Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Who is Judith or Yehudit and why is she important to the Story of Chanukah

Often what has become invisible through the ages is the female experience. The life of a seemingly obscure widow, Judith, deserves a bit of center stage of Chanukah. This comment of Susan Weidman Schneider in her book Jewish and Female got me thinking, She writes, "Whatever the reasons, Chanukah is one of the few markers on the Jewish Calendar that have not proved fruitful ground for Jewish women looking for a usable past. The only traditional Chanukah tale featuring a woman is the story of Hannah and her seven sons." I ask; could there be more?
To see a significant and meaningful place for women in the Chanukah celebration, one needs to perhaps don another pair of glasses. Let’s call them halachic glasses. These spectacles allow us to gaze at the vast body of rich Jewish legal literature. They sometimes reveal that which you least expect.
Let us begin by opening the Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, authored by Rabbi Yosef Karo in the sixteenth century. In section #970 we find the first law concerning Chanukah. He starts with the simple; Chanukah is for eight days beginning on the 25th of Kislev. These are days when eulogies and fasting are prohibited, but work is permitted - except for women who have the custom to abstain from doing any form of labor while the candles are burning. Further on, he writes that women are obligated in lighting Chanukah candles and may light on behalf of the entire household.
Two interesting points jump out. First, though the laws of Chanukah go on for pages, it is women's custom that immediately takes center stage. The only labor prohibited on the festival is by women - during the burning of the Chanukah candles. The second significant halachic twist is that in spite of the principal that women are exempt from positive time bound commandments - when it comes to the lighting of the Chanukah candles their obligation is equal to that of men.
Questions; why do women have the custom to refrain from work while the Chanukah candles burn? Why do they seem to have a higher level of commitment or perhaps reverence for the Chanukah lights? And finally, why are they obligated in lighting Chanukah candles?
Keep your halachic glasses on as we zoom back in time to search the pages of the Talmud for Rabbi Karo’s source. Opening to page 23a of Tractate Shabbat we find that “Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi says that women are obligated in the mitzvah of Chanukah lights, for they too were involved in the miracle." They too were involved in the miracle? Rabbi Shlomo Yischaki, Rashi, tenth century scholar, suggests two possible interpretations to the puzzling phrase. First, they too were involved in the miracle - they too were subjugated to the Greeks, but in a terribly tragic way particular to women only. Each Jewish virgin was forced to be with a Greek officer before marrying. Second possibility; it was through a woman that the miracle occurred. This provocative comment is echoed and enlarged upon by Rashi’s grandson Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, Rashbam, he adds, that the Chanukah miracle was done through the hands of Yehudit, Judith.
Ah, Judith the Obscure! To uncover her mystery, we must do some pasting together of Apocrypha, midrash and poetry. The reconstruction of this episode may never be completely satisfying, but what does emerge is a tale of heroism and sacrifice. It is unclear whether it is Judith the widow who goes forth willingly or Judith the bride who is taken by force, but, once alone with the Greek general she feeds him wine and cheese. She waits for the soporific meal to take its effect, cuts off his head, As recorded in Chapter 13 of the Book of Judith,
Then she came to the pillar of the bed, which was at Holofernes' head, and took down his fauchion from thence,
And approached to his bed, and took hold of the hair of his head, and said, Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day. And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him.
She then gives his head to her maid who places it in her basket and they ever so nonchalantly return to the Judean camp. Officers, troops and soldiers of the Greek camp are left in leaderless disarray and a breach enabling the smaller Judean army to triumph. And thus the miracle was truly executed by a woman.
Now what do we see? Is this what Schneider might call a usable past? I think so. The legend together with halachic practice has bequeathed to women a powerful symbol. Yes, we were victims; but we were also heroes. We are part of the miracle. We were oppressed, but we joined together with our brothers to fight back. Yehudit, Judith is enshrined forever in sculpture, art work, librettos, and novels. Her memory is recalled on the Shabbat of Chanukah when traditionally we recite a lengthy twelfth century piyyut, poem, describing the pathos of her wedding and youthful fears of what awaited her.
Let each and every woman light a Chanukah menorah, refrain from work, watch flames and remember. Let us see in those flames both the pain of our ancestors and the courage of their actions and for this I do not think that we will need any kind of glasses. And finally, let us praise Judith as she was praised then,
O daughter, blessed art thou of the most high God above all the women upon the earth; and blessed be the Lord God, which hath created the heavens and the earth, which hath directed thee to the cutting off of the head of the chief of our enemies. For this thy confidence shall not depart from the heart of men, which remember the power of God for ever. And God turn these things to thee for a perpetual praise, to visit thee in good things because thou hast not spared thy life for the affliction of our nation, but hast revenged our ruin, walking a straight way before our God. And all the people said; So be it, so be it.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Tisha B'Av: Why we mourn....

