Thursday, May 4, 2017

What Do You Mean When You Say “Next Year In Jerusalem”?

What Do You Mean When You Say “Next Year In Jerusalem”?
Rabbi David Baum, Congregation Shaarei Kodesh
Parashaht Acharei Mot 2016/5776

On the 8th Day of Passover, we held an interesting conversation after services:  what does L'Shanah Ha'ba'ah BiYerushalayim/Next Year In Jerusalem mean to us as Jewish Americans?

Most people said they said it by rote, not realizing the profound statement of these three words – but rarely do we take the words to heart.

Most of the answers were about a personal ideal – Jerusalem is a place that exists in us, or it is a metaphor for world peace.

One person said – “when I say those words, I feel guilty.”  She elaborated:  “I feel guilty because I know that I made my life here in America, and yet, there's a Jewish state in Israel that I am not a citizen of, and there's a level of guilt I feel about not living there.”

I want to share with you the words of Jeffrey Goldberg regarding these words from the New American Haggadah:

The Haggadah The most demanding hole in the final moments of the seder.  Next year in Jerusalem We declare, sometimes nervously, sometimes self-consciously, often ambivalently.  Think about it: We can achieve in less than a day what it took our ancestors forty years to do- move to and become citizens of the Jewish state.  This call was, for most of the Passovers of Jewish history, a messianic aspiration; Jerusalem was an unachievable goal.  Things have changed.  Zionism, the most successful national liberation movement of the 20th Century, has made it possible for us to do what Moses could not.  And yet:  Does “Next year in Jerusalem” mean that we are actually supposed to make aliyah tomorrow?  The comfortable answer is:  No, obviously not.  The uncomfortable answer is: Yes.  Imagine having the ability to commune with their distant and downtrodden ancestors, in their scattered shtetls and ghettos.You happily inform them that, yes, for the first time since the Romans ethnically cleansed Israel, a Jewish state exists.  They are overwhelmed with joy and ask, “What is it like to live there?” And you answer, “Well I wouldn't actually know.”

World Jewry just observed the holiday of Yom HaShoah.  There is a stark difference in the way we see these holidays.  Today, I want to talk about this idea:  how different Jews in America and Israel are, but at the same time, how similar we are.

In Parashat Acharei Mot, we read about the holiday of Yom Kippur.  In our parashah, it's presented on its own, but we know now that Yom Kippur is the end of a process – the 10 days of tesuvah.  It begins with Rosh Hashanah, and ends with Yom Kippur.  10 days of personal introspection.  But the Jewish calendar is filled with holidays that are tied to other holidays.  What is Pesach, the Exodus of Egypt and freedom, without Shavuot, the giving of Torah with the Omer leading up to it.

Avraham Infeld, the former director of International Hillel, takes a similar look at the holiday of Yom HaShoah.  Can it exist alone?  The answer is no, it wasn't meant to be observed like that.  Like the other Jewish holidays, it is intricately connected to the others, and the others are, Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut – Israeli Memorial Day and Israeli Independence Day.

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, which focus on Tesuvah, are deeply personal, the Ten Days of Me; but these days, starting with Yom HaShoah and ending with Yom Ha'atzmaut, he calls them the Nine Days of We.

Yom HaShoah, he says, a tragedy that did not happen in Israel, and yet, the whole country stands still because it was a tragedy that affected the Jewish people, the destruction of 1/3 of the Jewish people.  I want you to think about it like a roller coaster – then we continue going down – a memorial day where Israelis remember the people, their family members, who helped give them the state – they remember the silver platter that the state was delivered on.  And then, it comes to a high note – Israeli Independence Day.  This day has fundamentally changed what it means to be a Jew in the world.  Infeld says that the word Jew used to be synonymous with refugee, but because of Israel, for the first time in 2,000 years, this is not the case.
When our community was planning for the Maccabbee games, a representative from International JCC came to speak with us.  A young Israeli woman, who put the midot, or values around the room:

Showing respect - Kavod
Inspiring pride - Geavah
Sharing joy - Rinah
Repairing the world – Tikkun Olam
Open Heartedness – Lev Tov
Jewish Peoplehood– Amit Yehudit

All of us in the room, Jewish Americans, had to go to the term that most spoke to us.  She was the only one who went to Amit Yehudit/Jewish peoplehood.

Like the 'Next Year In Jerusalem' example, we, Jewish Americans, have to look ourselves in the mirror and wonder – what is missing inside of us the longer we live here in safety?

