Archive for the ‘Passover’ category

Love: Jewish Style

February 15, 2014

“How lovely are your feet in sandals,

O daughter of nobles!

Your rounded thighs are like jewels,

The work of a master’s hand.

Your navel is like a round goblet –

Let mixed wine not be lacking! –

Your belly like a heap of wheat

Hedged about with lilies.

Your breasts are like two fawns,

Twins of a gazelle.

Your neck is like a tower of ivory,

Your eyes like pools in Heshbon

By the gate of Bath-rabbim,

Your nose like the Lebanon tower

That faces toward Damascus.

The head upon you is like crimson wool,

The locks of your head are like purple –

A king is held captive in the tresses.

How fair you are, how beautiful!

O Love, with all its rapture!

Your stately form is like the palm,

Your breasts are like clusters.

I say: Let me climb the palm,

Let me take hold of its branches;

Let your breasts be like clusters of grapes,

Your breath like the fragrance of apples,

And your mouth like choicest wine.

‘Let it flow to my beloved as new wine

Gliding over the lips of sleepers.’”[1]

Now some of you may be wondering if just because it is Valentine’s Day, does that give the rabbi license to stand on the bimah on Shabbat and recite to the congregation erotic love poetry, with thighs and navels and breasts and lips and rapture?  A valid question, especially considering that not only is Valentine’s Day not a Jewish holiday but in its earlier incarnation it was St. Valentine’s Day; a Roman Catholic Saint’s Day.

Well, if you have not already figured it out, this is not just any erotic poetry.  This text is from SHIR HASHIRIM, the SONG OF SONGS, sometimes called the SONG OF SOLOMON.  This text comes from our own Hebrew Scriptures.  Not only that but SONG OF SONGS is one of the Five Megillot – the Five Scrolls – each of which is assigned by our tradition to be read on a particular holiday.  And not only that!  Of the Five Megillot, there is only one scroll which is assigned to read on two holidays, and guess which scroll it is.  SONG OF SONGS, the scroll which is read on Passover and also on Shabbat, by husbands to their wives.

Now some may ponder how strange it is to find erotica in our Scriptures.  What were the ancient rabbis thinking, back in the 2nd century before the common era, when they decided to include this book, with all its blatant sexual imagery, in the collection of our sacred writings?  Were they just a bunch of dirty old men and this was their version of pornography?

Actually, they weren’t a bunch of dirty old men.  Quite the contrary.  Rather they were profoundly pious, deeply spiritual, remarkably open minded, wonderfully realistic, positive, God loving men of faith.  They did not see this book as “dirty” but rather as inspiring.  That was because they did not look at human love, in any of its manifestations, as being something dirty.  Quite the contrary.  They looked at the pleasure we receive from love, in all of its aspects, including its physical aspect, as being a gift from God, and therefore sacred.  They asked themselves the simple and obvious question: Why would God create us with the capacity to derive so much pleasure if God did not intend for us to enjoy it?  The very fact that God made this so pleasurable clearly indicates that this is something God encourages us to do.

They also recognized that even the best of things in our lives can become the worst of things.  It is all about use and abuse.  When given such gifts, how do we use them properly and employ them for the good, and how do we avoid misusing and abusing them, turning them into something bad?  Of course, when it came to the physical pleasures of love, for the Rabbis, the answer was simple.  Marriage.  Physical love and sexual pleasure was never intended to be an end in and of itself.  That is not the human way.  That is the way it is among the lower species.  For us humans, it was given as way to enhance and intensify the love relationship which exists between two people who are so attracted to each other that they yearn to share the totality of their lives together.

This is a good thing, not a bad thing.  Since God created us with the capacity to love another, it becomes our sacred responsibility to maximize that love in all of its manifestations.  Like any other gift we receive from any other source, one of the truest ways to demonstrate our gratitude for that gift is to make the most of that gift.  If someone were to give you a sweater, and you really liked that sweater, and therefore you wore it often, every time the person who gave you that sweater sees you wearing that sweater, they know how very much you have valued their gift.  It is the same here.  In fact, that is why our tradition teaches us that lovemaking between a husband and wife, on Shabbat, is counted as a double mitzvah.

Why was human love so important to the rabbis – silly question! – and more importantly, why did they feel that it was important to God?  Because the rabbis saw the love between human beings as not something separate from God but rather as the model of human love for God.  Do not get me wrong!  It is not that they ever considered the idea that humans could engage in physical love with God but rather that we should aspire, in our love of God, to reaching the intensity of connectedness between us and God that, in much the same manner, exists in a full and healthy love relationship between husband and wife; a relationship which has the power to take two separate individuals and transform them into one whole and completed being.  How often a husband will say to a wife, or a wife to a husband, “You fulfill me!” and mean it.  That was the rabbi’s ideal, and remains our Jewish ideal, for what should be our relationship with God.  God should fulfill us, and if God fulfills us, believe it or not, we fulfill God.

