Do Something!

In his book Teacher and Child, Haim Ginott tells a story about two boys who get into a verbal fight in school. The boys are yelling at each other and the argument is on the verge of becoming physical. Trying to be helpful, the teacher starts to lecture the boys about the importance of respect and tolerance. Suddenly, they turn to the teacher and say “Don’t just stand there…do something!” Ginott offers the story to demonstrate why it’s important for teachers to show that while words matter, action is sometimes necessary to make a difference.   That message is not only relevant to teachers and parents, it’s very much part of the Passover story.

In the Book of Exodus, we read the familiar story of the Ten Plagues, the last of which was the killing of the firstborn of Egypt. In order to prevent the death of their own firstborn, the Israelites are instructed to paint blood on the doorposts of their homes. 

And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. (Exodus 12:13)

That the Israelites had to paint the blood of the Passover sacrifice on the doorposts of their homes has always been a bit of a puzzle. Since God is omniscient, why was it necessary to place a sign on the doors of the Israelites’ homes? Didn’t God, or God’s angelic representative in Egypt, know which homes were occupied by Israelite families? There must be some reason that they were asked to paint blood on their homes. A 19th century German rabbi offers one possible explanation:

The Israelites had to procure the lamb, lead it through the streets without fear of Egyptian reaction, slaughter it family by family in groups, and finally they had to sprinkle its blood on the doorposts for every Egyptian passerby to see, braving the vengeance of their former persecutors. Their fulfillment of every detail of this rite would be a proof of their complete faith in God. (Rabbi Jacob Zvi Mecklenburg, 1785-1865, Germany)

In other words, the Israelites were told to paint the blood of the Passover sacrifice as an act of defiance of their Egyptian masters. Lambs were worshipped by the Egyptians. Killing a lamb was a sacrilegious act in the eyes of the Egyptians, and would take courage. Rabbi Mecklenburg implies that defying their tormentors would not only be a courageous act, it also be a demonstration of the Israelites’ faith in God. If the people truly believed that God was behind them, then they would have no fear of killing a lamb in public and putting its blood on display for all to see.

It could also be said that requiring the Israelites to paint the blood of the sacrificed lamb on their doorposts was a way of involving the people in the drama of their own redemption. Rather than make them passive participants, essentially observers, in the release from bondage, the Israelites were told to do something. Freedom must be earned, not bestowed. Painting blood may have been only a symbolic act, but it spoke volumes to the Israelites about being partners in securing their own freedom.

That’s a Passover message worth noting. Soon, we’ll gather around the Seder table to tell our people’s story. We’ll fulfill the customary rituals and sing the traditional songs. What does it all say to us? In two words, the Seder summons us to “do something.” It’s not enough to observe the plight of the world, to take note that there are people still enslaved, still oppressed, still suffering, even in our day. After all the rituals, songs and foods, the Seder must serve the purpose of motivating us to do something to make a difference.

I hope that your Seder will inspire you to find a way to be involved in the redemption of the world, for there is much about our world that needs to be redeemed.

Note: This Shabbat is both Rosh Chodesh Nisan (the beginning of the Jewish month of Nisan, the month in which Passover occurs) and also “Shabbat Ha-Chodesh.” Shabbat Ha-Chodesh (the Sabbat of THE month) inaugurates Nisan with a special reading from the Book of Exodus (12:1-20), a passage that begins to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. With the beginning of the month of Nisan, we begin the spiritual build up toward the celebration of Passover. This year, Rosh Chodesh Nisan and Shabbat Ha-Chodesh occur on the same day, and we’ll read passages from three separate Torah scrolls. We’ll read the first six aliyot of Parashat Tazria from the first scroll; we’ll read the verses for Rosh Chodesh (Numbers 29:9-15) from the second scroll; and we’ll read the verses for Shabbat Ha-Chodesh as the Maftir from the third scroll.