What could 'Next Year In Jerusalem' mean for us?  Perhaps this means for Jewish Americans what Goldberg says, “At the very least, as a repudiation of the wicked son (who takes himself out of the story with his question – what is this rite to you all, not me):  Jews, no matter our politics, have a special responsibility to tie ourselves to Israel's fate, And to work for the vision of Israel in which we believe.”

Our parashah tells the story of two goats.  Each goat has its own baggage – one goat for Azazel and one goat for God. The goat for Azazel is the scapegoat – the goat sent away with the people's sins.  Two goats, with two different paths, and yet, they are intricately connected and necessary.

This summer, Yossi Klein HaLevi, an Israeli who was born in the U.S. and the author of the famous book, Like Dreamers, looked at us, a group of Jewish-American Rabbis and said, “We are products of the societies we live in, we are affected by our neighborhoods –We Israelis are rough because of our neighborhood, perhaps too rough, and I for one am grateful that Jewish Americans help us see the big picture of the need to be more moral at times. You, the Jews of America, are comfortable because you aren’t surrounded by threats, but perhaps you are too comfortable.  Therefore, we Israeli Jews and Jewish Americans must come together and help each other.”

Maybe Jerusalem actually means Jerusalem, a city at the heart of the state of Israel.  And maybe we have to struggle with this very real idea.  Maybe, it's ok to feel torn in two, because that torn feeling will help us become more whole.

Like in Had Gadya, we, Jewish people, are the one goat – it might seem like there are two goats, but we are really one.  My hope is that we can tag along with Israel as 'we' observe these 9 Days of We.  My hope is that we realize the following:  no matter how different we are, and no matter how different our political beliefs, we ultimately share one heart.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Taking the Plunge

Taking the Plunge
 
Passover, unlike the holiday of Sukkot, is very top heavy.  Most of the action seems to take place during the first two days in the form of the seder, and the rest of the holiday seems to be more about praying and eating matzah.  But the holiday is 8 days for a reason!  We can go deeper than the seders.  

On the 6th day of Passover, we went to the beach for a Passover-friendly picnic.  It was a beautiful day, but the waves were strong and we were not allowed to enter the water passed our knees.  It was a timely reminder of what we were about to mark on the 7th day of Passover - the splitting of the Sea of Reeds (Kriyat Yam Suf) and the children of Israel's first steps into freedom.  The very next day, we took the sea to Shaarei Kodesh by listening to the reading of the Song at the Sea.  Together, we studied the midrashim/rabbinic legends associated with this event.  When we think about the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, we often think that children of Israel had a sense of unbelievable faith to follow Moses into the sea (i.e. Exodus 14:31 And when Israel saw the wondrous power which the Lord had wielded against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord; they had faith in the Lord and His servant Moses).  But before this moment, in the prior versus, the people expressed great fear and lack of faith as they saw the Egyptians pursuing them.  Were they people of blind faith or no faith?  The rabbis of the midrash offer various stories that help explain how the children of Israel gathered the faith to take the plunge.  Together, we read the story of Nachshon Ben Aminadav, the head of the tribe of Judah, who jumped into the water while the other tribes and even Moses were reluctant.  The midrash tells us that when Nachshon took the plunge, the sea fled from him.  The midrash can teach us valuable lessons of what we could do in the face of the unknown and intimidating things in life. 

 
This Shabbat, we will be welcoming in Naomi Malka, the Mikvah Director of Adas Israel, a Conservative congregation in Washington, DC, as our final scholar in residence of the year.  I met Naomi a number of years ago at Adas Israel.  She gave me a tour of the mikvah at the synagogue, a rarity in the Conservative Jewish world, but something that is quickly gaining popularity across the country outside of the Orthodox Jewish world.  As I heard about how Naomi uses the mikvah, for men and women of all ages who are seeking a ritual to help with transitions in life, from births, to bar/bat mitzvah, to wedding, to preparing for holidays, to cleansing one's soul after completing treatment for cancer.  It seemed that the possibilities for the mikvah in the 21st century seemed to be wide open!  I urge you all to watch the included video to learn more about the word Naomi is doing at Adas Israel.

As I toured the mikvah, the words of Rav Kook came to me:  Jews must make the old new, and the new holy.  Naomi is on the cutting edge of doing incredible work in the Jewish world; making this ancient practice relevant again for the masses of Jews.  I urge you all to do something:  take the plungeand come here Naomi speak next Shabbat at Congregation Shaarei Kodesh.  I promise you, you will walk away inspired and renewed!  

