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).

“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.