What To Do With Our Ancestors’ Customs Placed In Our Hands

The holiday of Passover is around the corner and with it comes the oft-asked question: Can we eat kitniyot? “Huh?” you ask! “What’s kitniyot? And why can’t I eat it?” The answer is an interesting example of the intersection between tradition and change.

To understand the issue of kitniyot, it’s necessary to know what “chametz” or leaven is. Jewish law prohibits the consumption of leaven during Passover, which is any one of five grains—wheat, barley, oats, rye or spelt—that have come into contact with water and been allowed to ferment. Jews are also prohibited from actually owning chametz on Passover (which is why so many people actually “sell” their chametz prior to the holiday), deriving any benefit from it, or even seeing it (hard to accommodate that part of the law nowadays). The prohibition on the consumption of chametz is pretty extensive, including leaven that is both visible and mixed into other foods as well as dishes and utensils on which it is served and cooked. Strictly speaking, even a speck of chametz is disallowed during the holiday.

Up until about 700 years ago, eating on Passover was pretty much just about setting aside chametz. During the 13th century, some Ashkenazic rabbis began talking about prohibiting rice, beans, millet and legumes, collectively known as “kitniyot.” Some suggested that these foods should be prohibited either because they were prepared in ways similar to chametz or were stored in similar containers and in the same location. They were apparently concerned that some people might wrongly assume that if “kitniyot” are permitted, then so are the prohibited chametz grains. (Sephardic rabbis had no problem with kitniyot, likely because of different agricultural and consumption practices in Sephardic lands, and to this day Sephardic Jews have no problem eating them.)

Some scholars across the centuries supported the ban on kitniyot. But mostly, the ban was acknowledged as pointless and even confusing. Some saw it as heaping unnecessary restrictions on people during a holiday that is meant to be joyous but is often experienced as a burdensome time. But the Ashkenazic ban on kitniyot stood the test of time. That is, until a few years ago. First, Rabbi David Golinkin, President Emeritus of The Schechter Institutes in Israel wrote an extensive paper (known as a teshuva) permitting the consumption of kitniyot. And just a few months ago, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly (CJLS) published a teshuva by Rabbi Amy Levin and Rabbi Avram Reisner permitting the consumption of kitniyot on Passover by Conservative Jews.

Rabbis Levin and Reisner acknowledge that there is a long standing practice of honoring the decisions and practices of our ancestors, even in cases when we don’t agree with their reasoning or understand what prompted them to embrace those practices. There is a principle in play here: minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu…the customs of our ancestors are in our hands. In other words, we should be careful to respect and honor the practices of previous generations. Judaism is a religion based on tradition, and we are typically not quick to dismiss what the past has given to us.

But tradition must be balanced with change, an open and honest embrace of the present and the future. We must consider seriously the values and priorities of our own times if our religion is to have meaning and relevance. Thus the teshuva written by Rabbis Levin and Reisner also addresses the inapplicability of the primary concerns that once gave rise to the ban on kitniyot, the need to create a Jewish experience that is unencumbered by burdens and needless prohibitions, the need to lower the cost of “making Passover,” and even the health benefits of eating legumes (the teshuva reminds us that all processed foods should have a Passover “hechsher”).

So eat rice and beans during Passover! Embrace change even while maintaining a healthy respect for the traditions practiced by the generations of Jews who came before us. And remember that Passover should be about more than what foods are permitted and what foods are not. It’s about celebrating the fundamental freedoms that are the right of all human beings and our obligation to uphold them.

Chag Sameach v’Kasher!


