Posted tagged ‘Passover’

Daily Dayenu

May 10, 2011

At this year’s Congregational Seder, while we were singing and reciting “Dayenu,” I could not help but be struck by the spiritual confluence of 3 events which took place within the last few months:  my surgery and subsequent illness, my congregation’s celebration of its 150th anniversary, and Passover.

The message of the “Dayenu” is summed up by its title, for the translation of dayenu is “It would have been enough for us.”  The text takes us through the story of the Exodus and breaks it down into each of the blessings our people experienced in the course of that event.  Recounting each of those blessings, we respond by saying “Dayenu!” – if this had been the only blessing which we experienced then “it would have been enough for us.”  But of course, each of those blessings was not the only one from which our people benefited.  The story of the Exodus is one of blessing upon blessing upon blessing.  However, even as we retell the story, we seem to take those manifold blessings for granted.  Therefore the task of “Dayenu” is to recount each individual blessing, and in so doing, reveal to us the magnificent tapestry of blessings which constitute the true miracle of Passover.

The Exodus was not the only time when we have experienced blessing upon blessing upon blessing.  More often than we appreciate, our lives are a tapestry of blessings.  We live among miracles but do not always recognize them.  This brings me back to my congregation’s 150th anniversary and to my recent illness.

The fact that Temple Emanuel of Davenport, Iowa has survived and prospered for 150 years is the direct result of a long chain of blessings.  There have been so many dayenu moments in the history of our congregation and there have been so many dayenu people – both laity and clergy – who have made that history and our very existence possible.  Each of these moments and each of these people was a special gift – a blessing – for our congregation.  Each one brought to us their own brand of miracle.  Indeed, it was their collective miracles which made us the congregation we are today.  But whether or not we realize it, the blessings and the miracles continue today.  They are to be found in so many of the people who give and do so much and who labor to keep our congregation alive, vibrant and meaningful.  These are our current dayenu people and they are busy continuing to create our dayenu moments.

As for my illness, it has awakened within me a sense of the dayenu in the course of daily living.  There is an old joke about a doctor coming out of surgery, informing the family that the operation was successful but the patient died.  These days I resonate with that joke for my surgery was successful but I almost died from  post surgical blood clots.  Indeed, I would be dead today had it not been for my coincidentally going to the Mayo Clinic for my 6-week post surgical follow-up.  After experiencing my symptoms and being instructed by the physician’s assistant in my pulmonologist’s office that all I needed to do was depend more on my asthma medications, it was the doctors at the Mayo Clinic who quickly picked up on the seriousness of my life threatening condition and hospitalized me.  There is nothing like a near death experience to help one to appreciate the fragility and impermanence of our lives!  We tend to live our lives as if there will always be a tomorrow when the harsh reality is that there is no guarantee that there will be a tomorrow.  Today – this very moment – may be all that we have left.  If we find ourselves awakening in the morning, we should recognize that we have been blessed with the gift of another day.  In fact, in our Jewish tradition, there is a prayer we are supposed to offer upon awakening – “Modeh ani lifanecha, Melech chai v’kayam, shehechezarta bi nishmati b’chemla.  Rabbah emunatecha – I give thanks before You, everlasting Sovereign, for You have returned my soul to me.  Great is Your faithfulness.”  Every morning is a dayenu moment.  Life is far shorter than we choose to believe.  All our moments are precious, for any one of them could be our last.  It is up to us to choose whether we treasure them – whether we embrace them with the appreciation of a dayenu – or we squander them.  Likewise, when it comes to illness and the other trying times in our lives, we are quick to discover who are our dayenu people; who are those people whose concern and caring bring into our darkest moments the brilliant miracle of a healing of the spirit.  There are too many people who we take for granted; too many people who we think of in terms of “What have you done for me lately.”  Yet the fact that they populate our lives and fill it with their love and concern, and their eager willingness to help and comfort, is most certainly deserving of a heartfelt dayenu; a dayenu for each and every one of them.  They each are a blessing which we should never take for granted.

May each and every one of us come to appreciate the dayenu moments and the dayenu people in our lives!

