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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The Learning Holiday

Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIXth centur...
Jews Celebrating Passover. Lubok, XIXth century. Русский: Празднование Песаха. Лубок XIX века. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With this post, I’m joining a group of rabbis who are blogging from three days ago (1st of Nisan) to the beginning of Passover:  Blogging the Exodus.  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.  Today’s theme is “Learning and Teaching.”

When I am meeting a new person, they often ask me what I do.  I always say, “I’m a rabbi.”  That doesn’t really answer the question so usually they try again, this time by saying, “What congregation do you serve?” and then I say, “I’m a teaching rabbi.”

That’s a partial truth.   I teach classes for Lehrhaus Judaica.  I teach classes at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.  I occasionally teach in odd venues, like Catholic churches, when they invite a rabbi in to explain something about Judaism.  Next month I’ll teach a class on Food Ethics at Temple Sinai, and I’ll teach for a whole weekend about Jewish Time at the congregational retreat  of Temple Emanuel in Tempe, AZ.  Sometimes I even teach in coffee shops (hence the moniker.)

The real truth is that I am a learning rabbi.  I bring information to people, and then we talk and learn things.  That’s how Jewish learning works:  you begin with some raw material, like a text, you put in on the table among you, and then by pulling and pushing at it, talking and listening, everyone at the table learns.  I love learning, so I love my work.

What does any of this have to do with Passover?  Passover is a learning holiday.  The Passover seder is one of the greatest pedagogical devices in history:  it’s been used to build Jewish community and transmit a sense of Jewish peoplehood for close to two thousand years.  Once a year, we sit at the table.  We bring some raw information:  a haggadah, a few songs and stories, our own perceptions and thoughts.  If we seize the opportunity to share them, really share them, to pull and push and talk and listen, then we come away from the table with new thoughts, perhaps with new plans.

They say that at a certain seder in Bnai Brak in the year 132, five rabbis stayed up all night, moving from discussing the Exodus to planning a revolution.  The revolution failed, but we still read about the seder every year at our seders.  Maybe they left the table a little too early.  Maybe they needed to plan some more.

If you are reading this and saying to yourself, “I never learned anything at a seder!”  let me suggest very gently to you that perhaps you were not listening enough.  Or talking enough.  Or perhaps you were so hungry that you forgot to pull and push at the text with the others at the table.  It happens.*

But when, this year, you hear someone read “How is this night different from all other nights?”  Say to yourself (or, heck, say it aloud):  “This seder is different because we are going to talk and listen and push and pull and exchange ideas and make some plans!”

I dare you.

For more information on making a great seder, check out Rabbi Noam Zion’s writings about Passover and seders on My Jewish Learning, or the haggadah and guide he co-authored with Mishael Zion, A Night to Remember.  Ira Steingroot’s wonderful book, Keeping Passover has all the essential information and some more as well.  Or go to your local bookstore and browse the many haggadahs available .  (If you have a local Jewish bookstore like Afikomen, lucky you, but even luckier, they also do mail order.)

*About that “too hungry to learn” problem:  Karpas (the greens on the seder plate) was not meant to be a few strands of parsley wet with salt water.  Think of it as a salad course:  have a nice salad of lettuce, or endive, or whatever green thing you love to eat.  No need to starve on this night of all nights, when we celebrate moving from slavery to freedom!

Seven Ways to Be a Great Passover Seder Guest

Image: Passover seder with Dawn & Mark. Photo by Linda Burnett.

You are going to your first Passover seder!  Your feelings may range from excitement to dread, depending on why this is your first seder. Here are some tips to make the evening easier on you and everyone else:

1.  KNOW THAT YOU ARE WELCOME. If you have never been to a seder before, that’s OK. Even if you are born Jewish and one of your grandparents was a rabbi, but somehow history conspired that you are now attending your first seder at the age of 35, it’s OK. If you are not Jewish, and you are afraid you don’t belong there, don’t sweat it. When the Haggadah (the script for the evening, that little book by your plate) says, “Let all come and eat” it really means it. At a seder table, of all places, no one needs to apologize for her presence, his existence, or the path that brought you here.