In a truly intimate human love relationship, each one can often anticipate the other.  We know what they are thinking.  We know what they are feeling without having to ask.  We know because it is important to us; they are important to us, and more often than not, more important to us than ourselves.  Our pleasure is to be found in giving them pleasure.  Their very presence in our lives is our primary source of joy.  This is the type of intimacy to which Judaism encourages us to aspire in our relationship with God.

The Jewish philosopher-theologian Martin Buber understood this very well.  In his famous work, I & THOU, he tells us that in the realm of relationships, there are two major categories – I-It relationships and I-Thou or I-You relationships.

I-It relationships are one directional.  They are all about how the other party can meet our needs.  They have little if anything to do with how we can meet the needs of the other.  Of course we have I-It relationships with objects like chairs.  We are concerned with how the chair meets our needs but we never give a thought to whether or not the chair has needs which we can meet.  But we also can have I-It relationships with people.  Just think about how you often relate to servers in a restaurant or cashiers in a supermarket.

I-Thou relationships are, to one degree or another, two directional.  They are about mutually meeting each other’s needs.  Of course they vary in degree.  An I-Thou relationship with an acquaintance is not nearly as giving as an I-Thou relationship with a friend.  The more intense the relationship, the more connected we feel to the other and the more priority we give to the meeting of their needs.

For Buber, the most intense human experience of an I-Thou relationship is the relationship which exists between loving spouses.  It is this relationship which Buber points to as a model for his third category of relationships – I-Eternal Thou; the desired relationship between the individual and God.  What a statement that makes!  If we could only love God as much as we love each other!  If we could only love God as much as we love the person we love the most!

This all brings us back to SONG OF SONGS.  When the Rabbi’s hotly debated whether or not to include this book in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was no less a personage than Rabbi Akiva who absolutely insisted upon its inclusion.  He was reported as saying, “for all the ages are not worth the day that SONG OF SONGS was given to Israel; for all the Ketuvim (all the Writings) are holy, but the SONG OF SONGS is the Holy of Holies.”[2]  Why did he claim this?  Because Akiva did not just see this book as the description of a deep love between a man and a woman, but more importantly, he saw it as a beautiful testimony to the love which should exist between God and Israel.  That is why we read it on Passover, when God showed us unbounded love through the act of our liberation from Egyptian slavery.  That is why we read it on Shabbat, when we show God our unending love by observing this day as God’s day, week after week after week.

It is Shabbat and it is Valentine’s Day.  As we celebrate the love that we share with each other, let us likewise celebrate the love that we share with God.


[1] SONG OF SONGS 7:2-10.

[2] MISHNAH YADAIM 3.5.

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One Jew Reflecting on Christmas: A Postscript

February 3, 2014

I write this on the morning after the Superbowl.

Yesterday evening – not having a Superbowl Party to attend and not being very interested in sitting at home, watching the game (though we do love the commercials) – my wife and I went out for a bite of dinner, followed by an exciting evening of grocery shopping and a visit to Starbucks.  As we drove the streets of Davenport, Iowa, I could not help but be struck by how empty they were.  At the restaurant, we were 2 out of their 3 diners.  Most of the staff were gathered round the wall mounted TVs, watching the game.  While there were some people in the grocery store, relatively speaking it, too, was empty.  Then, at Starbucks, we were the only customers.

As we left Starbucks, heading for home, my thoughts traveled to two places:

The first was to Jerusalem, back in 1970, when I was a first year student at the Hebrew Union College.  It was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish holiday calendar (except for Shabbat).  I do not know about how it is today but in those days, on Yom Kippur, the usually crowded streets of Jerusalem were eerily empty and quiet.  The only moving vehicles were the occasional military jeep.  The silence and stillness seemed to emphasize the sanctity of the day.

The second was not so much a place but a document – the last posting I placed on this blog:  “One Jew Reflecting on Christmas.”  In that posting, I bemoaned the changes I have been witnessing as to the very nature of Christmas Day in our society.  As I stated in that posting, it was not that long ago that out on the streets, Christmas Day, you might say, belonged to the Jews.  We would go to the movies and, except for the Jews, they were empty.  The same was true for the Chinese restaurants; the only restaurants that were open on Christmas Day.  Everyone else were gathered in their churches and homes, with their families, celebrating their sacred holiday.  However, this has become less and less the case, as with each passing year the movie theaters have become more and more crowded, as have the Chinese restaurants.  Indeed, this year, the movie theater was more crowded than I ever remember seeing it.

Driving home last night, on Superbowl Sunday – revisiting in my mind one Yom Kippur in Jerusalem 43 years ago and Christmas in the Quad Cities just a month and a half ago – I came to the realization, with a bit of a shock and sadness, that it is not that the American people have lost their sense of sacred occasions.  Rather it is that they have changed their views on what they hold sacred.  The place in their hearts once held by Yom Kippur and Christmas now is held by the Superbowl.  The church and the synagogue have been replaced by the stadium and the sports arena while the Christmas family dinner and, to a lesser extent, even the Passover Seder, have been replaced by the Superbowl and tailgate parties.  The streets of Jerusalem on Yom Kippur are now the streets of America on Superbowl Sunday night.