Shabbat Shalom,
 
Rabbi David Baum


Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Silence of the Survivor© Parashat Shmini and Yom HaShoah/Holocaust Remembrance Day


The Silence of the Survivor©
Parashat Shmini and Yom HaShoah/Holocaust Remembrance Day
Rabbi David Baum

We all have stories to our names, all of us have someone for whom we are named after, and a piece of them lives on in us through the lives we live.

I want to tell you the story of how my cousin Brian, whose Hebrew name is Betzalel, received his name.  My aunt told me the story - she had just given birth to her second child, her first boy, and her father, my grandfather had one immediate request:  “It is very important for me that you name your son Betzalel.  Would you please do me this favor?”  Now, we’ve all been there.  Our parents ‘suggest’ names for their grandkids, and then, when you don’t listen to them, they let you know how they feel.  But she told me that this situation was different, and she pried a little.  Why?  And then, he shared a family secret with her.  My grandfather was born in a town called Opole, Poland, but moved to Warsaw to become a tailor’s apprentice when he was in 2nd grade.  From that time, until he became a prisoner at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, we didn’t know much at all.  We saw pictures of his brother and sister, but that was pretty much it - a long silence. 

But he finally broke that silence that lasted close to 50 years:  I want you to name him Betzalel after my first son who was killed in Auschwitz.  All this time, we had no idea that my grandfather had a family before he met my grandmother.  It was also the last time he spoke about his first born son, Betzalel. 

In this week’s parashah, we read one of the most chilling narratives in the Torah - the deaths of Aaron’s firstborn sons, Nadav and Avihu.   Our parashah begins on a positive note.  We are at the eighth day after the establishment of the mishkan.  The rules have been given, the priests have been trained, and now we reached the moment when we are ready to put the well-laid plans into action in order to fulfill one purpose – because today, the Lord will appear to you.  And so Aaron and his sons go through this holy process, in exactly they way they were told, and in verse 24, we see the results:  24 Fire came forth from before the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat parts on the altar. And all the people saw, and shouted, and fell on their faces.

Everything seems to be going according to plan, except, in the very next chapter, everything goes terribly wrong. 

Now Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire (aish zarah), which He had not enjoined upon them. 2 And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord.

Why did this happen?  The commentators differ on the reasoning.  Rashi, along with others, blame alcoholism.  Rashi, quoting the Talmud, says that “They went into the sanctuary drunk,” which he derives from the fact that God warns the priests not to drink alcohol when they are giving sacrifices at the end of the chapter.  Other commentators stress that the reason Nadav and Avihu were killed (I do not use the word their sin for a reason), relates to what they offered – an unfitting, strange, or foreign fire – aish zarah.  Some say that the sons might have been trying to impress their father and the people by taking matters into their own hands.  Others explain that Nadav and Avihu did not follow the rules exactly as prescribed to them, and because of this ritual mistake, God kills them.  In fact, Ibn Ezra credits the sons by saying that they thought they were doing something that would be acceptable before God, but they did not do it in the correct way. 

So which explanation is correct?  Here’s a little secret regarding commentators:  the more explanations you receive, the less sure anyone is of the meaning. 

But amongst all the explanations, we read about Moses and Aaron’s response. Moshe tries to explain the loss of Aaron’s first born sons, "This is what the Lord meant when He said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people."  But Aaron’s response – two words, Yayidom Aaron – And Aaron was silent.  There is simply no response.  In other words, it doesn’t matter if his children had good or bad intentions – he still lost them in an instant.  Perhaps his silence was a response to Moshe – I will remain silent in solidarity with my sons who no longer have a voice?

Here we learn that silence can actually convey many messages.    

There is a misconception that survivors of the Shoah were always listened to and honored.  There is no greater example than the holy work that is being done by the Shoah foundation, which has compiled thousands of interviews of survivors.  But, for many years, survivors were not listened to.  In Israel, the holiday became a stepping-stone to the other holidays of Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut.  It was named Yom HaShoah U’Gevurah - which emphasized the resistance and was observed on the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, arguably the most successful armed resistance by Jews against the Nazis.  But they also picked this date, so close to the Israeli Memorial and Independence Day for another reason.  Rabbi Donniel Hartman, President of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem: “For the Zionist, Israel was the antidote to the Holocaust, the land of the new Jew who did not go like sheep to slaughter, but who rather trained in the art of warfare and was capable of defending himself in times of danger. The move from Yom Hashoah to Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut was a transition from the past which in many ways we remembered in order to forget, to the new Jewish reality which is Israel.”[1]

These survivors were looked down upon by the proud Zionists in Israel - why didn’t you fight back?  And the survivors were silent. 

