When we read this week’s Torah portion (Tzav) we cannot help but recall the greatest place where sacrifices would be offered: The Holy Temple in Jerusalem. And there, in the Holy Temple was the Holy of Holies- that place where the High Priest would ascend on the most Holy of days during the most holy of hours to the most holy location on earth. He would ascend up the stairs in front of the assembled crowd who understood that this act of ‘going up’ to the Holy spot was fraught with danger. In fact, they would tie a rope to the High Priest in case the worst happened while he was inside this special space. They intuitively understood that the holy could be dangerous.
Of course you may ask…what makes something Holy? Let me suggest that it is probably easier to define what holy is not: The ‘profane’ are those things that are part of the ordinary world and do not inspire, move or make us feel good. The ‘not holy’ are those things that we do not or cannot react to because they just have no real meaning in our life. But the holy…well, the holy is what lifts us and takes us to someplace that is indescribable- -a higher space and existence.
But going back to consider the act of ascending to the holy of holies in the Temple: We know that the High Priest would deliberately walk up fifteen steps before reaching that holy pinnacle. Fifteen steps taking the Priest from a low level to the highest level of holiness imagined. And what is so interesting….is that OUR Pesach Seder…well, it includes fifteen separate steps before reaching the conclusion of the Seder. Perhaps our Seder ITSELF is meant to be a vehicle for increasing holiness….with each step taking one higher and higher…
The seder starts with KADESH…which plainly refers to the Kiddish: The blessing over wine. But the word itself means “holiness” and it is our first indication that we are on a journey of holiness just as the High Priest was on a journey of holiness. The seder’s purpose is not simply to tell the story of the exodus…it is to RAISE US UP.
We move from Kadesh to URCHATZ…which is the ritual washing without a blessing. You see, water is one of the most basic substances of life. Without it we could not sustain life of any kind. And so….we TOUCH water…we feel its substance as it flows over our fingers. We are reminded of our fragile existence and we can feel the substance that keeps us alive. It is touchable but not solid. It is solid but clear. One moment we are wet and one moment later we are dry - so ephemeral and yet so present. Simple water. Simply complex. And as we feel the water we are so naturally nudged one step higher with…
CARPAS - the next step of the seder. You know this as the dipping of a green vegetable into salt water. I once read an explanation of CARPAS that explained that the word itself is an anagram of the number 600,000 which is traditionally the number who left Egypt. Perhaps this reminds us of how important each individual - each single soul - was as they left that land of oppression. But…there is something more, too. This small product of the earth is truly a miracle…it represents the gift of sustenance that keeps us alive throughout our lives. Without the produce of the land we could not live the lives of luxury that we enjoy. This is the miracle of SPRING and for us to go forward in holiness we must be AWARE of just exactly where we are. Somehow we must know not only our LOCATION in space but our location in TIME as well. Realizing that we are in spring helps us to locate ourselves. Only when we know where we are can we even begin to contemplate the next step forward in holiness.
YAHATZ. It is this point in the seder where we take the middle piece of matzah and break it in half! How appropriate! In our journey upward we must come to know that we still live in a world of brokenness. It is not only the brokenness of others but our own brokenness that we must somehow come to acknowledge. When we know the source of our own brokenness and are able to acknowledge that brokenness to ourselves then we are able to move forward…to move upward. It is the process of getting to know ourselves. Additionally, we must be able to realize that there is still so much brokenness in our world - so much pain! How can we live in our world without the Jewish urge to relieve suffering of others? What are we willing to do to help those in the world who yet suffer? We ask! We must answer…and we will then move forward….
To MAGGID. The TELLING of the story of the Exodus! The New York Times recently published an article by Bruce Fieler on the importance of stories in our lives. Humans are designed so that we MUST tell our stories….it is what allows us to form our own sense of identity that is so necessary in our lives. Young people need to be able to learn the story of their lives for healthy development and as we sit around the seder table we not only tell the story of the exodus but we tell the story of families; the stories of how we got to be who we are and where we are; the stories of the lives of our guests and friends who are at the seder as well. These are absolutely vital in developing our own sense of ourselves…in developing our own ability to know ourselves.