2.  ASK QUESTIONS. The seder is a forum for questions, but really the questions start before the seder. Ask your host, or the person who invited you, LOTS of questions. Ask about clothes:  what will everyone else be wearing? Ask, “What time should I be there?” And definitely ask “What can I bring?”  They may say “nothing” but it is nice to ask.  If the answer is “Yes, bring X” then get them to be very specific about X. Does it need to be kosher? A particular brand? Food is a tricky subject at Passover, so ask questions and follow directions exactly. If you are not sure, it’s OK to keep asking. Passover is all about questions.

Note:  If you wish to bring a “hostess gift,” or contribute to the meal, pre-packaged food in its original wrapping is the safest bet. Look for the words, “Kosher for Passover” on all packaged foods, including candy. Flowers are an even safer bet.

3.  ARRIVE WITH AN OPEN MIND. No two seders are alike, so the one you saw in a movie is not the seder you will attend tonight, even if the movie was a documentary. Every seder is a new experience, even for the “old hands” at the table.  One way to think of a seder is as a partially scripted piece of performance art. The Haggadah is the script. The grandmother who seems to know everything is one of the players. The fourteen year old who doesn’t want to be there is one of the players. The three year old who  has a great time crumbling matza is one of the players. And you, too, are one of the players, even though you hardly know what to ask. Ask about what you see. If you have an insight, share it. If you notice you are talking a lot, sit back and listen for a while. Treat every person at the table as someone who has something important to say.

Note: Some parts of the seder may be in Hebrew. Don’t worry if you don’t read Hebrew; just listen to the sound of it, and ponder the fact that these words have been said around seder tables for almost two thousand years. Your copy of the haggadah may have a translation that you can read. If you get lost, ask your neighbor for help. If you are unsure what to do, copy the other adults at the table, or ask one of the children what to do. Remember, questions are good!

4.  BE PREPARED TO STAY A WHILE. A Passover seder is not a quick thing. Even the speediest takes a while: first there are ceremonies to do and a story to read, then a festival meal to eat and savor. You are not going to get home early. If you are hiring a babysitter or have other time constraints, that’s another question to ask your host. Do not ask the question as if you are looking to eat and run; rather, you are asking for the sake of the babysitter. Yes, there is a book on the market that advertises a thirty minute seder. A good Passover seder is like a great evening of theater, only friendlier, with good food. There’s no point in rushing.

5.  BE PREPARED FOR UNFAMILIAR FOOD. Food at the seder is not simply sustenance. This is not an evening of “eating to live.” Nor it is an evening of “living to eat.” This is an evening of multi-sensory experience, and food carries enormous symbolic freight. Matzah, which looks a bit like a huge saltless saltine, is the “bread of affliction.” It is food made by slaves to be eaten on the run. You are only required to take a bite of matzah, but it is rude not to take a bite. Charoset is a fruit and nut mixture eaten with the matzah. Maror is horseradish, and watch out for it:  some families compete to see who can find or grind the hottest  maror. You may be served gefilte fish, which is a ball of  stewed minced fish. It is better with a lot of horseradish, if you didn’t grow up with it. You can say “no thank you” if something is just too unfamiliar, but you may be surprised at the things you like.

Note: If you have food allergies, let your host know ahead of time. Nuts are in a lot of Passover foods, as are eggs. Matzah and its gluten are found in surprising places, so it is important to communicate with your host.

6.  BE PREPARED TO DRINK WINE OR GRAPE JUICE. Four cups of wine are served at the seder, to underline the fact that we are slaves no more. They are an essential part of the seder, but it is OK not to drink full glasses. If you don’t drink wine, that is OK; your host should have grape juice available. It is OK to drink small glasses of wine. It is not OK to get drunk. People at the table may express strong opinions for or against kosher wine; try the various kinds, so that you can form your own strong opinions for future seders.

7. BE PREPARED TO BE SURPRISED. The Passover seder is a meal, a ritual, an event, a happening. It has almost two thousand years of history, and a good one is as fresh as tomorrow’s news. It is personal and political. It speaks to one of the great human yearnings, freedom, and it teaches the great Jewish values. It is delicious, thought-provoking, and exhausting. It is a great piece of communal art. It contains many of the secrets of Jewish survival through the centuries. Whatever you think it is, it is more.

Enjoy!

P.S. – Afterwards, send your host a note thanking them for including you.   Hosting a seder is a lot of work, and it deserves thanks.

