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:
Last December we celebrated the wedding of my niece Hannah and her husband Ari in Atlanta. It was a terrific wedding. The bride and groom were not only happy, but seemingly relaxed all day long. It was a terrific gathering of extended family, along with friends of the two families and of the happy couple.
I learned from my teacher at the Seminary, Rabbi Neil Gillman, that life cycle rituals are "liminal moments." They create a different kind of sacred time, through their atmosphere and liturgy -- they link us to Creation in the beginning, to divine revelation in the present, and to redemptive hope about the future. They are a kind of special portal to God, a concentration of God's Shechinah (presence) in a particular place. At a wedding, this is symbolized by the chuppah, the space under the special shade and protection of the Shechinah.
That's what it felt like at Hannah and Ari's wedding, from the day leading to the chuppah ceremony through the Shabbat afterward. Rabbi Yossi New, the rav of our family's congregation in Atlanta, said at the bedecken (veiling ceremony) that a bride and a groom are considered to have special powers, to have the ear of God for their prayers. And he charged the couple to pray not only for their own happiness, but for the health and wellbeing of everyone present and anyone else they know who might have needs.
And I felt, as I said Amen to the blessings in the ceremony and as we sang Birkat Hamazon, the blessing after the feast, that somehow my prayers and all our prayers were really being heard in an intense way. I think it's because at a time of such joy, and such pure and wholehearted commitment being enacted before my eyes, that at least in this place the world is exactly as God planned it. At a wedding, where love and faithfulness reign, where food is plentiful, there is a nekudah, a spiritual point, which radiates out and reminds us that the whole world can be a place of love and faithfulness and plenty.
That's the meaning of the Sheva B'rachot, the series of seven blessings at the end of the wedding ceremony, which are repeated anytime the following week a new person is in the presence of the bride and the groom for a meal. The blessings begin with gratitude to God for creating us and all things, our bodies and the possibilities of our partnerships. They link this bride and groom back in time to Adam and Eve, and forward to a time of redemption when the "streets of Jerusalem" are filled with celebrations and joy, and no one is in exile anymore.
The wedding was terrific on so many levels. It was a hopeful day of K'lal Yisrael, the whole Jewish people -- rabbis participating from Conservative and Chabad/Lubavitch, American and Israeli Jewish customs. It was the kind of group that would break out into circles of dance, band or no band.
There's a reason why in all kinds of traditions, weddings go on for days. There's more than you can contain in just one day! Often, traditional Jewish weddings are on Sundays, and there's a Shabbat with people leading in. Hannah's wedding was on Thursday, and almost everyone stayed through Shabbat after. That was inspired -- who wants to leave! On Shabbat afternoon, after lunch at the shul, we all pretty much camped out at my sister-in-law Judy's home, and it was just as Shabbat afternoon should be. People gathered around tables in three different rooms for a couple hours -- playing cards, board games, eating, cousins talking, people getting to know people from other corners of the couple's life.
It all came together. The natural joy of a happy newlywed couple, great families, time to savor it all, great spiritual energy and dancing. Mazel tov to Hannah and Ari, mazel tov y'hay lanu u'l'chol Yisrael -- may their wedding, their life together, and the glow of their weekend continue to be a blessing for them and all of us!
"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.
Last weekend the tragedy of the Munoz family in Texas came to an end. Marlise was a woman, a wife and mother, who was pregnant when she collapsed at home last November 28 and was taken to the hospital. She was declared dead at the hospital on the basis of a standard known as “brain death.”
The situation was complicated by the fact that in Texas, there is a law that “life-sustaining treatment” may not be withheld from a pregnant woman, out of concern for the unborn fetus. And in fact, Marlise Munoz's situation is the most dramatic illustration of a fact of modern medicine: that once a person is declared dead, it may be possible through a mechanical respirator to keep the body in a state that allows organs to continue functioning so that they may be harvested for transplant.
What do we call a body in that situation, with blood and oxygen moving through a body – alive or dead? How far does the imperative of preserving life, such as through the donation of organs, extend?
This a gray area in the law – both American law and Jewish law – as well as in the experience of medical professionals. It is a gray area too for people whose loved one has died, and it is a philosophical question about whether death is in fact a moment in time.
Here are few thoughts, from the perspective particularly of halacha (Jewish law). These are musings, not edited or polished. I write them too with the awareness that first and foremost this is a family tragedy, for Marlise Munoz's husband and small child.
Is brain death the same as death? Rabbi Daniel Nevins wrote a comprehensive paper for the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement. He reviewed both traditional Jewish legal definitions of death, and contemporary medical understandings of death. His conclusion is that death is defined in Judaism not as cardiac arrest, but as the irreversible cessation of spontaneous breathing. Part of the clinical determination of brain death includes this test, and thus a person who is declared brain dead is considered to have died under halacha.
