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?

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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.

 

 

A Passover Wish

Image: Two lambs. (FraukeFeind/pixabay)

When I searched through some of the free image sites online, most of the pictures I found when I searched for “Passover” looked like the one above.

Most of the world doesn’t know much about Jews. They know what they read (in the Bible, in the media, in books) and they know what they’ve heard. The Christian world knows us through the filter of Christianity. For Christians, Passover is a festival mentioned in the Gospels, and it’s about sacrificial lambs, both real and metaphoric.

Never mind that we haven’t been in the lamb-sacrificing business since spring of the year 70. That was the year the Romans knocked down the Temple – and since then, we have honored the commandments to make sacrifices with prayers, not with lambs.

There are Jews who want to rebuild the Temple. I’m not one of them. For one thing, someone else’s place of worship now stands on that spot, and it’s holy to them. For another, as Maimonides taught, God was ready for us to be done with the sacrifices. They were an early version of worship, given to us when we could not have understood anything else.

For me, today, Passover is a festival of freedom. It calls me to free others from bondage. It calls me to free myself from old, bad ideas and habits. It calls me back to that homely altar, the dining room table, to eat matzah and ask questions and never, ever to settle for an easy answer. It calls me to gather with Jews, to laugh and cry and do mitzvot, to not lose heart when the bad guys seem to be in charge, or when my own internalized Pharaohs give me grief.

I wish every reader of this blog a zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover. May your find your courage to do your work in this world. And may there be no more sacrificial lambs.

Stuck in Egypt: The Movie Seder

Image: Battle scene, Pharaoh skewering someone. Photo by chaos7/pixabay.

Note: I first posted a version of this piece two years ago. I offer it again in case someone needs it. Please note that I don’t recommend this approach to seder unless you really can’t stand to be with others – but in some circumstances, it can be a helpful way to observe the holiday.

Passover 2009 was a time when it seemed like we could not get a break. I don’t remember all the troubles – it’s a fog now – but I had been struggling with depression and after six years in rabbinical school, I had only part time work as a rabbi. One son had a job so scary that I couldn’t think about it. The other son was having a tough time with bipolar disorder. The previous year California voted in Prop 8, taking marriage rights away from gay men and lesbians like ourselves.

We didn’t have energy for a seder that year. Looking back, I think we were in the depths of Egypt and it was hard to even imagine a seder. I didn’t feel like going to someone else’s seder and smiling and making nice, and neither did Linda.

But we still had the commandment to observe the chag [festival.] We take these things seriously. It wasn’t OK to just ignore it, no matter how tattered we felt.

So we came up with what I remember as The Movie Seder. Purists will be horrified, but that year it was perfect for us. We had a box of matzah, we made a green salad, charoset and something basic for dinner, I think roast chicken.

At the kitchen table, we did the preliminaries: lit and blessed the candles, made kiddush, and washed without blessing. Then ate our salads and broke the matzah, moving to the living room couch. There we had more matzah, horseradish, greens, charoset and the roast chicken. We put on a recording of The Prince of Egypt and settled in to watch as we munched on the ritual food. When they got to the red sea, we broke into dessert (chocolate matzah!) We sipped wine all the way through; we had four cups, I’m sure.

And I have to tell you, while it wasn’t a proper seder, at the end we felt better. The music and the beautiful messages of the film had lifted us just a bit. Watching it together, eating together, talking about the movie reconnected us in ways I still don’t entirely understand. I just know that I rose from that seder “table” ready to trudge on through that year’s wilderness.

That seder was years ago. A lot has changed. We aren’t nearly so worried about either son. Prop 8 and DOMA are gone (good riddance) and we feel like citizens at last. I’m in a good place emotionally, and I have work I love. Linda survived cancer, again. Linda and I are finally legally married, baruch Hashem. But I think of that funny little seder with great affection: it got us through a very bad time.

When you are deep in Egypt, sometimes your seder has to be basic. If you are having a rough year of your own, don’t skip the seder. I encourage you to buy a box of matzah, a jar of horseradish, some salad greens, and a bottle of wine or grape juice. Sit with your beloved or a few good friends. Make the blessings. Put on a good Exodus film (I recommend The Prince of Egypt or The Ten Commandments) and hear one of the great stories of all time. Allow yourself to relax into the story, to inhabit it; that narrative tells us things we need to know in a difficult year.

The Haggadah teaches us that “in each generation, each person is obligated to see himself or herself [lirot et atzmo] as though he or she personally came forth from Egypt.” Part of the reason this works is that over the course of a lifetime, most of us will have an experience of our own personal Egypt. If you are in Egypt today, I wish you deliverance.

L’shanah haba’ah birushalayim!

Next year, in Jerusalem!

To My Christian Friends Coming to Seder

Image: Matzah (Unleavened bread.)