Is American Judaism Going Down the Toilet?: Reflections on the Recent Pew Study of the American Jewish Community

November 14, 2013

The Pew Research Center is a highly respected institute that conducts many serious studies about the nature of religion in contemporary American life.  Last month they issued a 200 page report entited “A Portrait of Jewish Americans.”  It is the first such comprehensive study of the state of the American Jewish community to be released since the last National Jewish Population Survey, back in 2001.  For this study, 70,000 screening interviews were conducted, covering all 50 states in their search to identify Jewish respondents.  Of that group, they conducted fuller interviews with almost 3,500 Jews.

The results of this survey have generated a tremendous amount of conversation within the American Jewish community.  One writer claims that as his of his writing, over a million words have been published evaluating those results.[1]  I suspect that his estimate is low.

While it is impossible for me to give you all the results of the Pew Study in one posting, let me hit upon some of its highlights, both the good news and the bad news:

  1. 94% of those Jews surveyed claimed that they are proud to be Jewish.  That, of course, is very good news.
  2. The percentage of adult Americans who say that they are Jewish is a little less than 2%, which is about half of what it was in the late 1950’s.  Unfortunately, the American Jewish community is shrinking.
  3. 22% of those interviewed claim that they have no religious identity.  It should be noted that this statistic is very much in line with another statistic from a Pew survey of religious identity in general in America, where 20% of Americans claimed to have no religious identity.  Yet it should be of little comfort to us that we Jews are like the rest of our fellow Americans, moving further and further away from our religious roots.
  4. Among those Jews who claim no religious identity, it should be noted that they are far more represented among younger adults than older adults.  If you break it down by generation you find that among the Greatest Generation – those born between 1914 & 1927 – only 7% claim no religion.  Among the Silent Generation – those born between 1928 & 1945 – the number goes up to 14%.  Among Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 & 1964 – the number is 19%.  For Gen X’er – born between 1965 & 1980 – the number is 26%.  And finally, among the Millennials – those born after 1980 – the number is 32%, almost 5 times greater than the Greatest Generation and almost twice as great than Baby Boomers.  To say the least, this trend is frightening and should be of profound concern to us Jews who wish to see our faith survive long into the future.
  5. When asked if being Jewish was more about culture and ancestry than about religion, 62% of the respondents said that their Jewish identity was exclusively about culture and ancestry; 15% said it was about religion; and 23% said it was a combination of all three.  Such statistics do not bode well for those of us who work for the continued existence of synagogues like our own.
  6. The rate of intermarriage is also up.  60% of those who married since the year 2000 are intermarried, as compared to 40% of those who married in the ‘80’s and 17% of those who married in the ‘70’s.  Considering the fact that only 20% of intermarried couples raise their children as Jewish, this poses yet another challenge for the future.
  7. Regarding denominational identification, Reform Judaism is the largest denomination among American Jews, with 35% identifying as Reform.  The next largest group, with 30%, are those who claim no denominational identification.  18% claim to be Conservative, 10% claim to be Orthodox, and 6% claim to be other, such as Reconstructionist or Jewish Renewal. However, it should be noted that the Orthodox, though small, have many more young people and generally raise larger families.  So we can expect to see this percentage grow for the Orthodox in the future.
  8. Passover remains the most practiced Jewish observance with 70% claiming they participate in a Passover Seder.  However, that is down from the 78% which was reported in the National Jewish Population Survey.
  9. 69% of those surveyed stated that they feel an attachment to the State of Israel.  This statistic remains unchanged from the National Jewish Population Survey.  We would have hoped to see this number rise as a result of programs like Birthright.  At least we are holding our own.
  10. When asked, “What Does It Mean to Be Jewish?” 73% said remembering the Holocaust; 69% said leading an ethical and moral life; 56% said working for justice and equality; 49% said being intellectually curious; 43% said caring about Israel; 42% said having a good sense of humor; 28% said being a part of a Jewish community; 19% said observing Jewish law; and 14% said eating traditional Jewish foods.  It is deeply disturbing that so many more Jews view having a sense of humor as more essential to their Jewish identity than either practicing our faith or being part of a Jewish community.

These statistics but scratch the surface of this study.  Yet, as a synagogue, they should give us much to ponder.  Reactions to this study have run the gamut from anxious hand wringing to almost joyous jubilation, depending upon one’s perception of American Jewish life in the first place.

One writer applauds the grim aspects of this report.  He claims that the reason most cultural Jews keep any Jewish traditions or identity is because they feel guilty on account of their parents.  He then goes on to announce that it is time for Jews to get over their guilt and drop these meaningless observances.[2]  While another author recalls how one edition of Look Magazine, back in 1964, had as its cover story “The Vanishing American Jew” and predicted that by the 21st century there would no longer be any Jews left in the United States.  He then joyfully quotes Mark Twain who said, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”[3]

There are those who look at the report and offer sage advice.  A rabbi who was formerly a social scientist recalls one of her earliest research lessons; that correlation does not always mean causation; that statistics can only show us the present situation and cannot, by themselves, reveal the reason for that situation.  Indeed, I loved her analogy.  It was that a survey of shoe size and reading ability among Americans would reveal that the larger the shoe size, the higher the reading level.  However, before those statistics mislead us, we must remember to take into account the factor of age, for infants have very small feet.[4]