How should we treat the dead body when its organs can be “harvested” for donation? The word “harvested” is a terrible word, obviously. It seems to be the term of art.
Most of the Jewish world has come around to the idea that organ donation is an example of pikuach nefesh, the preservation of life. It is not only permitted, but encouraged, for people whose organs could save another person's life to donate them. (Why is it not, therefore, required?) In much of the Orthodox world, and in Israel, organ donation is understood to be the saving of life.
In hospitals, there are or should be policies to prevent staff from hastening the death of a person who is about to die, for the sake of the condition of the organs or if the recipient is deteriorating, or for that matter if the staff would just like to go home sooner. There should ideally be protocols that separate the staff who care for the dying person from the staff that come to prepare the organs for transplantation.
There is an emotional dimension for the survivors, who know that a loved one has died, and yet who know or even see that the person is being treated in the same way he or she would if still alive but in a coma. How do you begin to mourn someone who has died, but look as though being kept alive?
To my knowledge, no one has tried to codify how long a body can be kept in a state that perfuses the organs without violating the halacha of k'vod ha-met, respecting the body of the dead. Jews view the dead body as still sacred, and deserving of a prompt and respectful burial, before the body deteriorates. In the typical case of organ donation, burial is not delayed for weeks, or even for days. Where is the soul in relation to this body?
Is preserving the fetus equivalent to preserving organs for donation? This is the unique question of the Munoz case, which I imagine will become a classic case for us to reflect on and study for this reason. If the fetus is an actual person, on the border between life and death, then its life would surely weigh heavily.
In Jewish law, the fetus does not have the same status as a living person. We know this from the Mishnah's case of a woman in labor whose life is in danger because of the delivery. Before the head emerges and the baby can breathe, the fetus can be dismembered to save the mother; once the baby's head is out, the baby must be protected.
At the same time, halacha does not say that abortion is permitted right up to birth without restriction, and Jewish law has no clear statement about how to regard a fetus, given that it has a body and a heartbeat and is on its way to being born as a person.
Someone might argue that since Marlise Munoz was, so to speak, not in danger by being kept on the respirator, the Mishnah does not speak to this case. Unless the birth is causing danger right now, the fetus should be sustained.
I cannot see that we would maintain a dead body artificially for weeks as an incubator for a fetus, even if Erick Munoz had consented. It would be a terrible burden on him, on the medical staff, on the hospital even to have to make this decision.
Maybe I am influenced more by science fiction movies than by reasoned arguments, because I am placing a value of k'vod ha-met above pikuach nefesh, the dignity of the dead body over the preservation of life. Rabbi Michael Broyde, an Orthodox rabbi on the faculty at Emory University Law School, argues that Judaism encourages us to “play God”, in his words. But even so, I think keeping Marlise Munoz on a respirator for weeks after she was declared brain dead was far beyond playing God for good reason.
Had she been not declared dead but was likely to die, I could see her pregnancy being a factor in deciding whether or not to let her go sooner. But in fact, she was dead. We have no prerogative to override death in this way. Dead bodies are not available for us to use (but...what about cadavers for medical training?). Had I been on the ethics committee at John Peter Smith Hospital, what would I have said to keeping her body on the respirator for just one extra day, just as might be done in order to donate her organs? As I wrote above, how long is a gray area, but there would have been no point in just another day. What if the fetus had been closer to viability?
So these are difficult questions. They test the meanings of k'vod ha-met and pikuach nefesh, and they test our kishkes, our gut reactions. My prayers are with the Munoz family. Perhaps they will derive some comfort, eventually, from knowing that Marlise's life and her death will help teach us to think about these difficult and important ethical and spiritual questions.
Please feel free to submit your thoughts and questions in the comments area.
In honor of Shabbat Rosh Chodesh, when we sing Hallel, including the words Pitchu Li Sha'are Tzedek, Avo Vam Odeh Yah -- "Open for me the gates of justice, I will enter them and thank God" -- which are over the entrance to our synagogue. Courtesy of IKAR, a synagogue in Los Angeles, and my colleague Rabbi Sharon Brous:
There is a common chasidic teaching that Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, is built on the root of tzar or "narrow." Ancient Mitzrayim/Egypt was a narrow strip of settlement along the Nile. In our own lives, Mitzrayim is the narrow place that we might feel in ourselves whenever we are stuck, constrained, or pressed into being who we are not. Any reality or self-image we cannot seem to escape from, or any version of ourselves that someone else forces on us and traps us in.