Dear Rivy,
Here we are trying to have a decent summer and it seems like every other minute it is another fast day; sadness for a Temple long gone. I guess I don't quite understand the notion of mourning for the Temple. Why should I be sad about its destruction? I can't imagine needing or wanting such a place for sacrifices. Additionally, why all this for that one Temple, what's wrong with many holy spaces or synagogues, like what we have today? Please help me understand why we are fasting for the loss of this Temple.
A lot of people feel distanced from Biblical ideas of sacrifice and the role of the Temple, which is reasonable considering how long ago and faraway that temple stood. But I think that after I explain an idea or two you will feel differently. The idea of a centralized temple is at the core of our beliefs.
Let's start with perhaps the earliest mention of such a place. It is found in surprisingly close proximity to the beginning of our peoplehood. Immediately after the Exodus, as soon as the Israelites cross the Red Sea, they stand on the shore absorbing their miraculous salvation. You might remember the dramatic gelatin-facilitated footage from the Cecil B. De Mille film. There, the freed slaves are plunked after having just narrowly escaped a perilous collective brush with death. Led by Moshe, they sing a stunning song of thanksgiving, The Song at the Sea.
In that song they exuberantly proclaim, You bring them in, and plant them in the mountain of Your inheritance, the place, O Lord, which You have made for You to dwell in, the sanctuary, O Lord, which Your hands have established.
This is amazing to me. The Israelites have but stepped one foot out of slavery
and are already envisioning a holy sanctuary in which God will reside. This seems premature - why discuss a temple now? The Israelites have not begun to shed their slave-like persona, they have yet to receive the Torah, and are they certainly nowhere close to entering the land of Israel.
It is not until much later in the Book of Kings that we get an answer to this temple precociousness. But before that, the Israelites must first build a temporary tabernacle in the desert and travel with it into the Land of Israel. This mishkan, or temporary sanctuary, is then planted in the city of Shiloh, where it mostly remains until King Solomon is able to build the Temple in Jerusalem.
When Solomon does indeed construct the Temple, we are offered this rare nugget of chronology: “And it came to pass in the four hundred and eightieth year after the children of Israel were come out of the land of Egypt, in the fourth year of Solomon's reign over Israel, in the month Ziv, which is the second month, that he began to build the House of the Lord.”
An accounting like this, specific to an event, is not to be found in any of the early books of the Prophets. Not Joshua, not Judges, not Samuel. Only here, when the Temple is about to be built, are we notified of the span of years stretching from the Exodus till this temple time. This is the answer to the peculiar reference to the Temple at the splitting of the sea.
Four hundred eighty years from dream to realization. For our people, that is not astonishingly long - it is, in fact, a lilting leap with a profound link. As we are asked to make the connection from Exodus to Temple, we are catapulted back in time, as if standing again on the sandy shores of freedom, dreaming of the day that we will serve our heavenly God in a holy space here on earth.
It is there that we first envision this mystical notion, an ideal that the world has been waiting for since its creation: as God creates a world and makes room for humans, we are given a land and we create a space for God.
This connection between creation and the building of sanctuary is mapped out carefully by a number of Bible scholars such as Martin Buber, Benno Jacob and Nechama Leibowitz. They notice the startling similarities in language used in the creation narrative and the description of the building of the Tabernacle, mishkan. The Israelites mend the exile of the Garden by inviting God into a sanctuary and making space for God fulfilling the command, “and you shall make for me a dwelling place and I will dwell among them.” It is with the Israelites, who are ”a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, “that God's divine presence can finally join together with humans and be drawn down into this world.
First Eden and Exodus, then the Temple. The path of patience finally leads to the realization. As Solomon inaugurates the Temple, he triumphantly sets out what the role for this holy space will be for the Israelites and the entire world. In one of the most magnificent scenes in the Bible, King Solomon offers a soulful prayer to God before the People Israel.
He begins by reminding us when this building was first planned, “Since the day that I brought forth My people Israel out of Egypt,” and continues by asking the essential question, “But will God in very truth dwell on the earth?”
Though it may seem impossible, this place will be a place of prayer. All kinds of prayer - in times of famine and drought. Prayer in the time of war and hardship. This will be place that the whole world will come to pray to God Almighty, a place for penitence and forgiveness. Nary is a word mentioned about sacrifice, for this is a place of reaching out to God.
The Temple is a potent symbol for our people; it reminds us that God can be drawn down to earth and that a people can unite and build a community with God at its center. Perhaps that is the most powerful lesson for each of us. When we mourn the Temple, we mourn for that unity and for that mystical connection to the Holy One. We mourn a loss of land and central leadership. We mourn many missed opportunities.
A story is told of how Napoleon was walking through the streets of Paris. He passed by a synagogue and heard the sound of Jews weeping bitterly inside. He turned to his aide and asked, “What's going on inside there”?
“Today is the Jews' fast of Tisha B'av,” came the reply, “and they are mourning their temple.”
Napolean looked toward the synagogue and said, “If the Jews are still crying after so may hundreds of years, then I am certain that the Temple will one day be rebuilt!”
There is hope, we are still crying.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Why Eat Dairy on Shavuot -- and More...