Then there is our own URJ President, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, who reminds us that when it comes to denominational breakdown, those Jews without religion are only second in number to Reform Judaism.  That they claim no religion, yet affirm their Jewish identity, indicates that within that group there is a great untapped potential if we can only find the key to attract them to Reform Judaism, Reform Jewish beliefs, and Reform Jewish practices.[5]

Then there is the writer who wrote a response to the article celebrating the imminent demise of Judaism.  She points out that most Jews lack basic Jewish literacy.  One cannot abandon what one never had in the first place.  Therefore, the challenge before us is to transform what the first author considered to be “intrinsically meaningless” into something deeply meaningful.  This, or course, is done through more effective Jewish education.[6]

Of all the statements I read on the subject, the one I really resonated with the most was by an author who said: “I look forward to… well, to most things, because there really isn’t any other direction in which to look.”[7]  That is precisely what the synagogue world needs to do.  We need to look forward to our future.  We need to seriously examine these statistics, come to an understanding of where today’s American Jews are coming from in terms of their Jewish identity, and then do some serious reworking of synagogue life so as to draw them back to an attachment to our religion as well as our culture.  No, we should not resign ourselves to becoming mere Jewish cultural institutions, for Jewish identity cannot long endure as a testimony to bagels and Seinfeld, as one author framed it.  For it is our faith, when properly approached, which gives our Jewish identity, and particularly our Jewish values, their foundation.  Without that faith, the rest is built on shifting sand.  We cannot keep any synagogue building open for long if the primary purpose of our existence is merely to keep our buildings open.  We must mean more than that to our members. We must mean more than that to all those Jews out there who consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.”  We must become the spiritual home they are seeking.  We must become a center of vibrant and meaningful Jewish life.  The statistics of the Pew Study tell us where we are today so that we can better plan where we need to go if we are ever to see tomorrow.


[1] Schick, Marvin, “The Problem With the Pew Study”. Tablet Magazine

[2] Roth, Gabriel, “American Jews are Secular, Intermarried, and Assimilated.  Great News!”, Slate Magazine.

[3] Blech, Rabbi Benjamin, “The Vanishing American Jew?”, Aish.com.

[4] Gurevitz, Rabbi Rachel, “The Pew Study: What the Stats Can and Can’t Teach Us”, Rabbis Without Borders.

[5] Jacobs, Rabbi Rick, “Don’t Give Up on Jews Who Care About Being Jewish”, HaAretz.

[6] Glick, Caroline, “Why Bother Being Jewish?”, the Jerusalem Post.

[7] Ibid, Gurevitz.

Traveling the Road to Sinai

April 1, 2013

Our Pesach Seder, or S’darim, are behind us.  In just a few days, Pesach itself will be concluded as we gather for Yizkor.  Now, as our tradition tells us, we are in the period of the counting of the Omer.

But what is counting the Omer?  In the book of LEVITICUS, our people were instructed that on the second day of Pesach they were to bring to the Temple a sheaf of barley as an offering.  The Hebrew word for “sheaf” is “Omer.”  In that same passage it states that starting on the second day of Pesach, it is a mitz­vah to daily count the Omer; counting the 50 days from Pesach to Shavuot.  Since Shavuot is the festival of the receiving of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai – and as our tradition expanded upon that, the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai – the counting of the Omer is literally marking the days between the time we were liberated from our slavery in Egypt to the time God gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai.  In counting the Omer, we are in our own way participating in the journey across the wilderness from Egypt to Sinai; from slavery to Torah.

From the first Pesach and Shavuot to this very day, by counting the Omer, we Jews make that very same jour­ney.  While Moses, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua, and all of their followers physically traveled the 50 day journey from Egypt to Sinai, we, on the other hand, spiritually travel it.

But how does one spiritually travel from Egypt to Sinai?  To answer that question, we have to ask ourselves, “What does Egypt spiritually represent?” and “What does Sinai spiritually represent?”  For in finding the spiritual meanings of Egypt and Sinai, we discover the true path of the spiritual journey which each of us, as modern Jews, must take.

What is the meaning of Egypt?  We hear it stated over and over throughout our Pesach Seder.  Egypt is slavery, and therefore the journey from Egypt is nothing less than freedom.

What is the meaning of Sinai?  For Jews throughout the ages, Sinai has always stood for Torah.  So what is Torah?  Torah is our guide book to becoming a good Jew and a decent human being.  It tells us what we need to do in order to achieve those goals.  In other words, it lays out for us our responsibilities as Jews.

For us, the counting of the Omer should not only remind us of that journey our ancestors took some 3,500 years ago, from Egypt to Sinai, but also the journey that each of us as modern Jews need to take; the journey from freedom to responsibility.  For freedom is a wonderful thing, a blessing, and we American Jews enjoy a great deal of it, but freedom without responsibility is nothing other than license, and that is not a good thing.  It most certainly is not a blessing.

