The Kulanu 4th graders were competing in a Zoom scavenger hunt, and I had asked them to find something in their house that symbolizes what it means to be Jewish. One of the learners was empty handed. “I can’t bring it to the screen,” he said. When I asked him to explain, he said that it was attached to the kitchen door.
A mezuzah! I was enthusiastic about his choice. In Deuteronomy 6:9, we read that we must write the remembrance of God’s law on the doorpost of our house and on our gates.
During this Passover, our second pandemic year of celebration in strangely isolated ways, Zoom seders and brisket for one, I have been thinking a great deal about doorways.
When we enter or exit a Jewish space with a mezuzah on the door, we are meant to touch or kiss or look at it, pausing to reflect on God’s covenant with us.
The mezuzah is also a continuous reminder of Passover and the experience of enslavement. How so?
On the night before our exodus, we were told to paint our doorposts with the blood of a lamb to save us from the Angel of Death who would mysteriously kill all the first born of Egypt but pass over the Israelite homes. Moses and Aaron had been told by God an important piece of the puzzle, but the people did not yet know. Within hours, we’d be girding our loins, wearing our sandals and eating that lamb hurriedly as we got out of Egypt, leaving slavery behind that very night. The sign on our doorposts would save us from death, and we thought that was enough. We could not even dream of freedom until we were told to run out the door toward it.
It was a liminal moment: we were no longer slaves as we were taking matters into our own hands, but we were not yet free.
One year later in the Torah, (in the maftir aliya) we were told to honor that liminal moment by sacrificing a paschal lamb and celebrating a festival every year on the anniversary.
Of course, today we no longer make animal sacrifices but we still celebrate that very festival called Passover. At this time of year, each time I pass through a doorway with a mezuzah, I think about the moment when my ancestors walked out of their homes in Egypt and out into the frightening unknown of something called freedom. We know from reading about their grumbling, ungrateful, contentious behavior in the desert that it was a very difficult transition. Many of them wanted to turn around and go back to Egypt. As terrible as Egyptian enslavement was, it was known.
And here we are, at the end of March 2021, more than one year after the pandemic began, once again at a transition point. Many of us have been vaccinated against COVID-19. Unlike so many of our family, friends, and neighbors, we have been saved from the Angel of Death. With care, we are told that we can begin the process of leaving our quarantine and isolation.
We know very well what has been experienced in the past year, but we have no idea about what lies ahead. Like our enslaved ancestors in Egypt, we know what we are leaving behind but have no idea what lies ahead. Many of us are having trouble passing through the threshold toward freedom. Like those unknowing, hurried slave ancestors of ours, we might have moments when we want to return to the safe haven of living separate and alone.
Judaism, however, is meant to be lived in community: in minyans of ten and many more than ten, at shared meals in our synagogue simcha room and around crowded dining room tables, in classrooms for children and for adults, in horas danced with joy, in Jewish camps and on trips to Israel. It is toward the sacred goal of kehillah, community, that we will keep intending. As much as we don’t know about the world beyond sheltering at home, we will cross this threshold. And as we are passing through our doorways, let us meditate on our mezuzot. Let’s talk about our relationship with God, our gratitude for our lives, and our dedication to participate in an all-inclusive kind of freedom as we sit in our houses and walk on the way, as we lie down and rise up… and we shall write our post Covid stories on the doorposts of our house and on our gates.
Half way back to chametz, we should be able to hear our seder table conversations, ideally, still echoing in our heads.
In its original form, the seder was an expression of Jewish modernity. The rabbis who created the ritual were clearly influenced by the social, cultural and political conditions of their time. The resulting seder spoke to modern Jews in their language, literally (note the use of Aramaic in key places) and figuratively (the Greco-Roman practices of leaning, dipping and symposium-dining). While my grandmother and I may hope to perpetuate my family custom of “egg soup,” I highly doubt that was on the menu 1800 years ago!
Your OJC rabbis’ point of emphasis for the holiday this year was to make room for creativity, so as to allow the dynamic and flexible structure of the ritual to make room for greater meaning. “Tradition” doesn’t necessarily mean doing things “the way they have always been done” when the ritual itself calls for relevancy and contemporaneity. How do we see ourselves as having come out of Mitzrayim if we cant incorporate the symbols and language of our day that define enslavement?
To that end, I share with you the questions that I raised at my own family seder this year. I hope you will consider them over the coming weeks as we head to the holiday of Shavuot, celebrating the giving of our Torah. Or perhaps you can slip them into that place where you store your Passover items for next year, so they will be readily available for your next seder! The questions are connected thematically to each section of the seder in the order of the ritual. I hope they will bring meaning to your annual (and daily?) Jewish conversations:
Kadesh: How do you define the word “holy” and what do you consider holy to you in the world?
Urchatz: If there were a severe water shortage and you could only bathe 3 times in a week, when would you do so?
