Three takes on chametz as we clean and prepare our homes for Pesach:
Three takes on chametz as we clean and prepare our homes for Pesach:
Who is Aharon, the brother of Moshe? It must have been hard to have his life taken over at some point by an unusual and extreme mission: just to be a better mouth for Moshe. As they go together to Pharaoh, Aharon is fully there, but the words are not his own.
"Tell old Pharaoh: Let My people go." Everyone knows the words of the old spiritual. But in the Torah, the words are a bit different. Say to him: Adonai, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to you to say: Let My people go so they may serve Me in the wilderness (Exodus 7:16).
In American history, freedom has always seemed to be freedom from something. From the British crown, from the masters of Southern slavery. In our classic American literature, freedom means liberation from unreasonable social norms, or even from adulthood itself (think Huckleberry Finn or The Catcher in the Rye).
But in the Torah, freedom is always freedom toward something. Moshe reminds Pharaoh and the people that they seek freedom to go to Mount Sinai -- where they will be free to hear God and to take on new responsibilities.
In Judaism, freedom leads necessarily to obligation. What responsibilities do you choose? Who do you choose to be bound to, not just today but for the long term? On a simple level, commitments make you less free. But on a higher level, commitment to Torah adds to freedom. Without some higher purpose to strive for, we can be awash in so many choices every day that we could hardly move. Moving freely toward Torah, we move away from the unreasonable masters that can control our lives.
Then, we can face the choices of the truly free. How do I make time today for the people in my life and for my important work? Of the many unheard voices in the world, whose will I try to respond to? What will I do to nourish and protect my soul, so that I do not wear out or fall into cynicism? This is the freedom we are working toward, even after we are freed of the Pharaoh of Egypt.
This week we start reading the third book of the Torah on Shabbat morning. It begins with a word written in a strange way. The word is Vayikra, which means "and he called". God calls to Moshe at the start of the book of Leviticus. But in the Torah, the last letter of Vayikra, the aleph, is written as a small superscript. If you read the word without the aleph, it would be Vayiker, which means "and it happened by coincidence." It's as if the word is teetering between two meaning, wondering whether the aleph will enlarge or fade away.
The Talmud teaches that as soon as Pharaoh declared, "Any son who is born -- you shall throw him into the Nile," a notable of the tribe of Levi named Amram divorced his wife. All the other men followed suit. Miryam, his daughter, immediately confronted him: "Father, your decree (g'zayrah) is harsher than Pharaoh's. Pharaoh decreed against the boys, but you have decreed against both boys and the girls! Pharaoh's decree may or may not be fulfilled, but your decree shall certainly be fulfilled." Amram listened, took back his wife, and she soon gave birth to a son, who turned out to be Moshe, the redeemer.
I'm riveted by this interview with novelists Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander, about the new Haggadah they published this year. They have such great love for the words. Get the book (even to study it for next year's Seder), and listen to this interview with Leonard Lopate of WNYC, public radio in New York.
I saw "The Hunger Games" movie yesterday, after reading the book a few weeks ago. I've been thinking about the book and Pesach for a while. I'm surprised that I've seen or read very little drawing a connection. (Here are the only two things that popped up so far: from Aish and from a rabbi in Atlanta.) I'm trying to gather my thoughts about this, so here are some first ideas.
There are some obvious connections. Both are about rebellion against tyranny. In The Hunger Games, a regime turns on its people, divides them, pits them against each other, and exploits their labor. This is a bit different from the Exodus, where only one group is oppressed. In both, there is a kind of underground -- the woods where Katniss and Gale escape and the black market in the novel; the sphere where the midwives Shifra and Puah save babies away from the eyes of Pharaoh.
I'm most intrigued of course by Katniss Everdeen. She seems to me like a kind of Miryam and Moshe figure in some ways. Both of them early in their lives, according to the midrash, could be brash in their resistance to Pharaoh. Miryam is said to have verbalized audacious thoughts, announcing her belief in Pharaoh's downfall. Moshe of course, as a teenager, reacts to injustice with his own act of violence against the taskmaster.
In the first book of the trilogy (as far as I've gotten) Katniss is unsure of her role and even her motivations. Is she willing to take resistance all the way? Is she thinking about her family, her district, and the other Tributes only, or is she standing up for all the oppressed people of Panem? Moshe is like this -- he flees to Midian for a long time after he first steps up, and it is a long time until he turns toward God's call at the burning bush.
Rabbi Michael from Atlanta notes that there is no tradition, no Exodus story, for Katniss to rely on. In that she is very much like Miryam and Moshe, blazing their own trail. He also notes the symbol of the mockingjay, which Katniss wears as an emblem of resistance and independence. According to the midrash, the Israelites passed down a code for four hundred years: the Hebrew letters peh peh, which stood for the words "God will remember, yes remember you" that Yosef told his people before he died.
So what do you think? Add your comments here. Surely there's a connection to the Exodus in this extraordinarily popular new story of oppression and resistance.
It's still not quite Purim, but today I am working on my bulletin article about Pesach. Rather than entirely repeat what I've written in the past, here are my two previous years' columns about Pesach. Also, go to my Pesach page or browse through the whole site here for teachings, printables, kashrut guie, and melodies!
5770/2010 -- Making a Great Seder
The essence of every Seder is telling the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim, the going-out from Egypt, in a way that is meaningful to as many participants as possible. Though the story is historical, it is not merely history. As the Haggadah says, quoting the Mishnah: In every generation, a person is obligated to view oneself as having personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt.