Our next washing is called RACHATZ and it is this washing that is done with a blessing. Here, we note that water has a powerful property. It has the ability to wash the dirt away from our hands. We are symbolically clearing away the old habits and any impurity that could stain our very being. It is this water that has the job of symbolically reminding us that we do not have to carry the past with us wherever we go. We have the amazing ability to begin afresh. After all, Pesach is one of the Jewish New Year celebrations and signifies, just as much as Rosh Hashanah, the ability to begin again. New “starts” are liberating and more than any other holiday on our calendar Pesach is meant to remind us of liberation. This is also the washing before the meal and is the washing of purity that was done in ancient times before the purifying rituals of sacrifice. This washing leads us directly to our next higher step.
The MOTZI or the blessing over the food. It is the moment that begins to prepare us for the meal ahead. We say this prayer before each and every meal, each and every day. We remind ourselves with these words that the food we are about to eat is not simply a result of our own effort but rather is a combination of our efforts and the gifts that God has given to us. It is this step where we solidify our feelings of gratitude that have brought us to this special moment in our seder.
We are now ready to eat the MATZAH. This bread is unlike the regular bread that we eat during the year. We refer to matzoh as the poor man’s bread and its flatness reminds us that not everyone can live a life of luxury. As we are ascending in holiness we cannot help but turn our thoughts to the wider world where hunger is still a fact of life; as we are ascending in holiness we pray that we may be inspired to live a life of compassion and empathy. In fact, it is our religious responsibility to remind ourselves to reach out to those in need and to recognize that the luxury that we enjoy gives us the responsibility to help those who need. Unless we are aware of this we cannot even begin to build a world where all can live a life of peace, security and sustenance.
In continuing our trek up the stairs of holiness we now come to eat the MAROR. It reminds us of bitterness that we have experienced in our own lives and that others are experiencing even now. Life cannot always be sweet. Sometimes life contains elements that are unpleasant and difficult. Surrounded at the seder by our loved ones and dear friends we are in danger of forgetting. Our religious responsibility is to remember more than just the good time but the bad times as well. Memory can have great power in our lives and has the possibility to inspire us as a community and as individuals.
Eating the Hillel sandwich is the step of the seder known as KORECH. It is a nod to the habits of a previous generation. What an amazing thing! We are here…now…in the year 2013 and partake of a recipe that is quite out of the ordinary for us but is based on something that our ancestors created years ago. For them it must of had a particular meaning but for us it is our way of saying that we recognize that we are connected to generations past and that we value the contributions that they have made to our lives. We do this even if we have to stretch to fully understand what the purposes of their customs might have been! Korech connects us to the past in a very personal way.
Everybody’s favorite part of the seder is the meal which we call SHULCHAN ORECH. In fact, it is the meal that was commanded to the Israelites by God at the night of that last plague. We read in Exodus that the Israelites were to sacrifice a lamb and have a meal with Matza and Maror and that will be their Passover sacrifice. The meal is what allows us (no, we don’t do sacrifices anymore) , to fulfill the commandment of Passover and like all sacrifices (karbonote) it is, at its root, the way we “come close” (karov) to God. Our system of mitzvot in Judaism is a system where it is what we DO and not what we say or believe that counts. It is in our actions that we demonstrate our commitments. But there is more, too, because a meal is a social convention that allows us to sit in family and community and share laughter, talk, discussion and each other’s presence. A meal brings us close to one another in a very special way.
Of course when we eat we are obligated to move to TZAFON or the eating of the Afikomen. Indeed, with the satisfaction of the meal we can seek to reintegrate the brokenness that we acknowledged earlier back into the seder and back into our lives. We are now strong enough to try and bring a sense of wholeness into our being. Finding the broken pieces, restoring them as part of our meal, makes our satisfaction with the meal even more complete somehow. For one to become whole they must fortify themselves first and then accept the inevitability that wholeness does not come about instantaneously.
