’t purify himself. He faces a week-long process in which someone else has to mix the cow ashes with water and then sprinkle the first man with the mixture.

To return to Beha’alotecha, this week’s portion, the men who were handling the dead body can’t celebrate the Passover sacrifices on the appropriate day, because it will take a week for them to become tahor [ritually clean.] What are they to do? Moses doesn’t know, so he tells them to wait while he consults with God.

Finally, they get an answer: for people like themselves, or who cannot celebrate Passover because they are away, they can observe Passover a month later! This is the origin of Pesach Sheni, “Second Passover,” which you may have seen on a Jewish calendar.

In the midst of what seems an utterly arcane, impossible set of rituals, we still have this important principle: Torah is not meant to be impossible.

When all seems impossible (How shall these men observe Passover?)  and at other points, Moses returns to the Tent of Meeting to ask God for clarification about rules that don’t quite work. Later on in our history, it would become the task of rabbis to figure out how to make Torah do-able for real live Jews. Or, as teacher and writer Blu Greenberg writes “Where there’s a rabbinic will, there’s a halakhic way.”

As for the issue of tamei/tahor, ritual purity, that became effectively moot with the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, since the whole Ritual of the Red Heifer requires the Temple. The act of immersion in a mikveh [ritual bath] substitutes for the purification ritual of Biblical times. As my Talmud professor Rabbi Dr. Dvora Weisberg used to point out, it is merely a substitute and in fact, since 70 CE, the state of ritual purity is impossible.

What are we to take from this? Ultimately observance is up to each Jew. For some, observance according to traditional rules seems the best way. For others of us – myself included – some rules belong to history. I am more concerned about whether my words and actions are pure than whether my person is in a state of ritual purity. And you, dear reader? Your choices are up to you.

*The Red Heifer and the purification ritual are from Parashat Chukat, three weeks after this portion. One of the curiosities of Torah is that it doesn’t always present things in an order that seems logical to modern, post-Enlightenment minds.