In Need, But of What?

Near the beginning of the Passover Seder, we introduce the “Maggid” portion of the Haggadah, the heart of the Seder during which we tell the story of the enslavement and exodus, with a passage in Aramaic called “Ha Lachma Anya.” The Aramaic may be hard to pronounce, but the English is compelling:

“This is the bread of poverty and persecution that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need, come and share the Pesach meal. This year we are still here. Next year, in the Land of Israel. This year we are still slaves. Next year, free people.”

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, among the greatest Orthodox Rabbis of the twentieth century, was intrigued by the language of this passage. Why, he asked, does it refer to “all who are hungry” as well as “all who are in need?” Is this use of language not repetitive and redundant? Soloveitchik answered that there is no redundancy here at all. “All who are hungry” refers those who do not have enough to eat, and stressed our obligation to take care of the hungry not only at Passover time but throughout the year. “All who are in need” refers to those who are alone, those with plenty of matza but no one with whom to share the experience. Soloveitchik writes, “The invitation to all who are in need is not to come and eat with us (yeitei ve-yeichol) but to celebrate with us (yeitei ve-yifsach). It is an invitation addressed to unfortunate and lonely people. Whoever is in need should come and celebrate.”

Passover summons us not only to be attentive to those in need of food but also to those in need of people. Those who make donations to the “Rabbi’s Passover Fund” upon arranging for the sale of chametz should know that those funds are mostly used to help people in need of food and supplies for Passover. And year round, Oheb Shalom’s Food Pantry distributes food to those who cannot provide enough food for themselves. Clearly important, feeding the hungry is a surprisingly easy mitzvah to fulfill, one that is essentially done by proxy. The mitzvah of providing for those in need of companionship and community requires a personal commitment of time and attention. Engaging someone in conversation, learning about their life, interests and ideas, connecting to someone and enabling them to feel that they are not alone is something we can only do ourselves.

Our newly energized Chesed program, under the leadership of Richard Prince, is an important way to fulfill the Jewish mandate to address the need some people have for companionship, caring and connection. More than writing a check, the work of Chesed aims to fill the void in someone’s life, whether at a time of crisis or not. Would you not agree that the life of someone who cannot drive would be immensely enriched if they were picked up at their home and brought to the synagogue for a service, class or program? That type of investment does wonders to help someone to feel that they matter, that their presence makes a difference in our community. Would you not agree that the life of someone who has suffered a loss would be enriched by a large turnout at a shiva minyan, avoiding the embarrassing and awkward experience of delaying the start of the service until the requisite 10 people can be called on the spur of the moment to show up, or worse, no minyan is present at all? Would you not agree that the life of someone who is not especially mobile would be enriched by a regular call or visit by a fellow shul member, reaching out to see how they are and be engaged in conversation for a few moments? I am sure you would agree that these gestures are the least we can do to support the people around us who are in need of caring and love—“Chesed” in Hebrew—and that those who extend themselves to others find that they are personally enriched in the process.

Kol dichfin yeitei ve-yeichol, Kol ditzrich yeitei ve-yifsach… Let all who are hungry come and eat, let all who are need of caring and love be satisfied. The holiday of Passover reminds us that the mitzvah of care and love for the needy is not one to be performed once a year, but every day. Each day is a new beginning, and the time to embrace the practice of Chesed is now.

To get involved in the work of our Chesed team, please contact Richard Prince at

Time to Get Ready

There are some experiences in life that cannot be encountered suddenly in order to be fully enjoyed and appreciated. We anticipate our wedding day or becoming a parent or a grandparent. We think about certain family gatherings or special moments with friends, often preparing ourselves emotionally. Athletes gear up for a big game not only physically but mentally as well. This is how the Talmudic Sages viewed Passover, as an experience for which we should prepare both physically and spiritually. Thus they designated the entire month of Nisan, the month in which Passover occurs, as a month of “kedusha,” of sanctity. The Rabbinic Sages celebrated the beginning of the month of Nisan by reading a special portion from the Torah (Exodus 12:1-20), which tells the story of the first Exodus from Egypt. They called the Shabbat immediately prior to Passover “Shabbat Ha-Chodesh,” the Sabbath of THE month. (In an unusual alignment on the calendar, this year Shabbat Ha-Chodesh and Rosh Chodesh Nisan occur on the same day.) The Sages asked us to begin preparing for the monumental experience of the Passover Seder well in advance of the holiday so that when the evening finally comes, we’re ready and at our best.

How does one get ready for Passover? Of course, there is the physical transformation that takes place in our homes, including the changing of dishes, an exceptionally thorough cleaning of the house and the buying and cooking of special foods. But how does one get ready spiritually for Passover?

