Passover

Bitter and Sweet

The questions of the Haggada are designed to stimulate an exploration of our freedom. We are to relive history, and we do so through a series of symbolic foods. But some of the questions we ask seem to have obvious answers, so much so that the very questions appear trivial and hardly a trigger for study. Why do we eat bitter herbs? Why do we ask this question?

Maror is certainly the easiest food on the Seder table to explain. Here is how the Haggada answers the question:

Because the Egyptians embittered our fathers' lives in Egypt, as it is said: 'They made their lives bitter with hard service, with mortar and with bricks, and with all manner of service in the field; all their service which they made them serve with rigor.'

Based on a biblical verse from Exodus, the bitterness of the taste reflects the bitterness of our ancient lives as slaves.

It is no coincidence that our redemption is traced in food images. There are the foods associated with Egypt which we pine for but we cannot access. There is manna, the transitional food associated with the wilderness journey that will stop in Joshua 5, just as we were about to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land. There are the lush, sweet foods of the Land of Israel, described through the seven species: "For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land-a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing..." (Deut 8:7-9).The fruits trees and vines of Israel will yield and yield and yield. They will suggest a permanence and autonomy in their own land that our people could never achieve in Egypt with its bitter foods and bitter work.

This sour after-taste was not only related to the work, but also to the foods we ate in Egypt that we then hankered for in the midst of our long desert trek. In Numbers 11, we mourn the foods we could no longer have: the onions, the garlic, the leeks. And the list goes on. I have the occasional food craving, but it's never for any of these foods. The ancient historian Herodotus identifies these as slave foods, inexpensive foods that mirrored the suffering by being themselves bitter. We were consumed by our bitterness and then needed to consume it. When bitter tastes filled our mouths for so long, they became hard to get out of our heads.

Perhaps this explains the most enigmatic food of the Seder table: the Hillel sandwich. We mix the bitterness of maror with the sweetness of haroset and matza into a sandwich that always crumbles indelicately all over the tablecloth. This sandwich will never compete with a hot pastrami on rye or even the humble peanut-butter and jelly sandwich on white, but it wins as a symbolic food packed with meaning. The Hillel sandwich, with its combination of contradictory tastes and textures - the sharpness of horseradish combined with the nutty, fruity paste of apples, wine and walnuts and the texture and crisp of matzah- reflects the complexities of any traumatic experience that creates an epistemic transformation.

Redemption is confusing and messy. There was no finish line to suggest when our ancient slave lives ended and our new free lives began. There were events, to be sure, but in the realm of internal change, there was no set line to cross. Change is hard, even if what we are leaving is pain and anguish. There are the smells and the tastes of the past, the good memories that stay, the bad associations that wane over time. All of this we eat together. But perhaps something even deeper is going on with this sandwich.

The sandwich teaches us to make the bitter of the past sweet because otherwise we will become what we eat: bitter creatures whose only memories are of suffering and anguish. We all know kvetchers and people who have experienced genuine tragedies who turn all the past to pain and become sour and difficult. There is an art to blessing our pain because it becomes our teacher. It teaches us how to live. Jews have a mandate to make a blessing on the bad as well as the good, maybe because something bad can turn into something good, can turn into an unexpected blessing.

The Hillel Sandwich teaches us that when we ingest pain or review the pain of our past, we should dip a bit of it into haroset so that the last, sweet taste in our mouth lingers. Every part of the past, even a difficult one, is not pain. And every pain can become a tool for a future of blessing. Let the joy linger in our mouths...and in our minds...and in our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover

Raising Kids to Give

You shall surely give to him, and do not give him with a heavy heart.
— Deuteronomy 15:9

Every Jewish holiday contains a mechanism for giving tzedaka. The happiness we typically associate with a holiday is dimmed if we cannot share it with others in need. Maimonides calls the joy of one who feasts at a holiday without providing for others "belly happiness." It's the narcissistic happiness of one who enjoys a full belly while others go with empty stomachs, envious of the food abundance of some and the inequity of their condition.
 