But sometimes, we confuse silence with inaction.  The survivors did something and had a certain profound strength in them that few people in the world could have had.  Many were able to move on to a certain degree.  They put their lost relatives behind them, and they rebuilt lives, and families in new lands.  Elie Wiesel, arguably the first and loudest voice of the silent survivors, addressed the first International Conference of Children of Holocaust Survivors in New York City, the generation after the Shoah.  He began his talk by speaking about the famous story of two rabbis in the Talmud, Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai and his son Rabbi Eleazar.  The men were sentenced to death by the Romans fled to a cave, to live in seclusion.  They came out of their isolation years later, and they were so shocked by the immoral nature of the world that everything they set their eyes upon turned to ashes.  The voice of God came down and commanded them to return to the cave as a punishment.  Eventually, they leave again.  Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai’s son Eleazar is still angry, but not his father.  The Talmud comments:  “Whatever the young Rabbi Eleazar’s eyes wounded, the old rabbi Shimon’s eyes healed.”  The Shoah was not the end of the cruelty of man - but the survivors did not burn the world down around them.  Wiesel addressed the collective children by saying, “Strange as it may sound, you are angrier than we were.  And your anger is healthier than ours might have been.  Like Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, we tried to heal, maybe too soon.  But we did so for your sake.  Since we chose to have you, we sought to improve the world for you.”

Aaron might have been silent, but he continued his work, for his living children, and his grandchildren, and I’m sure that Nadav and Avihu were still with him every single day of his life.  I like to think that he never forgot them - and so we must never forget the 6,000,000 Jews murdered during the Shoah, especially the 1.5 children like Betzalel who never had the chance to live out their dreams.   Instead of approaching survivors like Moses, with sage advice, let us be with them to listen if and when they want to speak.  Let us honor them, not just for what they went through during the Holocaust, but what they did after to rebuild our lives, including being an integral part of the reestablishment of the modern state of Israel.  And may we live our lives with greater meaning.  I’d like to end with the words of Rabbi Donniel Hartman:  “The deepest lesson of Yom Hashoah is in the responsibility it places on all of our shoulders. As Jews, we are all survivors. As a people who survived, we did not choose the path of bitterness and despair. We chose the path of recommitment to life, its challenges, opportunities and responsibilities. When we remember the Holocaust, we mourn those who died, and give new respect to those who survived and the ways they survived, and commit ourselves to walking in their path.”

Kein Yehi Ratzon - May it be God’s will



Friday, April 7, 2017

Pre-Passover Weekly Message - 2017/5777

Pre-Passover Weekly Message - 2017/5777

I hope everyone's Pesach preparations are going well.  Every year, we busy ourselves with kashering our kitchens, cleaning our homes from top to bottom, buying the appropriate kosher for passover foods (which often means wading through crowded aisles at kosher grocery stores), and of course, cooking if you are hosting a seder.  Unfortunately, we must not only physically prepare for Passover, but spiritually prepare.  In my weekly message, I have provided resources for both your physical and spiritual preparations for Pesach.  

1.  Passover Guide from the Rabbinical Assembly
2.  Some divrei torah/sermons I have delivered/written over the past couple of weeks about the holiday of Passover and related themes.
3.  Resources to spice up your Passover Seders
4.  Face to face learning on Sunday and Monday.  

On Shabbat morning (tomorrow), join us for Shabbat HaGadol as we honor our graduating seniors and welcome a guest speaker (speaking after services), Hen Mazig, a former lieutenant in the IDF, writer and speaker who will speak to our congregation about the challenges that young Jews face on college campuses regarding the BDS movement.  Thank you to the Committee for Accuracy In Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) for providing our speaker!  

On Sunday morning, I invite you all to prepare in person at 9:30 am as I teach a Spiritual Writing class which will help us prepare through written reflection.  We will also be shredding your sensitive documents from 9:30 am - 11:30 am at Shaarei Kodesh.  Thank you to the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County for co-sponsoring this event!  

