Thursday, April 5, 2012

Shabbat-O-Gram for Passover: Of Customs and Questions

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover

First, to take care of some business: 

  • Services will not be held on Friday evening.  Yahrzeit names will be read on Shabbat morning, as usual.  Services on the first and second days will be downstairs in the sanctuary at 9:30.  On Day 1, I'll be reviewing the OTHER new Haggadah to come out recently, chronicling the Exodus of Ethiopian Jews. On day 2, Gerry Ginsburg will be giving a guest d'var Torah.
  • Click here for the downloadable 2012 Rabbinical Assembly Passover Guide and here for my "Passover Preparations Guide to the Perplexed"
  • And speaking of priceless art, if you are rummaging around the new Google Art Project, which features masterpieces from the world's great museums, you'll see some works from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, as well as the Jewish Museum in New York.
  • For young kids, I recommend our own Jeff and Lisa Manheim's board book style Passover Story and also a great site called Seder Fun, which also has downloads for a Hogwarts Seder and other activities.
  • This is a great time to reconnect with who we are as Jews.  Take a look at The 2012 Jewish Values Survey, just released this week.  It is both reassuring (at least 8-in-10 American Jews say that pursuing justice (84%) is a somewhat or very important value that informs their beliefs and activities) and somewhat unsetting (only 20% cite support for Israel as a core component of their Jewish identity).  It also reveals that, despite some misgivings over President Obama's Israel policies, 2/3 of American Jews still will likely vote for him.
  • Speaking of Israel, talk to people at your Seders about coming with us this summer - we've revised the itinerary slightly, though the dates are still Aug 12 - 24.  Contact me ASAP if you are interested!  And to whet your appetite about this vibrant country, readTel Aviv versus Jerusalem from the Times of Israel, and read - and hear - how an Israeli Arab woman captured the hearts of a Israelis by winning a televised singing contestwith a song written originally as a cry of anguish following the terrorist slaying of two Israeli soldiers. And sign up for the Israeli Network (channel 1118) on Cablevision so you can feel what it's like to be in Israel at this beautiful time of year.

Of Customs and Questions

An American tourist was riding in a taxi in Israel. As the taxi approached a red light, the tourist was shocked to see the driver drive straight through without even slowing down.  

Surprised as he was, he didn't say anything, feeling himself a "guest" and not wanting to make waves. The trip continued without event until the next intersection. This time the light was green and, to the American's dismay, the cab driver brought the vehicle to a grinding halt. Unable to contain his astonishment, he turns to the driver:

"Listen", he says, "when you went through the red light, I didn't say anything. But, why, in heaven's name, are you stopping at a green light?!"

The Israeli driver looks at him as if the American was deranged:

"Are you crazy?!" he shouts. "The other guy has a red light -- do you want to get us killed?!"

We need rules to survive in society.  But for the rabbis, merely repeating as list of "dos" and don'ts" was not enough.  Rules need to be explained, but they are also meant to be questioned.

The Haggadah is almost obsessive about provoking questions; the rabbis understood that it isn't so much that Judaism needs to be transmitted from one generation to the next.  It needs to reinvented

The rabbis based their educational theories on curiosity and spontaneity.  The Talmud relates that at many Seders the leader would initiate other unusual practices "so that the children would inquire." (BT Pesachim 108).  Maimonides adds: "One must make a change in the Seder (routine) on this night so that the children will take note and ask, and say "How different this night is from all other nights!" and the father will answer them and say to them "such and such happened, such and such took place." "How does one make a change?  By distributing parched corn or nuts (that was their candy before Elite, Strauss and Bartons) or by removing the table before them before they eat, or by snatching things from one another's hands, and similar things."  (Mishna Torah - Laws of Matzah 7:3)

That's why children are so central to Passover.  They are natural questioners.  They look at the world through fresh eyes and see the incongruities we've long since disregarded.  They also see the injustices.  And they feel far less bound by tradition and far freer to propose a different way.  The Four Children of the Haggadah each have unique learning styles, requiring adults to explain the purposes for the festival in multiple ways.  But as we explain all these complex laws and customs, we also have to encourage them to challenge us, even if it means their questioning some of those very rules we are charged to explain, even if that leads to our adjusting some practices that have become sacrosanct.

Did you know, for instance, that the association of horseradish with "maror," the bitter herb, is a relatively recent and exclusively Eastern European phenomenon?  It's mainly because in those colder climes the preferred bitter vegetable, romaine lettuce, didn't grow in the early spring.  Rabbi David Golinkin makes the case for us to turn away from horseradish and return to our roots, as it were, by favoring lettuce.  Pesach without horseradish?   I'll be discussing this further at our Siyum on Friday morning.

And did you know that you don't have to dip parsley or celery as the "Karpas" at the beginning of the Seder?  Noam Zion makes the case for potato chips.  Potatoes are from the earth and definitely dipped (in salt).  A great site called Seder Fun  suggests strawberries or bananas dipped in chocolate (they're both "fruit of the earth" because the plant grows anew every year), as well as portabellas fried in olive oil and dipped in a marinade.  This early dipping is a great opportunity to fill the stomachs just enough to keep everyone engaged during that long stretch before the real eating begins - so that they'll have the energy to keep asking questions.

So when you get to your Seders and the questions begin, don't just stop at the Big Four.  That's just the beginning.  One medieval commentator suggests that "even if one is alone at home and knows all the reasons, one should conduct a discussion with oneself, asking and answering one's own questions."  Ask the questions in many ways (here's the Big Four inAncient AramaicBukharicChineseOld EnglishAncient GreekJuwri (what?), LadinoPig LatinPolishShakespeareanTibetan and Zulu - and check here for Java Script, Haiku and a Tweet).    

With all the questions that spew forth, it's likely that not all will be answered.  But tradition has it that It there is one person who will resolve all unanswered disputes - and that person happens to be coming to your Seder.  It's Elijah.  Maybe this year, he'll come to us with all the answers in hand.  And if not, feel free to ask him why.  If he answers, he will most likely do it the Jewish way -  with another question....

Remember the great lesson of the Seder:  Customs change, but questions are eternal. Blind obedience leads to the ossification of a tradition.  Challenging unquestioned norms breathes life into them, or leads to their replacement by something better.  On Seder night, our goal, then, is not to transmit something ancient into the skulls of the next generation, but rather to reinvent a tradition so that it will be brimming with life - so that a sense of wonder and pride will glow in the faces of the children.  It is a glow can only be fueled by curiosity.

It all begins with questions.

On behalf of everyone here at TBE, professionals and volunteers, warm wishes to you and your loved ones for a Sweet Pesach...and Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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