If you put two plump cheese blintzes next to each other they just might resemble the two tablets of the law. But, I think we need to do better than that to bring meaning to our observance of Shavuot. The least attention getting of the holidays, it has a few things going against it from the start. No prominent engaging ritual and no eight-day marathon. Its timing is quite less than perfect coming as the school year is winding down, with no secular holiday season to boost its observance. Blink and you just might miss it entirely. Ironically, this low-key nature of Shavuot is its essence. When it comes to Shavuot less is more. Let me explain.
Try and find Shavuot in the Torah. Look for the verse linking Shavuot to the Giving of the Torah, search for the exact date, and maybe try to find the part about cheesecake. You will find none of these. Here is what you will find: We are commanded to count fifty days from the second day of Pesach when the omer offering is brought and to then observe the Feast of Weeks, Shavuot. On the holiday itself the Israelites bring first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem and the priests offer the two loaves of bread. The day is holy and work is prohibited.
Three elements of the holiday seem to be missing. There is no clear designation by the text that Shavuot is the day that the Torah was given. There is no explicit date. And where are the blintzes?
Often we can learn from what is hidden as we learn from what is revealed. No specific date for Shavuot? Well, if we count seven weeks from the second of Pesach we clearly arrive at the date for Shavuot. Seven weeks, forty nine days equals the 6th of Sivan. Ambiguity regarding the date is clearly not the point - we can and do calculate its appropriate convergence. Why then the obscurity in the text? What message does Torah give us when instead of telling us the specific date it tells us to count the days from Pesach to Shavuot?
Pesach and Shavuot are connected. Shavuot’s very essence is that it does not stand-alone. By its very definition it is an extension of Pesach. Some would even say that the counting effectually transforms Shavuot into the final day of Pesach. Atzeret, one of the names of Shavuot reflects the idea of conclusion, as in Shemini Atzeret the eighth concluding day of Succot. Pesach is not complete without Shavuot and Shavuot does not happen without Pesach. Pesach is the physical redemption of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage - while Shavuot marks the spiritual redemption. We anxiously count the days that transform us from slaves to a free people able to recognize and hear the words of God.
Why wait the fifty days? Why are the Israelites not given the Torah straight away upon exiting Egypt? Shavuot could easily have been the real last day of Pesach. Several reasons. We were clearly not ready. The tribes exposed to Egyptian culture and paganism were yet to be the people of the book and the pyramid builders of Egypt lacked the fortitude to wrestle with nuances of monotheism and a life of transcendence.
Wait and anticipate, count and reckon - almost breathless with hope tally the days till destiny arrives. Number the fifty days from Pesach to Shavuot till God reveals himself to the people Israel. No date for Shavuot? Of course not there can be no date. An individual date stands alone, the fiftieth is part of a process, a moment in the fluid movement towards becoming closer to God and Torah.
Staying up all night Shavuot, decorating the sanctuary with flowers, confirmations, and Shavuot liturgy all reflect the long held belief that Shavuot is the day that the Torah was given to the Children of Israel. There is no scriptural citation stating thus and no prescribed ritual to inscribe it upon our consciousness. No Seder to follow no Succah to sit in. It is as if the Torah was purposefully obscuring the historic event and intentionally stripping it of any ritualistic commemoration. You’ve heard the lyrics; every day is Mother’s Day with you… well I suppose every day is Torah day for us. No one day can or should be set aside as the day to re-experience the giving of the Torah, that is for every day. The Midrash Tanhumah puts it this way, “Every day let the Torah be as dear to you as if you had received it this day from Mt. Sinai.” Revelation, says Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman, cannot be translated into the tangible language of symbol. Can one even imagine what that might look like? What happened at Sinai was very much a one and only unique never to be repeated or imitated experience. The ritual to remember the Giving of the Torah is the every day ritual of Torah study that our people has dedicated themselves to, to never let this book of teaching cease from our lips.
Now for the menu; milk, elixir of life lead us to thoughts of intimacy, nourishment, simplicity and modesty. The way of Torah says the Tanna, is to eat bread with salt, drink water in small measure. A life of humbleness; Torah is like honey and milk under our tongue says the Midrash on the Song of Songs. Milk is pure and symbolizes the pristine whiteness of God who out of kindness revealed himself to us with intimacy, to nourish and give us life. Passed through the generations is the idea that the day of the Giving of the Torah is the day to eat with modesty reflecting the ultimate value of walking humbly with the Lord.
Less is more; less attention, less hoopla. So it is sometimes with things that are most precious and private. What we hold most dear we hold most close. Shavuot comes quietly after Pesach, we build no succahs and buy no loads of groceries. We cook modest meals and study Torah through the night. Oh and don’t blink you might miss it.

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Torah of Mother's Day

Dear Rivy,
In honor of Mother’s Day I decided to prepare a speech, a d’var Torah, about mothers and daughters in the Torah. I thought it was a good idea. I began my research in earnest but had quite a hard time finding material. Where did I go wrong?

I am not sure that you went wrong anywhere. I appreciate your experience and empathize with your consternation. I too have attempted such investigations. It is not simple to fashion a d’var Torah about mothers and daughters in the Torah, primarily because there is not much from which one might glean. When considering father and son relationships, there are a number of quite complex narratives from which we can garner timeless interpretations, meanings and inspiration. Without much strain to the brain we can tick those sets off quite swiftly, including Noah and his sons, Abraham and Isaac, Isaac and Jacob, Jacob and Joseph, Saul and Jonathan, David and Absalom. Though a number of these relationships give us pause and are fraught with intense conflict, they are relationships nonetheless. Without a doubt, they mirror the intricate and oftentimes precariously complicated nature of the father-son bond.

When we turn to inventory mother-daughter connections, the list is disappointingly sparse. Our first task must be to identify mother-daughter pairs in the Torah. In this discussion, we are use a broad definition of Torah, including all twenty-four books of what we call the Tanach: the Torah, the Prophets and the writings. Some call these the Hebrew Scriptures.
At first glance we can quickly identify two visible mother-daughter duos; Leah and Dinah in Genesis, and Yocheved and Miriam in Exodus, the former receiving much less fanfare than the latter. A second more comprehensive page-turning, concordance-checking, CD-ROM-searching exploration yields nothing more. I hesitate to utter the words, but I think we are done. I invite you to prove me wrong I would rejoice with you. Keep in mind we are searching for a meaningful kind of mother-daughter citation not a flavorless reference in a genealogical begat list. Those are decidedly exceptional as well, what with the father-son genealogy by far outpacing the mother-daughter statistics.

Proceeding with our identified mothers and daughters, although limited, I wonder whether these scant twosomes may yet offer us a fertile patch of earth from which we can grow some big ideas about mothers and daughters and their relationships. What pearls of wisdom do these mothers impart upon their daughters? What gems preserved through the ages are recorded? This is where we get even a bit more discomfited. Upon further investigation, it becomes apparent that there is not a single word of dialogue between any mothers and daughters in the entire aforementioned twenty-four books of the Hebrew Scripture. Implausible as it may sound, it is true; not one word is exchanged in the entire Tanach between any mother and daughter.