As Americans we are well aware of the fact that freedom has a price; that sometimes it even requires a sacrifice.  We know that freedom does not mean “I’ll do whatever I damn well please and the heck with you!”  While freedom is a gift, it is not the gift of absolute selfishness.  It is the gift of living in a community of people equally free, and doing whatever is necessary to protect the freedom of others as well as our own, and to protect the integrity of the community and all that it stands for.  In order to do so, we have to exercise our freedom to choose to do the right thing and not just the selfish thing.  We have to choose to be at one with others rather than only looking out for ourselves, at times placing above ourselves the values and principles that keep freedom alive and vibrant.  Hillel put it so well 2,000 years ago when he said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?  But if I am only for myself, then what am I?”  With freedom comes responsibility.

For us as Jews, our Omer counting journey places its focus on some very particular freedoms and some very particular responsibilities; the freedoms and responsibilities of what it means to be a Jew today.

There is something sadly telling in the fact that most modern Jews celebrate Pesach – celebrate freedom – but far fewer celebrate Shavuot – celebrate responsibility – and even fewer still count the Omer – give serious consideration to what it means to make the journey from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility.  Yes, we know that we are free to be Jews, but too many of us interpret that as merely meaning that we don’t have to convert to another faith to be considered equals in the land we live.  Too many of us think that being free to be Jews means being free to choose to do nothing Jewishly with our lives, and if not nothing, then to choose to keep our Jewish activities at a bare minimum – attend a Pesach Seder of sorts which often is significantly abridged; perhaps go to a High Holy Day service or two; light some candles and give gifts on Hanukkah; or even take on the expense of joining a synagogue but rarely attend or participate; while never publicly denying being a Jew, at the same time never really publicly proclaiming it either.

But does the freedom to be a Jew really include the freedom from living Jewishly?  Many years ago, when I was a rabbinic student intern in a wonderful congregation in Scarsdale, New York, one of my responsibilities was to teach the Confirmation class.  Our Confirmation program centered upon a series of guest speakers, each addressing a topic of significance.  In one section of the course, over three weeks we explored the differences between Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism.  While all three speakers were excellent, the one that really stands out in my memory is the Orthodox rabbi.  Why?  Because of an exercise he conducted with my students.  He simply asked them, “What does it mean to be a Reform Jew?”  One student replied, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to keep kashrut.”  Another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means you don’t have to wear a yarmulka at services.”  Yet another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to fast on Yom Kippur.”  Still another student said, “Being a Reform Jew means that you don’t have to go to services on Saturday, or even on Friday if you don’t want to.”  And so the students went on, that is until he stopped them.  Then this Orthodox rabbi turned to them and said, “Don’t tell me about what you don’t do as Reform Jews.  Tell me about what you do.”  The students were stumped.  For them, being a Reform Jew was all about not having to do this and not having to do that.  It was all about their freedom and little or nothing about their responsibilities.  That Orthodox rabbi challenged those students to tell him, “As a Reform Jew, I choose to do this or I choose to do that” and they were hard pressed to respond.  For them, Reform Judaism meant a lot of free­dom but little, if any, responsibility.

Those Confirmation students are far from alone when it comes to Jews today, nor are their responses just restricted to Reform Jews.  Just count the empty seats in any synagogue on Shabbat.  Just count the empty chairs in any Jewish adult education class.  Just compare the number of those who attend syna­gogue and Jewish community events to those who belong to the synagogue and to the community.  Just examine how most Jewish institutions languish for need of volunteers and especially for leaders.  Even Tikkun Olam activities which, at least in our synagogue, are the most popular, pale in support when compared to our population.  Today so many Jews are just too busy to be Jewish.

This is precisely why the counting of the Omer journey is so vitally important for our people.  We need to come to grips with the fact that being Jewish does not end with our freedom to be Jewish.  Our journey is not just a Pesach journey.  It is not just about our liberation from Egypt.  It is also a Shavuot journey.  It is a journey toward Torah; toward the taking on of Jewish responsibilities.  It is about imbuing our Jewish freedom with Jewish life and Jewish meaning.  It is about bringing our Judaism to life in our lives and in the lives of our families and our community.  We need to journey from Pesach to Shavuot.  We need to journey from Egypt to Sinai.  We need to journey from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility.  The 50 days of the Omer stretch before us, offering us the opportunity to explore, to ponder, and ultimately to decide how each of us, making the decisions that work best for us, can travel that path from Jewish freedom to Jewish responsibility; from being free to live as Jews to living meaningful Jewish lives.

Empty Chairs

April 11, 2012

At the Passover Seder, we begin the Four Questions by asking “Why is this night different from all other nights.”  This year, for me, that question was but an echo of another with which I had to contend:  “Why is this Seder different from all other S’darim?”

