Monthly Archives: April 2016


The story of Passover is laid out in Exodus 6:1-8. God speaks to Moses, “Say therefore to the Israelites, ‘I am God, and I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from slavery to them. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my people, and I will be your God. You shall know that I am your God, who has freed you from the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; I will give it to you for possession. I am God.'”
You notice that there’s nothing in that text that indicates why God would want to redeem us from slavery. There’s nothing that indicates we somehow earned it or deserved it. It’s all about God’s grace.
There are those who say that because God promised the land of Israel to the Patriarchs and the Matriarchs that liberating us from slavery somehow fulfills the promise God made to them. But if that’s really true, why does God wait 440 years to show up? Who knows? Let’s just say there did not seem to be a compelling argument to swiftly deliver us from Egypt before that moment.
All of this leads us to consider the right attitude in light of the Passover experience. One feeling we have is of gratitude. The song Dayeinu exemplifies this thanks. Dayeinu is about being grateful to God for all of the gifts God gave us, such as taking us out of slavery, giving us the Torah and Shabbat, and more. As the refrain goes, if God had only given one of the gifts, it would have still been enough. This is to show much greater appreciation for all of them as a whole.
In this light, the Israelites are the passive recipients of God’s infinite largesse for which we are truly grateful. But there’s another way to respond to the idea of God’s grace and our gratitude for it (This interpretation is based on my brother-in-law’s interpretation of Dayeinu). While gratitude is in order, the Passover story reminds us of the necessity to come to the rescue of all who are in chains. Therefore, when we look at the world we live in we can certainly say that it’s NOT enough – NOTHING is enough when there is so much suffering.
Seated at my seder this year, I was so very grateful. Seeing all of my children and grandchildren together with relatives and friends from all sides of the family, Jewish and not Jewish was deeply inspiring.  I also realized that it all becomes more precious as I get older.
I don’t want to be a grumpy old man, but I do feel like one sometimes, particularly when I read the news. This is not a Dayeinu world we live in. More than ever this is a world that needs activists, people who will do something to challenge the status quo of injustice and neglect. It’s too easy to just let it all go and not deal with it. It’s like lyrics from the song, “Victims of Comfort” by Keb ‘Mo:
Everyone likes a party,
But no one wants to clean,
Well I’d like to see a change somehow
But I’m a little busy right now,
Just a little busy right now.
I’m just a victim of comfort,
I got no one else to blame,
I’m just a victim of comfort,
A cryin’ shame.
We sing “Next year in Jerusalem” at the conclusion of the seder. In this case, it’s not about a travel destination, but rather a state of mind. It’s the hope that all people will feel liberated. It’s also a reminder, a call to arms, as it were, to declare that this is not aDayeinu world. It’s not enough just yet.
The Passover story is deeply rooted in God’s grace. Our experience of redemption comes from outside in, whether through God or later, through the Messiah. But my take on the Passover story is about personal agency. As Keb ‘Mo reminds us, we can all claim to be a little too busy. But that’s a lousy excuse. It’s time for us to step up. Someday we’ll sing Dayeinu about how much our world has changed from a place of strife to a place of peace.

Hametz and Kitniyot: Oh My!