For more preparation for the seder table, especially for Christian guests, read To Christian Friends Coming to Seder.

Seven Things to Do to Make Your First Passover Seder a Success

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So:  This year you are going to host your own Passover seder!  You’ve decided that this year it’s going to be at Your House.  Alternatively, someone else has decided that this year it’s going to be at Your House. Either way, you are now feeling a mixture of excitement and dread, because this is the first time you’ve hosted.  Here are seven tips for making your first seder one that you will remember with a smile, or maybe a laugh.

1.  PARTNER, DIVIDE, and CONQUER!  Your partner may be your spouse, your beloved, your roommate, your best friend, or the other Jew in your book group.  The point is, you don’t want to do this alone.  One of you is going to be in charge of food  and the other in charge of setting the table and leading the seder.  Don’t be fooled by the word “leader:” these two roles are co-equal and equally critical to success.  During the first part of the seder, both of you will be busy.  One of you will serve as Maestro/a of Ceremonies, making sure that things move along, that everyone participates, that everyone has a good time, etc.  The Food Czar will be monitoring final developments in the kitchen, or monitoring the warming of potluck dishes, or making sure the cat stays out of the kugel, while supervising the movement of greens, salt water, wine, grape juice, and other necessities.

2.  CHOOSE a HAGGADAH.  Your first seder is not the time to roll your own Haggadah (that’s next year.)   You need at least one Haggadah for every two participants, and really, each guest having their own is best.  This is one reason the Maxwell House Haggadah and other free ones are so popular.  The Maestro/a of Ceremonies should read the Haggadah well ahead of the actual seder, cover to cover.  Consider possibilities:  if you find, mid-evening, that you need to skip, where do you intend to shorten things?  Are there other readings or stories or games you have experienced at other seders you’d like to include?  If you are adding things to your seder, make sure to have as many copies as you need.

3.  PLAN YOUR GUEST LIST.  Yes, I know that your Great Aunt Sadie always had at least 50 people at her seders.  Trust me, she started small too.  In my experience, a minyan [10 people] is a nice maximum for a first seder. Think about dishes.  Think about where everyone will sit.  Think about whether you can cook for this number, or if you will be potluck.  Think about the ratio of seder “veterans” to newbies.  A minyan of people who have never been to a seder trying to have a seder is adventurous but might result in 40 years lost looking for the afikomen, or even trying to figure out what the afikomen is.

Note:  if you have inherited the family seder, and like it or not you will have 50 people in your home for your first time seder, grab the relative with whom you feel the most comfortable and level with him or her about exactly how freaked-out you are.  Ask for help. Humbly accept help. Keep reading this list, there is still stuff here that will be useful to you.

4.  PLAN THE MENU.  Rabbi Noam Zion, in his wonderful book, A Night To Remember, pointed out than in the ancient seder, no one sat starving for hours while we told the story. The scrap of soggy parsley you had at seder years ago could also be a bountiful plate of crudités with dip for everyone to nosh [snack] on while you tell the story and talk about what it means. Keep the parsley on the seder plate, and have a nice plate of celery, endive, and other crunchy goodies for everyone — then you won’t need a salad for the meal.  As for the meal itself, let the Food Czar decide what he or she wants to wrangle and how.  Whatever you choose, avoid foods that require last minute fussing.

Note:  Not all of your guests may be of the same mind about what constitutes kosher-for-Passover food.  Check in with any guest you expect will have a strong opinion on the subject, so that you can plan for everyone’s comfort.  If the meal is potluck, make sure that guests who may not know anything about Passover food are assigned something specific, lest they show up with home baked bread or some other labor-intensive inappropriate food.  Hospitality is a Jewish value, and embarrassing a guest is a Jewish sin.

5.  CONSIDER THE TABLE.  Maestro/a of Ceremonies: if your group has several young children, plan entertainment for them:  crayons, finger food, costumes, age-appropriate activities.  Join in the children’s activities, lest the children suspect they are being snookered.  If you have a table full of adults, the Maestro/a of Ceremonies should be ready with some leading questions or statements or a clipped article to get a lively discussion rolling.  Most adults have at least one part of their lives in which they feel they are in servitude, or one wild plan for a jailbreak from that servitude:  the trick is to free them to talk about it.  The wine will help. Speaking of which:

6.  PREPARE THE WINE.  The seder is planned around four cups of wine.  Even if you are absolutely certain that everyone at the table will be over 18 and is not a recovering alcoholic, have a bottle of grape juice handy.  No one should have to drink a glass of alcohol after they feel they’ve had enough.  By the same token, make sure your table setting includes water glasses and water.  Sweet kosher wine is a love/hate thing: some love it, some hate it.  I put both Manischewitz and a “nicer” kosher for Passover wine on my table, to accomodate both.