On Monday morning, please join us for morning minyan at 8 am for our annual Fast of the First Born Siyyum.  I will be finishing Mishnah Megillah so that first borns can avoid fasting on Erev Pesach.  Also, I will be selling our community's hametz to Norma, our neighbor here at CSK.  The deadline to send in your hametz forms has passed, but you can sell your hametz on Monday morning in person at Shaarei Kodesh.  

On Tuesday morning, we will gather for Passover Yom Tov services at 10 am (note later start time) in our PJs for our annual PJ Passover Pesach Service!  We invite you to wear your pajamas (kid and adult alike).  I will be telling a Passover story to the congregation which is both kid and adult friendly.  

On Wednesday morning, we will gather for the 2nd day of Passover Yom Tov services.  We will have completed our Pesach Seders for the year, but we will bring matzah with us for the next six days of Passover.  I'll be leading a text study during services on Bread of Affliction.  

We have so much going on this Pesach, and more to come!  I wish you all a Shabbat Shalom and Hag Kasher V'Samech, a Happy and Kosher Passover!

Rabbi David Baum
Kashruth and Ritual Resources 

Passover Guide for 2017 from the Rabbinical Assembly

The guide includes information on the holiday, kashruth updates as well as questions about kashering your kitchen and utensils for Passover.  The issue of kitniyot on Passover is also addressed in the guide.  
Sermons and Writings From Rabbi David Baum Leading Up to Passover 2017/5777

In this Dvar Torah for Shabbat HaHodesh, I speak about about my favorite moment of the seder - opening the door for Elijah.  What person of 'need' will come into your life this year?  How does our tradition define a person in 'need'?  

In this Dvar Torah, I suggest a theme for this year's Seder: 'Many Voices, One Mission'.  I have to admit, I borrowed it from AIPAC's Policy Conference theme, although I think they will forgive me for it.  How will we interact with our family and friends at the Seder table this year with whom we disagree with?  

Pesach is a time for recognizing the miracles that surround us, past, present and future.  Times might seem tenuous for Jews world wide, but there is still so many reasons to be hopeful.  Thankfully, Team Israel in this year's World Baseball Class reminded us of this lesson.
Spice Up Your Seder With Supplements For Your Haggadah!

Make your own Haggadah through Haggadot.com

Traditional Sources
 

The Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem offers a number of source sheets and articles for your Seder this year


Pardes is an open, co-ed and non-denominational Jewish learning community, based in Jerusalem and with programs worldwide.

Social Justice Themed Haggadot and Supplements

 
"Throughout our history, violence and persecution have driven the Jewish people to wander in search of a safe place to call home. We are a refugee people. At the Passover Seder, we gather to retell the story of our original wandering and the freedom we found. But we do not just retell the story. We are commanded to imagine ourselves as though we, personally, went forth from Egypt - to imagine the experience of being victimized because of who we are, of being enslaved, and of being freed. As we step into this historical experience, we cannot help but draw to mind the 65 million displaced people and refugees around the world today fleeing violence and persecution, searching for protection. Like our ancestors, today's refugees experience displacement, uncertainty, lack of resources, and the complete disruption of their lives..."

"Each year at our Seder tables, telling the story of our ancestors' journey from slavery to freedom illuminates the core narrative of the Jewish people. But it also offers thematic resonance with the stories and struggles of other oppressed communities around the globe."

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Removing The Glass Wall At The Seder Table©

Removing The Glass Wall At The Seder Table©
Vayikra/Leviticus 2017/5777
By Rabbi David Baum

I will have to admit, I suffered through a bad case of #FOMO last week - it’s not a medical condition - but Fear of Missing Out can create great anxiety.  Unfortunately, I could not attend this year’s AIPAC policy conference, but it is truly one of the wonders of the modern Jewish world.  For those who do not know, AIPAC stands for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its mission is to strengthen, protect and promote the U.S.-Israel relationship in ways that enhance the security of the United States and Israel.  They are proudly bi-partisan, engaging both Democrats and Republicans, and every year, they have a policy conference in Washington DC where people gather to learn, engage, and lobby for strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. 

This year was the largest gathering ever, 18,000 people who have one thing in common - they are pro-Israel.  It is also the largest gathering of rabbis from different denominations (around 750).  Of course, they also have many things not in common.  And that is what makes policy conference one of the wonders of the Jewish world - it can bring together Jews who disagree on so many other things.  We are in the age where there is an organization for every special interest group, and 100% agreement on all issues is almost mandatory - but not at AIPAC, and it can be best viewed by this year’s policy conference theme: Many Voices, One Mission. 