The Message of Shabbat Shekalim

This Shabbat, known as “Shabbat Shekalim,” is the first of four special Shabbatot that occur in the weeks before Passover. Its name derives from a passage taken from the Book of Exodus that is read as a special supplement (maftir) to the main Torah reading:

“This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay…a half-shekel by sanctuary weight. Everyone…from the age of 20 years and up shall give the Lord’s offering. The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel.” (Exodus 30:11-16)

A half-shekel was collected from Israelites 20 years and older both as a way of assessing the size of the nation’s fighting force and as a way of raising money for the maintenance of the Temple. The tax was due on the first of Nisan (the beginning of the year in the Biblical and Temple periods), and people were reminded a month in advance to pay. We recall this tradition in our own time by reading the relevant passage from the Torah on the Sabbath prior to Rosh Chodesh Adar (the beginning of the month of Adar, which is one month before Nisan). That Sabbath is called “Shabbat Shekalim,” the Sabbath of the Shekel. Other than recalling an ancient tradition of donating a half-shekel, does this occasion have any meaning for us? Two points come to mind.

The first is that we are nothing other than the sum of our parts. Every individual matters to the success of our community. While it’s true that the half-shekel was collected from those able to serve in the army, there is no doubt that our community, just like that of the ancient Israelites, needs the talents and attention of each one of its members. That means that, as a former Oheb Shalom member who has passed on once wrote, “We make of our congregation what it is and what it will become. Its pews will be filled if we fill them. It will be friendly if we are friendly. It will do great and noble things if we help to make great things happen.” Shabbat Shekalim reminds us that we each have an opportunity—indeed, a responsibility—to enhance our congregation.

The second point is captured by the verse that says “the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel.” Perhaps this equalizing of payments was meant to ensure an accurate count of the nation’s fighting force. But there is something else implied by these words—every person matters equally. Of course, charitable institutions, including synagogues, benefit from and even rely on the generosity of people who possess financial resources. That generosity should be applauded and received with gratitude. Yet, there is something symbolic, something deeply meaningful, in stating that the members of a community, those who are well off and those who are struggling and everyone in between, all have something to contribute to its vitality. While we do not all have equal financial means, we all have something of equal value to contribute to the success of our synagogue—our caring and our love. To paraphrase the Torah, the rich and the poor give equal portions of caring and love to synagogue.

Oheb Shalom relies on your gifts of caring and love, given in equal measure by all of our members, to succeed in what we do. We cannot, and will not, take them for granted.

Shabbat Shalom.


There’s Always Tomorrow

The week long observance of Passover is coming to an end and many of us, I’m sure, are beginning to think of all the chametz we’re planning to eat. After abstaining for eight days from some of our favorite foods, it will be very satisfying to eat pizza, sandwiches, bagels and donuts. Passover is a very special holiday, rich with meaning and inspiration. But let’s face it…most people can’t tolerate the dietary restrictions imposed by Pesach for more than a week each year. Would it surprise you to know that the Torah tells of a second Passover, to be celebrated a month later? In the reading for the final day of Chol Ha-Moed (the four intermediate non-festival days of the holiday), we read this passage from the Book of Numbers:

And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the first month of the second year after they came out of the land of Egypt, saying, “Let the people of Israel also keep the Passover at its appointed season. In the fourteenth day of this month, at evening you shall keep it in its appointed season; according to all its rites, and according to all its ceremonies, you shall keep it.” And Moses spoke to the people of Israel, that they should keep the Passover. And they kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month at evening in the wilderness of Sinai; according to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so did the people of Israel. And there were certain men, who were defiled by the dead body of a man, so that they could not keep the Passover on that day; and they came before Moses and before Aaron on that day; And those men said to him, We are defiled by the dead body of a man; Why are we kept back, so that we may not offer an offering to the Lord in his appointed season among the people of Israel? And Moses said to them, Wait, and I will hear what the Lord will command concerning you. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If any man of you or of your posterity shall be unclean because of a dead body, or is in a journey far away, he shall still keep the Passover to the Lord. The fourteenth day of the second month at evening they shall keep it, and eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. They shall leave none of it to the morning, nor break any bone of it; according to all the ordinances of the Passover they shall keep it.” (Numbers 9:1-12)