Passover is no exception. We are told explicitly in a Mishna that we are not allowed to give a poor person fewer than four cups of wine. We might easily delude ourselves into thinking that for a person who has nothing, one or two cups of wine would be plenty. But then we would be separating ourselves from them in the performance of this commandment. The Mishna does not tell us to provide four cups but rather that we not give less than four. Wealth can fool us into a sense of false generosity. In Zaide Smith's masterful new novel Swing Time, her central character ponders inequality and its cost: "No one is more ingenious than the poor, wherever you find them. When you are poor every stage has to be thought through. Wealth is the opposite. With wealth you get to be thoughtless."
 
In an attempt to fight this thoughtless with the approaching holiday, I was cheered to see a Wall Street Journal article with this title, "How Can you Raise Your Child to Be a Philanthropist?" (March 20, 2017). I would have much preferred a more modest title, like how to raise a child to give, but if you've ever read the "Mansion" section of the WSJ, it can create the false impression that all its readers are senior wealth managers raising junior philanthropists. The article spoke of starting them early, of the importance of supporting a charity over time, about researching causes with children. It's important that kids see their parents volunteering or sitting on boards and using their skills to help others. "Focus on the emotional uplift the good work does for the people who are helped. And reflection. Teach your children to think about why they are charitable, what it means to them. And biographies of charitable/philanthropic 'heroes.'" This is all good advice ,but it seems to miss something more primal about giving.
 
To fill in the hole, we turn to the medieval Spanish scholar Rabbi Yona of Gerona, where he interprets the verse above from Deuteronomy:

"The Torah wants us to develop an attitude of kindness and remove stinginess from our hearts. 'You shall, rather, surely give him, and do not give him with a heavy heart.' This verse requires us to distance ourselves from the trait of miserliness, but rather, to be generous. It is therefore not sufficient to simply give money; one must implant within himself a spirit of generosity... 'Do not harden your heart and do not close your hand from your indigent brother' (Deut. 15:7). We are hereby instructed to remove from ourselves the negative trait of cruelty and to plant instead the seeds of compassion and kindness, as it says, 'and you shall go in His ways' (Deut. 28:9)" (Sha'arei Teshuva 3:35-36).
 

Giving charity is not primarily about the mechanics of researching and investing, volunteering and leading. These are all manifestations of charity but do not touch upon what it really is: an inclination to give that derives from a deep sense of blessing and abundance that results in wanting to level social and financial inequalities. That's why you can't give a poor person two cups of wine when you have four, even if it is more than he ever dreamed he would have at his Seder. If you are truly charitable, it's not a hand out but a hand up, bringing that person to where you are.
 
Charitable giving can come across to those on the receiving end as a way to assuage the guilt of the one who has more. Giving lessens the guilt. But that does not create any real spirit of generosity. If you want to teach your children to give, take the focus away from money and shine it on expansiveness and gratitude. Teach justice and fight for it. Talk about inequalities in what children see all around them. Talk to them about why you are an agent for change.
 
Ironically, I think the article could have been renamed "How Can You Raise Your Parents to Be Philanthropists?" I say that because I see in so many children a natural sense of fairness, indignation when they sense injustice and a desire to make things better that their parents may be too jaded to notice. The innocence of the child makes the giving so much sweeter.
 
Four cups of wine for everyone at the Seder may one day grow advocates for social justice. Let the Seder be the philanthropist's classroom. Let the children teach the grown-ups.
 
Shabbat Shalom

Stable Instability

Then Moses held out his arm over the sea and the Lord drove back the sea with a strong east wind all that night, and the sea turned into dry ground
— Exodus 14:21

The last days of Passover can seem anticlimactic, given that the Seder/s are already "passed over." And yet, it is on these last days that we re-create the crossing of the sea, arguably the eleventh plague for the Egyptians who pursued the Israelites and the final and most spectacular miracle of our redemption. On the last days of Passover, we read the Torah portion about crossing the sea and cannot help but notice a biblical refrain that gives the narrative the feeling of a momentous song: "the sea on the dry ground." This expression is chanted with a different musical notation that alerts us to pay attention and be swept away musically, much the way our ancestors were in the heady moment of a final act of freedom. We begin with the verse above and then continue with the verses below:
 
"The waters were split, and the Israelites went into the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left." (14:22)
 
The Israelites marched through the sea on dry ground, the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left." (14:29)
 
"For the horses of Pharaoh, with his chariots and horsemen, went into the sea; and the Lord turned back on them the waters of the sea, but the Israelites marched on dry ground in the midst of the sea." (15:19)
 
Many biblical books later, when we crossed the Jordan, instead of the Reed Sea, we find a repeated image of dry land in the midst of the sea. God told Joshua to command the priests transporting twelve stones representing the tribes across the Jordan to come out of the water, after the Israelites had already crossed: "the feet of the priests stepped onto the dry ground and the waters of the Jordan resumed their course, flowing over its entire bed as before" (Joshua 4:18).
 