That difference was that this year, for the two S’darim that I attended, there were some painfully empty chairs, either literally or figuratively that in past years were occupied.  They were the chairs that in the past were occupied by the members of my family but this year stood empty.  With the my wife living in Detroit as a result of being transferred there by her “day job,” and it not being one of the weekends when my congregation has contracted for her to return and serve as our partime cantor for our worship services, she  remained in Detroit, sharing the S’darim with her mother, her brother, her sister, their spouses and their children.  My eldest daughter, Shira, remained in Louisville, where she lives and works, conducting her own Seder with her friends. Since, like the Cantor, our 28 year old son with autism, Josh, visits the Quad Cities every other weekend – weekends when the Cantor is home – he spent Pesach at his group home in Iowa City.  As for our youngest, Helene, the price of comparative airfares dictated that she travel from her school in Minneapolis to Detroit to share Seder with her mother.   Therefore this was the first Pesach of my entire life (not counting the year when I studied in Jerusalem) when I had no family with which to share the holiday.  This was the first Pesach since my wife and I met in which we have not been together for Seder.

My wife and I both knew that this would be difficult for me.  We spoke of it as we parted the week before.  But just how difficult it would be did not really strike home for me until I was reviewing the physical layout of the congregational Seder and looked at the head table, at which point I was confronted by the empty chairs that in the past were filled by my wife and my children.  Others would be assigned those seats but of course it simply would not be the same.  Pesach is such a family time and I found myself overwhelmed and overpowered by a dreadful sense of loneliness; one that I carried with me all the way through the S’darim.  One that I still carry with me, even now that the S’darim are passed.  It is a loneliness not unlike the loneliness I felt on the first night at home after my wife moved to Detroit and Helene went off to college; when at the end of the evening I walked through the house, turning off the lights on my way to my bedroom, passing all those rooms, especially those bedrooms, so recently occupied but now empty.

I share this with you because all too often we take our families too much for granted.  There are even times when, if we are honest about it, we have to admit that we have viewed their companionship as more of a burden than a blessing – as we yearned for some “alone” time; for time just for ourselves.  But let us be careful of what we wish for.  It is nice to grab some private time but it is only nice when we can place it side-by-side with family time.

Over the past several months, there have been those who have jokingly quipped with me, asking, “Isn’t it nice to be leading the bachelor life once again?”  I, on my part, have jokingly responded, “Not so much so, for in my situation I only get to bear the burdens without enjoying the benefits of bachelorhood.”  But joking aside, without the companionship of my family, my life has been incomplete.  In truth, there have been times when it has felt more that incomplete and closer to meaningless.  For it is our loved ones who grant the truest meaning to our lives and without them there remains a vacuum which perhaps is impossible to fill.

As we move beyond Pesach, if there is anything we should carry away from it, let it be the warm memories of our families gathered round our Seder tables and how we should never forget how are important those we love are in our lives. Let us hold them close and hold them dear.  On their account are our lives blessed.

The Power of Pesach

March 28, 2012

Over 30 years ago, I read an article which reported a statistical study of Jewish observances.  The big news in that article was that while many Jews assumed that the most observed Jewish holiday of the year is Yom Kippur, the statistics indicated that by a wide margin it is not Yom Kippur but rather Pesach (Passover).  Just the other day I did some online searching to see if this is still the case.  While I could not find any current statistical data, what I did find was article after article, from diverse Jewish sources, that continue to claim that Pesach is the most celebrated of all Jewish holidays.

Why is that the case?

Of course one reason that is commonly held is that Pesach is such a family affair.  Traditionally, the centerpiece of its celebration – the Seder – takes place in the home.  It is not uncommon for family members to travel great distances so that they can share the Seder with their loved ones.  But is family togetherness a sufficient enough explanation for the overwhelming popularity of this celebration?  While it is certainly a significant contributing factor, by itself this explanation is not sufficient.  After all, there are many important opportunities for family gatherings.  If coming together with family is such a driving factor then how come we do not necessarily see this happening on such major family occasions as birthdays and anniversaries?  On those occasions, relatives living at a distance are quite content to fulfill their familial obligations with a phone call or a card, and maybe even sending a present.  Even when relatives are local, they can find themselves struggling to come to agreement upon a date and time for such a celebration.  The drive for family togetherness just does not seem equal to the power of the commanding voice of our personal schedules.

While the desire for family togetherness is important on Pesach, there has to be something more which lifts this holiday above all others on the Jewish calendar.

Could it be the rituals?  There is no question but that Jews love the powerful symbolism that are at the heart of Seder rituals.  Personally for me, the most powerful is when we take wine out of our cup as we recite each of the Ten Plagues, thereby symbolically diminishing our joy because the sweetness of our freedom was acquired at the price of the suffering of the Egyptians. But as powerful as the Seder rituals are, they alone cannot be the driving force behind the enormous popularity of Pesach.  For if it truly were the rituals, that indeed would be ironic, considering how so many American Jews have come to almost completely ignore the rituals of Shabbat.  If the need for rituals is so compelling, then why do our people cast aside the opportunity to immerse themselves in the rituals of our faith which are available to us on a weekly basis, not even to mention those that are daily available to us?