Now what? Skip the mother-daughter d’var Torah? I think not. There are, after all, narratives that can mined for meaning. There may be no words exchanged between mothers and daughters, but there are deeds that can provide inspiration and insight. In spite of this discerned dearth of dialogue, I believe there is something to be learned. Concepts can be extracted from the little we do have in the texts. For example, Rebecca meets, waters and welcomes the servant of Abraham and his camels in Genesis, Chapter 24. Bedecked with gifted jewelry, she runs to her mother’s house to report on the arrival of the stranger. Though no words are directly exchanged we notice that here the beginning of a hint of a motif: Mother’s tent or Mother’s house. Later, Isaac is comforted after the death of his mother only when he brings Rebecca into what had been his mother’s tent.

In one of the five Megillot, the dreamy beloved of Song of Songs speaks to her adored suitor and tells him that she will bring him into her mother’s house. There the relationship will blossom Mother’s house again. Mother is the original comfort of intimacy and love. The run to Mother’s house is the eternal impulse for return. Mother’s house is a womblike shelter and security the place of primal warmth. The potential romance between Isaac and Rebecca is set in motion as she runs to her own mother’s house with news of the unfamiliar person who had been bursting with intentions which are then later ultimately realized as she enters the tent of Isaac’s mother. Mother’s love gives way to the promise of intimate love of the future. The Torah is suggesting a blueprint for mothers and daughters. Let’s understand that first place of tenderness and grow from there. Perhaps this sweet phenomenon of Mother’s house can help us to break down those tensions that sometimes build between mother and daughter.

One more incident where nary a word is spoken takes place by the banks of the Nile. Miriam, sister of baby Moshe, sets out to watch as the daughter of Pharaoh reaches for the Hebrew baby meant to be drowned. What to do? A nursemaid is needed. Again the dash to mother with no words recorded, but we can imagine the swift urgency with which they are delivered. Mother and daughter share an intense purpose: this baby must be saved and cared for by its Israelite mother. Perhaps no words need be spoken. There are understandings that transcend the spoken word. These two voiceless episodes speak to me deeply. I see these patterns played out with my own daughters, the silent knowing and understanding, the trusting intimacy of relationships and the comfort of eloquent trust. The D’var Torah of mothers and daughters is a talk that does not abound with examples but it certainly resounds with meaning, sometimes actions transcend words.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

It's Not a Circumcision - It's a Brit Milah!

It's not a circumcision - it's a Brit Milah
Rivy Poupko Kletenik

I quote my mother of Blessed Memory often; perhaps too often. I seem to be unable to avoid generously peppering conversations with her wit and wisdom. Her comments about Brit Milah echo through my mind each time I am lucky enough to attend one.
She often remarked that a bris was her favorite simcha. Her observations were many. First, by virtue of time constraints a Brit Milah does not allow for elaborate planning; always a plus. Second, the ritual is elegantly succinct, demanding but a small investment of time from participant, this too is good. Finally, there is little room for family conflicts, because, most significantly, all come wholeheartedly, unified with a spirit of piety.
A Brit Milah is a pure expression of devotion to God. No ulterior motives here. Purity and sacrifice rule the day. Bringing a new Jewish soul into the covenant of Abraham is devoid of any but spiritual motives. The Brit Milah stands austerely among our rites of passage. The excesses which regularly visit us at Bar Mitsvahs, Bat Mitsvahs and weddings are strangers here.
Instead, an aura of mystery and otherworldliness pervade at the Brit Milah. A feeling of the numinous fills the room as the memories of Pinchas ben Elazar Hacohen, of Eliyahu Hanavi, and of course Abraham are evoked. Their “presence” tells us that something far from usual is to occu - that, what we see is not what it seems. As Jacob Neusner explains, a surgical procedure is not under way, but in fact through the power of words, the act is transformed into something wholly different (The Enchantments of Judaism p.3). This, is not the medical operation performed on millions in sterile hospitals, this is something of another magnitude.
The article, “Dr. Ronald Goldman On Circumcision" had some old thoughts and new thoughts in it. The arguments for and against have been vocalized profoundly from both sides in many different arenas. They do not appear to be fading away. They are voiced every now and then in newspapers and books. His article calls to mind other recent treatments of the subject.
Goldman mentions that women are generally more sensitive to the issue. So let's begin with shall we say, one of the more interesting observations offered by Miriam Pollock in her article, Circumcision: A Jewish Feminist Perspective. She says, "How many thousands of Jewish boys and how many thousands of Jewish men have been lost throughout the ages because they were unable to “pass” when their lives depended on it? All the oppressor had to do was pull down their pants." Setting aside the graphic ugliness and cruelty of her statement, let us focus on the content.
What is Pollock telling us? By cleverly turning the victim into his own victimizer she faults the Jew for his own persecution. His Brit Milah was the problem. She has achieved new heights in the exercise of Jewish self-hatred. It is tiresome. Here once again we are being told, not to be, too Jewish. In this case it may get you killed.
In this most recent attack against Brit Milah, Goldman maintains that a Brit Milah is a violation of the maternal-child bond. He recalls that “the infant cried strenuously for an extended period of time.” I can't recall a similar experience with our two sons. I do recall their many piercing cries in doctors' offices after being inoculated, cultured or examined. I recall with pain, my own tears at their tears. But knowing that the shots were critical to my child’s health I steeled myself and did what had to be done. I held their hands, wiped their tears, and told them that it would be all right. And so on through our children's lives. Yes, our tough love often visits pain upon our kids. But, most pain leads to growth. Maternal bonds are not shattered by these experiences. To the contrary, it is from mother’s breast that baby suckles and is comforted after the Bris. And every clever mother times her baby's feeding for immediately after the Bris. Pain and comfort the stuff of which life is made.
Back to my mother, I remember vividly attending a certain Brit Milah together. The nervous young mother was beside herself, quivering with anxiety over the approaching ceremony. Standing nearby I was tempted to deliver a lecture. Brit Milah 101. Don't you know? Your child is about to initiated into the Covenant of Abraham. He is to be permanently marked with a sign on his organ of generation. A symbol of our commitment to God's commandment to be fruitful and multiply. A symbol of our confidence in God's promise to Abraham that we Jews will be as great as the stars in the sky. A symbol of our commitment to the future and that our future begins with sacrifice. But, I remained quiet.
Instead, I let my Mother respond. She put an arm around the young woman and turned to her with typical frankness, "Look around the room. Every man here had a bris - and they're all doing just fine. Relax."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Who is Wicked Son?