Why is it so hard to escape, to "leave Egypt"? Pharoah, in the chasidic understanding, is the name for that force or voice that says: You cannot leave. Pharoah is the voice of "decree", of the edict that defines things once and for all. The letters of Pharoah in Hebrew are the same as the word para', which means to collect payment. "Pharaoh" is the part of us that says: Even if you don't like it, you owe me to be this way, to stay in this situation, to keep working and droning on the same as always.
Pharoah can point to the hard part of what is out there beyond Mitzrayim: the seemingly uncrossable sea, the vast desert. Why leave when that's what is waiting?
The going-out from Mitzrayim did not start until other voices came on the scene, voices of Moshe, Aharon, and Miryam who dared to suggest that Pharoah could be defeated. We might look to the Exodus story for the confidence that there is another voice in our own mind or heart that says: If I take a step forward in a new direction, the sea will part. The desert will turn out to be a difficult place, true, but also a place of community and revelation.
Our individual Mitzrayim-s come in all sizes. Big problems in our lives, in our relationships, in our health -- where the will to change may be one thing we need, though not the only thing. But Mitzrayim can be on the micro level as well. Bad habits, annoying patterns in important relationships, small ways of being inconsiderate -- these too "plague" us. Each of us on Pesach is obligated to see how we are in Egypt, and to make an effort at the first step to go out -- not to let Pharoah's voice overpower that of Moshe, Aharon, and Miryam.
The day before yesterday, I wore two unmatching shoes.
I left the house about 9:00 AM, toward a work day that did not end until 8:30 in the evening. A little after 6:30, I was sitting and talking with a congregant when I looked down and noticed that I had on two different shoes. I was horrified and self-conscious. My thoughtful conversation partner, bless his soul, said, "I thought I was the only one who did that!"
My own thoughts included: In seven-plus hours, how many people must have seen me today and noticed the shoes? How foolish I must have looked! How many people did they tell? I can't even go home and fix this, I'm stuck looking ridiculous for a couple more hours.
But then I thought about a teaching about chametz and self-importance that I had shared on Shabbat:
Chametz -- bread that is leavened or risen -- is a symbol of haughtiness, self-importance. Think of it this way: If you start with just flour and water, then mix them together, the resulting dough takes up no more space that what you started with. That's matzah, which represents humility and a sense of proportion. Anything that rises is taking up more space than it really deserves. So chasidic thought teaches us around Pesach that getting rid of chametz means breaking the pattern of puffing ourselves out, thinking we deserve more space than we really take up.
So I realized the best thing was to laugh at myself and move on. After all, how many people really noticed? I mean, are my shoes -- even if they are the rabbi's shoes -- really all that important in someone else's day?
Before Pesach begins, we are supposed to search for chametz in our homes and other spaces. I think one way to apply the chasidic perspective is to go through all the places where we eat, and think about the conversations and relationships that take place there. In the kitchen and dining room, that's obvious. But we snack in the bedroom, or in the car while we talk on the cellphone, and we eat in our workplaces as well.
As we push our brooms or brush out crumbs, we should pause to think about who we're with in this place and how we act. Am I puffed out? Do I grandstand, show off, perform? Or am I just right?
Monday night is Purim! I've learned over the years that there are two parts to Purim. The second part is the celebration. The first part can only be done beforehand -- thinking a bit about the holiday and the Book of Esther, the Megillah.
Here is Part I of my quick-and-dirty guide for getting ready. Check back tomorrow for a short podcast.
First, read the Book of Esther! It's pretty short. You already know a lot of it, but you'll be surprised at some things that are different from what you learned in Sunday school. Pay attention to ways in which the story and the setting are like our world. For starters, the book is not set in Israel or in Egypt or in a desert -- but in a multiethnic empire where the Jews are intermixed with everyone else. The book is a laugh, but try reading it once through without laughing for some of serious observations it makes.
While a lot of the Bible is good to read in a kind of thou-thee, King James-type translation -- not so good for the Megillah. This is a story, and the best version for it would be the "new" Jewish Publication Society translation. It's the one in the JPS Tanakh and in the Five Megillot and Jonah. Unfortunately it's not on-line. If you've found your way to mechon-mamre.org, what's there is the "old" JPS version. It's a little somber but OK.
Second, there is the theme of hiding and masks. I'll write more next Purim when I get a head start. Esther's name is often taken to be related to the Hebrew root s-t-r, which means "hide." Esther herself was hidden behind her Persian name -- think Ishtar, the goddess -- when had the beautiful Hebrew name Haddasah. There's much to say about this...One fascinating exercise to do is called the Johari Window. You can read about it on wikipedia. Here is a quote to think about; I don't know the source:
The greater you are, the more you need to search for your self. Your deep soul hides itself from consciousness...until finally your soul reveals itself to you, spangling a few sparkles of her lights.