Down but Not Out

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This is my view at the moment. Jojo and Gabi watch over me as I work to get over another bout of sciatica. That’s the reason my posts have been sparse of late; sitting aggravates the nerve and makes things worse.

Illness is a spiritual challenge. Questions are natural: why me?

Our ancestors struggled with these questions. They played with many possible answers:

– Maybe illness is a punishment for sin?
– Maybe illness is a test from God?
– Maybe there are demons that cause illness?
– Maybe God isn’t paying attention?
– Does God care?

Today science explains the sources of some illness, but it doesn’t answer our spiritual questions.

I don’t believe that illness is a punishment or a test. Nor do I think it is a contest. My concept of God is a God who does not interfere with nature, a God who manifests in the the Unity behind Nature.

I am aging. I have old neglected injuries. Sometimes they are going to bother me. These are facts that I cannot change.

Besides these facts, I have choices. I can choose to be a mensch. I can choose to do my exercises. I can choose to use my time to study and rest.

Yesterday I learned a story. Prisoners in one of the Nazi camps asked a rabbi: “Since we are enslaved here, should we say the morning blessing thanking God that we are free?” The rabbi paused to consider. “Yes,” he replied, “Whatever they do to our bodies, our souls, our spirits are free.”

As our Festival of Freedom approaches, let us all think about the gift of freedom. What shall we do with it?

Junk Foods of Pesach

My colleague and friend Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder posted this photo and question on Facebook recently:

fruitslices
Good or Evil? Discuss.

In case you are wondering what’s actually in there:

00773_MA_Fruit_Slices_8z

The discussion that followed was very funny, with many different camps. Some people have wonderful childhood associations for these little slices of fruit flavored agar. Others were firm that they are “Evil!” Still others were torn – “Both!”

It set me to thinking about my own reaction to many processed Passover foods. I do not attach moral values to food, but golly, some of these things are weird if you didn’t grow up with them. For instance, to my mind, “Fruit Slices” are basically sugar that comes with glue to stick it between your teeth. There’s better candy to be had.

ChocMatzoMy favorite Passover junk food is chocolate covered matzah, which will probably be a mystery to many of my readers. How good it is depends mostly on the quality of the chocolate. This year I have bought Fair Trade Chocolate for Passover, which I know is (1) good chocolate and (2) ethically produced. I’m planning to dip the matzah in chocolate myself, then drizzle it with caramel. It will be delicious and not junk food at all, more of a Passover dessert!

Most of the processed Passover foods are junk, that is, foods without significant nutritional value. One exception is gefilte fish, which can be a good source of protein. A piece of gefilte fish has more protein than a large egg!

Passover is a festival of springtime. While the food manufacturers would like us to buy things in boxes labeled “Kosher for Passover,” I prefer to make it a festival of fruits and vegetables. The strawberries are often at their peak for Pesach. Asparagus is another food that’s just right at that time. Other goodies will be coming ripe, depending on where you live. Once the seder is over, I dispense with the matzah and just eat the lovely things that are growing this time of year.

Enjoy your Passover treats, be they fresh strawberries or chocolate matzah, or even Fruit Slices!

P.S. In case you are wondering, Maneschewitz, Osem, and the Fair Trade Chocolate people have not paid me to promote their products. The only product I recommend you buy is the Fair Trade Chocolate, since most chocolate on the market today is produced by enslaved persons, mostly children.

Welcome to Nisan!

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Adar is gone and Nisan is upon us!

Nisan was counted as the first month of the year in the Biblical calendar, in which it is called “Aviv.” That is one reason that 1st Nisan is one of the four New Years in the Jewish calendar.  Nisan is the Babylonian name for the month, which we brought back from Babylon when Cyrus the Great authorized the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple and the Babylonian Exile ended. (Ezra 1:1-2)

Nisan has important holidays and observances:

  • 14 NisanFast of the Firstborn – falls on 12 Nisan when the 14th falls on Sabbath
  • 15-21 NisanPassover – also 22 Nisan in the Diaspora, except for Reform Jews.
  • 27 NisanYom HaShoah – falls on 26 Nisan or 28 Nisan when the 27th falls on Friday or Sunday respectively, interfering with Shabbat.