BARECH and HALLEL are our most immediate responses as we near the top of our rise in spirit and holiness. That is to say, that blessing and praise (the translation of Barech and Hallel) come as a result of our spiritual sense of gratitude and satisfaction. Our hearts are opened and the only thing we can think to do is to look toward heaven with praise and song on our full hearts. And so we sing. We sing loud and we sing hard with the last remaining step in this journey just ahead.
Finally, that last step of the seder. The last step in the 15 steps toward the Holy of Holies. And what do we do in that last step called NIRTZA? We say to one another “Next Year in Jerusalem”! You see, my friends, it is only when we reach that top step, like the mountain climber who has reached the summit, that we have the vision and view to peer outward. From the peak our vision is the clearest and the cleanest and in this vision we look out not at scenery but at TIME. And we look toward a future that is full of hope! Jerusalem, the City of Peace, is more than just a physical location. Jerusalem is a dream of the highest religious nature. Jerusalem is the hope of mankind for peace and an ultimate kind of freedom. Jerusalem is liberation. When we climb the steps successfully we will have enough power and vision to see ahead and to pray that one day we WILL have a deep world peace and liberation that is the true meaning of this holiday.
I wish you all a Pesach of sweetness, togetherness and most importantly—-a Pesach of ascending steps toward holiness.
Chag Kasher Sameach,
Rabbi David Kaiman
After my last blog posting on the Newtown tragedy I received the following email. My response follows…..
We seem to be outraged when people die in groups but not singly. If you look up the statistics, you will find that about 800 children (0-14) are murdered every year in this country, but this does not seem to bother people half as much as the 20 killed in Newtown. To me, this seems irrational.
Thank you so much for your email. You ask a very important question and it is worthwhile to consider the enormous response to this tragedy when so many others are hardly noticed.
The truth is that the event in Newtown, while awfully tragic, is as you suggest almost minor in scope to the sum total of the many tragedies that happen every day. In fact, I did ponder in my previous posting as to some of the reasons I believe that this event struck such a raw nerve in the American public. I mentioned my thoughts about the timing of the tragedy (one week prior to Christmas - a time of family and wishful peacefulness) and the shock because of the age of the victims. It is sadly clear to me, however, that there are other reasons that THIS event in Newtown garnered the rapt attention of Americans: the solid middle-class nature of this school; the location in proximity to New York City and the sources of network news coverage; and the media’s hungry need to present visceral drama as opposed to the mundane coverage of congress’ grappling with the taxes and the economy.
But there is something much larger in your question and it gets to what I believe is at one of the foundations of human behavior. We are, as you probably realize, innately built to forget somewhat easily. It has been said that if humans remembered the pain of childbirth that the human species would have died out. We avoid pain mostly by becoming habituated to what happens around us so that we can function. And when it comes to the emotional pain of living in a society where there is SO much violence, death and horror we are able to block this from our consciousness until an event so dramatic occurs as to shake us into the reality of the world around us.
Our world is wracked by horror: the desperation of mental illness and depression; the ravages of addiction; the shame of poverty, child slavery, unexplained illness and war are just a few of the things that beg for our attention, tears and heartache. It is simply impossible for us to attune ourselves at all times to all this pain. It would overwhelm and could paralyze us from being able to do anything at all. So I think it is natural for some events, exceptional only because of some dramatic or unusual feature to catch our attention.
Irrational? Illogical? Perhaps. But it is a survival mechanism. You suggest in your letter that this focus on certain horrific events may lead us to incorrect conclusions - and I totally agree. But humans are just not built like computers. Our emotional responses will always drive behavior to a larger degree than logic. For you, as a scientist, I know that must be frustrating. But for myself, the religious imperative begs for responses theologically and socially.
The great rabbi and philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in 1944: “THERE IS a divine dream which the prophets and rabbis have cherished and which fills our prayers and permeates the acts of Jewish piety. It is the dream of a world, rid of evil by the efforts of man, by his will to serve what goes beyond his own interests. God is waiting for us to redeem the world.”