The segment of the four sons is assuredly a core piece of the Seder. It fits in neatly with the “four theme” - four cups of wine, four questions, four sons. Nonetheless, the wicked son is disconcerting to be sure – who would want to picture a child as evil? To best begin to grapple with the “four sons” we must sketch out the basics about this theme of different children and then attempt to deal wisely with the wicked sibling. Hopefully, by the end it will seem even simple, perhaps we will be left with no questions.
The idea of the four sons is drawn from four sets of passages in the Torah that discuss the notion of children asking or being told about the Exodus. Here are the four sets of verses. For the sake of brevity I quote them not in full and urge you to check them out inside the text itself.
We begin with a verse in Deuteronomy 6:20,
When, in time to come, your children ask you, What mean the decrees, laws, and rules that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you?
Then these three separate verses from Exodus; in 12:26:
And when your children ask you, What do you mean by this rite?
And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, What does this mean? You shall say to him, It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.”
And finally in 13:8, we find,
And you shall explain to your son on that day, It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.
Consider the verses carefully. Are there any discernible subtle nuances that would lead you to label the voice of the child in any way? Are you able to detect any tones that imply a gradation of sorts in relation to the character of the child doing the asking?
Though we may not be able to distinguish the shades of wisdom or wickedness, wholesomeness or lack of wonderment, the Mechilta, a very early midrash on the Book of Exodus, identifies the four different verses and the children there mentioned, as the Four Sons that you and I know of from the Hagaddah; the wise, wicked, simple, together with the child who knows not how to ask. Above, the verses appear in the order of the Hagaddah, so go back and consider the designations. What about the passages indicates the son assigned to it?
The first verse has detailed questions about laws – the wise son. The second passage seems to have a negative tone – what do you mean by these laws! – the wicked son. The third passage is simply, simple, what is this? – the simple son. Finally, in the last passage the child does not ask and therefore is identified as the one who knows not how to ask.
This is the source then of the notion of the wicked son. We can surmise that the Midrash notices the four verses and wonders about the redundancy of a child asking four times; it must be there to teach us something specific. That something is the idea that there are different types of children and they each demand a different approach. Each child asks their own question and each child needs their own answer – even the child who cannot ask.
Before discussing the categorization or the qualification of each child let’s pause to appreciate the two educational principles that our tradition is suggesting here. Both sound educational practices; firstly, we do not pound out one lesson for all students but rather we know that each child must be taught in a way that makes sense for them. So, though we have a classroom full with many children we try to differentiate our teaching to work for each child. A second wonderful teaching idea is the recognition that good learning emerges from the curiosity of children and from the questions that they articulate. Here we have two educational notions put forth in ancient sources that continue to deeply resonate with our current sensibilities; that is certainly worthy of appreciation.
Now, let’s consider the questions of the children. What are they truly asking? Though they are focusing on the practices of the evening, remember that on Seder night when we reflect on our history we use symbols and rituals to trigger our memory and nudge us on in the telling of our story. When we ask in the Mah Nishtanah, about the eating matzo and of maror – what we really are asking is the classic question of theodicy; why does evil occur if there is an omniscient omnipotent God? Why were the Jews enslaved for hundreds of years? Why were our lives bitter? Why were we compelled to eat the bread affliction?
Now, consider the particular verses assigned to each child; in what way do they address this reformulation of the question; How is this night different from all other nights? The wise child, according to Rabbi Joseph Solovietchik, knows that there is no adequate answer for humans in regards to the issue of theodicy, the Rav, in his seminal article, “Kol Dodi Dofek –My Beloved is Knocking” addresses the issue of the Holocaust, and there he suggests that the wise son confronted with evil in the world, asks not; why? but rather, what can I do about it? How am I supposed to react to tragedy? What is our response to suffering? He therefore talks about action; what are the practices? The lesson we learn from the wise child is to take steps to address the pain in the world, rather than to ask about God’s role.
Taking a closer look at the responses to the children we notice that each receives an appropriate answer to this line of questioning. We then cannot help but appreciate that the response to the wicked son addresses his stance. By taking the “wicked” approach, he has excluded himself from the destiny of the Jewish people. When grappling with the uncomfortable phenomenon of a “wicked child” perhaps it would help to think of him as an archetype instead; one who challenges to the point of exclusion.
Finally, Rabbi Joseph Soloveichik’s brother, Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik offers this appealing approach to the four sons. They are not four different children but rather four stages we each go through, through our lives; we begin as one who cannot ask, progress to the wonderful school age stage as simple kids, then most assuredly move into the adolescent stage…hmmm wicked? Finally, we all reach the coveted wise stage as adults.
This approach of seeing the sons not as absolutes, leads us to realize that for some it may be distinct stages while for others it may be the normal fluctuations that we all go through in life. Each of us is at times depending on the situation, the wise, the wicked, the wondering or the without-question child.
Social constructivists would echo this approach and add that indeed an individual’s personality is drawn out by those with whom they spend time – I suppose that throws the onus back on to each of us --- are we bringing out the wise, the wicked ,the wondering or the without questioning from those around us or from our children? Well given that, here’s an idea - let us hope that at this year’s Seder we will bring out the wise in everyone!

