Thursday, March 25, 2010

Pesach: Activities for the Passover Seder table

If you haven't yet, please click here to read my post about why we should make our Seder more interactive, then keep reading below:

The Seder has tremendous potential for being interactive, engaging, thought-provoking, and spiritually enhancing. Many families, however, zip through a couple/some/all the steps of the Seder like a checklist, and it isn’t very engaging or fun at all. I want to suggest a few ways to make your experience more enjoyable, and I encourage you to look up more information online and/or write to me to discuss options for your Seder.
Here are a few ideas:
- Get everyone involved! Ask people to prepare ahead of time, bring memories of their best (and worst!) Seder experiences, bring readings they are especially fond of, and contribute to the discussions. It will be more interactive and it won’t just be one person reading throughout the evening.
- Hide the Afikoman. Some fun things are already built into the Seder rituals. Are you hiding the Afikoman? (Half a board of matzah which is the official “dessert” at the end of the meal.) Some families have the kids hide it and the parents have to find it or bribe the kids to give it back. Others have the parents hide it and the kids have to go on a Scavenger Hunt to search and retrieve it. Either way, it’s a nice opportunity to keep the kids involved and interested, and you can give them a little gift as a prize at the end!
- Sing a lot! If you have fun melodies for different parts of the Seder, use them all. And invite people to bring their own tunes. If you don’t know many, learn a new one (or two) every year. Please contact me or Cantor Friedrich if you'd like to learn a new tune for Passover.
- Bring in modern activities. Have you included some elements in your Seder that represent current values? Here are some examples:
o Do you talk about the four CHILDREN instead of four SONS, and discuss female role models and archetypes?
o Connected to that, you can put out a "Miriam's Cup" next to your "Elijah's Cup" and fill it with water. Then you can have a discussion about why Miriam is associated with water, and why it's important to have female heroines at our Seder table.
o Have you ever heard of putting an orange on a Seder table? Read about that custom here. To me, the orange symbolizes the outlier - any person who does not feel represented or included at our Seder. And isn't that one of the main messages of Passover? Making space for those who feel persecuted, who were cast aside?
o What if there are vegetarians at your Seder table? Or if you yourself are a vegetarian? It may bother you to put a bone on your Seder plate, so perhaps another symbol can replace it? How about a cooked beet, which "bleeds" like a piece of meat? This symbol has become quite popular in the vegetarian community, and similarly helps provoke questions from people at your table.
- Bring in modern issues. Talk about what slavery means to us today. What are we slaves to? (Jobs, addictions, food) Who are modern-day slaves? (Illegal immigrants, people in the 3rd world, etc.) What does it mean to you that you are free? Do we take it for granted?
- And related to the previous issue, ask challenging questions! Keep people awake by questioning what’s going on in the Seder? For example:
o Are the four questions really four questions? Or maybe there's only really one question, and if so, what is it? And what is the answer?
o Do we agree with how the Haggadah treats the wicked son? How might you have answered the wicked child instead? Why?
o Would it have been enough for us (as the song “Dayeinu” says) if God had taken us out of Egypt but not brought us into Israel? Why do we say, at each stage of the Exodus, that it would have been enough? What is real purpose of that song?
o Was it right that the innocent Egyptians were punished with the wicked (e.g. the first-born children)? Why were the cattle punished? How does removing some wine from your cup help acknowledge the suffering of the Egyptians?
- Plan ahead! As the leader, it’s good to look over the Haggadah and plan what you’re going to say. Where will you ask challenging questions? Where will you ask other people to read? And where will you do silly things? Which leads me to…
- Get physical! Mix things up by not just talking or singing, but getting your whole body involved.
o You can follow a custom from the Jews of Yemen and have everyone actually get up and walk from one room to another to physically reenact the Exodus.
o There is a common custom among Persian Jews and others to beat each other with scallions (!!) when talking about the slavery. Give each person a little cluster of scallion-stalks and take a minute to whip the person next to you. (No, this is not a joke, it’s really a custom!)
- Have fun with it! There is lots of room for fun and silliness in the Seder. For example:
o For the song “Who Knows One?” at the end, you can do voices and hand motions (Deep voice for patriarchs, high pitched for matriarchs, etc.)
o Bring symbols for the ten plagues and give each person one to explain (e.g. plastic frogs, sun glasses for Darkness, plastic bugs, etc.)
o Have funny hats for the Four Children (e.g. Einstein wig-wise child, Darth Vader mask-wicked child, beanie with propeller-simple child, baby bonnet-child who doesn't know how to ask)

Tzav (Shabbat Ha-Gadol): A Kicked-Up Passover Experience

As we get closer and closer to Passover and to our family Seders, many of us may be thinking about all the annual family customs that are right around the corner. Matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, and that famous dessert recipe that only your grandmother knows how to make. Or the youngest child singing the Four Questions, your crazy uncle who rabbles through every page of the Haggadah in Hebrew, and the endless singing of "Who Knows One?" and other songs at the end of the Seder. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and memories all wash over us with great intensity during this holiday.