One way to add to the Seder is to get yourself one new Haggadah this year. You don't need to buy a set! Whether you're leading or not, you'll get a new angle. Two of the best recent Haggadot are A Different Night and A Night to Remember. Both have interesting quotes and contemporary art relating to passages in the traditional Seder.
The Haggadah we use is called On Wings of Freedom -- less art but great discussion material. Another wonderful book of ideas is David Arnow's Creating Lively Passover Seders.
A Seder is almost always a diverse gathering. Different ages, different perspectives. Here is one idea for making the telling of the story engaging for everyone.
Before the Seder, clip or print out pictures that represent different moments in the story. Decide where to begin -- with ancestors, like Avraham and Sarah? With the beginning of slavery? Choose an ending point -- is it the crossing of the Sea of Reeds? Getting the Torah? Reaching the promised land? You decide.
Number the pictures, and give them out to participants of all ages before the Seder. It even works if you give them out at the beginning. The instruction is: Present your picture. Say anything you want about what it means.
When you get to Maggid, the part of the Seder where the story is told, put aside the text of the Haggadah and let the participants tell the story in order of their pictures. What will emerge is a tapestry -- some matter of fact reports, some creative imagination, some interpretation. Let people ask each other questions, for more information or explanations.
Everyone will ask or answer at her or his level. What's guaranteed is that you'll all hear the story fresh, in a way you've never heard it before.
Whatever you do, make sure before or during Pesach to make the story an experience of today. Think about liberation in our world, or your life. For Jews, for others, for the world. From slavery or more subtle oppressions. From Pharaohs on a large scale, or the symbolic Pharaohs that enslave or trap us in our individual lives.
And may we all see ourselves in a journey of freedom toward Torah, growth, and lands of promise.
Chag kasher v'sameach,
2009 -- The Never-Ending Story
Four questions, four cups, four children. Tradition links the fours of the Seder with the "four languages of redemption" in Exodus 6:6-7: I will take you out...I will rescue you...I will redeem you...I will take you.
Rabbi Yehudah Leib of Ger, the Sfat Emet, asks: Why four words to describe one thing, the Exodus from Egypt? Because, he explains, the experience of the Exodus was so rich that its meaning could never be contained in one interpretation. Even in their own lifetime, the Israelites themselves could not finish unpacking it. It takes all the generations talking and adding to even approach a complete understanding of the Exodus.
That's why the Haggada says early on: Everyone who adds on to the telling of Yetziat Mitzrayim, the going-out from Egypt, deserves praise.
We build our tellings off the many tellings that have come to us. Here are just four -- but our responsibility is to take one or more and deepen them, apply them in our own time and lives.
The first Exodus. Our people and our faith were born more than three thousand years ago, as we prepared to cross the Sea of Reeds. Even now, the memory of the narrow escape from Pharaoh's chasing army is dramatic, a reminder that our existence as Jews can never be taken for granted.
Exodus repeated. Esther and Mordechai in Persia. Mattathias and Judah Maccabee against the Seleucids. In our own day, the establishment of the State of Israel and the rescue of Jews from the Soviet Union, Ethiopia, and other lands. At times of danger, Jews have always believed that Exodus could happen again.
A spiritual Exodus. The Sfat Emet teaches that each of us has a "Pharaoh" force that tries to trap us in place. Each of us needs to find a "Moshe" or a "Miryam" voice inside to help us cross the sea, toward a promised land of healing, inner strength, and reconciliation.
Exodus as modern liberation. The biblical story has inspired people throughout the Western world. The American founders against the British; abolitionism and the civil rights movement after them. In Central America, Catholic liberation theologians and progressive leaders have been inspired by the text in their struggles against dictators and poverty.
We never stop needing to talk about the Exodus. Our identity as Jews, as individuals, as world citizens is bound up with the themes, the characters, and the journey from Egypt toward the promised land. In the bustle of Pesach shopping, cleaning, and travel, find some time to think about the Exodus. Does one of these "languages of redemption" have a special meaning for you? What questions and insights can each of us add to enrich the telling?
The seder is over, the hour is late, there are dishes everywhere...
Do you feel free yet?
Are you free? Those aren't the same question.
In Mitzrayim, the Israelites made their Pesach sacrifice at night, dressed for departure. They weren't physically out of Mitzrayim by any means. Pharaoh had one more second thought ahead, and he sent his army after them after he ordered the Israelites out.
At that moment, the Israelites certainly didn't feel free. Their escape was not complete.
But they had begun to be free. By preparing themselves to leave, by accepting the ritual of the Pesach lamb, they had acted as free people. One midrash notes that God had done almost all of the heavy lifting to effect the Exodus -- instructed Moshe and Aharon, sent the plagues, issues the instructions -- while the people saw only Pharaoh's refusals to let them go, and his added demands on their slave labor. And yet, the midrash says, God would not complete the Exodus without seeing that the Israelites could take an action of freedom first. They had to start to be free, before God would liberate them.
Paradoxically, to become free required an act of obedience -- to God's instruction. The equation of the night of Pesach became the equation of the Torah: Freedom = Responding to God's commands. The opposite of slavery is not: You can do whatever you want. The opposite of slavery is duty.
Feeling good, safe, or relaxed isn't the measure. Acting this moment for a sustained purpose, a longer-term vision, is the measure.
So while you thought you were slogging through dishes and stacking up the extra chairs...this is what you were really doing: Taking the first of fifty steps toward Mt. Sinai, toward the encounter with God and God's teachings. Becoming free.