Thursday, March 29, 2018

First Day of Pesach: More and More and More Questions!

I love, and am continuously frustrated by, the Passover Seder. Though perhaps not for the reasons you might think. To me, the Seder is a playful, joyful, provocative,
challenging, and exciting evening of history and questions and fun. But people mess it up! They see it as rigid, rule-focused, and antiquated. Take, for example, the four questions. People are often obsessed with the recitation of the Four Questions, the Ma Nishtana, but miss that they are really there as a prompt; challenging you to ask more and more and more questions. This week, as we begin Pesach, I find myself especially frustrated... and longing for some new questions.

I recently read a terrific article by the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, Arnie Eisen, entitled “Four new questions from the four children.” Chancellor Eisen challenges his readers to add questions, and ones that specifically address the problems we see
around us in the world today. He concludes by stating: "to younger participants at 2018 seders, I express the fervent hope that you ask especially good questions this year that call older participants to account for the unfinished Exodus work to which Passover summons us." Isn't this what we ALL need to do? Young and old(er) alike? Ask new questions, and poignant ones, that make us think and feel something? So here's one that might challenge you a little bit:

Who gets to tell "our" story? A few days ago, I saw a performance of "The Diary of Anne Frank," portrayed by a multiracial cast. The play was excellent, and after an initial eyebrow-raising moment of seeing African-American and Asian actors wearing Jewish stars, race became essentially a non-issue throughout the
production. Except, perhaps, when the diversity on stage ELEVATED the meaning and power of the story. One of the most powerful moments, for me, was when the German soldiers barged in and all these people, of different minorities, were marched out at gunpoint… together. But this particular performance has drawn controversy. Some critics, especially Jewish ones, are vehemently opposed to anyone but Jews portraying these historical figures. To which I have to ask: why? Is the message of this tragic story not a universal one? Or even if this IS a Jewish story, do we not want others to see - and feel - themselves in our plight? Here is perhaps an even harder question: Would these critics be as uncomfortable if the actors were non-Jews… but white?

This year, people everywhere are talking about democracy and democratic values. Both the Passover story AND the vital testimonies from the Holocaust remind us - insistently - that as long as there is tyranny, we must continue to fight… and fight with and for one another. Our stories are intertwined; and as long as they are done with respect, sensitivity, and dignity, we should share ALL our stories with people
who want to learn and know... and question. Change will only be possible if we walk this path together. I implore you: Please, please do NOT allow your Seder to remain rigid or antiquated. There are too many vital questions that we need to ask right now. The children of today are already asking some of the toughest questions. But the responsibility is surely not theirs alone. This Passover, you need to ask yourself if you are ready to heed the underlying messages of the Seder, and stand up for freedom and equality like our ancestors did 4,000 - as well as 70 - years ago. Isn't it time?

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image from the Arthur Szyk Haggadah (I own a copy...) courtesy of Allison.c.chang on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of a Seder for new immigrants to Israel, ca 1945, courtesy of Pikiwikisrael on Wikimedia Commons 
3. Image from "The Diary of Anne Frank," as performed at People's Light theater
4. CC image from the March for Our Lives (with signs reading "Enough" - "Dayeinu"...) courtesy of MB298 on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Haftarat Shabbat Ha-Chodesh: A Battle Between a Prince and a Paschal Lamb

I want to do something a little different on the blog this week. Don't worry; we're still talking about the Haftarot. However, I am introducing a new element, focusing on who ELSE is reading these texts. I'm sure it will
come as no surprise to most (if not all) of you to hear that Jews are not the only ones who read the Bible. And while the Five Books of Moses DO allow for interpretations that differ from ours, the texts of the Prophets REALLY lend themselves to new perspectives, especially Christian ones. If you're looking for "clues," "hints," and "allusions" to Jesus, you can certainly find them all over the Bible (or what the Christians call "the Old Testament"). You might be surprised to hear me say/admit that... but it's true. This Sunday, March 18th, I will be leading an Interfaith Seder at Christ Episcopal Church in Media, PA, as I've done for the past eight years. In this season of Pesach and Easter, I think we should spend a few (potentially uncomfortable) minutes seeing our Biblical texts through someone else's eyes.

I've had the privilege of engaging in interfaith dialogue for many years now, and I almost always learn something new and fascinating when I try to take off my own Jewish "glasses," and borrow someone else's lenses for a spell. I recall one
particularly fascinating (albeit uneasy...) series of conversations I had with a Coptic priest from Delaware, who kept wanting us to look at specific verses in the Bible, and asking me how I view them. Naturally, each verse in question seemed to allude to the Christian understanding of Jesus and/or a Messiah and/or God's "son." What I tried to explain to that priest - as I often do when examining these passages together with Christians - is that our Bible is big enough for the both of us. There are verses and themes that "work" for them and don't speak to us, and yet others that mainly appeal to a Jewish audience and NOT a Christian one. Why can't that be ok? I don't feel we should be mining our texts for "The Truth"; for proof that one of our religions is RIGHT, and the other - therefore - is WRONG. Isn't that what "coexistence" is all about???