In some ways, the holiday seems all about the familiar; the well known and predictable. Families

doing the same thing year after year, recreating the same Seder, with the same cast of characters, foods, and songs. But just as our youngest participants sing to us the central question of Passover - "Why is this night different from all other nights?" - so too I would like to challenge you to make this Passover different from all previous Passovers.

The central purpose of the Seder is to help us connect with our ancestors who were Exodus-ing (that's not really a word) out of Egypt. We're supposed to imagine ourselves literally leaving

along with them, so that we'll feel a personal sense of redemption; so that each one of us will feel God's saving power and a part of the nationhood of Israel. Is there any chance of that happening if we're zooming through the Hebrew texts of the Haggadah or recreating the exact same Seder experience year in and year out? I honestly don't think so.

On a separate page on this blog, I've posted some ideas for how to liven up your Seder. Please take a moment to peruse a few, and pick one or two that your

family can try out. I guarantee you won't regret it. It'll get people talking, it'll make people laugh (which is ALWAYS a good thing!), and it will hopefully reinvigorate your Seder. You can also search online for fun Seder activities, you can ask other friends or congregants what they do, or you could make up your own traditions!

Passover is an amazing holiday where you know that Jews everywhere around the world are doing the same thing you're doing in your home; and have been doing for thousands of years. But that also means there are millions of different traditions, customs, recipes, and variations on everything surrounding the Seder. This year, it's time for you to explore some new Seder experiences, so that this night will indeed be different from all other nights.

Happy Passover! - Chag Kasher Ve-Sameach!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Vayikra: Making Sense of Sacrifice

This week we begin our study of the third book of the Torah, called Vayikra ("And God called"), or Leviticus in English. This is probably the most difficult book for the modern reader to understand, because it deals primarily with sacrifice, purity & impurity, and the notion of holiness. The very first chapter of Vayikra talks about slaughtering bulls and dashing the blood on the sides of the altar, and about how to sacrifice a pigeon to God. These things don't resonate with us. At best, they leave us feeling nothing, and at worst, outrage, frustration, and disgust. So why are we still reading it? And what are we trying to get out of it?

I'd like to suggest a couple of options. First of all, we read it to understand where we've come from. I firmly believe we have evolved away from offering sacrifice as a means of connecting with God. Today we feel close to God through prayer and good deeds. But we can still learn about our ancestors without judging them, and accept them for who they were. Today we practice rabbinic Judaism; we don't live the religion of the Bible. And most of us aren't seeking to return to that lifestyle. So we can read about the Biblical practices without feeling threatened or judged, we simply connect with the Divine in a different way.

I also think we have to read Vayikra in a historical context. Other people in the region may have offered human sacrifices, so at least we're one step ahead of them! And the Torah tells us that there are restrictions regarding animal sacrifices, like leaving a newborn with its mother for 7 days and not sacrificing an infant together with its mother. The Torah acknowledged that the animal has feelings, that there is a bond between parent and child even among animals, and that

offering life as a sacrifice - any life - is a big deal. These sensitivities are perhaps not up to our modern standards, but surely they represent an understanding of ethics and morality? Can we not praise our ancestors for that at least? I believe we can.

And finally, we need to understand the emotions of our ancestors to truly appreciate their practices. Leviticus only provides the ritual, but the Book of Psalms gives us insight into how the people felt when they were offering a sacrifice. Psalm 27, verse 4 and verse 6 tell us:

"One thing I ask of the Lord,/... to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,/... I sacrifice in God's tent with shouts of joy." Psalm 54, verse 3 and verse 8 echo a related sentiment: "O God, deliver me by Your name;/by your power vindicate me./ ... Then I will offer You a freewill sacrifice." People truly felt that God was in relationship with them, and that if they wanted or needed something, they could request it of God and offer something concrete in return. How many of us feel such intimacy with the Divine? When, if ever, do we speak to God that way?

Stories about Abraham, Moses, and the Israelites provide tales of relationships, ethics, and behavior. But Vayikra teaches us how to create a religion, how to connect with God, and what it means to be religious. We don't follow their practices, but we can learn about who they were.

And we can use this text to reflect back on our own lives and think about how we choose to connect with God. The nitty-gritty of this text ain't always pretty, but I still think it'll give us a lot to process and discuss. Food for thought, if you will; though not the kind you offer up on an altar!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Vayakhel-Pekudei: What Can Happen When Your Heart Moves You

When I was in college (which was all too recent for some of my congregants...), I majored in Anthropology. One of the discussions that came up in several different anthropological contexts was the notion of altruism, meaning unselfish behavior. What does it mean to be altruistic, and is it ever possible for animals, or humans for that matter, to do something purely for altruistic reasons? In a sense, can we ever give of ourselves to something else, to a cause, without caring about what we'll get in return?

