Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, April 14, 2022
In this Moment, April 15: Round Matza, Square Box; Sinners at the Seder; Pour Out Thy Love
How do you fit a round matza into a square box? Historian Jonathan Sarna blames 19th century industrialization for the standardization of the matza. Sarna said, "Once it was round and now it's square. once it was varied, and now every matzo is the same. It was a quintessentially local product, and now it's become a brand." (Photo above from the Bird's Head Haggadah)
Maybe our goal this Passover should be to round off the edges of our regimented lives and not seek to fit so neatly into our little square boxes (whether or not they are all made out of ticky tacky - click to hear Pete Seeger). Maybe if we didn't allow our lives to become so predictable, our algorithms wouldn't be such tempting targets for those who would rob us of our privacy and our liberty. The loss of privacy could just be the Egypt of our generation. And it all began with the square matza.
We have around 75 people signed up for our Zoom Seder on Friday at 6:30. While registration has officially closed, i know that we live in uncertain times, where a sudden positive Covid test can upset plans at the last minute. Also, people are realizing that you outsource the main part of the Seder to the rabbi and cantor, AND have an amazing communal experience, AND then, at 8 PM, you are free to do your own thing for the rest of the evening with everyone at your table. in a sense, you can have your matzah ball and eat it too. So what I'm saying is, feel free to sign up, even on Friday, til, say, noon, and I'll check periodically and personally send out links, since our office will be closed. Join us online for services over the first two days as well.
I like to go all out to prepare for Passover. Over the past several days, I've been boosted (4th shot), shorn (pre-Omer haircut), and had both my car and teeth cleaned. The teeth cleaning might be a little excessive, admittedly. I've also sold your hametz to Alberto, a day early (tomorrow is Good Friday). After two years of Covidized Pesach, it's nice to have a slight reprieve this year, and a return to some of the normal craziness that marks preparations for this holiday.
Best wishes from my family to yours for a Zissen Pesach and a Shabbat Shalom. And click below for Six13's hit for this year, "A Billy Joel Passover.
Sinners at the Seder
The Passover Seder continues to be the most powerful and popular ritual in Jewish life, because it is the most transformative. Recent surveys confirm that it stands above all other Jewish activities, even among Jews classified as being of "no religion," who consider themselves Jewish in some way, were raised Jewish or had a Jewish parent, but say they are atheist or agnostic or have no particular religion. The number in 2013 was 70 percent and now it's 62, which indicates some slippage. But at a time when synagogue affiliation and other practices have seen steeper drops, and the number of "non-religious" has grown, the Seder has shown staying power.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs explains it this way:
It is a journey of transformation for us, as well as our ancestors, as we continue to leave all that oppresses us today. Our will to shape a more just and equitable world is the imperative that continues to animate us. Our Seder ritual should be an act of disruption. It should help transform each of us, so we leave our tables renewed and ready to lead more engaged and responsible Jewish lives.
The task is formidable, but in fact very simple to execute. Just gather your loved ones, and maybe a few strangers, and tell the story, using visual and musical aids that are provided by tradition, and perhaps a few new ones of your own. The Seder plate has grown so much in recent years with new symbols that you may need a setting for 12 to fit them all. Below are the standard inclusions, plus several more recent ideas.
Passover's power lies in its ability to adapt to changing times with a sark combination of the changing and the unchanging - as embodied by the matza, which never changes, and the wine, which always does. The Seder plate is the perfect syntheses of both, including items that were already passé back in rabbinic times, when the temple's destruction rendered the sacrifices moot (hard boiled egg and shank bone). But they stayed on the plate while new items were added.
Well this year you can the sunflower (the national flower of Ukraine) to support Ukrainian refugees, a potato for Ethiopian Jews, cashews, olives, bananas, chololate and even (not recommended by me) a crust of bread(!); oh - and do on't forget the a pomegranate, suggested this week by Rabbi Abby Stein, a trans activist who emerged from a closed, ultra-Orthodox community and went "off the derech" (off the traditional path). The pomegranate honors Jews who have chosen to leave their home communities and find their own way through the world. Citing a Talmudic passage in which the pomegranate is used as a metaphor for sinners, Stein, who grew up in Hasidic Williamsburg, wrote in the Forward, “I will celebrate those of us who have been told that we are ‘bad,’ that we are sinners and heretics, and that we have no right to celebrate Jewish holidays in our own way.”
"Sinners and heretics" need to have a place at the Seder. Because, in a way, aren't we all? Whatever path you are on, the Seder will meet you there.
The story I have told is bleak, and there is little evidence to suggest that America will return to some semblance of normalcy and stability in the next five or 10 years. Which side is going to become conciliatory? What is the likelihood that Congress will enact major reforms that strengthen democratic institutions or detoxify social media?
Yet when we look away from our dysfunctional federal government, disconnect from social media, and talk with our neighbors directly, things seem more hopeful. Most Americans in the More in Common report are members of the “exhausted majority,” which is tired of the fighting and is willing to listen to the other side and compromise. Most Americans now see that social media is having a negative impact on the country, and are becoming more aware of its damaging effects on children.
Overview: Once we were slaves in Egypt. Now we’re free. That’s why we’re doing this.
1. What’s up with the matzoh?
2. What’s the deal with horseradish?
3. What’s with the dipping of the herbs?
4. What’s this whole slouching at the table business?
1. When we left Egypt, we were in a hurry. There was no time for making decent bread.
2. Life was bitter, like horseradish.
3. It’s called symbolism.
4. Free people get to slouch.
A funny story: Once, these five rabbis talked all night, then it was morning. (Heat soup now.)
The four kinds of children and how to deal with them:
Wise child—explain Passover.
Simple child—explain Passover slowly.
Silent child—explain Passover loudly.
Wicked child—browbeat in front of the relatives.
Speaking of children: We hid some matzoh. Whoever finds it gets five bucks.
The story of Passover: It’s a long time ago. We’re slaves in Egypt. Pharaoh is a nightmare. We cry out for help. God brings plagues upon the Egyptians. We escape, bake some matzoh. God parts the Red Sea. We make it through; the Egyptians aren’t so lucky. We wander 40 years in the desert, eat manna, get the Torah, wind up in Israel, get a new temple, enjoy several years without being persecuted again. (Let brisket cool now.)
The 10 Plagues: Blood, Frogs, Lice—you name it.
The singing of “Dayenu”:
If God had gotten us out of Egypt and not punished our enemies, it would’ve been enough. If he’d punished our enemies and not parted the Red Sea, it would’ve been enough.
If he’d parted the Red Sea—(Remove gefilte fish from refrigerator now.)
Below are some additional readings and ideas to enhance your Seders. Click on each to download. This first one asks troubling questions. We are the people always saying "Never Again!" Yet in Bucha (and elsewhere) it has happened again. And again. How do we square our solumn vow with those facts on the ground?
See below, readings for "Pour Out Thy Wrath" and "In Every Generation"