One way is to devote a little part of each day of the next two weeks to study and contemplation. To accomplish that, I share with you some resources that you can obtain either for an iPad or tablet, or in print. Each of these resources has something valuable to offer and can serve to enrich your Passover experience, not only at the Seder but during the entire holiday. Find something in one or more of these books to add to your Seder or to add to your family’s dinner conversation during Passover week. Even more important, allocate time to helping the homeless and the hungry, for discovering the time and inspiration to help those in need is truly the essence and the desired result of celebrating Passover.

Here are three of my favorite Haggadot. It’s not necessary to buy a copy for everyone at your Seder. Obtain one and quote from it, or pass it around.

Resource Books
Whether you’re preparing to lead the Seder or want to know more about its content and origin, these books will provide an enormous amount of insight and information.

Passover is a bit more than two weeks away so now is the time to get ready!

Mr. Pentakaka

Meet Mr. Pentakaka, a character found in the pages of the Jerusalem Talmud. He was a brothel owner, hardly a virtuous line of work. He was cynical, self-serving, insensitive and indifferent to the needs of his fellow human beings. The origin his name is “man of five sins” because his sins are considered so great that he is beyond redemption. One day, a poor woman came to the brothel desperately in need of money because her husband had been kidnapped and was being held for ransom. She begged to be taken into the brothel so she could earn the necessary funds to redeem her husband. Rather than accept her offer, Pentakaka instead reached into his pocket and gave the woman the amount of money she needed to buy her husband’s freedom. For this single righteous act, the Talmud tells us, Pentakaka was rewarded with a share in the world to come, the highest reward possible by the reckoning of the Talmudic Rabbis.

Why did Pentakaka receive such a great reward for only a single pious act? One commentary suggests that the reason is that his behavior amounts to a repudiation of perfection, in his case perfect evil. Apparently, the Talmudic sages wanted to convey that human beings should never aspire to perfection, whether perfect good or perfect evil. Perfection lies within the realm of the Divine, not humans. We were created to be imperfect, always striving to improve. We should have no allusions that we can ever complete the work of improving the condition of our lives.

This week, we observe “Shabbat Parah,” a reminder that Passover is about a month away. The origin of this special Shabbat, one of four observed in the week prior to Pesach, is the Torah’s commandment to the Israelites to purify themselves prior to bringing the Passover offering. The “Korban Pesach” was among the most important sacrifices that could be offered and the Torah requires that the person who makes the offering be in a state of ritual purity. The purification ritual involved the sacrifice of a pure red heifer, an animal that could not have a single blemish or even two white hairs on its body. The passage that contains this commandment (Numbers 19:1-22, read from a second scroll this Shabbat morning) refers to the “parah adumah,” Hebrew for red heifer. The reminder to engage in the purification ritual was made a month before the holiday to give people sufficient time to prepare.

Some suggest that the red heifer represents perfection and the commandment to offer this sacrifice represents the sacrifice of perfection. By commanding that a pure red heifer be sacrificed, we are coached to offer as a sacrifice the striving for perfection in our lives.

Too often, we seek perfection in ourselves, in our family members and in those we love and care for. We expect perfect academic performance from students, perfect performance in business by colleagues, perfect performances by athletes and politicians. We aspire toward the perfect body, the perfect relationship. But the striving for perfection of any type can prevent us from seeing the good in people and things.

Mr. Pentakaka, the man who earned eternal redemption by rejecting perfection, teaches us that human beings are potentially good but not perfect, and that is nothing to regret or be ashamed of. Each of us is a work in progress. On our journey in life, we should seek to grow stronger and better, but give up the idea that such a quest ever is finished, for it truly can never be.

Note: This Shabbat, Oheb Shalom welcomes Amir Sagie, Deputy Consul General of the Israel Consulate in New York. Mr. Sagie is an expert on BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanction), a worldwide movement to harm Israel. After the service, he will speak to us about what the State of Israel is doing to combat the BDS movement and what we as individuals can do to combat it as well. I STRONGLY URGE YOU TO BE WITH US THIS SHABBAT MORNING TO SHARE IN OUR SERVICE AND LISTEN TO OUR GUEST SPEAKER. The presentation, the third in a series, is sponsored by the Israel Action Committee.

Other Than That, Mrs. Lincoln, How Was the Show?

I’ve just returned from the annual AIPAC Policy Conference held at the Convention Center in Washington D.C.  If you haven’t attended Policy Conference, I urge you to register for next year’s conference.  The conference features general sessions at which statesman and leading political figures address the group, as well as breakout sessions on a wide range of topics with presentations by analysts, journalists, and experts.  Policy Conference is also a celebration of Israel and her achievements.  With over 16,000 people in attendance (the 2015 conference set a record), there is a powerful feeling of community and purpose created at Policy Conference.  The experience of so many people gathering together to talk about Israel and the US-Israel relationship, to learn about pressing issues faced by Israel, the Middle East and the world, and to advocate for Israel’s needs in the halls of Congress is empowering and invigorating.