I’ve always liked this passage, not because it holds out the possibility of celebrating Passover a second time but because it speaks of second chances. These verses assure us that there’s always an opportunity to reconnect with our tradition and our community. Some clarification is in order. The passage begins with a reminder to the Israelites to observe Passover on the first anniversary of the Exodus, complete with the rites and rituals that were part of the first Passover celebration. Certain people, who were unable to observe Passover because they were not ritually purified due to contact with a corpse, complain that they should not be held back from observing the holiday and they appeal to Moses. God’s advice to Moses is that they should be able to observe the holiday on the same day of the following month. This resolution seems satisfying because it enables those who could not celebrate Passover to do so.

I’ve always been drawn to the part of the verse that says “If any person is on a journey far away…” The simple meaning of the passage is that if a person was not physically in a place to offer the Passover sacrifice, he could do so the next month. But I understand these words in a more symbolic light. If a person is on a journey that has taken him far away from Jewish tradition, if someone feels alienated or disconnected from the community, then there’s always a way back, another chance to get connected. That is the nature of our religious tradition. The door is always open to those who wish to participate, to learn, to become engaged and involved.

Despite what the Torah says, there is no actual second Passover. Once I’ve made the last batch of matzah brei, once I’ve put away our Seder plate and our Pesach dishes and pots and pans, the holiday is over until the following year. But one of the encouraging messages of the holiday is that there’s always, always, an open door, a way into Judaism. Passover reminds us that it’s never too late to find a pathway back to our tradition and our way of life.

The Meaning of Religious Freedom

On Friday night Jews will gather in homes around the world for our annual Pesach Seder, a joyful telling of our people’s story of the quest for religious freedom. Using symbols and eating special foods, we will tell of our history of slavery and degradation, how we were redeemed from bondage by God and were summoned to be a holy nation tasked with embracing an ethical and moral way of life. We will tell of our rejection of intolerance and oppression, of the need for outrage about suffering imposed by the strong on the weak and that it is not right for one human being to impose his values and way of life on another. We will read about the Jewish people’s long standing mandate to honor and take care of the stranger in our midst, the commandment most often mentioned in the Torah. On Passover night, we will talk about religious freedom, what it means and why it is a sacred and cherished gift.

Religious freedom has been in the news these past days as Indiana’s State Legislature has passed a bill—the “Religious Freedom Bill”—and Governor Mike Pence has struggled to justify what appears to be a pathway to legalized discrimination based on a person’s sexual preference or religious beliefs. The very idea that a person could possibly be denied service in this country based on their way of life is nothing less than shocking. In a nation that still bears the scars of ugly racism and struggles to heal the wounds inflicted by racial intolerance, in this 50th year since the March on Selma, it is simply unacceptable for any one of the states of this great country to create a legal pathway for someone to deny service to another person because they don’t approve of their way of life or their beliefs. Such legislation does not uphold religious freedom, it impedes it.

From the Jewish perspective, the real meaning of religious freedom is the opportunity to be devoted to a special purpose and to use our days to make the world a better place. Once freed from Egyptian slavery, the Jewish people went directly to meet God at Mt. Sinai and there willingly entered into a covenant. That covenant spelled out a special way of life we were to follow, a way of life that would enrich our lives with meaning and inspire us to make the world a better place. For the Jewish people, religious freedom does not imply the absence of obligation or commitment, and it certainly doesn’t imply that we are entitled to discriminate against others because we don’t like the choices they’ve made. Rather, for us religious freedom means that we have an opportunity to do something good as individuals and as a community. We engage in prayer, study, ritual practice and celebration for many reasons, but chief among them is that these acts should inspire us to perform acts of loving kindness and to improve the world.

Tomorrow night we will speak of our journey from slavery to freedom, from degradation to redemption. Our story is not one of self-pity, nor is it one written out of anger or self-righteousness. It is an inspirational story, a summons to heal the world and uphold the inherent dignity of all human beings precisely because we know what it feels like to be the victims of discrimination and oppression. It is a calling to use our religious teaching and values as a catalyst for good. Unlike what’s going on in Indiana, that is the real meaning of religious freedom.