We pray that tragedy will teach us to be better responders and more effective redeemers.
It has been exactly a week since the horrible events that took place in Connecticut and I know that many of us are still reeling from the thoughts of the needless deaths of these teachers and students. It is an event that has touched our country for so many reasons - the innocence of such young children and brave teachers, the belief that our schools are sanctuaries of learning that are protected from evil, and of course, the time of the year when we wish nothing more than to concentrate on family, friends, joy and laughter but was, to our shock, shattered by bullets.
There have been so many responses. Petitions and calls for political action have been many - even issued from the President of the United States. My inbox has been filled with emails from organizations eager to renew calls for gun control and increased funding of mental health. These are such important and worthy causes and I mentioned them last week in my Friday night and Shabbat morning messages. I’ve signed many petitions and I do have hope for real change over the weeks and months to come.
Deep down, we know however that even the toughest gun control laws and the best mental health funding still cannot insure that there will not be another shooting, another deranged individual and another tragedy.
Important theological questions have been asked as well. How do people of faith respond at a time of such crises? Where was God? Why children? Why such pain? These are questions that haunt us to our core-being. As Jews we know all too well that the innocent are often the victims. I believe however, that the very same free will that allows us to devote ourselves to lives of goodness is the same free will goes awry for reasons unknown. We cannot explain the why. That will always be beyond us. But we can turn our hearts, heads and intentions to bring comfort, courage and strength to a shattered world. That is where our faith gives us the ability to have hope in the face of darkness.
Last Monday I took my time to walk through our own school here at B’nai Israel. The combination-locked doors and television cameras had new meaning to me that morning. So, too did the runny-nosed fresh faces of children. So precious. So beautiful. So innocent and so loved. Today at our shabbat celebration I saw sets of beautiful eyes staring up at me as we recited the holy words of Sabbath blessings. So much to give, so much to see, so much future for each of these wonderful children.
Friends, if we are to respond to tragedy I hope that included in our response is a call for greater investment in our schools, camps and supplementary school programs. The teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary responded as teachers in hundreds and thousands of schools would respond in just such an emergency. You see, even though this incident was truly exceptional our teachers EVERY DAY must have the courage to confront the challenges of meeting the needs of students - physically, emotionally and spiritually. It takes real bravery to stand in front of a classroom and yet our society time and again fails to recognize the value of education.
No one knows yet what happened to the disturbed killer who blasted his way into Sandy Hook school that day last week. Who knows what world he lived in that snapped so violently? Dare we ask if a teacher or an educational program had been available to this young man that could have turned him around? Might it have been possible? If the answer “there just was no program that fit him” then I fear how many other children “just have no programs to fit them”? I fear that we live in a world that can build bridges across mighty rivers but has failed to build bridges to the troubled youth living among us. We must respond with better schools, better teacher training, more programs, options and resources to insure that no child truly is left behind. No child becomes so alienated that they feel their only option is to enter the fantasy of mass murder-suicide as some kind of escape mechanism.
To the children and teachers who died last week I hope that we will pledge to build a better world for them and for so many who perish innocently. As people of faith we respond WITH FAITH that there is hope for tomorrow.
Tomorrow morning we will read in the synagogue about the moment that Joseph reveals himself to his brothers. It is a telling moment. The brothers, after all, remember their nefarious deed of selling Joseph into slavery and now stand powerless in front of their very strong brother. And yet, Joseph comforts them by telling them that “God sent me here to preserve life” There is no anger or harsh feelings. Only the open acceptance of realizing that the hungry must be fed and so without delay Joseph sends them to fetch his father, Jacob. It is a story that is instructive for we, too, are sent to preserve life just like Joseph. It is our mission and destiny.
Educating and providing for our children is the ultimate way we will preserve life. Their needs cannot be secondary nor can we afford to wait until “we have enough” to invest in education - secular and religious - for our children. We preserve life by building a better society and our teachers and schools do that for us.
Let us respond forcefully and faithfully by asking where we can invest in children. Let us honor the memory of those who died last week by visioning a future of possibility.