So there were 18,000 people inside, but there were also hundreds of Jews and others outside who were protesting.  Usually, the group who is outside are the Neturei Karta, a group of Ultra-Orthodox Jews who are vehemently against the modern state of Israel, and Code Pink which is a pro-Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement which has some Jews but its unclear how involved they are in the established Jewish community.  But this year, the largest protest group outside was a new organization called If Not Now, their tagline is: WE WILL BE THE GENERATION THAT ENDS OUR COMMUNITY’S SUPPORT FOR THE OCCUPATION.  You might have heard their name last year because its founder, Simone Zimmerman, was hired and then fired as Bernie Sanders Jewish outreach coordinator. 

What makes If Not Now different than other protest groups is that many of them are our children and grandchildren.  They grew up in the organized Jewish community unlike the Neturei Karta and Code Pink.  And it seems that this year, the protests outside had a different impact.  The protestors used Jewish imagery - a recreation of the splitting of the Sea of Reeds and the Jews walking through it into freedom.  They had signs in Hebrew, with quotes from the Bible and Talmud. 

This year, I heard from rabbis who were inside the policy conference who had congregants outside protesting with this group.  For those who have been to the Walter E. Smith Convention Center, where the policy conference is held, you know that it is a magnificent structure, but what makes it really beautiful is that much of the building is enclosed in glass.  You can see everything going on outside, but you cannot hear anything.  So while the rabbis saw their congregants outside, and their congregants saw them, they couldn’t hear one another.  These rabbis called and texted them, begging them to engage in dialogue, but they refused. 



Honestly, dialogue with protest groups is really difficult.  When I’ve gone to the conference, you try and get through them as quickly as possible.  It is rare that the sides talk to each other, and if they do, it’s more of a screaming match than a real conversation. 

I want you to think about this image - Jews who can see each other, through glass, but they cannot speak or hear each other. 

Honestly, it makes me sad, and it scares me a little bit.  It scares me because I imagine that some of these young people who were outside will be sitting across from some of the people who were inside in just two weeks - at a Passover Seder.  The question is, will they show up?  Will they be invited?  When the glass is removed, will they speak to each other, will they hear each other? 

AIPAC chooses a theme for every policy conference, and so, with their permission, I’d like to borrow their idea for our Seders this year.  Last year’s theme was, “Rice and Beans on the Seder plate or not - that is the question.”  This year’s theme though should be:  Many Voices, One Mission. 

First, let me explain why I think I can borrow it - because the Passover Seder is also one of the wonders of the Jewish world. 

According to the 2013 Pew Research Study called a Portrait of Jewish Americans, 70% of Jews in the U.S. participated in a Seder in 2012, and even 40% of Jews of No Religion participated in a Seder.  Only 1/3 of Jews attend religious services a few times a year.  We might want to lament this, but I think it is something worth celebrating.  There were 18,000 participants at AIPAC this year, and about 300 protestors - and all of these people were mostly Jews. 

That means approximately 3.71 million Jews in America will be sitting down at a Passover Seder on the same day at a table this year.

Think about that how amazing that is!  We often lament how few Jews do Jewish things, and in at least one night, 3.71 million Jews will be engaged in a deeply Jewish experience. 

The Passover Seder is different than other religious experiences.  It is not a prayer service and it is ideally held in a home, but it is deeply ritualistic, and the most vital part of the Seder is not the prayers, but the discussion.  And so, we have a problem - we have Jews who see each other, but won’t hear or speak to one another.  So we must admit the following:  We have many voices - but one mission.  We must invite our family and friends who might think and speak differently than us and listen to them - this is our mission. 

Its our mission for a couple of reasons - first, inviting our family and friends who think differently than us is a literal Korban Todah - a thanksgiving offering. 

When we think of things that go together, we might think of Mac and Cheese - Peanut Butter and Jelly - but Hametz, leavened bread, and Matzah, unleavened bread, definitely do not go together.  And yet, these two opposed things were essential elements of the Todah offering.  Our rabbis say that hametz is a representation of the yetzer harah - the evil inclination.  But the rabbis add that we need the yetzer harah - without the yetzer harah, we would not get married and have children, build homes, get jobs, and so much more.  There is a place for the yetzer harah.  But the matzah gives it balance - Matzah is lechem oni - the bread of affliction and the poor, but it is also the bread of humility.  Combining the two - our impulse to acquire things, to build families, to have an opinion, and deep humility, brings peace and wholeness. 

