Thursday, March 29, 2018

Shabbat-O-Gram for March 30


Assorted Israelites and Egyptians at last week's Chocolate Seder.  Click here and scroll down for lots more pics from our Passover events and here for Women's Seder photos.  And send me photos from your family Seder to add to our TBE Family Passover Album.
Click below to watch the speeches of TBE's Alyssa Goldberg and Dana Horowitz at last weekend's Stamford March for Our Lives, along with Paul Simon singing "Sounds of Silence."

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover

Join me for Passover festival services on the first two days, Shabbat morning and Sunday, both at 9:30 AM.  On the first day (Saturday), I'm going to review a fascinating new book that upends everything we've ever thought about the Exodus and history: The Exodus: How it  Happened and Why it Matters, by Richard Elliot Friedman.  

A Passover Handmaid's Tale: Freedom From vs. Freedom To

"There is more than one kind of freedom," says Aunt Lydia in Margaret Atwood's dystopian novel, "The Handmaid's Tale," recently brought to life in an award-winning miniseries; "freedom to and freedom from. In the days of anarchy, it was freedom to. Now you are being given freedom from. Don't underrate it."

If the average American we're given the opportunity to choose between two types of freedom, there is no question that "freedom to" would win hands down. It is "freedom to" (choose) that has been embraced by so much of the world, especially since the fall of the Berlin wall. It's "freedom to" that separates democratic societies like ours from dictatorships and kleptocracies. It's "freedom to" that gives women control over their bodies and business investors control over their bank accounts.  It's "freedom to" that gives us at least a shot of electing our leaders without coercion or illegal manipulation.  It's also the "freedom to" live a dignified life that was so cruelly denied an octogenarian French Holocaust survivor who was murdered in Paris this week.  FDR would have conflated that with a "freedom from" in his famous "Four Freedoms" speech, the freedom from fear; but Atwood's book defines "freedom from" differently, as the opposite of "freedom to," particularly in regard to choice.

"Freedom to" is the American way. Margaret Atwood sought to protect this freedom - that's why she constructed her novel's terrifying Orwellian theocracy called Republic of Gilead just at a time, in 1985, when religious fundamentalism seemed the wave of the future, with Iran just having fallen to Khomeini and with the Moral Majority on the rise in America.  Things aren't so different today.  In an appearance last year, Atwood was particularly concerned about growing restrictions on abortion in the US, comparing it to slavery "to force women to have children that they cannot afford and then to say that they have to raise them."

Bruce Miller, the executive producer of mini-series, posited that Gilead is "a society that's based kind of in a perverse misreading of biblical laws and codes," modeling itself after morally problematic narratives from Genesis.  Atwood said that Gilead embodies the "utopian idealism" present in such notorious 20th-century regimes as Romania and Cambodia, as well as earlier New England Puritanism (although both Atwood and Miller add that the people running Gilead are "not genuinely Christian (or) interested in religion; they're interested in power."

Passover also celebrates "freedom to" - in particular the freedom to worship as we please and the freedom for Jews and others to collectively identify and thrive as a people. But Passover also celebrates "freedom from," reminding us that traditional Judaism places very defined limits on free choice. We are not free to enslave and other people, for instance, or murder, or eat Wonder Bread at our Seder table.

Our task as post-modern, autonomous and self-reflecting Jews is to define our own limits, either by the painstaking method of trial and error, or by voluntarily buying into the intricate system of preset limits known as "halacha," which is simply translated as "the way."

Or, as is the case with most of us, something in between.

The Margaret Atwood in us says, "Don't trust any outside authority. Decide for yourself. If you are sucked into a preset system, you lose that precious freedom to choose."
We tend to believe her. We've been trained to be skeptical of authority, especially one claiming divine authorship.  We've been burned too often by those in power.  

But we are tired - tired from all our freedom. It's hard to have to choose all the time - there are so many choices: an infinite number of things to read, shows to stream, places to go, items to purchase. We yearn for structure in our lives, a framework that can help guide our choices, and maybe, just possibly, make a few for us.  We also understand that within halacha there are still a myriad of choices, and that most will not lead to the nightmarish world of Atwood's novel. Sometimes it's just nice to be home on a Shabbat afternoon and know that going to the mall is not an option.  It makes me a little less free but a little more free at the same time - free to read great books like "The Handmaid's Tale."

Since the enlightenment, Jews have lived with this tension of "freedom to" and "freedom from," a dialectic epitomized by the celebration of Passover.  The great paradox of Passover is that although it is our most difficult holiday to prepare for (admit it - making bricks out of straw was a snap compared to making a Seder) and one that binds us to the most restrictions, the Seder is nonetheless and most widely observed ritual.

Go figure.

In the end, the more we buy into Passover and its elaborate set of rituals, and the more work we put into preparing for it, the more we get out of it.

On this festival of freedom, we celebrate the freedom to do with it what we wish. We are free to question tradition and to scoff at it. But equally powerful is our freedom to enrich our lives by scouring counter tops, exchanging sets of dishes, and obliterating each and every breadcrumb, thereby turning just another April evening into a night different from all other nights.
More Seder Starters

Here are some more Seder resources, in addition the many I shared last week.