Veterans Day 5k
“Yes, you need to put ‘schach’ on your sukkah” (Photo taken at Bnai Israel Day School Sukkah Building Workshop at Home Depot 2012)
We pause this day to remember the trauma and pain of that day when we stood helplessly in pain. Our Jewish calendar reminds us that this time of the year we reflect in introspection and contemplation of the past and the future as well. In this spirit, we dedicate our 9/11 observances to those whom we lost and to the spirit of peace and understanding that was awoken in us all. (Video from Gainesville Interfaith Forum’s “Gathering of Peace, Love and Understanding”)
He sat slightly forward in a posture I’ve seen before. It is the posture of someone on a mission who is poised to leap into into action and intent on having his words reach the listener directly and intimately. James Kofi Annan, the founder and director of Challenging Heights in Winneba, Ghana came to meet our group of rabbis and share his life story. As rabbis we hear lots of life stories…but this story was unlike so many others.
James was born in Winneba, Ghana. He was the youngest of 12 children and was born into a family of extreme poverty. But despite poverty it was his family and the life that he knew and loved Then…at age 6….his mother sent him off….for what he thought was a summer adventure of fishing. Little did he know that this was no summer adventure. No, he had been trafficked into slavery for a measly sum of money that his family must have desperately needed and he would spend the years of his childhood in the cruelest conditions. Conditions that we cannot imagine.
If James had simply managed to escape his slavery and survive he would have be called a hero. If James had obtained an education without support of family or society he surely would be admired. And if James had come out of this background and become a successful bank manager we would all laud his accomplishments.
In fact, James did all of these things yet his most heroic action would be none of these that I’ve mentioned. James’ most heroic action would be to turn his talent, drive and intellect to rescue those children he’d left behind on the waters of Lake Victoria. His heroism would reunite children and parents that, coupled with the innovation of family micro-loans, would allow families to become whole and able to support themselves. He would rescue hundreds of trafficked children…and through the generosity of American Jewish World Service and other donors from around the world this man who sat before us was not just a hero…he is an inspiration to us all.
As the airplane doors closed on our departure from Ghana I was surprised to hear the announcement that the plane was about to be fumigated —- while we were sitting in the plane! My first thought was sadness. Not because I was worried about the effects of insecticide on my lungs but because I felt there was something inherently wrong about our sanitizing ourselves from the pain of those who suffer in Ghana.
We live in a land where there is so much. So much to eat. So much to buy. So much wealth. This morning I realized that my car is parked in a garage that is infinitely sturdier and more finished than the concrete house we rabbis built for a family in Ghana. Our bathrooms are clean and sterile (they have an outhouse) and our clothes discarded when barely worn (their clothes clearly the cast offs from a far away land as evidenced by the Ghanain wearing the “Appalachia State” t-shirt).
The children at Challenging Heights School (the site of our visit in Ghana) all come from homes where there is extreme poverty. Some of the children had been sold into slavery by their parents. Others are at risk due to economic conditions at their home. They live in a kind of poverty that most of us cannot imagine - a poverty so deep and complete that the selling of one’s child seems like a viable option. And these children….well…their faces were faces of love. Their smiles, despite their experiences, were smiles of innocence for the pain was buried deep inside. They played soccer fiercely with members of our delegation and like all children they displayed a competitive pride that is universal. Over and over I was asked my name…the children wanted to chat, to talk to find ways to engage with these strangers that had invaded their land.
In truth, we had arrived at Challenging Heights to hear a heroic story of survival and strength but also to see for ourselves the triumph that can come when a mission of justice takes hold. In a later post I will share the story of that hero, James Kofi Anan, who saw as a vision the kind of place he has created at Challenging Heights.
But for now….I desperately do not want to be sanitized or distant from recalling the poverty that exists in most of the world’s population. I want to know it in my soul so that I will not forget that despite the aggravations of our lives we do not fail to reach out to those in so much need. Heroism can triumph and can inspire us to take action locally and globally.