But on Passover, things are different - there is no hametz - in other words, we are unleavened - we are empty, but also, we are open. We are open to engaging with others, we humble, we are kind.  But since we cannot have hametz at the table, the representation of the yetzer harah, we invite the Rashah to the table.  As we all know, there are four sons:  the wise son, hacham, the simple son, tam, the son who does not know how to answer, she lo yodeyah lishol, and of course, the Rashah, the wicked son. 

On Passover - they are all invited.  The Rasha might annoy us at times - constantly questioning our tradition, even belittling it, but on Passover, even the Rashah is welcomed.  Our Rabbis welcomed the arguments, the cynicism, and the mocking tone - our tradition would rather have the wicked son at the table where we can talk to him, where we can listen to him, and where by his presence he demonstrates that he is part of us—than it would have him on the outside.

And so the Rashah becomes the hametz, and we invite the Rashah at the beginning of the seder.  Without him, we cannot finish the seder, and this is the beauty of our tradition - Many Voices, One Mission - to be in relationship with each other, to tell our story and realize that no matter how different we are as Jews, we share a destiny - We were slaves, and now we are free.  We have a tradition that we must pass on to the next generation.


And so, this is my wish for you for you seder: May you and your family and your friends be together at the table. May you and those with whom you disagree be together at the table as well. May you argue and debate and question each other as much as you want to - for that is a good Jewish tradition that goes back to the Five Sages that stayed up all night in Bnai Brak, arguing until the sun came up. And may you argue with each other respectfully, as befits members of one family to do. May you listen to each other and learn from each other. And may we live together in peace and in mutual respect.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Making Room For Others©

Making Room For Others© - Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei - Shabbat HaChodesh 5777/2017
Rabbi David Baum

What is your favorite moment of the seder? 

I want to share mine - opening the door for Elijah.  When I was kid, we used to watch that cup of wine on the table, waiting for the magic to happen.  We could have sworn that the liquid in the cup went down!

But I’ll never forget one Pesach - we started singing Eliyahu HaNavi.  The custom is that we open the door for Elijah the Prophet, the prophet who never died, whose return to the world will signal the coming of the Messiah.  We opened the door like every other Passover, and a man covered in a white sheet walked in - it really happened.  It was my youth director at the time whom our family was very close to. 

Half of my family screamed out of fear!  But my question to him was, “How long were you standing outside of our door?”

Of course, we do not expect people to walk in.  But what if Elijah did walk into our home?  What would we do if a stranger sat down and started eating our food? 

We are weeks away from Passover, and the question we have to ask ourselves is, why is our Passover table different than all the tables during the year?  Before I answer that question, I want to share something we learned this week during our parashah studies class.  Together, we learned about the confluence of Shabbat, which is how we begin our parashah, and the building of the mishkan.  Holy time and holy space come together - and this is the secret of Judaism. 

For centuries, the Mishkan and later the Beit ha-Mikdash (the Temple which stood in Jerusalem) served as the spiritual center of the Jewish people. It was destroyed in 586 B.C.E., rebuilt, and destroyed again in 70 C.E. In its absence, throughout generations, Jews have dreamt of its return and the spiritual sustenance it brought.

One such dreamer was Ezekiel, a prophet of 2500 years ago. Living in Babylon after the destruction of the first temple, he dreamt of a Mikdash rebuilt. 

The Rabbis of the Talmud (Tractate B’rachot 55a) found an inconsistency in one verse of Ezekiel’s dream. He dreamt of the altar in the temple, but refers to it as a shulchan, a table - but the question is, why use that term?  Rabbi Yochanan, a third-century Rabbi in Israel, offers an interpretation. When the Mikdash stood in Jerusalem, the altar offered atonement and allowed us to return to God, lacking the Mikdash, "it is our tables in our homes that offer us atonement and closeness."

The idea of the magic of the Shabbat and holiday table is something even secular Jews can appreciate.  The famous secular Zionist philosopher, Ahad HaAm famously said, “Just as Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”  And I believe the Shabbat table is a big part of it.  The table is the alter - we salt the bread, just like we salt the sacrifice, we bless the wine just like we poured wine on the alter, and we eat the food, like we ate sacrifice. 

Our sacred spaces exist in our synagogues, but each family, or each person, has a sacred space - in their homes.  During the week, on a regular weeknight, our dining room tables might be the places for our laundry, our part-time office, or it might be a place for a nightly family dinner.  On Friday evening and holidays, that same place changes - it becomes a holy space in holy time.