I wish you a fulfilling and joyous celebration of Pesach. I hope that the words of the Haggadah will inspire you and that you will be in the company of family members and cherished friends. I hope that you will create new memories that will last for generations. And I hope that you will spend part of Pesach with the Oheb Shalom family (services for the first two days of Passover, Saturday and Sunday, begin at 9:30 AM).

Boil or Broil: A Choice Affecting the Jewish Future

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.

Frogs Here, Frogs There, Frogs Are Jumping Everywhere

We’ve recently concluded our celebration of Passover, as the last paragraph in the Haggadah says, “along with all its rituals and customs.”  Among young children and their teachers and parents, those rituals include the singing of “Frogs Are Jumping Everywhere,” a happy sounding tune based on the story in the Torah about the invasion of frogs from the Nile River, the second of the Ten Plagues.  Behind this children’s song lies an important and serious message that has become deeply relevant in recent days.

This week we learned that Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers professional basketball team, made outrageously offensive racial comments in a conversation with his girlfriend (in days to come, the back story of why the girlfriend secretly recorded their conversation will surely come out).  Born in Chicago as Donald Tokowitz and raised in Los Angeles, Sterling is the son of Jewish immigrants.  He is a self-made billionaire who purchased the Clippers franchise for $12 million in 1981 and has seen the value of his investment rise to $750 million.  Upon confirming that the comments heard on the tape were made by Sterling, the commissioner of the National Basketball Association, Alan Silver, banned him from professional basketball for life, levied a fine of $2.5 million, and promised to press the 29 other owners to vote to force him to sell the team and make his eviction from the NBA complete.

Sterling may think of himself as a generous and tolerant person (his foundation distributes money to several charitable organizations, including some that support minority causes), but there is no doubt that he is a rabid racist.  His removal from the NBA was absolutely the right move for the commissioner to make.  Now that must be followed by being ostracized from other communal organizations and social groups, for there is no place in our society for someone who holds racist views.  Not only must a message be sent to Mr. Sterling that his racism rightly excludes him from mainstream society, but a similarly strong message must be sent to all other racists, those in the open and those in hiding, that their racism is an unacceptable violation of everything that decent and honorable people stand for.

The only way to defeat the scourge of racism is for good people to unify and rise up against it. We can’t allow bigoted people to spew their hatred and go unchallenged.  That’s the message behind the children’s Passover song about frogs.  Interestingly, the Torah passage in the Book of Exodus that describes the invasion of the frogs starts out by saying that “the frog” came up from the Nile onto the land—not many frogs, only one frog.  The Midrashic text seizes on this quirk of language to make the point that at first one frog came up and when he encountered no resistance he signaled to his friends to join him.  Thereafter, ironically, the Torah text indeed says that “the frogs” invaded the land.  The take away from the Midrash is clear—a plague will advance on its way to infecting society if it faces no resistance.

Frogs here, frogs there, frogs are jumping everywhere.  Passover may be behind us, but the ills of society are, sadly, not.  Donald Sterling, like all racists, is a plague on all of us.  The way to stop him and prevent the spread of his narrow minded, bigoted view of people and our world is to stand up and prevent him from coming up from the depths of the river onto the land.

“I Don’t Know Why…But It’s a Tradition!”

I did something yesterday that I’ve never done before in my nearly 30 years as a rabbi and it felt strange doing it.  On the surface of it, what I did won’t sound strange.  I took the Air Train from JFK to Jamaica Station, then got on the LIRR to Penn Station, and finally took the midtown direct train to South Orange Station.  What made it strange was that it was the final day of Passover, a festival day nearly equivalent in sanctity to Shabbat.  I’m an observant Jew, and I don’t drive or take public transportation on the Sabbath or festivals unless it’s an emergency.  But here I was, wearing my kippah, taking the train to get home from the airport.  What’s more, despite the fact that it was Passover, I even had a bagel on my way home.

