Posted tagged ‘Seder’

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.

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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!