So now that it’s Nisan, time is very short to prepare for Passover! Some articles that may help:

Passover Preparation for Beginners (Good if you are feeling overwhelmed or confused)

Preparing for Passover: Six Ways to Prepare (Expands the possibilities a bit)

7  Facts about Passover (for very beginners)

Preparing for Exodus: Books  Books about Passover

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

Seven Ways to Be a Great Passover Seder Guest

A Voice from North Carolina

Image: The Black Mountains of North Carolina. Public domain.

Rabbi Stephen Roberts is a colleague and dear friend who wrote a guest editorial for the Boone, NC newspaper, the Watauga Democrat. It appeared on the paper’s website today.  I share it because the situations of lesbians, gay men, transgender persons and bisexuals in North Carolina and Mississippi are much on my mind and in my prayers.

To my Christian readers: I ask that you read this thoughtfully, prayerfully, and consider sharing it.

To all my readers: I welcome discussion, but please as always keep it kind.

– Rabbi Ruth Adar

Jesus’ Teachings Conflict With State Law

As a rabbi, I have always viewed Jesus of Nazareth as a rabbinic colleague of mine from two millennium ago. While studying at seminary, I wrote my 125 pages rabbinic thesis on his words: “The Lord’s Prayer.” He is referred to as “rabbi” 16 different times in Scripture Christians call the “New Testament.”

In Mark 12:31, Jesus, the rabbi, taught: “‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” In Judaism, our similar teaching by the Rabbi Hillel, of the same period, is: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow: this is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”

What then would Jesus do in the following case: Jesus, I and your own pastor/priest/reverend are out to dinner. We have ordered and are about to be served. The owner of the restaurant comes over to our table, and in front of your clergy and Jesus, I am told I will not be served. Further, I am asked to leave and told not to return. The reason given is that the owner had found out I was gay and he did not serve “queers.” I ask you: “What would Jesus do?” Would he agree with this person? I think Mark 2:15 provides the answer. Jesus, the rabbi, would fight for the right of each person in North Carolina — no matter how they are viewed by those around them — to be able to eat a meal in a public facility without having to worry about the discriminatory refusal of service — as can legally take place today here in the state.

I ask you further — what would Jesus do if he and I came to your town to teach about the Lord’s Prayer. When we went to register at the hotel, I am told by the manager that they will not rent me a room because I was gay. Further, he was going to call every hotel in the region and alert them to my being gay so that I would not have a room anywhere in the area. Mark 12:31 makes it clear that Jesus would be horrified that this was both allowed and legal.

Time and time again, Rabbi Jesus went against society to protect those on the margins. He spent his life working to keep them safe, to make sure they were treated well — no matter if society saw them as “sinners.”

Today, here in North Carolina, the state I work in as a rabbi by serving a congregation, I can be refused service and also be removed from any restaurant in the state because I am gay. It is not against the law. Today, here in North Carolina, I can be refused service at any supermarket, pharmacy, gas station, just because I am gay. I can be fired from a job. I can be refused admittance to a college. I can even be denied health care services from hospitals, nursing homes, doctors and nurses.

To treat me this way, to discriminate against me, as someone Jewish is illegal. However, to treat me this way as someone who is gay — is completely legal in North Carolina. The state legislature just passed House Bill 2 and the governor signed the bill, keeping this discrimination the law of the state.
I am left to ask each of you: “What would Jesus do?”

Rabbi Stephen Roberts, MBA, BCC

Rabbi Roberts’ family have deep roots in the Appalachians. He and his family have summered here for more than five decades, he has immediate family that are year-rounders and he is in his third year serving a congregation in the region.