How could such aberrant behavior be explained?  The crucial detail you need to know is that I spent Pesach in Israel, where the holiday is celebrated for only seven days and only one Seder is held.  I left Israel on what was the day after Passover for Israelis, though that day—the 22nd of Nisan, April 22nd—was being observed all throughout the Diaspora as the holiday’s eighth and final day.  The addition of an extra day to all three of the Pilgrimage Festivals, called “Yom Tov Sheni Shel Galuyot,” is the result of a calendar quirk that’s centuries old.  Before the creation of reliable time keeping technology, the Jewish calendar was set according to the testimony of witnesses who had seen the New Moon, and an announcement that the Biblical holidays should be observed was sent by signal torch and messengers.  Such testimony was considered reliable only within the borders of the land of Israel, so it was decreed that a second day of the festival should be observed in Jewish communities abroad in case word hadn’t arrived to those places in time to begin observing the holiday.  To this day, “Yom Tov Sheni” is observed even though there is no confusion about the correct day of the holiday anywhere in the world (Reform Jews celebrate only one day of the festivals).  But if a person celebrates the entire holiday in Israel, he is exempt from observing “Yom Tov Sheni” even if he lives outside of Israel.

Why do we still add an extra day to the festivals when the original reason for doing so is obsolete?  After all, we know when the holidays fall each year without the aid of testimony given before a rabbinical court about the appearance of the New Moon.  There are good answers to that question, including the pleasure of celebrating holy days and special times with family and friends.  Just as we look forward to celebrating special occasions like birthdays and anniversaries, so do traditional Jews look forward to celebrating the Jewish holidays.  Some in the Diaspora even consider themselves especially fortunate to have an extra batch of holidays to celebrate that our Israeli brothers and sisters do not have.  Still, most people would agree that there’s a limit to how many holidays we can celebrate.  While the Jewish holidays are special occasions, it can be difficult and costly to prepare and allocate time for them.

An even better reason for celebrating the second day of the festivals can be summarized by a phrase coined by the Talmudic sages:  “minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu…the customs of our ancestors are in our hands.” In essence, each new generation may question the validity of certain Jewish practices, like celebrating the second festival day or including legumes (kitniyot) in the prohibition of eating chametz on Passover, but there is reluctance to abandon such practices out of a desire to safeguard the decisions and views of our ancestors.  This is more than firmly disagreeing with some religious practice from the past but agreeing to continue it out of respect for previous rabbinic leaders.  Minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu suggests that our ancestors may have had insights that we have not yet grasped and we ought to defer to them out of humility.

The idea that we are maintaining practices and values from the past can be summarized in a single word, perhaps the most important word associated with being Jewish: tradition.  Ask people who practice Judaism why they do what they do and you will likely hear reasons that include theological conviction and personal meaning.  But the number one reason that people practice Judaism is probably tradition- the desire to be a link in a chain and continue what was done in the past.  It’s fair to say that the Passover Seder is, for most people, more about continuing family traditions than it is about the theology of the Haggadah.   As Tevye the Dairyman famously said, “Why do we do these things?  I don’t know…but it’s a tradition!”

Those words aren’t so foolish.  We owe a measure of respect and humility to those who came before us.  Rather than conclude that our ancestors had no idea what they were doing when they enacted customs and practices, we should say that there is something valid in being a link in the transmission of a centuries-old tradition.  Minhag avoteinu b’yadeinu…rather than simply dismiss out of hand those practices that we find irrelevant or difficult to understand, we instead should say that maybe our ancestors were onto something when they fashioned the religious practices they did.

Each new generation is faced with the challenge of balancing traditions from the past with sensibilities and insights from the present.  As we make choices about what customs and practices should comprise our Jewish experience, we ought to give substantial weight to the ideas of our ancestors.  If we don’t regard them with care and respect, who will?