As a kid growing up in a small Connecticut community, shopping for Passover foods was an adventure. At the local Food Fair, we were lucky to find anything more than matzah, matzah meal, canned macaroons, and matzah ball soup mix.  My father would sometimes augment the supply with a visit to the famous [well, famous if you’re a Jew in the Connecticut hinterlands] Crown Market in West Hartford. He would pick up a variety of delicacies for the Seder table and the long week of matzah. Of course, he had to purchase those odd jellied lemon slices of many colors. He’d also get some sort of egg kichel – flavorless donut hole looking baked goods made of mostly air. He’d get those fabulous Barton chocolate covered almonds that pull your fillings out and then the chopped liver, a shank bone (though I remember there were years when the stand in was a chicken neck, otherwise called the heldzl).
Today, a trip to any market in Newton or Watertown will reveal not just end caps, but whole rows of foods kosher for Passover: cookies, cakes, noodles, soups, candies, all certified for the holiday!  I love it, and I’m sure that this year, as in all previous years, I will end up with some items in the pantry that never quite got to the table, and will remain in the pantry until I surreptitiously toss them out (after recycling the cardboard, of course).
All of those food choices obscure part of the Passover message.  When we fled Egypt, moving from slavery to freedom, we had too little time for bread to rise, and so grabbed it right off the fire.  Matzah is supposed to be a reminder of how little we had, not a challenge to mix with 2 dozen eggs to bake into a marble cake.  After all, in the Haggadah, matzah is called lechem oni, the bread of affliction.
So what can we eat? Most of the rabbis who lived ca. 70- 220 CE ruled that only five species of grain, including wheat and barley, may be used to bake matzah. When mixed with water, those grains ferment and becomechametz (which is prohibited on Passover by the Torah) if not baked within 18 minutes. Yeast converts sugars into carbon dioxide and alcohol by-products, creating bubbles which raise the dough. Yeast is often included in many baked goods like bread, as well as alcohol. Buns, cakes, cookies, crackers, cereals, pancakes, doughnuts, and waffles may all contain yeast.
Ok, so this part I get. The Torah is clear about getting rid of Chametz and not using any of those 5 grains. But no one knows when or why legumes were added to the list of foods that are prohibited on Passover. Legumes, otherwise known as kitniyot like chickpeas and peanuts and peas and kidney beans, are not grains. Like rice and corn, and unlike the five grains, they do not ferment when they come into contact with water – they rot. So why did some authorities prohibit them? It seems like it was an Ashkenazi way to be as stringent as possible. Perhaps they worried about minuscule bits of grain mixing in to legume harvests. Perhaps they thought Jews would get confused between legumes and grains… Either way, they prohibited their consumption on Passover.
Sephardic Jews never accepted the Ashkenazic obsessiveness about chametz and kitniyot. They’ve always allowed rice, hummus, and other legume-based dishes. Meanwhile, Ashkenazic Jews made up a ton of reasons for not doing what the Sephardic Jews did.The large number of explanations for not eating kitniyot proves that no one knew the real reason.  Some went so far as to call the prohibition a minhag shtut – a stupid custom. Many halachic authorities believe that we are required to eliminate such baseless customs. Nevertheless, today most Ashkenazi Jews outside of Israel refrain from eating kitniyot on Passover.
What’s a Jew to do?  The only reason to observe this custom is the desire to preserve an old custom. But this desire does not override everything mentioned above. Therefore, both Ashkenazim and Sephardim are permitted to eat legumes and rice on Pesach without fear of transgressing any prohibition. Ashkenazim who want to observe the original custom can refrain from eating rice and legumes on Pesach, but can still use oil made from legumes as well as all the other foods forbidden over the years, such as peas, garlic, mustard, peanuts, and sunflower seeds.
Every Jewish household across the denominational spectrum has a set of rituals and practices for all things, including Passover. My hope is that in addition to checking to see the kind of food we will eat, we will talk about the bread of affliction. We must not forget that the whole idea of this holiday is not to obsess about rules, but to celebrate freedom!
Do as much or as little as is your family tradition. Just don’t forget to add the content. This is the real deal. The Stern Gang and I wish you a zissen Pesach – a sweet glorious holiday filled with light and love and laughter.

When Jews Forget Who We Were – And Who We Are

A long time ago, our people, enslaved and broken, struggled to survive the harsh treatment of their Egyptian oppressors.  God heard our cries and “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” as the Bible puts it, delivered us from slavery to freedom.

It is through God’s grace that this nation is freed from the shackles of servitude, not because they intrinsically “deserve” to be free. If anything, the contemptible behavior of our ancestors after the Exodus causes God to rethink the redemption of the Israelites more than once.

Ever since then, we sing our thanksgiving to God for our liberation every day. It is, along with the Creation, a leitmotif in Jewish prayer and study and celebration. This experience of freedom continues to deeply reverberate in the hearts and the souls of the Jewish people.

Passover is the time when Jews all over the world get to sit around a table and extol God for our salvation. We sing, we eat, we pray, we celebrate. There is much joy in recalling our experience. But there is also time spent remembering the bitterness of our servitude. Saltwater, bitter herbs, the matzah itself! – all deepen the meaning and messages of Passover with memories of oppression.

Of course, we recall our suffering in Egypt and then over the subsequent millennia. Of course, we recognize the ways in which Jews still experience hatred and prejudice, even in our own cities. But it’s never been enough at any seder I’ve attended to speak only of the oppression of the Jewish people. In the words of the Jewish poet Emma Lazarus, “Until we are all free, we are none of us free.” Or as the late, great Solomon Burke sang it , “None of us are free/ if one of is chained/Then none of us are free.”

We know the degradation of slavery. We know the fear that comes with powerlessness. We know the insecurity of being disenfranchised. We know the degradation of prejudice, of being the Other, the Outsider. And with that knowledge comes an obligation. It says so many times that we must treat the stranger justly because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. But there seem to be Jewish people in the Newton community who do not want to honor the very Jewish mission to work for the freedom of all people.

Mayor Setti Warren called a meeting held last night to address various antisemitic and other racist incidents in Newton. He spoke of understanding each other’s differences, and of moving forward as a community to set the stage for a future where people with different backgrounds can feel comfortable.

Today’s Boston Globe reports that “… some in the audience had other ideas, wanting only to talk about anti-Semitism.

At points, it devolved into a forum where Jewish activists heckled an African-American woman who spoke of her son being called a vulgar racist slur at school, where the superintendent of schools was booed and needed a police escort to his car, and where a woman held a sign reading: “It’s not prejudice, it’s anti-Semitism.”

People who did not identify themselves got up to say they were put off by the speakers who talked about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Americans With Disabilities Act, and marriage equality.

“This was not supposed to be about equal values; it was supposed to be about anti-Semitism,” one man said, as police officers in the War Memorial at City Hall stood and moved into the crowd of more than 150 who packed the auditorium.”