Perhaps the factor that carries Pesach over the top is history, for this is a holiday which seriously connects us with our Jewish past.  It strives to imaginatively bring us back to Egypt; to help us sense, even if just a little, what it might have been like to be a Jew living in slavery and then miraculously tasting the sweetness of freedom.  It reminds us of where we came from; our roots.  We need to connect with our history for it empowers us to better understand and appreciate how and why we came to be the people and the Jews we are today; to a better understanding of ourselves.  Deep in our hearts, whether or not we wish to openly admit it, we know that we are more than just this moment in time.  We are who we are today, not just because of what we are doing today with our lives, but also – significantly also – because we are the product of generations of our families – of Jews – who have struggled to reconcile their lives with the world in which they have found themselves, and often doing so by viewing their lives through the lens of Judaism.  Passover reminds us that as Jews, we are on a journey which began long before we were born and will continue long after we are gone.

In order for us to derive the fullest benefit of this Pesach encounter with the past, we should not limit our reflections solely to the ancient history of our people.  Rather, we should take this Pesach opportunity to reconnect and reflect upon our very own personal and family histories.  We need to confront not just the historical Jewish journey of the our people but also the personal Jewish journeys on which each and every one of us have been engaged.  As we sit at the Seder table we need to ask ourselves many personal questions:  How did we come to this point in our Jewish lives?  What were the contributing factors that have helped to make us the Jews we are today?  Who were those special people that had a hand in helping us to mold our Jewish selves?  How have we expressed our gratitude for this legacy we have received?  How have we worked to pass on these gifts to others?  How will we mold our Jewish future in such a way as to render due homage to our Jewish past?  As we recall the journey of our ancient ancestors from slavery to freedom, let us also ponder the Jewish journey of our own lives.

Have a joyful, reflective, and inspiring Pesach!

The Blessing of Being Different

November 9, 2011

The Torah portion “Lech Lecha” is aptly named, for it means “You go!” in the command form.  It opens with God’s very first instruction to Abraham.  That instruction is for him and his household and his followers to leave their native land and go to a place of their own, which will be given to them by God.  Today we call that place Israel.

When you think about it, this is not just the very first instruction which God gave Abraham but it also is the very first instruction which God gave to us, the Jewish people.  “Go!”  Separate yourselves from that which is familiar and make of yourselves a singular and unique people.  In other words, “Be Different!”  Be different from all those who surround you.  Be different and be proud.  How prophetic were God’s words to Abraham, for as we know now, 4,000 years later, throughout the millennia, one of the primary hallmarks of being a Jew has been, is, and most likely will continue to be, being different; being different from everyone else who surrounds us.

We all know that being different has been for us Jews both a blessing and a curse.  There is an old Yiddish maxim which I love to cite.  “Schwer zu sein ein Yid und schayne zu sein ein Yid” – “It is difficult to be a Jew and it is beautiful to be a Jew.”  Most of us, at one time or another, have experienced both sides of that equation.

There is no question but that we have known the schwer side – the difficult side – of being a Jew all too well.  So many of our holidays commemorate our having survived the attempts of others to crush or even destroy us.  Passover celebrates our redemption from slavery in Egypt.  Hanukkah celebrates our reclaiming Jerusalem and rededicating the Temple to God from the Syrian Greeks who turned it into a house for pagan worship.  Purim celebrates the undoing of Haman’s plot to execute the entire Jewish population of the Persian empire.  Yom HaShoah memorializes the six million Jews slaughtered as a result of the genocidal plans of Nazi Germany.  Yom HaAtzmaut celebrates the establishment of the State of Israel, and its survival, both in its War of Independence when the Arab world vowed to “drive every Jew into the sea” and through all its subsequent wars, each time defeating a foe who would see it completely destroyed.  Tisha B’Av commemorates the destructions of the Temple by both the Babylonians and the Romans, as well as the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.

Nor is our familiarity with the schwer side – the difficult side – of being a Jew limited to our knowledge of past history.  Unfortunately, we continue to experience it first hand as well.  We experience it every time Israel has been attacked by terrorists bent on its destruction, yet the rest of the world remains silent about such attacks while they are ready and eager to condemn Israel for defending its citizens.  We experience it every time one of our children is been put into the situation in a public school in which they find themselves forced to sing words of faith which are contrary to ours.  We experience it every time the schools hold standardized testing such as the SATs or the ACTs on Jewish holidays; or for that matter, home­coming celebrations on our holidays.  We experience it every time employers balk at or flatly refuse to grant their Jewish employees time off in order to observe Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.  We experience it every time someone starts to rant about what they call “The War on Christmas” simply because some businesses attempt to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone in America celebrates that holiday.  We experience it every time someone insists that America is a “Christian” nation, meaning that the rest of us are not true Americans but rather some sort of tolerated guests.  We experience it every time we attend a public gathering in which a prayer is offered and the person offering that prayer chooses to close it with a statement like, “in Jesus’ name we pray.”  We experience it every time social pressure calls upon us to desert the observances of Shabbat and the holidays in order to engage with our neighbors in secular activities, for if we truly want to be accepted by others, we have to minimize if not abandon that which marks us as Jews; that which makes us different.