This expression can simply highlight the miraculous nature of the event: the astonishing fact that we could go through water on dry land. This contradiction is not unlike other plagues that had opposing natural forces in combination, like the hail that contained fire. This would surely augment the miracle capacity within each miracle. But perhaps there is something deeper that the text wants to draw us to with this expression and its repetition, and to understand it we must find other places where sea and dry land appear together.
 
We turn no further than the very first chapter of the Hebrew Bible: "God said, 'Let the water below the sky be gathered into one area, that the dry land may appear.' And it was so. God called the dry land earth, and the gathering of the waters, He called seas. And God saw that it was good" (Genesis 1:9). Sea and dry land, once a singular unit, was separated in the creation of two distinct earthly topographies. Later, Noah's raven, the one he sent out on a search expedition to know if he could release his family and the animals he stewarded, "went to and fro until the waters had dried up from the land" (Genesis 8:6). But the process of the earth drying took much time: "the waters began to dry from the earth; and when Noah removed the covering of the ark, he saw that the surface of the ground was drying. And in the second month, on the twenty-seventh of the month, the earth was dry" (Genesis 8:13-14). It was then that God told Noah it was time to leave the ark. Earth and water had to be separated and distinct yet again for a new and improved universe to emerge.
 
In the book of Jonah, a prophetic maritime adventure, the sailors on the ship Jonah boarded wanted clues to his identity that would explain why the storm around them was so treacherous. Jonah summed up his identity in a curious phrase: "I am a Hebrew. I worship the Lord, God of the heavens, who made sea and dry land" (Jonah 1:9). Later, this same God had created a fish to swallow Jonah and then, after Jonah prayed and reconciled himself with his mission, "it spewed Jonah out upon dry land" (Jonah 2:11).
 
An ark and a fish are images of dry land within water. They are containers, much like Moses' basket on the Nile, that served as temporary modes of protection against the dangers of the sea. They were, metaphorically speaking, the dry land amidst the sea. Psychologically one can argue that they provided stability in an inherently unstable place. God, Jonah's God, is both the God of dry land and the sea. He, too, is a place - Makom - of stability in a world of instability, a spiritual anchor in chaos. Redemption is predicated on our capacity to make ourselves temporarily unstable for the sake of greater stability.
 
When we repeat the almost incomprehensible refrain - the sea on dry ground - we are invited not only to experience wonder at the miracle but to take risks to make miracles happen. Had we not taken those initial steps into the water, the water wouldn't have parted. We make miracles when we are prepared to trust that nothing is truly stable. The best we can hope for is a stable instability, that keeps us both strong and vulnerable in an exquisite balance. The American marital arts expert and actor Bruce Lee once said, "If you want to learn to swim, jump in the water. On dry land, no frame of mind is ever going to help you."
 
Sometimes we crave stability too much. You want to make miracles? Jump. 
 
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover!

Slave Pains

One who calls another a slave should be ostracized
— BT Kiddushin 28b

Soon we will sit at our Seder tables taking the imaginative journey from freedom to slavery. Although we are commanded to relive this experience, we all know that whatever we say and do will only be a poor simulation of what our ancestors suffered. Even the joy of freedom will be hard to muster since it is something we take for granted today. One way to put ourselves into the mindset of the slave is to compare the Egyptian treatment of us as slaves to the institution of slavery and its limits in the Hebrew Bible.
 