Karpas: What represents spring to you, and what would you add to the Seder plate as a symbol for it?
Yachatz: Is there something about you that you consider “broken” that you carry as a part of what makes you who you are?
Magid: When people ask where you are from, what do you tell them?
Wise: What is the best thing Judaism offers to the world?
Wicked: Name something oppressive from which you or your family have been liberated.
Simple: What oppression exists in the world today, and how does it affect you?
Doesn’t know how to ask: Is there a story you tell about yourself over and over?
Rochtza: Have you ever used a mikvah, or can you imagine a time you might?
Motzi: What role does food play in your life?
Matzah: What food would be a real sacrifice for you to give up entirely?
Maror: Can you think of a time when your actions unintentionally may have made someone feel like an “other”?
Korech: Is there a family tradition you wish were being passed on to others?
Shulchan Orech: Do you have a relationship with a community? Is it social, religious, historical, or something else?
Tzafun: What aspect of your self do you tend to hide?
Barech: Do I ever say “thank God!” and if so what do I mean when I say it?
Hallel: Is there someone you failed to thank or acknowledge and wish you had the chance to do so?
Nirtzah: What would you add to this experience next year?
Rabbi Craig Scheff
One year ago, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative movement adopted the position that the eating of legumes, rice and corn (kitniyot) on Passover is a valid legal option for Ashkenazic Jews. Instead of deciding at that time whether to adopt or reject the practice for our community (which is my role as mara d’atra, the religious decisor of our community), I decided to invite our Ritual and Jewish Living Committee–along with anyone else in the community who so desired–to study the topic with me. While the decision was ultimately mine to make, I had no preconceived opinion on the matter and thus invited the input of our community members to help me reach a conclusion.
People tend to be emotionally bound to custom, sometimes even to the exclusion of rational analysis. I appreciate that. We hold tightly onto family customs and tend to reject those things that challenge our sense of tradition, regardless of how or why such practices came about. I was therefore somewhat surprised that only a group of about 10 people made the commitment to study the topic with me. I anticipated far more interest! Nevertheless, our minyan of learners tackled the responsum written by Rabbis Amy Levin and Avram Israel Reiner. Our monthly studies delved into the details of the legal opinion, which reached the following conclusions:
1. Only that which can be made into matzah can become hametz. Wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye are the only flours that can be used for matzah. Therefore, it is established that rice, beans and legumes cannot fall into the category of hametz. Moreover, the authorities agree that the presence of kitniyot on a plate does not render the plate, the meal or the home unkosher, even for those who observe the custom not to eat kitniyot.
2. The legal authorities of medieval Ashkenaz recognized that forbidding kitniyot was an added restriction to the Passover laws, possibly based in the fear that certain varieties of wheat might possibly get mixed with varieties of kitniyot. Some authorities considered the measure excessive, but the more restrictive custom ultimately prevailed.
3. In the 18th century the debate was revived. The opponents of the restrictive position argued that the high cost of matzah prevented some from experiencing the requisite joy of the holiday, whereas kitniyot were readily available, affordable and not prohibited by law. For the benefit of the masses, they argued, the stumbling block to holiday joy should be removed.
4. The original reason for the restrictive custom is lost. If the reason was concern about the possible admixture with wheat, such confusion does not exist in production and packaging today. But a compelling justification is needed to overturn a long-standing custom. That justification, according to the authors, is the enhancement of our joy. Beans are a significant source of protein for those who don’t eat meat and for those who can’t afford meat, especially considering how prices are inflated as they are on Passover. The enjoyment of food and adequate sources of protein is part of the joy we are meant to experience. Additionally, protecting people’s pocketbooks from those who would seek to gouge is in fact a Jewish value worthy of legal consideration.
Given these legal conclusions and the input provided by those who participated in our studies, I offer my own opinion, which will represent a change in the official position of our community going forward. (Please note: This does not mean you are doing something “wrong” in the eyes of our community should your personal practice differ!)
While I recognize that many people will continue personal practice according to their inherited family custom, I believe there is great value in adopting this change in custom. I don’t believe in change just for the sake of change; but I also will not reject change simply because it is hard or because it is something to which we are unaccustomed. Nor will I reject what is considered a more lenient position out of fear that greater leniency will follow. All too often, necessary change is stifled by the sometimes irrational hold of our emotional attachment to the ways of the past. I choose not to oppose change simply for the sake of opposing change. That is not the way of authentic Jewish thought.
On a practical level, I am in favor of Jewish law that encourages adherence to the law; the more our Passover laws allow people to keep Passover, the better that is for everyone. Contrary to the ways in which some observe Passover, we are not meant to be reliving slavery for seven days or for the days leading up to the holiday. There is no joy or satisfaction to be derived from being more restricted or burdened by the holiday’s laws. Are we supposed to feel different from others and from the way we live for the other 51 weeks of the year? Yes. But Passover is meant to be a time of joy, despite the remembrance of our affliction.