This weekend, we are chanting a fourth, and final, special reading leading up to Pesach. (Except for the one next week, but let's not get into that right now...) This Shabbat, our Haftarah comes from the prophet Ezekiel, who writes: "On the fourteenth day of the first month, you shall have the Passover sacrifice, and during a festival of seven days, you shall eat unleavened bread" (45:21).
I sincerely hope I don't have to explain to you why it makes sense that we read this text leading up to Pesach... The holiday is, you know, right there! Even when we share an Interfaith Seder experience with Christian friends and neighbors, it's still pretty clear that the ones observing the laws of this holiday are, well, the Jews. And yet, just a few verses later, the text also speaks of "a prince" coming to Jerusalem, and entering through a special gate to offer a very special "sacrifice." The language of this entire section lends itself almost exclusively to a Christian audience. When I searched for commentary on Ezekiel 46 online, the Christian writers I found were giddily describing how clearly this text was foretelling Jesus, the Prince of Princes, and how verse after verse was all about their Messiah.

Well, that can be hard for us to hear. It's uncomfortable, perhaps, and even unsettling. But take a moment to ask yourself "why?" It's their Bible too, isn't it? Some of the greatest Biblical scholars over the last many centuries were Christians,
and they unlocked aspects of the text that benefited Jewish audiences as well. When we point out similarities between Passover and Easter (eggs, sacrificial lambs, and such), why does that have to feel weird? I suppose it might have something to do with our history of religious "dialogue" including forced conversions, torture, and painful deaths... Nevertheless, I think we need to challenge ourselves here. Ok, it's uncomfortable. But let's not walk away. We need to work on cultivating our Jewish self-confidence; it's our text too! When we can feel grounded and safe in our own readings, and in the meanings we, as Jews, glean from Scripture, we open ourselves up to the potential for a much richer interfaith dialogue. I think the Matzah and the Messiah in our text can live side by side, without one needing to vanquish the other. Ezekiel was a pretty good guy; I'm pretty sure he can hang with both of us. Don't you?

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Syker Fotograf on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of United States Navy on Wikimedia Commons 
3. CC image of Jerusalem's Golden Gate courtesy of Kordas on Wikimedia Commons (If you want to know why it's walled up - and how that relates to the Coming of the Messiah - read about it here...)
4. CC image courtesy of Yoninah on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, March 9, 2018

Haftarat Shabbat Parah (Vayakhel-Pekudei): What's Hiding Behind the Walls

No one really likes the language of "clean" and "unclean," ESPECIALLY when it comes to religion and ritual. It's icky (to use a technical term...). It feels unsettling, judgmental, and discriminatory. But if you ever read our Bible (and I've perused it
once or twice), the language of cleanliness returns again and again. So why do we still read this stuff? And what do we make of it today? This week is a good example. We are reading the last section of the Book of Exodus, where we're learning about all the tools and implements used in the ancient Temple. We are also told who can touch what, because of ritual purity or impurity. This leads straight into the NEXT Book of the Torah, Leviticus, which loves to talk about cleanliness. This Shabbat is also a special one, called Shabbat Parah, leading up to Passover. The reading for Parah is all about purity as well, because purity is obviously an essential part of Pesach... sort of. So what IS this all about, and what's it got to do with Pesach???

First of all, I think it's talking about something else entirely. The text is using ancient language and ancient metaphors to articulate some pretty universal values and concerns. A mentor of mine once taught me, you've got to listen for "the music
behind the words." When the Tanach talks about "clean" and "unclean," what it REALLY means is "included" and "excluded." Do you now see how something ancient and antiquated is actually incredibly relevant? It's about bullying, immigration policy, the DACA debate, LGBTQ issues, and a whole host of other topics. And here's the thing that especially fascinates me: Even from the period of the Torah to the period of the later book of the Tanach, the meaning of these concepts changed. Ideas need to evolve and stay current, and we can indeed witness that transformation taking place before our very eyes!

Again, the Torah's focus is cleanliness. Actual, literal bathing to merit entering the Temple: "Moses and Aaron and his sons would wash their hands and feet; they
washed when they entered the Tent of Meeting and when they approached the altar - just as Adonai had commanded Moses." (40:32) Shabbat Parah takes its special Haftarah from the writings of the Prophet Ezekiel. "Parah" literally means "Cow" or "Heifer," and on the surface it appears we are still talking about purification. In ancient times, the ash of a sacrificed heifer was used to PURIFY items and people performing Temple worship. However, Ezekiel then morphs this idea into a new concept. He writes, "As Jerusalem is filled with sacrificial sheep during her festivals, so shall the ruined cities be filled with flocks of people" (36:38). Speaking to Judean exiles in Babylonia, who were banished from their land, Ezekiel is talking about purification as a thing that will one day happen, when our people merit to return to our land. It's about national redemption and salvation; NOT soap and water!