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Enjoy the Rush: Here Comes Pesach!

Dear Rivy –

I love Pesach – once I am sitting at the Seder that is; till that point the rush and the panic are so difficult to handle. Is it just me? Why does our tradition have such stressful ritual as part of its modus operandi?
You are not alone, but you know that. You surely have chatted with family and friends and know intellectually that we are all in the same demanding dash towards the holiday that ironically marks our freedom from slavery.

I deeply believe that there are no accidents in Jewish practice; that even the most seemingly commonplace convention holds within it a transcendent loftiness and a message of meaning. That is the profound nature of our tradition. There must be something more to this rush than meets the eye. We all are experiencing haste before this holiday like no other haste. Though all of the holidays present their own unique panic quotient this one has its own particular deeply felt ontological rush.

What is the genesis of this rush? Let me take you back to the very first Pesach often referred to as “Pesach Mitzrayim, the Egyptian Passover. Moshe sets forth meticulous instructions for the evening’s rituals. Every detail is connected to this haste, this existential alacrity if you will.

And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; with bitter herbs they shall eat it. Eat not of it raw, nor sodden at all with water, but roast with fire; its head with its legs and with the inwards thereof. And you shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; but that which remains of it until the morning you shall burn with fire. And so shall ye eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste--it is the LORD'S passover.

This is nothing if not the description of the original “fast food” menu. The matzo is the bread that will necessitate no time to rise. We ate matzo on the night of Passover in anticipation of the dash of deliverance that is yet to come. There is not putting up of bread to rise for this meal. The plans for the evening call for unleavened flatbread – we’ve got a freedom train to catch. The main course? Meat for which there will be no long cooking time – no slow braising here, no meat that falls of the bone with the patience of the slow simmer.

The setting is no elegant restaurant with white table cloths delivering the leisurely meal of courses and hours. Here the attire is utilitarian inelegant travel wear. The sign might stipulate, “No Staff in Hand – No Service. No doggy bags, no leftovers – we will not be around for it and we surely cannot take it with us. The original eat and run. The consumption is in “haste” – the hurriedness of the evening is clear. But we are not the only ones in a rush. The Holy One is swiftly swooping in on the Egyptian firstborns, passing over.

What’s the rush? Two ancient rabbinic views;
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says, What is meant by haste? The haste of the Egyptians.
While Rabbi Akiva says: It is the haste of Israel.

The argument; who is the author of this great acceleration of the redemption? Does it emanate from our enemy, “And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, to send them out of the land in haste” or is this a self-constructed quickness to extricate ourselves from the bonds of slavery? Our sages’ argument is a weighty dispute. Do the people Israel determine their destiny or are we forever at the mercy of the persecutor du jour? Rabbi Akiva staunchly contends that we own our liberation – though the Egyptians pressured us to exit immediately - we will not leave until the morning. We own this rush.

Maimonides introduces a preliminary statement about the acceleration of our forefathers into his Haggadah. This is to be recited even before the opening paragraph, “Ha Lacham Anya, this is the bread of our affliction.” He inserts this short phrase for us to proclaim, “With a sudden haste we left Egypt.” This is a dramatic innovation for the otherwise scripted traditional text of the Hagadah.

Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik asks why this aspect of haste, chipazon, is so important to Maimonides? Why did it become the focal point of the evening? Chipazon he explains means “time consciousness”, the excitement of hurrying, of trying to catch up, of making sure that one is in a position to act when the opportunity next presents itself. Chipazon is the attempt to cover distance, to move forward quickly. This is the manifestation of the concept of living time. For the Israelite slaves this newly acquired control of time was the essence of their freedom. For it was then that they regained the concept of time, and that they as a people became free; free to be in a rush.

For the newly freed slave, time is everything. For this reason Judaism is very much centered on holiness in time. Time matters. We were freed in the nick of time. Abraham Joshua Heschel in his celebrated work, “The Sabbath”, writes poetically that we Jews “build cathedrals in time.” Our time is precious here on earth and once free, we have no time to waste in our serving of the Lord.

This fresh liaison between the People Israel and their God is characterized by this rush of love – an elopement if you will. Rabbi Berlin writes that this chipazon, this hurriedness is eminent Presence of God, metaphorically alluded to in the Song of Songs, “The voice of my Beloved! Here He comes! Leaping over the mountains, skipping over the hills…” Dr. Avivah Zornberg conceptualizes it this way, “God acts in a mode of passionate syncopation, disregarding the conventions, overlooking the normal rhythms of history. Some acceleration of events… must happen if they are to be redeemed.”