I am outraged that there are actually members of the Jewish community who would mock a black woman recounting her son’s experiences of racism. I am sickened by the politics of a small group of attention-getting hate mongers who seek to make everything about them by targeting the Other. I am heartbroken to imagine that there are non-Jews out there: black folk, people from the GLBT movement, Moslem-Americans, immigrants, and others who now wonder about what always seemed to be a strong alliance between Jews and the battle for equal rights for all.

When Jews fail to remember that we were once strangers in Egypt, that we are always on call to right the wrongs of racism and intolerance, then we are betraying our history and betraying God.

What are we to do with this small group of nattering navel gazers? How should we, the vast majority of Jews who in fact care about the stranger, the oppressed, the victim of racism and ignorant hatred, how shall we respond? This is a question being asked all over the Newton Jewish community today. I am certain that Jewish leadership from CJP will rise to the occasion as will the JCRC. We will work with them to be assured that the response is clear. Expressions of ignorance and hatred from within the Jewish community will not go unanswered. We will work with the city in any way that we can to help Mayor Setti Warren, a good man and a friend of our congregation, to reach his goals of a city of greater harmony. Beth Avodah will keep a close eye on the situation as it develops. It’s fair to say that we will be willing to do what must be done to ameliorate this awful situation.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote a dvar Torah, one that the people in attendance at last night’s meeting should read carefully. “Why should you not hate the stranger? – asks the Torah. Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt. If you are human, so is he. If he is less than human, so are you. You must fight the hatred in your heart … I made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those of others, wherever they are, whoever they are, whatever the colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because though they are not in your image – says God – they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.”

As Passover approaches, let this message ring out from our homes. Let’s reaffirm our commitments to justice for all. Let’s take this obligation to the Other seriously. We once were slaves in Egypt and now we are free. But none of us are free when one of is chained.

Shabbat Shalom






More than Maror

I begin thinking about Passover as Purim approaches. Perhaps my attention should be on hamentashen and groggers, but quite frankly: it’s not.  I can’t help it. I find myself drifting past Esther and the gang, prepping for the crossing of the sea.
I love Passover on a hundred different levels. The anticipation kicks in as Liza and I review who’s likely to show up. This is so I know how many chairs to rent, who’s a vegan, how many hagadot to have on hand, etc.  Simple math and long experience then demand that I add 5 more spots at the table because there’s always unexpected guests and relatives emerging from the periphery.
It will not surprise you that after we arrive at a round number of seder participants, I begin to review recipes for the Seder. There are the standard “of course, absolutely” foods: Matzah ball soup, my mother’s brisket, a funky haroset made with dates and pistachios, matzah apple kugel… and so forth. But there are always new recipes to try out. Then there’s the wine selections, dessert options, and on and on.
But of course, there’s more to Passover than the food though this statement sounds vaguely heretical. In fact, Passover is all about a story: our story. The Exodus narrative appears all over the place in Jewish life. We mention it every Shabbat, in every blessing after a meal, in the daily traditional liturgy.In short: we can’t stop talking about it.
Because Passover is the story of our redemption. It is about our struggle to escape the clutches of slavery and tyranny. It is all about a moment in sacred history that set on our unique path to freedom and nationhood. As Michael Walzer writes in his Exodus and Revolution,
“The strength of Exodus history lies in its end, the divine promise. It is also true, of course, that the significance and value of the end are given by the beginning. Canaan is a promised land because Egypt is a house of bondage… The Exodus is not a lucky escape from misfortune. Rather, the misfortune has a moral character… God’s promise generates a sense of possibility: the world is not all Egypt. Without that sense of possibility, oppression would be experienced as an inescapable condition, a matter of personal or collective bad luck, a stroke of fate.”
The very notion that God intends for us, and for all humanity, to be free is a radical concept. Further, the idea that there is more than just what is, inspired and inspires us and the history of Western civilization.
Progress means moving forward, and we are the shock troops of that principle. Ever since the birth of this story,“…any move toward Egypt is a “going back” in moral time and space.”
The news is filled with story after story that has the potential to cause some serious depression and/or utter hopelessness. Terrorism in Europe, the socio-economic disparity between rich and poor in America, the collapse of the two-state solution in Israel, or the skewed, reactionary candidacies of two people running for president of the USA… There’s a lot, as Marvin Gaye once sang, to “Make me wanna holler, the way they do my life/make me wanna holler, throw up both my hands.”
We ae forbidden to despair. Passover reminds us that our tradition calls upon us to adopt God’s possibility. It’s what we’ve done so well, over and over again in our history. From the destruction of the Temple in 70 to the expulsion from England in 1290 to the Inquisition in 1492 to the pogroms of the 19th-20th centuries to the Holocaust to the war of liberation in 1948, we’ve reached for God’s possibility.
Passover celebrates the notion that no one deserves Egypt. Oppression is the antithesis of God. There is a better place, a world better than this one, a promised land. We can make it so, if we’re willing to take the walk through the wilderness.
So yes, go through the recipes. Rent your chairs. Get an accommodator (this is a truly liberating experience!). But above all, review the story and get ready for the Exodus!