Shabbat Shalom! Tazria

Parashat Tazria, Leviticus 12 and 13, is sometimes billed as one of the “worst” parshiot for bar and bat mitzvah students. Certainly it covers some very earthy territory: women’s ritual purity and skin eruptions, and many people are “grossed out” when first they read it.

As with everything in Torah, there are important lessons here. The first lesson for modern Jews is that Torah is not limited to “lofty” matters. We do not make a dichotomy between “things of the body” and “things of the spirit” that some religions do.

More profoundly, the body is holy. It is the handiwork of God and as such has the dignity of holiness. It may do things that are messy or smell bad or are embarrassing, but they are not beyond the province of Torah.

I remember the first time I read Leviticus 12. I was a pre-teen, very conscious of my own body, and I read it as saying some very negative things about women and women’s bodies. Why would a mother be “impure” for longer after having a baby girl, than after giving birth to a baby boy, if girls were not somehow “dirtier” than boys?

As an adult woman, I continued to glower when I read Leviticus 12. How dare they?! How could such words be Torah?

As a rabbinical student, I learned that “clean” and “unclean” are very poor translations for the Hebrew terms tahor and tamei. Ritual purity is a fleeting state for fitness to enter the holy of holies – it isn’t something that anyone can maintain constantly in daily life. Moreover it is a completely unattainable state ever since the year 70, since we have no Temple and no mechanism for complete ritual purity. Most of all, taharah and tumah  don’t have anything to do with “dirt” or “germs.” (For more about this, see Rabbi Barenblat’s d’var Torah below.)

Then in 2008 I read an article by Beth Alpert Nakhai in the Women’s Torah Commentary  (p. 650) about the mothers in Leviticus 12. She pointed out that the longer period of ritual impurity for the mother of a girl meant that baby girls got additional time secluded with their mothers, who were freed from the burdens of daily life for that time. In a world where baby girls were less valued than boys, that time was golden, extra insurance that the girls would get enough to eat and grow strong before mom had to go back to her chores.

That lesson completely transformed Parashat Tazria for me.

Here are some online divrei Torah.  I hope somewhere in there is something transformative for you!

What Do You See? by Student Rabbi Robyn Ashworth-Steen

One Flesh by Rabbi David Kasher

Rx For the Human Spirit by Rabbi Ruth Adar

Tricky Torah: Taharah and Tumah by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat

The Woman’s Seed by Rabbi Sylvia Rothchild

R. Shimon’s Thinking is Alive and Well by Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Think Before You Tweet! by Rabbi David Ross Senter (VIDEO)

 

 

 

A Kinder Gentler Chad Gadya

Image: A baby goat. Photo by ChristianGeorg.

Sometimes it’s time for an update on an old tradition. I repost this because (1) Rabbi Fuchs wrote a swell update to an old seder favorite and (2) he models the way to respond to a reasonable request. So often we are tempted to get defensive when someone points out the flaws in a beloved tradition. Rabbi Fuchs demonstrates a better way. Enjoy!

Finding Ourselves In Biblical Narratives

Since I was a child, Chad Gadya has been one of my favorite parts of the Passover Seder. Its catchy melody and its underlying message always resonated with me.

Singing the song was such fun as we outdid each other to remember the words and sing them as quickly as possible until we came to the refrain, Chad Gadya, Chad Gadya, My father bought for two zuzim, Chad Gadya, Chad, Gadya.

The people of Israel were the Chad Gadya, Aramaic for the innocent little goat, devoured successively by one power after another. The ultimate hope of course is that one day the Eternal one would destroy “the Angel of Death” and the human propensity for conquest and violence. Israel would live in peace and harmony with her neighbors, and all would be right with the world.

For those unfamiliar with it the lyrics are:

Chad Gadya, Chad Gadya, (An…

View original post 833 more words

Passover Prep for Beginners

Image: Feather duster and cleaners by stevepb.

Four years ago I wrote a piece about Passover preparation called “Begin in Egypt.” It was, I think, one of my best ever for this website, because 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:

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Cleaning for Passover: Begin in Egypt

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.