Organized religions are often chided for being too focused on rituals and regulations, sinning and

guilt. It's all just a bunch of "Thou shalt not's"!! Well, sometimes that might be true, but this week's Torah portion offers us something a little different. In Exodus, chapter 35, we read about the building of the portable Sanctuary in the desert, known as the Mishkan, or Tabernacle. In verse 5, we read, "Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them." Yes, we are commanded to bring gifts to help build the Tabernacle, but we aren't told here what to bring, how much to bring, who is meant to bring, or when to bring. The text says, and then repeats several times throughout the ensuing chapters, that whoever feels inspired to bring something should do so.

It's a refreshing change from all the commandments and restrictions we've seen before, and I imagine the Israelites felt the same way. It's possible that having just committed the sin of the Golden Calf, the Israelites are low on morale. God realizes that their hearts aren't in this enterprise, and that they need a little freedom, an opportunity to express themselves as individuals. And so the building project is opened up for a little free interpretation and personalized creativity. Let's see what you've got, folks!

And sure enough, the people respond with great enthusiasm. In chapter 36, the builders tell

Moses, "The people are bringing more than is needed," and they are asked to stop. Until now, the Exodus was something that happened TO the people; they felt dragged along and uninvolved. Now they finally get a chance to express themselves and show God their appreciation for being rescued from slavery, and they love it!

Back in my anthropology classes, we usually came to the conclusion that there is no such thing as altruism. There's always some personal gain in everything that we do. But I don't think that has to be a bad thing. Sometimes we aren't looking for financial restitution or a shiny plaque praising our work; sometimes it's enough to feel empowered, to feel that someone, somewhere cared that we made the effort.

I really love this line in the Torah! It tells me so many different important things. 1. There was

no segregation - EVERYONE could bring something and contribute to the project. 2. Your heart needs to move you - you have to be inspired and really care about something. We each care about different projects, and it doesn't matter what you contribute to, it only matters that you care about something, and that you really put your heart and soul into it. 3. As the project supervisor, it's important to remember that everyone needs to feel empowered. When people are allowed to give input, and to share of themselves and of their individual passions, the entire project is enriched and enhanced because of it.

I don't think you need to be building a Tabernacle to see that these lessons apply to all of us today, just as they did in ancient times.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Ki Tisa: Listening for the Missing Voices

Next week we are concluding the Second Book of the Torah, Exodus. And for me personally, I am approaching the mid-way point in my third year of writing a weekly Torah commentary. I've really enjoyed engaging directly with the Torah reading each week, especially since I find new perspectives, and new insights, each time I read the text. In part I think it's because there's so much going on in the text, that if you just squint (metaphorically speaking) and look at it from a slightly different angle, you see something new every time. And at the same time I also think that I see new things in the Torah reading because I am in a different place myself. My life has changed, my surroundings have changed, and the world has changed; and so I am sensitive to different aspects of the text every time I read it.

This week we're reading about the notorious Golden Calf, and how the people completely lost all faith in God and in Moses. Instead, they turned to an idolatrous statue to worship as their god. It's mind-boggling to think that this people, who had seen plagues in Egypt and splitting seas in the desert, could doubt God's power. And could there have been any question that Moses was God's prophet? Towards the end of this week's parasha, we read that "The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one man speaks to another" (Ex. 33:11). So what WERE they thinking when they committed this heinous act of disobedience?

But in addition to this question, I would also like to ask something else, something new. My new realization this year is that once Moses comes down from the mountain and begins to punish the people, they never speak! No one tries to make excuses, no one begs for forgiveness, and no one yells back at Moses, "Well where have YOU been for 40 days?? We've been waiting down here forever!" Nothing! No one says a word. Once they've made their idol, we don't see them doing anything until they remove their "finery" to repent for their heretical sin.

So my new insight this year is that Moses and God fail to learn an important lesson from this whole incident. They don't see how frightened the people are. They had been uprooted from their homes, dragged through the desert for months, witnessed thunder and lightning at Mount Sinai, and were then given a looong list of Commandments to live by. They are thoroughly overwhelmed! And instead of trying to understand what they are going through, God and Moses rebuke them, assault them, and call them a "stiffnecked people." Starting now, and for the rest of their 40 years of wandering, the complaining and groaning never stops. Perhaps it's because no one takes the time to sympathize with everything they've been through. Their opinions, their feelings, and their struggles are never addressed or validated.

Sometimes we make these same mistakes. Children are not given input into their religious school education, congregants aren't asked about how to structure worship services, and outlier populations in the community aren't approached and questioned about how we can best serve their needs. And subsequently we wind up with the same results as Moses: old methods that don't work, and a community that doesn't buy in to the goals of the leadership.

How do we move together in the same direction? In my opinion, the crucial word is communication. Whether we create successful programs or programs that fail miserably (though hopefully never as badly as idol worship...), we need to communicate with one another. Only when we understand one another's goals, plans, ideas, as well as concerns, fears, and hang-ups, can we truly move forward together. I'm not sure the leaders of the Exodus from Egypt ever learned this lesson. Let's not make the same mistake.