I want to tell you about two of the breakout sessions I attended—“Iran in 2015: What to Watch” and “The Way Forward: Israel and the Palestinians in 2015.”  Both of these sessions were highly informative and both offered realistic, eye opening views of two of the most significant issues facing Israel and the world.

“Iran in 2015: What to Watch” was presented by Mark Dubowitz (Executive Director, Foundation for Defense of Democracies), Prof. Charles Freilich (Senior Fellow, International Security Program, Harvard Kennedy School of Government) and Dr. Ray Takeyh (Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations—Dr. Takeyh’s recent column in the Washington Post entitled The Strategic Genius of Iran’s Supreme Leader is a must read).  In a no holds barred and crisp presentation, these three brilliant panelists offered a stark assessment of the current negotiations between the P5 + 1 and Iran and why any deal that will be made is probably going to be a bad one.  The panelists were not preachy and did not advance a personal agenda.  Rather, they presented the cold facts as they are, leaving the participants to draw their own conclusions.  In a nutshell, they were in agreement that the Iranian economy was on the verge of collapse, perhaps 4-6 months away from Iran’s Supreme Leader being faced with a choice between abandoning the ability to enrich uranium and his people being able to put food on the table, when their fortunes changed.  For reasons that history will judge, the notion that “this is the best we can get from Iran” became the P5 + 1’s guiding principle.   The panelists were also in agreement on several related points: that the so-called “sunset clause” which removes any legal obligations on the Iranians after a period of 10 years enables them to simply wait until they choose to develop nuclear weapons; that while the sanctions architecture may technically remain in place it will be impossible to reverse the investments in Iran’s economy that the world will rush to make; and it will be nearly impossible to achieve consensus on violations of the agreement.  All three panelists stressed that while these are the likely outcomes of the negotiations, it’s prudent to wait until the deal is struck before passing final judgment.

“The Way Forward: Israel and the Palestinians in 2015” was presented by Brig. General (ret.) Michael Herzog, an active participant in the recent US sponsored negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and Aaron David Miller, Distinguished Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.  Both presenters were insightful and direct.  In sum, they both agreed that there will not likely be any breakthroughs in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue in the coming months.  Mr. Miller asserted that such breakthroughs require bold and courageous steps taken by leaders who are not beholden to their constituencies.  They both agreed that most breakthroughs in recent history have occurred without the intervention of the United States (Israel and Egypt, Israel and Jordan and the Oslo Accords all happened without the US even being aware they were happening until the final stages).  And they agreed that while the Israeli electorate doesn’t like Netanyahu, it’s probable that any accord will result from the involvement of a strong, right-of-center leader.  When asked if there is a tipping point, after which it will be impossible to negotiate a two state solution, the panelists answered that there certainly is one, but it can’t be identified or predicted.  A “tipping point” will only be known once it has occurred and set into the minds of the Israelis and Palestinians.

To some extent, both of these sessions were realistic and honest to the point of feeling pessimism.  With Iran on a track to obtain a favorable deal that might very lead to a fanatical state possessing a nuclear bomb and with no serious prospects for a breakthrough with the Palestinians, I thought of the cynically humorous question “Other Than That, Mrs. Lincoln, How Was the Show?”  What is there to celebrate and what are the reasons for optimism?

My best answer is the continued involvement, engagement and advocacy of the Jewish people for Israel’s interests.  While the AIPAC Policy Conference is a time for learning and discussion, it is largely focused on advocacy.  Participants in the conference lobbied their Congressmen to support important legislation that favors Israel.  Whether or not you attended Policy Conference, you can still lobby for these two important legislative measures:

First, urge our Senators to Support the Nuclear Weapon Free Iran Act of 2015 (S.269) authored by Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) and Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ).  The measure supports American diplomatic efforts by providing the president authority to impose additional sanctions on Iran if nuclear negotiations fail to achieve a final agreement.

Second, support the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act of 2015 (S.615), authored by Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) and Sen. Menendez.  The measure establishes a procedure for congressional review of any nuclear agreement with Iran and empowers Congress to bar any statutory sanctions relief.

AIPAC is an important and necessary organization that brings together thousands of people who care about Israel and the cause of peace.  There’s much to learn at an AIPAC Policy Conference.  Between annual conferences, AIPAC needs you to support its crucial work of supporting the State of Israel.  I urge you to get involved.