The Maestro/a of Ceremonies might want to have a joke about the Red Sea ready for the almost-inevitable spilled glass of something.

7. REMEMBER, THERE IS ALWAYS NEXT YEAR.  The purpose of the seder is to tell the story of freedom in a way that will make it a part of everyone around the table.  It is a shared experience that will build memories for the group at the table.  Have fun with it.  Some of the best seders I’ve been to involved spilled wine, crumbs everywhere, a burnt side dish, and a lot of laughter.   If you skip something in the haggadah, or you forget a dish, or the dessert melts, it isn’t the end of the world.  After all, every year at the close of the evening, we remind ourselves that Passover will come again next year.

What advice do you have for someone hosting a first seder?

5 Things to Do if You Want to Become a Jew

So, you’re thinking of conversion to Judaism? Here are five things you need to do.

1.  FIND A RABBI, and make an appointment to talk with him or her. You do not need to be “sure” to do this. The rabbi will not immediately whip out a fountain pen and suggest you sign on the dotted line. He may say something vague like “We can study together” or suggest that you take a class. She may suggest that you come to services for a while, and see how it goes. Jews do not seek out converts or proselytize, and the conversion process is long and slow. What you need to know, though, is that the process cannot move forward until you have a rabbi. Rabbis do not charge for conversion, by the way; if someone calling himself “rabbi” talks about a fee for conversion, move on. To make an appointment with a rabbi, call the congregation and ask to make an appointment.

2.  FIND A CONGREGATION, partly because that’s where you are likely to find a rabbi and also because that’s one place the Jews are. Judaism is not only a religion, it is a religion embedded in a people. If you think you want to become a Jew, get to know some Jews. Hang out with the Jews.  Becoming a member of the Jewish People means you will also be spending time with Jewish people:  better find out if you like them. If there is more than one congregation in your town, try different congregations, because they will be quite different. To find out service times and other good times to visit, look at the website of the congregation. To find those websites, try Googling the name of your city and the word “synagogue.” You do not need to be a member of a synagogue to attend as a visitor.

3.  DO SOME READING. Your rabbi will recommend books. If you are not ready to find the rabbi yet, here’s a good list of books recommended by actual converts to Judaism.

4.  TAKE A CLASS. Many Jewish communities offer classes with titles like “Basic Judaism” or “Introduction to Judaism.” Your rabbi may offer a class; if you don’t have a rabbi, taking such a class is a another way to meet a rabbi. (I teach such classes in the San Francisco Bay Area.  For more info on my classes, check out the Lehrhaus Judaica online catalog.)

5.  CHECK OUT JEWISH LIFE. Visit Jewish museums. Learn about Israel. Watch Jewish films. Read Jewish fiction. Eat Jewish food. Find out if your community has a Jewish newspaper, and watch for cultural events, speakers, concerts, festivals, and other opportunities to taste Jewish culture and life in your city.

One final thing:  it’s OK, in fact it is critical, to listen to your heart. If you don’t feel comfortable with the first rabbi you meet, talk to another one. If you don’t feel welcome at the first synagogue, check out another synagogue. Find books that speak to you and your situation. Listen to your heart!

I wish you a fruitful journey!

Waiting For A Miracle?

Imagine the scene: the armies of Pharaoh thunder toward the Hebrews, who are cornered at water’s edge.  The people begin to scream and cry, asking their leader, “Were there not enough graves in Egypt, that you had to bring us out here to die?”  Moses, their leader, replies, “Stand still, calm down, God will fight for you.”  Then — in the movie version, not the Torah version — God commands Moses to stretch out his rod over the sea, and a miracle happens.  The bad guys die, the good guys live, and everyone parties.