Slavery was permitted in the days of the Hebrew Bible and Talmud but not regarded as a desideratum in Jewish law. It was seen as an inevitability of its day that needed strict guidelines since the exertion of power over another human being is never to be taken lightly. Individuals could sell themselves into slavery to pay off debt. Others were captives of war. It would be more accurate to call an "eved" an indentured servant than a slave, given our associations with slavery in the past centuries. This kind of barbaric forced work at the risk of death is completely forbidden in Jewish law and punishable by death: "He who kidnaps a man, whether he sells him or he is found in his possession, shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 21:16)
 
The following verses illustrate some of the Jewish restrictions on power in this relationship that are the exact opposite of the outcry described by our ancestors at the hands of a cruel and hard-hearted Pharaoh:
 

  • "If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished." (Exodus 21:20)
  • "If a man strikes the eye of his male or female slave, and destroys it, he shall let him go free on account of his eye. And if he knocks out a tooth of his male or female slave, he shall let him go free on account of his tooth." (Exodus 21:26-27) 
  • "He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death." (Exodus 21:12)
  • "Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves. (Exodus 23:12) 
  • "Now if a man lies carnally with a woman who is a slave acquired for another man, but who has in no way been redeemed nor given her freedom, there shall be punishment..."(Leviticus 19:20) 
  • "You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you." (Deuteronomy 23:15) 
  • "If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave's service. He shall be with you as a hired man, as if he were a sojourner; he shall serve with you until the year of jubilee. He shall then go out from you, he and his sons with him, and shall go back to his family, that he may return to the property of his forefathers. For they are My servants whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale. You shall not rule over him with severity, but are to revere your God." (Leviticus 25:39-43) 
  • "If you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve for six years; but on the seventh he shall go out as a free man without payment." (Exodus 21:2)
  • "Do not slander a slave to his master or he will curse you and you will be found guilty." (Proverbs 30:10) 
  • "He who pampers his slave from childhood will in the end find him to be a son." (Proverbs 29:21) 

 
Finally, the Talmudic statement above, says it all. We don't even use the word "slave" lightly and ostracize someone who does for denying the freedom of agency that we believe is inherent in all human beings regardless of status. Maimonides, in his "Laws of Indentured Servants" helps us understand how to negotiate the tensions of having too much power over another. He contends that one can deal with a slave harshly yet,

 
...although this is the law, the way of the pious and the wise is to be compassionate and to pursue justice, not to overburden or oppress a servant. One must provide for them from every dish and every drink. The early sages would give their servants from every dish on their table. They would feed their animals and their servants before sitting to their own meals...So, too, you should not denigrate a servant, neither physically nor verbally. The Torah made him your servant to do work, not to be disgraced. Do not treat him with constant verbal abuse and anger, rather speak to him pleasantly and listen to his complaints. Such were the good ways in which Job took pride when he said, "Did I ever despise the judgment of my servant and my maid when they argued with me? Did not my Maker make him, too, in the belly; did not the same One form us both in the womb?"

The integrity of the human being is always what ultimately matters. The same God made us all. We should feel uncomfortable that slavery appears in the Torah at all. And every time we fail to use our own human agency to prevent injustice, we, too minimize that godliness in ourselves and others. We opt into another form of slavery when we compromise our freedom, as Harriet Tubman so beautifully said, "I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves."
 
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover. May it be a time of true freedom.

Exodus: A Synopsis

Then Israel entered Egypt…
— Psalms 105:23

The story of the Exodus dots the Hebrew Bible. One of its most fascinating appearances is in Psalm 105, a brief overview of Israelite history from Abraham onwards, in case you didn’t have time to read all Five Books. It is in this synopsis, that we encounter what those who lived later thought were the most salient or durable memories for our preservation. After all, a précis should give just enough relevant detail to be informative without too many specifics.

So what is the elevator speech of the Exodus? Let’s have a look at how the psalm collapses 15 chapters into 15 verses:
 
Then Israel entered Egypt; Jacob resided as a foreigner in the land of Ham. The Lord made his people very fruitful; he made them too numerous for their foes, whose hearts he turned to hate his people, to conspire against his servants. He sent Moses his servant, and Aaron, whom he had chosen. They performed his signs among them, his wonders in the land of Ham. He sent darkness and made the land dark— for had they not rebelled against his words? He turned their waters into blood, causing their fish to die. Their land teemed with frogs, which went up into the bedrooms of their rulers. He spoke, and there came swarms of flies, and gnats throughout their country. He turned their rain into hail, with lightning throughout their land; he struck down their vines and fig trees and shattered the trees of their country. He spoke, and the locusts came, grasshoppers without number; they ate up every green thing in their land, ate up the produce of their soil. Then he struck down all the firstborn in their land, the first-fruits of all their manhood. He brought out Israel, laden with silver and gold, and from among their tribes no one faltered. Egypt was glad when they left, because dread of Israel had fallen on them. [105:23- 38]

1)    We moved to Egypt. Our host country became our enemy.
2)    God sent Moses and Aaron to be our leaders.
3)    There were many plagues.
4)    We left with wealth.
5)    The Egyptians were relieved that we left.