This is a deep and ancient hurry that we are sensing. So, if you are rushing to get ready for Pesach – that’s a good thing. It’s all about feeling as if it was we ourselves were redeemed- we share in the existential rush of our People. We lean luxuriously on Seder night and try so hard to imagine slavery. While our ancestors sat impatiently with staff in hand, loins girded, rushed and ready, dreaming of freedom.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

It's That Time of Year Again! Pesach Prep

The first time I made Pesach I was literally up the entire night before. I had not accurately calculated just how long it actually took to make all those traditional foods. I learned my lesson. Whether you are hosting your first Seder or your tenth, it is never easy. As the holiday looms a tiny panic tends to set in leading to feelings alternating between trepidation and anticipation. In spite of those thoughts, I love Pesach and even look forward to the preparations. I try to see my efforts as hands-on kind of Divine service. This does not mean however that you must kill yourself in the process. We Jews believe in life!

The second habit of Highly Effective People, according to Stephen Covey is;
Begin with the End In Mind
This chapter is about setting long-term goals based on "true north" principles. Covey recommends formulating a "Personal Mission Statement" to document one's perception of one's own vision in life. He sees visualization as an important tool to develop this. He also deals with organizational vision statements, which he claims to be more effective if developed and supported by all members of an organization rather than prescribed.

Great advice. Here is what works for me. I visualize my two goals; first, a beautiful, meaningful and enjoyable Seder experience and second, a positive Jewish memory for family and friends. Both of these cannot be realized if you are harried and exhausted as you sit own to the table. Therefore, you need to be deliberate in your planning.

Begin by creating lists and a thorough timeline. Consider this question as you construct your plan; what is it going to take to get you to the table that night relaxed and ready?

Picture the day of the Seder; what will you need to do the days before so that you are not last minutely rushing to get prepared? Plan accordingly and do not be shy about eliciting help from all other participants. Do these three things:

1. Buy a book. There some really terrific books that help you think not just about getting your home ready for the holiday and the menus but also about the Jewish learning that you want to happen at your Seder.
2. Divide up the parts of the Seder. People who come ready to participate will feel connected involved and less likely to keep asking about when the meal going to be served.
3. Get help. Whatever you can afford. Someone to help in the kitchen the day of, someone to wash up the next day or even consider getting some food items catered.

You will be duly rewarded for all your efforts because nothing is as wonderful as laying your head on your pillow the night after the Seder with a deep feeling of satisfaction that you have created a warm significant Jewish experience that will live on in to the future in the minds and souls of all who sat at your table. Good luck!

Friday, March 18, 2011

Time for a Dry Purim!

Let's talk about the drinking on Purim. I am very put off by the alcohol ingestion. The matter of substance abuse is of great concern, given our time and the challenges we all face in this regard. Drinking and the losing control of one's rationality seems contrary to everything we usually expect from Judaism, we are justified in being disturbed about this aspect of teh holiday! I continue to be put off by the drinking that goes on during the Purim celebrations.
Let's take a look at the sources for the custom of drinking on Purim. The first indication that drinking might be a part of the celebration is the Megillah itself. Notice the number of times that drinking parties occur. From start to finish, with several more in between, I can count a total of eight drinking parties. The imbibing is all-pervasive. The story, and thus the miracle, unfold through the raising of the cup. This may be the origin of the drinking practice, but it is usually a passage from the Talmud that is the source offered for why we drink on Purim.
In the Tractate Megillah 7b, we are told that Raba said, "It is the duty of a man to mellow himself with wine on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordecai.'"
Here it is spelled out. You've got a duty to get drunk on Purim, drunk enough to not be able to tell good from evil, friend from foe or hero from enemy. Though no explanation is provided, there is a clearly a tradition to get intoxicated on Purim. Yet the Talmud does not stop there, interestingly. The passage continues with a remarkable anecdote: Rabah and Rabbi Zera joined together in a Purim feast. They became mellow, and Rabah arose and cut Rabbi Zera's throat.
On the next day Rabah prayed on Rabbi Zera's behalf and revived him. The next year, Rabah said, "Will your honor come and we will have the Purim feast together?"
"A miracle does not take place on every occasion," a suspicious Rabbi Zera replied.
The plot thickens. Though we are enjoined to drink on Purim, it's interesting that the text follows the injunction with a cautionary tale, as if to say, here's what happens when you get drunk on Purim -- rabbis have been known to cut each others throats! Though he is invited back to Rabah's Purim celebration, Rabbi Zera's circumspectly begs off.
Ultimately, the Talmudic directive to be inebriated on Purim is tempered significantly by the sobering tale of the accidental death. Rabbi Zera came back to life. But like Rabbi Zera says, none of us can count on a miracle.
Drinking leads to dangerous behavior that may cause loss of life. In our own times there have been specific instances of tragic accidental deaths on Purim. Hence, I am absolutely and indeed vehemently opposed to getting drunk on Purim. To become dangerously inebriated is a misinterpretation the tradition.
It is always interesting to me how many people suddenly become pious and scrupulous about observing Jewish tradition when it comes to this tradition of getting drunk on Purim! Where is that zeal when it comes to other, more sober practices of Purim, such as gifts to the poor and the inclusion of the less fortunate at your celebration? A more palatable practice is suggested by Rabbi Moshe Isserles in the Code of Jewish law: to fulfill the requirement of not knowing the difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordecai," drink a small amount of wine and then doze off.
Would it not be momentous if all Jewish leaders were to actively encourage their constituencies to refrain from intoxication on Purim?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Mitzvot, Marrow and More