Advertisements

HACHNASAT ORCHIM: Welcoming the Stranger as a Jewish Virtue

October 28, 2010






The Torah portion, Vayera (GENESIS 18:1-22:24), is one of those wonderful sections that is simply chock full of powerful stories and lessons.  It tells of how Abraham and Sarah received the news that in their old age, Sarah would finally bear a child.  It tells of how, when God revealed to Abraham the Divine plan to destroy the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham actually argued with God on their behalf.  It then goes on to tell of how those cities were destroyed because they did not merit Abraham’s defense of them.  It tells of what happened to Lot and his daughters after their escape from Sodom.  It tells of the birth of Isaac.  It tells of how Sarah, fearing for Isaac’s safety, forced Abraham to send away his son Ishmael and Ishmael’s mother, the handmaid, Hagar.  It then goes on to tell of how Hagar and Ishmael almost died of thirst in the wilderness but instead, God saved them and promised to make Ishmael a great nation.  It tells that most famous account – the one we read on Rosh Hashanah morning – in which God tested Abraham by asking him to offer up his son Isaac as a sacrifice.  Yes, this particular Torah portion offers us much to consider, study, and discuss.  It is a treasure trove of important lessons.

Tonight I wish to focus our attention on just one of the stories – one of the lessons – from our Torah portion.  It is one I have yet to mention.  It is the account of how Abraham and Sarah were visited by three angels, and how they received them.  According to the Torah text, Abraham was sitting at the door of his tent in the heat of the day when he noticed three strangers approaching.  They were angels, but he did not know that at the time.  As soon as he saw them, he jumped up and ran to greet them, offering them the hospitality of his home.  Though he had no idea of who they were, still he bowed down before them and treated them as nobility, calling them “My lords.”  He offered them a little food and then provided them with a feast of cakes and beef and curds and milk.

The rabbis of the Talmud and the Midrash saw this story as being a very important one when it comes to Jewish life.  They spoke about it extensively, and from it they derived one of Judaism’s most time honored and practiced virtues; the virtue of Hachnasat Orchim – the virtue of welcoming the stranger; of offering hospitality.

The medieval commentator, Rashi, asked, “Why was Abraham sitting at the door of his tent?”  His answer was that he did so in order to see if any strangers were approaching so that he could welcome them as soon as possible.  The Midrash goes further in saying that Abraham would pitch is tent at a crossroads and then raise up its flaps on all sides so that he could see if any travelers were approaching from any direction.  Such was the extent of Abraham’s desire to offer hospitality.

There is another midrash which is very telling and very powerful.  It centers on the question of who was deserving of Abraham’s hospitality.  According to this midrash, one of the many travelers who Abraham welcomed into his tent was an old man.  This old man was happy to accept all that Abraham offered.  After he had bathed, and rested, and had eaten a luscious meal, he opened his pack, took out his collection of idols, and started to pray to them.  Witnessing this, Abraham was quite distressed.  “What do you think you are doing?” he shouted at the old man.  The old man simply replied, “I am offering my thanks to my gods for such good fortune.”  “But,” Abraham stuttered and stammered in rage, “your gods did not provide this food and drink and shelter and respite for you.  My God provided it and it is to my God – the One God – that you should be offering your prayers of gratitude.”  “You are wrong,” replied the old man.  “While I was traveling down the road, I prayed to my gods to lead me to a place were I could find food and drink and shelter and rest, and they led me here.  They answered my prayers and it is to them that I should be grateful.”  Well Abraham would have none of this, and in his outrage, he kicked the old man out of his tent and sent him on his way.  Shortly afterwards, God called to Abraham and asked, “Where is the old man?”  Abraham then shared with God what had happened as well as his anger and frustration at how, after receiving all that bounty, the old man still rejected God in favor of his idols.  To this, God rebuked Abraham saying, “For all these years, I have taken care of that old man.  Now you have the audacity to toss him out?  If his idol worship has not bothered me, why should it bother you?”  Hearing this, Abraham was greatly ashamed, and in his shame, he rushed down the road in search of the old man.  When he found him, he apologized, sought his forgiveness, and he invited him to return to his tent and to his hospitality.

Why were the rabbis so fixated on this Torah story?  Why were they so fixated on this matter of hospitality; of welcoming the stranger?  Perhaps it was because of another statement that appears and reappears throughout the Torah, that statement being, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The Torah is constantly concerned about the well being of the stranger, and therefore so were the rabbis.  That concern is based upon the fact that of all people, we as Jews should know what it feels like, and what it means, to be a stranger.  We know what it is like to be on the outside, looking in.  We know what it is like to sometimes feel excluded or ignored or  evenworse, and we do not like it.