Boy, the entire Seder just got a whole lot shorter. Yet there are a few details here that are missing in the original, and these make us curious about the additions. One noticeable feature is the reference to Egypt as the land of Ham. The land of what?

As it happens, the identification of Ham with Egypt is information offered in I Chronicles: “The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put and Canaan” [1:8]. This correlation also appears elsewhere in psalms: “They forgot the God who saved them, who had done great things in Egypt, miracles in the land of Ham and awesome deeds by the Red Sea” [106:21-22]. Josephus, a historian of Jewish antiquity, claimed that Ethiopians descended from Cush the son of Ham: "For of the four sons of Ham, time has not at all hurt the name of Cush; for the Ethiopians, over whom he reigned, are even at this day, both by themselves and by all men in Asia, called Cushites." [Antiquities1.6]. It would seem that Ham’s children dominated the northeast regions of Africa.

One might claim that the identification of Ham with Egypt is geographical. But it seems as if a richer interpretation awaits. Ham was one of Noah’s three sons who left the ark. As it happens, in Genesis 9, Ham saw his father Noah naked and drunk in his tent and went out to belittle Noah to his brothers. Noah awoke, startled at what his youngest son did and cursed Ham’s son. He wanted Ham to feel that the consequence of dishonoring a parent is that Ham would be dishonored by his children. Noah’s curse is specific: “The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers.”  Noah’s other sons were quick to cover up their father and turn their gaze away from him. 

In this story, Noah was making an observation about his family and about humanity, the new world he was consigned to repopulate. In this new world there would continue to be evil - immorality, enmity, envy and small-mindedness – represented by one of his sons. There would be children who could be saved by a parent and still ridicule a parent. But in this new world, this behavior would be overshadowed by goodness, by children who honored and obeyed. Those who are little in spirit would become little in stature. Instead of being leaders, they would be slaves – slaves to pettiness and thoughtlessness.

In this vast epic narrative that is the story of our people, Egypt would forever be associated with slavery, a place that reduced people to suffering and, as a result, was itself to be humbled. Our small suffering people rose above our situation when we left Egypt and were commanded to bring others out of suffering as a result.  Thus, the story of Genesis is replayed on a national scale in the story of Exodus and replayed throughout history when the underdog stakes a claim for justice and goodness.

Shabbat Shalom

Sit back and Relax

All women of our time are considered to be esteemed...
— R. Moses Isserles, Orah Hayyim 472:4

Heard this week from a stewardess on a Southwest flight at the end of her initial announcements: “So ladies and gentlemen, sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. Or, if you don’t want to, lean forward and be tense.”

I thought of her words in relation to the Passover Seder where we are commanded to lean at various intervals while we eat to show that we are royalty of sorts. Leaning while dining in the ancient world was aristocratic.

Alberto Angela, in his book A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome, has a detailed description of wealthy Romans at a banquet. These meals often lasted 6-8 hours. If you were a member of the aristocracy, you may have been invited to such an event 2-3 times a week. They ate lying on low coaches on the floor, “propped up on their elbow resting on a pillow. They hold onto their plates with their left hand, while the right is used to bring food to the mouth. The dinner companions lie next to one another, shoeless, with their bare feet washed.” Washing the feet of guests was the job of slaves when guests arrived.

Angela asks if this posture was not uncomfortable and difficult for digestion and mentions research that suggests it was indeed helpful for digestion. He concludes that upper-class Romans were used to such dining. “For them, it’s a sign of elegance and superiority, a general rule of etiquette to be followed rigorously at official or important banquets.” Initially wives sat down on chairs next to their husbands who were leaning.

This last fun fact makes it’s way to the Talmud. In BT Pesahim [108a], the Talmudic tract that deals with the laws and prohibitions of Passover, questions whether or not women should lean at the table. “A woman participating [in the Seder] with her husband is not required to recline." However, if she is a woman of esteem, she is required to recline. If it is a sign of freedom, women who have to make and serve the meal do not experience this emotion. Women of the time may have felt under duress for the duration of the Seder making sure that all the men were properly fed and all the ritual parts of the meal were tended to by someone. 