Yet even while being different can be a tremendous burden upon us as Jews, there is the shayne side – the beautiful side – as well.  That, too, we have experienced.  Who can deny the beauty of a Passover seder?  As Americans, we celebrate Thanksgiving as we gather round the dining room table for our Thanksgiving feast, and it is nice.  But the Thanksgiving feast pales in comparison to the seder.  There is wonder and magic and beauty to be found there.  So much so that even our Christian neighbors envy us our seder celebrations.

Who can deny the overwhelming joy of watching a child – especially when it is one of our children – becoming a Bar or a Bat Mitzvah?  How justifiably filled with pride we are, and more importantly, how justifiably filled with pride our children are, at such a special occasion.  And once again, our Christian neighbors envy us our Bar and Bat Mitzvah celebrations.  Not just the parties, for anyone can hold a big party.  They envy us the dedication and achievement of our children.  They envy that our children are so ready and capable to stand up in public and profess their bonds to our people and our faith.  I know that, for this is what I so often hear them say while standing in those Bar and Bat Mitzvah receiving lines.

Who can deny the power of a Jewish wedding?  All weddings are beautiful but there is something very special about Jewish weddings.  The rituals speak straight to the heart.  There is the chupah, symbolizing the home and the new family unit that this couple is creating.  With a roof but no sides, it is an open home, welcoming all who care for the happy couple, with both sets of parents standing beside them as well as their friends and siblings.  There is the wine, symbolizing our prayers that the newlyweds’ lives together be both sweet and joyful.  There is the ketubah, the wedding contract, symbolizing the commitments that are necessary to create a lasting marriage.  There is the breaking of the glass, symbolizing the seal of sanctity that has been placed on the union they have created.  And once again, our Christian neighbors envy us our wedding rituals.  I know this because often, after conducting an interfaith marriage ceremony, the non-Jewish parents, who often at first were hesitant about participating, approach me to tell me how beautiful, meaningful, and inclusive, they found the whole experience to be.

Whether we choose to realize it or not, there is a message embedded in all of this.  That message is that when we affirm our Judaism, when we celebrate our Judaism, when we elect to stop being afraid of being different and willingly embrace that in Judaism which makes us different, there is great beauty to be found there.  At the end of the day, that which makes us Jews different is not a curse, but rather a blessing; a profound blessing.

While we seem to be able to uncover such blessings in the big Jewish events in our lives, those are not the only places in which such blessings reside.  For if we but seek them out, we will find that they permeate all of Jewish life; the big moments and the small ones as well.

Recently, I explored with the students of our religious school the practice of reciting the prayer “Modeh Ani” upon waking up in the morning.  It is a simple prayer and easily chanted.  In translation the text states, “I offer thanks to You, ever-living Sovereign, that You have restored my soul to me in mercy: How great is Your trust.”  What a wonderful way to start each and every day – thanking God for the gift of another day of life!  For when we go to sleep at night, there is no guarantee that we will wake up.  That is why it is a Jewish practice that right before we go to sleep we recite the “Shema”, which according to our tradition is supposed to be the last words a Jew utters before dying.  So when we do wake up in the morning, “the Modeh Ani” reminds us that each day is a gift.  What a wonderful, positive thing it is for us to start each and every day, recognizing that it is a gift and should be treated accordingly.  It is a blessing that our Judaism teaches us to approach each and every day with an attitude of gratitude.

The same holds true for saying the “Motsi” whenever we sit down to eat.  In a world filled with starving people, Judaism teaches us to appreciate the blessing of having food with which to sustain our bodies.

The same holds true for all those opportunities offered to us to say the “Shehechiyanu”; all those times in our lives which are special and unique.  For this prayer is not just for lighting the first candle on Hanukkah or just for Bar and Bat Mitzvah services and weddings.  Our lives are filled with “Shehechiyanu” moments, if we but recognizing them and feel moved enough by them to sanctify them with the prayer.  Our Judaism teaches us that there are special moments in our lives which call for a special blessing.

The same holds true for the observance of Shabbat.  There are those Jews who think of Shabbat as one of the most onerous burdens placed upon us as Jews, and so they choose not to observe it.  But then there are those Jews who choose to observe Shabbat, and in their observance they discover, not burden but blessing.  They discover that Shabbat Shalom, the peace of Shabbat, is far more than some empty words with which Jews greet each other on this day; that enfolded in Shabbat can be a profound sense of peace, if we but choose to access it.  That Oneg Shabbat, the “joy of Shabbat” is far more than just a snack of coffee and cookies after the services; that there is a true sense of joy to be found in taking this weekly opportunity to affirm ourselves as Jews, proud of being Jews, connected through Judaism to our fellow Jews and to God.  Shabbat can be an enormous blessing offered to Jews week after week after week if we but choose to pick it up.

These are but just a few simple examples of how those aspects of Judaism which makes us different from others are not to be feared or resented but rather embraced, for it is precisely that which makes us different from others which is also that which enables us to sanctify our lives, both in the big moments and in the small ones.  While there is no denying that which makes us as Jews different from others can, at times be a curse from which we can suffer greatly, it is all the more true that what makes us as Jews different can be, at all times a blessing.  To be a Jew is to receive the blessing of being different.