If we do not like being the stranger – if we do not like being treated that way; as somehow less than others – then from our unpleasant experiences we should learn to do better and to be better when we find the tables reversed; when we are the hosts and others are the strangers.  If we do not like to be made to feel unwelcome, then it is incumbent upon us to go out of our way to welcome others.  And, as the midrash about the old man instructs, it should not matter whether or not we agree with those others.  It should not matter whether or not they are like us or dramatically different from us.  For in the end, as different as we may be, they, like us, are still God’s children and should be treated accordingly.

Our rabbis were truly wise because while they understood that this issue of how we treat strangers most certainly has societal, national, and international dimensions – it impacts such issues as how do we as Americans treat immigrants, both of the legal and illegal variety, and how do Israelis in the Jewish state treat the non-Jews residing in their midst – if we are ever to effectively address such issues properly, we must start our efforts, not so much on the big scale but rather on the small scale, the intimate scale, the personal scale.  The rabbis clearly understood that if we ever want our society to be welcoming to the strangers in its midst, then we have start by building homes that are welcoming to strangers.  That if we start by promoting this virtue of Hachnasat Orchim – of welcoming the stranger – on a family level then surely it eventually will take hold on a societal level.

The rabbis understood that we need to turn to Abraham as a model of personal behavior.  Abraham lived a world that was not very welcoming.  Twice – once in this week’s Torah portion – Abraham and Sarah found themselves in foreign lands where they were so unwelcome that if they did not conceal the fact that they were married, Abraham most likely would have been murdered by lecherous rulers.  Yet, even so, Abraham decided that his world was going to be different.  His home would be a place in which strangers would feel welcomed rather than afraid.  Therefore, as Abraham’s home was welcoming to strangers, so should every Jewish home be welcoming to strangers.  There should always be at least one seat open for guests at our Shabbat dinner table.  Guests should always welcomed to the Passover Seder, even as we begin that service by stating, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!”  Nor should we consider these seats to be reserved for people we know.  Rather, when it comes to this, it is the stranger who should enjoy priority seating.

As we welcome strangers into our homes, so should we, as Jews, welcome strangers into our synagogues.  When we see someone we do not know, we should feel it to be our obligation to approach that person, introduce ourselves and help them to feel at home among us.  I am sure that there are among us tonight those who have found themselves in other communities on Shabbat or on holidays.  There are those who, while in those communities, have gone to local synagogues.  In some of those synagogues, we felt left out in the cold.  We were alone, and no one even acknowledged our presence.  It was as if we were not there.  And after the service, we left the building feeling worse than empty; feeling somehow wounded.  Then there are those who, finding themselves in a similar situation, entered synagogues in which people approached them, welcomed them, wanted to get to know them, and tried to make them feel at home.  And that felt great!  The point being that Hachnasat Orchim may start in our homes but should naturally flow into our synagogues.

But in the end, Hachnasat Orchim need not exclusively be a Jewish value, practiced solely in Jewish venues.  As we incorporate this virtue into our lives, ideally it should become a part of our daily lives, no matter where we are and no matter who we are with.  And then, hopefully, it will grow in our hearts to the point where we come to understand that our communities, our states, our nation, and even our world are but extensions of our homes, and as such should be havens in which strangers as well as natives should feel welcomed and safe.

Good Friday? Perhaps Not!

April 1, 2010

Here is an article I just submitted for our congregational newsletter concerning a Church-State Separation controversy that is occurring in our community.

By now, we should all be aware of the flap going on in the Davenport city government over the attempt to change the name of the “Good Friday” holiday to a “Spring” holiday.  My God!  It has even made the national news!  Before I get to the heart of the issue for us as Jews I might as well get the glib response out of the way.  There are those who have said, “Well, for me, every Friday is a good Friday!”  Yuck, yuck!  Actually, for me, every Friday would be a good Friday if only many more of the members of our congregation could find their way to the Temple for Shabbat services!

Now to the serious business at hand.  There are those who moan that all of this is just making a mountain out of a mole hill.  While on the surface it would appear that way, if we, as Jews, start to consider it more carefully, we should discover that perhaps it never was a mole hill but alwaya an ugly mountain.  Why an ugly mountain?  Let us consider the facts.

We need to start off with the First Amendment to the Constitution.  It states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Thomas Jefferson would later refer to this principle as Separation of Church and State – so for all those wisenheime­rs who petulantly declare that Separation of Church and State is not in the Constitution, they need to be re­minded that while the actual words “Separation of Church and State” are not in the Constitution, the prin­ciple is most certainly to be found there.  Indeed, I find it of special significance that the framers of the Constitution thought this to be such an significant principle for the American democracy that they not only placed it in the Bill of Rights, but they placed it at the very beginning of that document.  If the constitutional text is not clear enough, let me restate it more directly.  All government agencies must remain religiously neutral.  They are forbidden from promoting any one faith over all others and they are likewise forbidden from interfering with anyone’s ability to freely practice their faith.  It is imper­ative to understand this when looking at the current situation, for since it involves the Davenport city government, that gov­ernmental agency is constitutionally bound to abide by the parameters of the First Amend­ment.