What makes Passover different than Shabbat.  Well, there’s a famous song that we all know, but I think there is a difference - who we invite to our tables. 

We actually open our doors twice on Passover.  The first time is we open the door is when we say ha Lakma Anya.  At the beginning of the seder, we open the door to our past, to slavery and poverty.  But it’s also opening the door to another type of affliction - loneliness. 

During the HaLakma prayer, we say in Aramaic, the language that our ancestors spoke in the streets, like English today - Kol Dichvin Yeitei V’Yechol, Let all who are hungry come and eat; Kol Ditzrich, Yeteii Vifsach - Let all who are in need come and share the Pesach meal. 

Rabbi Joseph Soleveitchik asked an interesting question - why do we say the same thing twice?  Kol Ditzrikh, he says, refers to one who is alone, who has a lot of Matza and wine but no home or family.  There are indeed many ways to be included among the kol ditzrikh.  The invitation to “all who are in need” is not yetei ve-yeikhol, “to eat with us;” rather, it is to spend the Pesach with us, yeitei ve-yifsakh, “to celebrate with us.”  It is an invitation addressed to unfortunate and lonely people.  They might be millionaires; it is completely irrelevant.  Whoever is in need should come and celebrate.

What makes Shabbat different than Passover?  Not everyone has Friday night dinners - but most Jews have at least one Seder, but not every Jew has a place at the table.  On Passover, we literally open the doors to the needy, and to the lonely. 

And you might wonder, who will benefit more, the invitee or the host?  There’s an old Iraqi Jewish folktale about Elijah the prophet: 

Many years ago in Baghdad, there lived a good couple who loved God, gave Tzedaka and helped the poor. All Baghdad honored the couple, and yet they had one sorrow: they had no children. Years passed, and Passover arrived. The couple sat at the Seder table, read the Haggadah, and retold the Exodus. Yet the wife was sad, as she always was at Passover. Her husband understood the reason for her grief and
comforted her as he always did: "Don’t worry, we'll have a child one day. God won’t forget us.” While the couple were talking, there came a sudden knock at the door. At the threshold stood a ragged old man. The couple invited him to join their Seder and treated him with the greatest hospitality. However, when the old man took his leave of the pair who had hosted him so kindly, he turned to them, and instead of thanking them, said, "I pray to God that next year your Pesach table will be a wreck!” The ungrateful old man’s curse astonished the couple and angered them, but out of respect, they said nothing. A month later the wife discovered that she was pregnant! And indeed, three months before the next Passover, a son was finally born to them.

Their great joy cannot be described, and the old man and his curse were of course forgotten.  Next Passover, the couple sat around the Seder table and read the Haggadah with their son. The baby behaved like all babies do. He laughed and fussed and tipped over the wine. He knocked over the cups and broke the plates. But
his mother and father loved their only child so much that they took pleasure even in the havoc he wreaked. This was the son they had prayed for year after year. It was only at the end of the Seder that the couple remembered the old man and his”curse."  This was indeed a blessing in disguise, and the Old man: they had no doubt in their hearts, was no other than Elijah himself.[1]

Of course, the story tells of the reward that one earns for welcoming a needy guest into your home for Passover.  But, sometimes, the reward is harder to find.  I will never forget a story I heard from someone I know.  He grew up in Argentina to a secular Jewish family.  When he was young, he lost his father, and he went to a place he never thought he’d go to seek comfort - a synagogue.  It happened to be the first night of Passover.  He went into shul, and the rabbi could see the pain on this face.  After services, he said to the boy, ‘you’re coming to my house for seder.’  The boy agreed, and it changed his life.  The Rabbi’s table he spent seder at was Rabbi Marshal Meyer, and this boy became a rabbi who is changing lives here in South Florida. 

When we give a chance, a place at the table, for the those who are lonely, maybe even those who are lonely for a reason, because they can be difficult, we do not know what the potential can be for them in the future, and the gift that we can receive from them. 

And so, my blessing for you is that you open your door this Passover, that you make room at your table, not just for the poor, but also the lonely - that you open the door not just to help alleviate their loneliness, but to help bring in a brighter future - and God willing the redemption that Elijah can bring to us. 

Kein Yehi Ratzon - May it be God’s will.  Amen.



[1] From A Night To Remember: The Haggadah of Contemporary Voices by Mishael Zion and Noam Zion