Women who were held in high esteem do recline; to be an esteemed woman meant different things to different rabbinic commentators. Some saw this as an aspect of family status, wealth, personal scholarly achievement, or a woman who did have a husband and, therefore, had more independence. She didn’t have to answer to anyone at the meal.

Women are commanded to eat matza, drink four cups of wine and refrain from leavened products on Passover [BT Pesahim 43b]. Various rabbinic commentaries discuss the parts of the Seder that women must be present for if they have to leave the table for some reason. 

By the time the sixteenth century rolled around, Rabbi Moses Isserles of Cracow questioned this view in the Talmud: “All women of our time,” he claimed, “are considered to be esteemed.” As it turns out, many women even then did not recline out of habit. Rabbi Isserles extended a pass to them because of an early legalist who suggested that no one reclines today because it is a not a sign of affluence for men or women. In other words, we have kept the ancient posture but thrown the furniture away. Some people today do conduct the story part of the evening in the living room on the floor, where reclining is more natural.

Most families still have the custom to recline at the Seder as a nod to tradition and perhaps as an attempt to recreate the emotional freedom of old. The slave sits stooped on a bench, eats a small meal quickly and returns to his tasks. The free person can afford to take his or her time and luxuriate in the food and the company.

Passover is not free from tension for many men and women today. There is a lot of preparation and anxiety that takes away the feelings of inner freedom that we are commanded to experience this season. By the time the hosts of a Seder get to the meal, they may find their faces in the soup. But it’s time to follow what the airlines have told us all along.

Sit back, relax and enjoy the flight!

Shabbat Shalom and a Joyous Passover

Revisiting History and Memory

What does this mean to you?...
— Exodus 13:14

Remember the aggravation of a he said/she said dialogue when you're in an argument? Well, The Wall Street Journal says you're not alone. Elizabeth Bernstein in her article "Honey, You Never Said..." shares fascinating research on how it is that couples recall events or commitments very differently from each other. Who's right? We all want to know, but we will probably never know because there is no right. "Fights often begin with two versions of events. People tend to remember the arguments they lost."

To illustrate, Bernstein opens with a disagreement between a couple. Both agree that after compromising, Carrie told her husband Joe that he could get the arcade machine he wanted. But when he went to pick it up, he purchased two. Carrie was surprised. They hadn't talked about it. Joe claims they did. Isn't it a simple fact? No, it isn't. "How can two people have different memories of the same event? It starts with the way each person perceives the event in the first place - and how they encoded that memory," concludes psychologist Dr. Michael Ross.  

It turns out that women seem to remember more about relationship issues and their memories of them are "more vivid and detailed," possibly because women report being more emotional at the time of the argument. But before we develop a gender superiority complex, this does not mean that their memories were more accurate. You usually remember the most recent version of your story. Feelings can also change, manipulate and shape memory, especially negative ones. 

In other words, there is not one version of every story. Best to focus on the emotions associated with the argument than fight over recall, says Professor Andrew Christensen in Reconcilable Differences. This can be liberating, especially when it comes to happy facts and memories. 

We are getting ready to share our national narrative with family and friends around the Seder table. That story is dependent on memory, even if it's not first-hand. We are mandated to tell the story and relive history from four different biblical verses representing different ways that people seek out their history: either they ask, it is triggered or it is told to them: 

 Exodus 12:26-27:

 "And when your children ask you, 'What do you mean by this rite?' you shall say, 'It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, because he passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians but saved you houses.'"  

Exodus 13:8:

"And you shall explain to your son on that day, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.'"  

Exodus 13:14

"And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, 'What does this mean to you?' you shall say to him, 'It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.'"  

Deuteronomy 6:20

"When in time your children ask you, 'What do the decrees, laws and rules mean that the Lord our God has enjoined upon you?' you shall say to your children, 'We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord freed us from Egypt with a mighty hand.'"  

These verses form the spinal cord for the famous Four Sons portion of the Haggada. The sages of old could not understand why the Torah, with its economy of language, would include four verses to get you to share the exodus with the next generation. Their conclusion: there are four different learners, and each needs to know the story. If so, then we have to be generous story-tellers with the capacity for differentiated learning at the table.