Now let us look at the recommendation which was offered to the Davenport city government by the Civil Rights Commission.  They simply recommended that the city change the name of the “Good Friday” holiday to a “Spring” holiday.  They NEVER recommended doing away with the holiday, but only that it be renamed.  They made this recommendation because when a governmental agency makes a religious holiday an official holiday, it runs the risk of being charged with violating the First Amendment.  By simply renaming the holiday with a neutral name, it avoids that violation while at the same time continues to permit those who observe this Christian holiday to do so without penalty.  Nothing changes but the name, and people can do as they choose with the day.

Now here is where this who brouhaha should become of serious concern for us as Jews.  That the name change should evoke such a vitriolic response from so many people that the city government decided to change it back should serve us non-Christians as a profound warning signal.  After all, what are these people so angry about?  They still have their holiday?  No one is stopping them from going to church.  All that is changed is a name on a governmental calendar.  But that seems to be enough to outrage them.  Why?  Because they are fundamentally opposed to the principle of religious neutrality for our govern­ment.  In fact, they do not view the government as “our” government but rather as “their” government, and we who do not share their faith are but tolerated guests in “their” land.  We can speak of diversity, but they will re-label it as “politically correctness”, which has somehow come to be synonymous with “hog­wash” (Personally, I have always marveled at how some people can consider the term “politically correct” as a pejorative.  I have often wondered whether or not they are saying that they aspire that our country be “politically incorrect).  My dear friends, you must awaken to the realization that when people like this explode over matters of inclusiveness and diversity, what they are telling us is nothing less than that they do not see us – Jews and people of other minority faiths – as being full Americans, in any way equal to them.  Such outbursts are aimed directly at us, even though only one Jew sits on the Dav­enport Civil Rights Commission, which presented the original recommendation.  For us, this is not a mole hill.  This is a mountain; a mountain of religious prejudice.

As you probably know, I am a strict Church-State separationist.  I believe that government and religious observances and professions of faith should be kept completely apart.  That is why for all these years I have waged combat against religious music in the public schools.  That is why I have always been op­posed to the placement of any religious symbols – including Jewish symbols – on governmental property, whether they be the Ten Commandments or a creche or a Hanukkah menorah.

As a strict separationist, I would far prefer that a governmental agency such as the Davenport city govern­ment simply not recognize Good Friday as a holiday, just as they do not recognize Yom Kippur.  Yet I appreciate that in order to do that, they would have to take away from their employees the oppor­tunity to practice this aspect of their faith, and I am certainly not one who wishes to see anyone discouraged from practicing their faith.  To me, that would go against the second part of the First Amendment which assures all Americans the freedom to practice their faith unimpeded by the government.

As I have considered this situation, I am reminded that the Chinese symbol for “crisis” is a combination of the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity”.  So it is with our current “crisis”.  Enfolded in it is the “danger” of a burgeoning religious prejudice and conflict.  But also enfolded in it is an “oppor­tunity” for our governmental agencies to rethink how they approach the question of religious holiday in general, remaining far truer to the text and spirit of the First Amendment.  I have a proposal, though I doubt anyone will take it seriously.  I propose that governmental agencies should wipe all religious holidays off of their calendar, including Christmas and Easter.  In their stead, they should offer all their employees the opportunity to take three religious holidays of their choosing during the year.  At some point in time, they would need to file their request for these holidays.  As with the Davenport police contract, if the city is unable to give them off on any of those days, then they should receive time-and-a-half overtime for their work on them.  In this way, Christians can take off for Christian holidays such as Christmas, Easter, and Good Friday; Jews can take off for Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach; while Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahai, etc. can choose their own holidays.  If someone does not profess a faith, or their religion does not have three holidays, then they still can access three additional days off of their choosing.  In this way, the government can remain religiously neutral, not showing preferential treatment to one faith over another yet also not interfering with their employees’ right to freely exercise their faiths.

I pray that when all the smoke clears, we will find that the city of Davenport and the people of the Quad Cities will have grown wiser and more caring of each other as a result of grappling with this sensitive issue.