Three Faces

It’s been my privilege to walk the streets of Jerusalem this week.  While enjoying the beautiful spring weather and exchanging greetings of “Chag Sameach” with strangers, I’ve made a point of noticing not just the buildings and the street names, which are always beautiful and intriguing, but also the faces of people I pass on the street.  As I walked down Rechov Yafo from the Machane Yehudah outdoor market to the Old City, I saw three particular faces that have stayed with me.  These faces have left me wondering about the people behind them, and have reminded me to look beyond crowds to try to see the human beings who comprise them.

The first face I saw was that of a young man, an Orthodox Jew affiliated with the Chabad movement.  He had set up a small portable table on one of the street corners with worn and tattered signage produced on a home printer hanging from the edge that was flapping gently in the breeze.  The sign advertised that the man could arrange for the sale of chametz to a gentile on behalf of his rabbi.  The spot in the city where he had located his table was not in the most religious neighborhood, so clearly the man was seeking to inspire people to sell their chametz who likely wouldn’t have done so on their own.  He chose a busy intersection, but very few people stopped by to sign the form, despite that there was no charge for this service and no hard push for tzedakah for the yeshiva.  I stopped for a while to look at his face, wondering what he was feeling.  Was he discouraged that so few people wanted to sell their chametz?  Was he wondering why he, a true believer and follower of the law, had to persuade others to fulfill a mitzvah so central to the observance of Passover?  As I was looking at his face, a man stopped by the table to sign the form and arrange for the rabbi to sell his chametz.  The man’s face lit up with joy.  What was he thinking?  Was he contemplating that he had come one step closer to bringing the Messiah by persuading one more person to observe the law?  Was he thinking that his diligence and effort would please his rebbe?  I wondered…

The second face I saw was that of a woman who seemed to be not young but not elderly.  She, like so many others, had a cell phone pressed to the side of her head and was engrossed in conversation.  That’s not an unusual site in the times in which we live.  But this woman had a look of anguish on her face and tears streaming down her cheeks.  I couldn’t hear her voice, since it was muffled by her hair and gentle sobs.  Why was she crying?  Maybe it was not anguish she was feeling, but joy.  Had she heard good news?  Had she just experienced reconciliation with a family member or friend?  Or was I correct that she was feeling anguish and had just learned about a tragedy, or perhaps was having an argument?  Perhaps she given over to unbounded or even inappropriate expressions of emotion when having ordinary conversations?  What could be prompting her tears?  I wondered…

The third face I saw was that of an old man walking slowly down the street using a cane.  His steps were excruciatingly slow, perhaps an inch or two at a time, more of a shuffle than a walk.  It wouldn’t have been out of place to worry that he would fall down.  Right behind him, though, was his aid pushing his wheel chair.  By itself, that might not have been a site to notice, as the aid could have been acting as the safety net for his charge.  But the man’s face revealed a determination chiseled into his features.  Each step was accompanied by grit and ultimate effort.  Was he feeling pride at being able to move on his own?  Was he feeling desperation or at what could have been one of countless attempts to ambulate on his own?  Was he feeling worry that if he couldn’t make it on his own he would be forced to sit in his wheelchair, and endure a crushing loss of independence?  Was he hoping to impress his children that he could still make it?  I wondered…

When I’m in crowds, I tend now to look more at faces than at the bulk of people I see.  I try to imagine who they are and what stories they could tell.  I contemplate what I can learn from them that could be helpful and insightful, even if I can’t know with certainty that my speculation is right or wrong.  Looking at faces has caused me to see the human beings in a crowd, and has reminded me of the ancient Jewish teaching from the Mishna that rather than creating a human race, God created at first one person to teach that each life has a measure of holiness and value and that each person can impact our lives in a unique way.

So I urge you to spend some time looking not at crowds but at faces and the human beings who bear them.