Dear Friends,

I’m so glad that you will be joining us for seder this Passover. The seder is a core experience of Jewish life and hospitality. We’re glad to have you.

After a few experiences with guests at the seder table, I’ve learned that it helps if you get a little orientation ahead of time. So, some history:

The seder goes back to the time just after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 of the common era (which you call “70 AD.”) Our people were distraught at the loss of our Temple, at the violence of the Roman armies, and we looked desperately for a way to make sure that the central story of our heritage would be handed down intact.

You see, up until that time it was our custom to travel to Jerusalem for the festival every year. It is one of three such “pilgrimage festivals” in Judaism. Families would travel long distances to camp in the valleys and hills around Jerusalem. On the last day before the festival, the head of each household would carry a lamb or goat down to the Temple, where the priests would slaughter it ritually and begin the process of roasting it before they handed the roast back to the householder. Then he (usually he) would return to the family and they would finish roasting the meat, munching on unleavened bread (matzah) and bitter herbs as was commanded in the Torah. While all this went on, there was storytelling by the elders and children, telling the story of our deliverance from Egypt. That’s how Passover was celebrated while the Temple still stood.

After the Temple was destroyed, we could no longer have the animal sacrifices, because we can only make those sacrifices in the Temple. Our elders made the decision to use the most powerful teaching practice of the time to transmit our story. That practice was the symposium banquet, a Greek custom at which wealthy free men reclined around a table, enjoying food and wine and discussing important issues. So from that time to this, we recline around the table, using the Haggadah, a script, to discuss our story at a level that everyone at the table can enjoy, linking our story to music and the tastes and odors of delicious food.

That’s what the Passover Seder is: a sacred moment in which we pass on the heritage of our people, experiencing it anew every year. The seder has served us well, seeing us through centuries of persecution and exile. It differs from the symposium in that we make the declaration “Let all who are hungry come and eat:” the learning offered at the seder is for anyone who is hungry for it, not only the privileged. Men, women and children participate at the seder table.

You may have heard from someone about links to your own Christian story. It’s true: Passover (Pesach) is mentioned in your New Testament. The gospels say that the events leading up to Easter took place during the Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem. However, it is not true that the “Last Supper” was a Passover seder. Think about it: the Temple was still standing in the year 33; it would be standing for 37 more years. Jesus never went to a Passover seder, although as an observant Jew, he certainly took part in the Passover observances of his time: the sacrifices, the storytelling, and the unleavened bread.

So here’s what I ask: when you come to sit at my seder table, be there for a Jewish experience. I’m inviting you into my world on one of the holiest nights of its year. Just as I would not come into your church for Christmas services and tell everyone about all the Jewish content in the service, don’t come to a seder table to teach about Jesus. We both know that there are connections, and if you feel powerfully about that, press your minister or priest for interfaith events. There are many days of the year when those would be appropriate. Christmas, Easter, Rosh HaShanah and Passover are not those days; they are days when each community has its own important work to do.

I’m glad you are coming to my seder table, and I hope that you have a wonderful evening with us. Pesach sameach! (PAY-sokh sah-MAY-ahkh) – Happy Passover!

L’shalom,

Rabbi Ruth Adar

P.S. – For more advice about getting the most out of your first seder read Seven Ways to be a Great Passover Seder Guest. 

• This post appeared last year on this blog in a slightly different form. 

Oops, I forgot the Omer!

Image: This is only a drill. Photo of drill by Mitch Wright on Pixabay.com.

You resolved that this year, you are going to keep the Counting of the Omer all the way from Passover to Shavuot, and then somehow, somewhere, you realized that you lost count.

Perhaps it was just a single blessing – after dinner, you go to say the blessing and the number suddenly brings the awareness that you FORGOT it last night.

Or perhaps you see something about it online (like this article?) and realize that in fact you don’t even remember when or how you lost count.

What to do? Give up? Sigh and think, “I’m a bad Jew”?

Never!

I would like to introduce a word to your Jewish vocabulary: the word “PRACTICING.”

As in “I am PRACTICING to count the Omer.”

Perhaps this wasn’t the year for a full-on, complete Counting of the Omer.

Perhaps you aren’t quite ready for that yet.

That’s OK. You are not sitting around doing nothing. You are practicing to count the omer.

And like anyone who is learning an art, you have made mistakes. No big deal! How will you get better at it? By practicing.

So pick up with today, recheck how to do it, and get back to practicing!

Some tools:

The Homer Calendar – All the tools you need to count the omer, plus added humor.

Counting of the Omer – An Omer Calendar, with blessings, on ReformJudaism.org

Some people like to use their smartphone for reminders. Go to your source for apps, and search “Omer Counter” or “Count the Omer” or just “Omer.” I used to have an Android app I recommended, but it was improved into uselessness, so I don’t recommend it anymore. Check out the apps, and if you find one you like, recommend it in the Comments section, please!