From ALEPH (Jewish renewal) with its more spiritual, Kabbalistic approach, see these resources, including how Reb Levi Titzchak of Berdichev saw the Four Children on an ascending ladder of spirituality, where the "wicked" one is actually on a higher level than the wise.  Shades of Elphaba!  And see below the Omer art of Joy Krauthammer, based on the Kabbalistic emanations of God.  We begin counting the Omer on the second night of Passover


Below are the "Four Questions and Four Conversations" we had at this week's Interfaith Seder, based on the topic of welcoming strangers: 

1. What is the meaning of home at a time when 65 million people are refugees and when the average American moves 11.4 times in his/her lifetime? There are now an estimated 258 million people living in a country other than their country of birth - an increase of 49% since 2000. An unprecedented 65.6 million people around the world have been forced from home. Among them are nearly 22.5 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. There are also 10 million stateless people who have been denied a nationality and access to basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment, and freedom of movement. The UN reports that nearly 20 people are forcibly displaced every minute. 

2. The Five Books of Moses instruct us to love three different things: God; your neighbor; and the stranger. But the command to love the stranger is repeated 36 different times. Why this added emphasis on the stranger? 

3. Why is it even more important now than ever that our society become radically inclusive? How can we do that? 

4. What are we to make of the following rabbinic commentary on what happened during the night of the Exodus? 

The Last Night in Egypt: Knocking in the Night 

When Moses said: "I will smite all the firstborn" (Ex. 12:12), some of the Egyptians were afraid and some not; those who were afraid brought their firstborn to an Israelite and said: "Do please allow him to pass with you this night." When midnight struck, God smote all the firstborn; as for those who took asylum in the houses of the Israelites, God passed between the Israelites and the Egyptians, depriving the latter of life while leaving the Israelites alive. 

The preceding midrash (rabbinic story) describes what happened on the night of the last plague, the slaying of the Egyptian first born. Egyptian mothers have taken their first-born children to the homes of Israelites and beg the Israelites to take their children in so they will escape death. What would you have done? What should they have done? Keep in mind that a) these were their oppressors for 400 years, b) God's plan was to smite them, so they were defying God if they took them in and c) historically, the midrash came from the 10th century (Exodus Rabbah 18:2), a time of considerable persecution. The Israelites tried to save the Egyptians but could not alter God's plan. Even though it was doomed to failure, they had the courage to try. One wonders whether that was also part of God's plan all along.

Dr King, Reb Nachman and the Urgency of Now

Nachman of Bratzlav stated about the Exodus:

"One needs to leave Mitzrayim (Egypt) with great haste. This is the essence of the quote from Torah, "For they left Mitzrayim and couldn't tarry, and also they didn't make provisions [for the journey]." (Exodus 12:39) This truth is recapitulated in each person and in each era. In each person and in each time, there can be found a residue [of Mitzrayim], the cravings and woes of this world, and this is the essence of the exile in Mitzrayim. This is the essence of Pesach. At the moment of the Exodus from Mitzrayim, a great light from on high was revealed, as is known; and at that time, promptly, Israel went out in great haste and they couldn't tarry. For even if they had remained there even one more instant, they would have remained a remnant there, as is known."

We are also coming up on some important anniversaries in our country. Wednesday, April 4, will mark 50 years since the slaying of Dr Martin Luther King. Exactly one year before he was killed, on April 4, 1967, he gave a very important speech at Riverside Church in NY, for the first time speaking out forcefully against the Vietnam War. What he said that night reminds me somewhat of what we are hearing from those teens in Parkland who have decided to move from their tragedy in a new way, bypassing the "thoughts and prayers" and all the evasion that has followed most mass shootings, and breaking the silence.

On April 4, when King spoke about Vietnam, he was going against the advice of many of his friends, who said to him:

"Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent?" "Peace and civil rights don't mix," they say. "Aren't you hurting the cause of your people?" they ask. And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live."

King added:

"Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation's history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movement, and pray that our inner being may be sensitive to its guidance. For we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us."

I've been watching the Ken Burns series on Vietnam that was broadcast last fall by PBS. It's taking me a while, so I just got up to the episode that mentions this speech by Dr. King. It resonated so much with me.

Last week, I was talking about the March for Our Lives with a veteran of the '60s Vietnam protests, who shared the observation that when she was in college and she and her classmates marched against the war, it saddened her that no adults marched with them. Given what we now know about how successive administrations systematically lied to the American people about Vietnam over the course of decades, leading to the senseless deaths of over 50,000 American soldiers and many more innocent civilians, one wonders if things would have turned out differently if more adults had recognized the urgency of that moment and turned against the war sooner, rather than just shrugging and saying, "Kids these days..."

Given the terror that students of all ages now live with every day - not that different from that fear felt by students of draft age in the '60s - it is important that they not march alone this time. As Martin Luther King said, "A time comes when silence is betrayal, and that time is now."

Back on April 4, 1967, Dr. King concluded:

"We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood-it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, "Too late."

Every 18 months, more Americans die by gunfire than died in the entire Vietnam War, which is why I understood last week's march to be another reminder of the urgency of now.

Here's how King concluded this speech at Riverside Church, quoting the poet, James Russell Lowell:

Once to every man and nation comes a moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God's new Messiah offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever 'twixt that darkness and that light.
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet 'tis truth alone is strong
Though her portions be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.

"And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream."

There comes a moment when each of us must decide, whether to act or sit tight. For some, that moment came when the last plague struck. For others, it came on April 4, 1967 - or on the very same day the following year.

For all of us, on some level, as we sit around our tables this week, that moment is now.

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