But perhaps this isn't the only reasonable interpretation of these multiple commands to do the same thing. You can have one child who remembers a story four different ways depending on the vantage point and the situation. We are often called upon to share differing versions of what we experienced. This is why being a witness is a sacred job. You cannot limit the way the imagination weaves together facts.

What you can do is tell a story with lots of positive energy and - as the quote above suggests - in a way that amplifies mood and meaning so that the memory will last longer and be more transformative. "What does this mean to you?" suggests the personal relevance of the story to everyone who hears it. We tell the same story in different ways all of the time. We may eventually settle on a consistent narrative and then adapt the core aspects to an audience; the audience also change the story. Our Haggadah presses us to read more deeply into the exodus and its meanings that will subsequently allow myriad other stories to unfold. 

What does it all mean to you?

Shabbat Shalom

The Beginning of Time

This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you
— Exodus 12:2

There is finally a crack in the universe. The first signs of spring are appearing after a harsh winter, and the world feels on the tip of its annual renewal. This time is always reminiscent of the verses from Song of Songs, "Look! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come..." (2:11-12). The earth is in transition, and our first biblical instruction is to look because it would be a crying shame if we missed the first signs of spring's newness and the sense of hopefulness and relief that spring brings. Now, in the poem "Footsteps of Spring," we begin to feel what Haim Nahman Bialik wrote, "A different wind is blowing through the world."

This Shabbat we welcome the new Hebrew month of Nissan, with permission to say a blessing only rendered in this Hebrew month upon seeing a blossoming fruit tree: "Blessed are You, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has withheld nothing from His world, but has created in it beautiful creatures and trees for human beings to enjoy." This is the after-effect of looking, of paying careful attention to what is happening to the physical landscape. We cannot help but bless it. 

If we look at the book of Exodus, as we should in this month of preparation for Passover, we find a mandate to pay attention to Nissan for a different reason. As stated above, the opening of Exodus 12 asks us to declare it the beginning of time for us even though we've had a sense of time for centuries. The month of Aviv -"Spring"- is biblically referred to as "when the ears of barley ripen," so the calendar is attuned and marked by agricultural developments, but there is more to it than that. The Jews of the ancient world were surrounded by those with their own calendars and ended up using Babylonian names for Hebrew months during their first exile. Scholars debate what the months were called before this exile, but one thing is clear: you cannot have your freedom without owning your time.

The medieval Spanish exegete Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra states this outright. Before this moment, the Jews had followed the solar calendar of the polytheists around them. The request to follow a lunar calendar must have represented a huge psychic shift in the way they regarded time, only one of the seismic changes they were asked to make as they left Egypt. This request is slipped into chapter 12 before the instructions to roast a paschal lamb and prepare themselves for the major exit that become known as the exodus. It is as if following directions was not enough; they had plenty of experience as slaves of having their lives ordered: the details of the sacrifice were likely not very different in specificity to other tasks and jobs they encountered in daily slave life. But as slaves their time was never their own. It is for this reason that slaves were exempt in rabbinic law from any time bound commandments. If you don't own your time, you cannot give it away or sanctify it.

The writer Eva Hoffman, in a small and challenging book called Time, writes about the cultural influences on our perceptions of time. She was born in Poland and noted that Slavic time is much more leisurely than American time, for example. People were more willing in the Europe of her youth to wait on long lines, to expect tasks to take a long time and to enjoy time with friends without being ever-vigilant about time wasted. When she moved to America, she was deeply struck by the way time had a different structure even though the clock ticked away the same on one side of the ocean and the other. "...everyone suffered the stress of not doing enough, or the possibility of doing more, or at least feeling good and guilty about it." People were more strict and competitive about time and less likely to respond to a spontaneous break. American efficiency and productivity come at a price of enjoyment.

If freedom requires the ownership and control of time, then the ultimate leave-taking from Egypt would require that we do more than change the clock. We must shift our cultural approach to time; it's a different take on "Jewish" time.

This is a month where we can challenge our own perceptions of time: who owns our time, how do we manage it and are we so task-oriented that we fail to enjoy the time we have? Nissan offers us the freedom challenge, today no less than long ago.

 Shabbat Shalom and Happy Rosh Hodesh!