Now it's our turn. We need to do the same thing. We need to listen to the music behind the words, and help our texts and our laws evolve. If purity really means "inclusion" and "exclusion" today, how can we bring more people in? Our Pesach observance is no longer about bringing sacrifices to an altar, but it IS still about remembering how we were redeemed, and praying for peace and redemption once
again. Only this time, not just redemption for ourselves, but for all people. And we can't just pray for it, we need to bring our actions and voices into it as well. You may not LIKE that some are included in society and some are excluded, but you KNOW that is our reality. So what are you going to do about it??? That is the REAL question of Passover. You know what salvation looks like, you know what freedom from oppression can do to uplift an entire nation's spirit; so how can you possibly justify not DOING SOMETHING about it?!? If our texts and our customs are going to survive, they need to evolve. We need to help them evolve, and we need to MAKE them relevant. This Passover, ask yourself (and your guests) the tough questions that are hiding behind the words of the Haggadah. I think you'll find it will make your Seder table come alive in new and exciting ways. Good luck!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Benzoyl on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Bpenn005 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Daniel Schwen on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of The Deceiver on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, March 2, 2018

Haftarat Ki Tisa: Ignore Those Screaming, Injured Prophets For a Sec...

Sometimes I think the Torah gets a bum rap. Often, in fact. People talk about the "vengeful God of the Old Testament" or they dismiss the text - all of it - because of fantastical miracles, supernatural phenomena, and talking animals. I get it.
Our ancient texts occasionally feel more like fairy tales or sci-fi movies, or they're full of slaughter, smiting, and sins punishable by death. And yet, I don't read the Torah that way. I still have A LOT of problems with many of the stories, and I struggle with its questionable morals on more than one occasion. But hidden in between the lines, sometimes even buried under the oddest of stories, are some real-life lessons that we ignore at our own peril. At its core, these texts of our Tradition are speaking directly TO US, and are offering incredible teachings that can enrich and enhance our lives. This week, I want to point out a couple of gems that you might miss, what with the 450 idolatrous prophets gashing their flesh and screaming to their god to defeat one Israelite prophet. Distracting, I know, but let's see if we can look past it anyway, shall we?

Ki Tisa, our parashah this week, contains the infamous transgression of the Israelites, when they doubt God's and Moses' leadership, and build a Golden Calf to worship instead. To put it mildly, it doesn't end well. Paralleling this story,
the rabbis offer us a Haftarah from the First Book of Kings, about another instance when the Israelites "went astray" and found new gods to worship. Again, it doesn't go well. On its surface, this is an action-packed scene to rival any Hollywood blockbuster. The evil king, Ahab, and his equally loathsome wife, Jezebel, have been killing off Israelite prophets. The only one left is Elijah, who evades capture. Ultimately, he reappears, and challenges 450 prophets of Baal, as well as 400 MORE prophets of Asherah, to a theological duel. Each side will call upon its god to engulf a sacrifice in flames, and this will prove who is a "true" prophet. What a scene, right? 450 (or possibly 900!) against 1. I won't spoil the ending, but you can probably guess who wins...

Now, back to my earlier point; there is certainly enough here to occupy ALL our time. But I want to peek behind the supernatural "stuff." Here are two interesting threads that are ALSO going on in this story, but which are easily overlooked.
There is another hero in our story. The palace steward, Ovadiah, works for Ahab and Jezebel... but he's secretly loyal to God. When Jezebel was killing off prophets, Ovadiah hid 100 of them in caves and provided them with food and water (18:4). Later, when Ahab is hunting for the last prophet, Elijah, the one who finds him is Ovadiah. Elijah tells Ovadiah to let Ahab know he's back, but Ovadiah balks. "What wrong have I done, that you should hand your servant over to Ahab to be killed... when I leave you, the spirit of Adonai will carry you off I don't know where; and when I come and tell Ahab and he doesn't find you, he will kill me!" (18:9, 12) It's a classic case of "Don't kill the messenger!" Right?? In the midst of an thoroughly mystical story, we find a very relatable human emotion. This book was written thousands of years ago, and yet we can all imagine feeling Ovadiah's anxiety in this moment.

The second thread I want to mention is one of humor. As you've probably realized by now, I love finding instances of humor in our ancient texts, because that makes them incredibly familiar to us. We can picture ourselves saying, feeling, or experiencing the same things our ancestors did, even when so much else in the text seems foreign and bizarre. The priests of Baal holler out to their gods and cut
their flesh, but nothing happens. Elijah clearly feels confident that he's got this, so he begins to taunt them, and his jibes would fit on any stand-up comedy stage today: "Shout louder! After all, he [Baal] is a god. But he may be in conversation, he may be detained, or he may be on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and will wake up!" Detained? Asleep?? Pretty terrific humor for a guy who's up against 450 adversaries; oh, and a royal couple that are itching to behead him! But my point is this: I completely understand why the crazy stories in the Bible can be distracting. Nevertheless, there really is SO much else going on here. More, perhaps, than anything else, the text is calling our to us - to you and me - for relationship. Amidst the fire and brimstone, the special effects, and the goriness, these stories are also trying to address anxiety, altruism, and even humor. Sometimes you just gotta squint a little to see it. But when you do, it's well worth it; I promise!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Bastyoje on Wikimedia Commons
3. Image courtesy of
4. CC image courtesy of Jeremy Segrott on Wikimedia Commons