What? you say.  That is in the Torah, I’m sure of it!  That may be the way we generally tell the story, but it leaves out a line.   Here’s what it says in Exodus 14: 13 – 16.

And Moses said unto the people: ‘Fear not, stand still, and see the salvation of the Eternal, which He will work for you to-day; for although you have seen the Egyptians to-day, you shall see them again no more for ever.  The Eternal will fight for you, so hold your peace.’ 

 And the Eternal said unto Moses: ‘Why cry to Me? Speak to the children of Israel, and let them get moving!  And lift up your rod, and stretch out your hand over the sea, and divide it; and the children of Israel shall go into the midst of the sea on dry ground. 

Somehow, in all the drama, one very important line often gets lost.  Moses was looking for a miracle.  He told the people to look for a miracle.  He said, “Don’t be afraid, stand still, wait for God to save you.”  And God’s response to Moses was direct:  “Why speak to me?  Talk to them!  Tell them to get moving!”

Vayisa’oo – get moving! – is a key word in this week’s very famous Torah portion, Beshallach.  Don’t wait for miracles.  Talk to each other.  Encourage each other.  Don’t be passive.  GET MOVING!

Forward movement precedes miracles, even in the greatest miracle story of all time.

So in those edge-of-the-sea moments, when it is tempting to hope for a miracle, or even more tempting to despair, the trick is to look for the way to move forward.  Even in the panicked crowd, can I move my foot forward just a bit?  Can I encourage someone else to move forward too?

Fear and paralysis are the great enemies of survival.  Fear and paralysis would have left the children of Israel at the wrong edge of the sea, trampled and slaughtered.

Vayisa’oo — get moving.  Write to your elected representative.

Vayisa’oo — Volunteer to help someone in need.

Vayisa’oo — Vote, whenever you have the chance.

Vayisa’oo — Keep moving to the next job interview.

Vayisa’oo — Keep moving on the project, whatever it is.

Vayisa’oo — Encourage others, rather than discourage them.

Vayisa’oo — and we’ll all dance, on the other side.

What time is it anyway?: Reflection on the Creation Story

Time Selector
Image by Telstar Logistics via Flickr

Jewish “days” start at sundown, because in Genesis 1 it says, over and over, “It was evening, and it was morning.”  This is something that takes some getting used to, if you don’t grow up with it:  the day begins when the sun dips below the horizon.  The fact that you’ve been up for hours has nothing to do with it.

Jewish living is like that, tilted 90 or 270 degrees from Western secular life.  The day begins at sundown.  The year begins in the fall.  (Also in the middle of winter and in the springtime.)  Sunday is yom rishon, the first day of the week (and it begins on Saturday night.)  The whole thing is cockeyed.

There is no doubt about it, we are a stiff necked people, as the God of Israel comments to Moses in Exodus 32:9.  Only a stiff necked people could insist on their own cockeyed timetable for thousands of years of diaspora, tripping over other people’s holidays and calendars and clocks and whatnot.  Ask anyone who asked for Rosh HaShanah off this week:  it’s a nuisance.  Yet we stick out our stiff necks and insist on it year after year after year, annoying our bosses, confusing our neighbors, and making some paranoid types certain that we are Up to Something, an international conspiracy, perhaps.

Why not accomodate?  Why not assimilate?  Why not go with the flow, for crying out loud?

We stick with it because time is sacred.  The traditional story is that the day begins at sundown because Genesis says so.  But we could as well read it the opposite direction:  we have that story to explain, to remind us, to keep stepping to that Jewish drummer:  it was evening, it was morning, it was the first day.  The creation story doesn’t tell us “how the world was made,” it tells us how to look at the world.  It’s easy to say, the day begins when I get up in the morning — then the world revolves around my state of consciousness. It’s easy to say, the day begins at midnight, because the government and mutual agreement say so.  But Genesis says, “It was evening, it was morning,” to throw us off balance, to say, “Stop!  Look!  Think!  PAY ATTENTION!”

Notice the passage of time.  Notice the cycle of seasons.  Notice when the sun goes down and comes up, and that will require you to take your eyes off the computer screen, off the TV, off your own navel, and out to the horizon.  Live out of step with the ordinary, so that you will step lively.  Pay attention.

Pay attention, because as Chaim Stern z”l wrote for Gates of Prayer:  “Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.  Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed.   And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:  How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!”