I have been on one of these wonderful gurneys that take you to cold operating rooms before, but this time things are different. I lay here now not fearing the worst and not dreading any horrific outcomes. I don’t sense that hollow empty loneliness you have when you are being wheeled into surgery either. I’m feeling strong and somewhat heroic. I am a bone marrow donor.
This is how it began. Six years ago in Pittsburgh the community organized a bone marrow registration drive for Jay Fineberg. I was one of the organizers. I didn’t have much of a choice but to register. In the back of my mind, way back, I wrestled momentarily with the far out possibility of actually being a match. It wasn’t a long wrestling bout – “Rivy,” I told myself, “register, you’ll never be a match and if you are – we’ll deal with it then.” Gone and forgotten.
But here begins some little piece of irony. We are not settled in Seattle a month, and we are told that Jay Fineberg himself is in town. A match has been found. Something seems to be following me across the continent.
We stop by the hospital and visit briefly with Jay’s father. He says something that stays with me. He tells us that it is especially difficult to find matches for Jews because of the Shoah. The murder of six million Jews has had a profound effect on our gene pools – here’s a-not-so-subtle aftermath of the Holocaust that had never occurred to me; more evidence that Hitler’s killing just keeps on killing. We leave the hospital and I honestly don’t think much more about bone marrow, matches or donors.
Fast forward six years. It is December ’98 and I am going through a neglected pile of mail that has typically amassed on my desk. I open a rather plain looking envelope from the blood bank in Pittsburgh – assuming that it will be a holiday request for funds, I scan the letter quickly. I am surprised to read that I have been identified as a possible bone marrow donor. The letter politely asks me to call for more information. I immediately call Pittsburgh and I am prepared to leave a message on this Sunday morning, but instead a voice answers. We talk for a while. There is an individual who has leukemia and is in need of a bone marrow transplant – I am one of the potential matches, would I consent to being tested further?
After allowing several vials of blood to be collected at the Puget Sound Blood Bank I again relegate this to the back of my mind. Anyone I tell about this seems to have also been tested – but never been matched. No big deal they tell me. Truthfully? I had a feeling that this would not be the case for me. I had a feeling that I would be the match. I don’t know why – but I had this feeling.
Six weeks later – oddly on the one day that I actually remembered that - gee I haven’t heard back yet have I? - the call comes. You are the best match. Would you consider becoming a bone marrow donor?
Is there any other answer to this question? For me no. It’s one of those choices that really isn’t a choice. They are the very Jewish, kind of choices. They usually go something like this - If you want to live then do such and such…if not, not. No real choice.
There are interviews, blood samples, physical exams and more blood samples. People are impressed with my decision, I am not. True, it is a sacrifice, but in the great scheme of things a small one. The date is set. I begin to feel like I am eating for two. My life is a bit more precious now. I fasten my seat belt and look several times before crossing the street. I try to eat well, even press myself to include more chocolate in my diet – this is the extent of my self-sacrifice!
I wonder about this person, their family, their life. I am naturally curious. On one hand the temptation to become familiar is powerful. But the elegance of anonymity is purer. I recall the levels of tzedaka outlined by Maimonides. The value of anonymous giving is the protection it offers both parties. The recipient does not become beholden and the donor cannot become arrogant. But it does not stop me from thinking about them, usually moments before falling asleep at night.
As the day approaches heroes begin to grow around me. The best husband in the world becomes even greater and understanding. Bosses and coworkers offer to pick up the slack and even the kids are being more cooperative than normal. And finally, good friends reassure me that neither I nor my family will go hungry. People are so good, kind and generous. As I prepare for the procedure I include their gifts in my mind - I may be the actual donor but my gift rests on the shoulders of their kindnesses, they too have a share in this offering.
The day approaches and a friend says something to me that I myself have said many times to others – but this time it really strikes a chord. I begin to tear up. She says, “tizkee l’mitzvot”.
It is a traditional response to a mitsvah. For example if we are collecting tzedaka and someone gives us some coins we say “Tizkeh L’mitzvot. You should merit to do mitzvot. We don’t say thank you – that doesn’t quite fit. How can a fellow human thank another human for the performance of a mitsvah? Instead we give a bracha, a blessing – Tizkeh L’mitvot, you should be worthy to do mitzvot.
I am really struck by this blessing. It makes me think. I am eternally grateful. I do not know why, but I have been given the merit to do this mitsvah, to help another person to live. That it is a merit, to do a mitsvah, to deserve to do a mitsvah is a wild concept really. I begin to think and to extend. Is it not true that God Almighty in his infinite wisdom has had mercy on us and decided that we all deserve to do mitzvot, that we the Jewish people deserve the privilege of 613 commandments. We have merited the gift of shabbat and of kashrut and of course this mitsvah, the greatest of all, to save a life. Tizkeh L’mitzvot.
Day of. I have brought a siddur with me to the hospital. I am not by nature a very pious or sentimental person, irreverence is my usual tenor of choice. But, moments before I am wheeled into the surgery room I quickly recite a prayer which I have found and slightly modified. Here is an English version of it:

Master of all worlds. In the time of the Holy Temple a person would sin and would offer a sacrifice. The fat and the blood would be offered on the altar. And You in your great mercy would forgive the person. Now that I am offering this sacrifice and my blood and my bone is being lessened, let it be thy will that this diminution that I am offering today be as if I have offered it to you on the holy altar and that you will be pleased by this sacrifice and grant to me and my family life.

As I am wheeled in I am buoyed by the prayers and the misheberechs being said for me around this town and around the world in schools and in shuls. The experience turns out to have some surprises. But temporary physical pain is just that and spite of some of the messy stuff I would do it again. I donated the bone marrow to save a life and that is what we are expected to do.
A friend and neighbor who is studying in Israel for the year e-mailed his parents a very thoughtful D’var Torah for the shabbat of my recuperation. In short he wrote something like this. Based on the verses in the parsha about saving a fellow Jew from becoming impoverished; he makes the point that to help a fellow Jew one must be willing themselves to suffer along with the person they are helping. Well, this I know to be true. Thanks to all who helped us perform this mitsvah.