You wouldn’t think that the way you prepare dinner could affect the future of the Jewish people, but it just might. It could affect the vitality of the State of Israel and that of the Jews of America. The way dinner is cooked has everything to do with the way we align our priorities and express our values. Since this seems like an outlandish idea, an explanation is in order.
I’m not referring, of course, to any routine dinner we might cook and serve but to a special dinner—the Passover meal eaten at the Seder. The Torah tells us, in Exodus chapter 12, that the Passover offering was to be roasted over fire (broiled), and specifically says that it should not be boiled. I’ve read that passage countless times and never paid very much attention to the statement that the lamb had to be roasted and not boiled. But this year I happened upon an intriguing commentary on the passage that quoted the “Maharal of Prague” (Judah Lowe ben Betzalel, 1525-1609). The “Maharal” explained that the process of boiling involves absorption of elements surrounding the meat, and that the meat is fundamentally changed by being boiling. Roasting, or broiling, has the opposite effect, as broiling results in the meat being sealed off and preventing the elements around it from being absorbed. In explaining why the Torah states that the Passover sacrifice offered by the Israelites had to be roasted (broiled) and not boiled, he said that the young nation at first had to develop a strong identity, which would initially require that it resist being shaped by the cultural and religious influences surrounding it. When that strong national identity was in place, providing a foundation for the people to develop their cultural and religious norms independently, then they could “boil,” or afford to absorb and be influenced by the trends and ideas around them.
I thought of this Torah verse and the commentary of the Maharal this past week during the second session of a wonderful class being taught at Oheb Shalom by Rabbi Jan Uhrbach. Rabbi Uhrbach was teaching about the Jewish views of particularism vs. universalism, or, more simply, the question of whether Jews ought to be concerned exclusively about the needs of Jews or, more broadly, about the world. We live in an age of universalism, so the question might seem odd and its answer obvious. But the future of Judaism actually may depend on how it’s answered. Rabbi Uhrbach gracefully led the group through a series of texts that led to a conclusion: we must begin with concern and care for our own people, and then build outward to have concern for the people of the world. One reason, she argued, is simplest of all: if we don’t take care of ourselves, who will? But another reason would be that it’s impossible to develop a sense of compassion by aiming to take care of everyone in the world. Rather, we should begin by caring for those closest to us, those with whom we share a common story, a common set of values, and a destiny. But we can’t be satisfied by caring only for our own. We must move beyond self-interest to concern for all people.
The way we approach the tension between a Particularistic approach and a Universalistic one has broad implications for the future of our people. What will happen to the State of Israel, and to the institutions and organizations of the Jewish community in America and around the world, if Jews don’t take responsibility for one another? This is one of the biggest challenge facing our generation, and concern for how it will be addressed can be seen when observing how young teenagers relate to it. In the past, when I’ve asked Bar/Bat Mitzvah students if they prioritize giving money to Israel and Jews around the world over other non-Jewish causes, the answer has been a resounding “no” (keep in mind that the question posed is about prioritizing Jewish giving, not giving exclusively to Jewish causes). Ask yourself if you are worried about the future of the Jewish people if young Jews no longer feel that it is a priority to care for their fellow Jews.
We need to develop a strong sense of concern about ourselves, and invest in our own future. Only then will we be strong enough and confident enough in our values to reach out to others. First we need to broil our dinner, and only then can we afford to boil it.
Note: Rabbi Uhrbach’s third- and final- session, on the theme of Jewish law vs. conscience, will take place this Sunday, May 18 from 9:30-11:00 AM.