Most importantly, changing dietary habits and sensitivities in our society dictate that alternate sources of protein should be made available if they are not hametz. Moreover, the exorbitant cost of keeping kosher in general, and of kosher meat in particular–not to mention the premiums imposed for Passover–is a compelling justification for offering consumers a more affordable way to stock their pantries.
Finally, I am mindful that this ruling will not necessarily impact individuals in their homes. They can continue to keep Passover as they always have. And even in our synagogue, as studied in the law, serving kitniyot among our foods does not affect the other foods served. So even in the synagogue, those who do not eat kitniyot will still be able to observe Passover in their own way at all times.
Please note that there are controls and restrictions on the purchasing of kitniyot for the holiday. Specifically, fresh corn and beans may be purchased before and during Passover, like other fresh vegetables; dried kitniyot (legumes, rice and corn) can be purchased in bags or boxes and sifted before Passover; canned kitniyot may only be purchased with Passover certification due to the canning process; frozen raw kitniyot (corn, edamame) may be purchased in bags before the holiday without a heksher, though one should still inspect contents before use; and all processed foods (like tofu) require Passover certification.
I am grateful to those who shared this process with me. I believe that the process of seriously engaging with our tradition is as important as any result of such deliberation. May we all have a happy and kosher Passover, whether we are among the bean counters or not!
Rabbi Craig Scheff
The first two holy days of Passover came to an end last night and with the holy days, so went my children. As we made Havdalah, Josh left for the airport to return to Israel and his IDF unit. Noah returned to Maryland, Ben to college finals, and soon Sarah and Sagi will return to Israel as well. Moadim l’simcha, we say, may these middle days of Passover be filled with joy. Forgive me if my joy feels a bit diminished.
And I really mean: Forgive me. I have so many reasons to be filled with an abundance of joy. Like Elijah’s cup at the seder, the joy should be flowing over the top of the cup.
All four of my children became “all five of my children” this year as we added Sagi, a son by marriage to our ranks. On the Sunday before Passover, our daughter Sarah and Sagi stood under the chuppah with Rabbi Craig Scheff officiating. For anyone who might have been second guessing attendance at a simcha on the last really great cleaning/preparation day before Pesach, Rabbi Scheff told us that celebrating the wedding was exactly the kind of Passover preparation we should be doing. The ruach of the wedding was an experience of simcha that no one in our families will ever forget, pouring joy into my cup.
My own preparations for Pesach were put into perspective with absolute clarity. I could not have angst and agita because there was simply no time. On Monday we were serving bagels to thirty out of town guests. On Friday, we were sitting down to our family seder. The lived-understanding that my best was good enough and that the seder is meant to be completely a time of rejoicing freed me from years of self-imposed rigor.
I have taught for years that we don’t need to be tortured in our Passover preparations. This year I walked my talk. The sense of freedom of the seder was another level of simcha poured into my cup.
It was a blessing to celebrate the first two days of Passover with such an abundance of old and new family, a blessing that I don’t take for granted.
Two wonderful seders, sunny days, lunches of matza lasagna with friends, long walks with my new machatenasta (Yiddish for mother of my son-in-law) enhanced the beauty of the chag. The sense of quiet contentment is another kind of simcha to add to my cup.
Still, as the holy day ended last night and the middle days of Pesach began, I felt the diminishment of my joy as one by one, the Drill children and members of the Fainshtain family started peeling away, leaving us with great memories and (forgive me) matzah crumbs. But here is where Jewish ritual came to the rescue, reminding me that given a choice between feelings of loss and feelings of gratitude, I can choose gratitude.
Last night we counted the second day of the Omer. As we continue on the calendar arc from Passover to Shavuot, from redemption to revelation, we count up, not down. Each day toward the holiday of Shavuot reminds us that we choose to make every day one of meaning, to make every day count. I can let go of the lessons learned about simcha or I can hold fast to joy by being grateful. Forgive me If I choose joy!
Moadim l’simcha! Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
Many of us have powerful memories of our childhood Passover seders. Here is mine: Nana Edith bustles about the kitchen, finishing off the matzah balls, putting the hand-grated horseradish on the seder plate and arranging the vegetables around the gefilte fish. After a chorus of, “Sit down, Mom. Come and sit down,” Nana finally sits across the large dining room table from Poppy. We open our Maxwell House haggadahs and Poppy chants the Pesach Kiddush. I peek down toward the end of the table at my beloved Nana. She is snoring lightly, her cheek resting on her palm. We are ready to be redeemed from slavery. She is at last redeemed from the weeks of cleaning and preparation. But she is too tired to celebrate Passover.
For generations, the great tradition of Passover has been all about missing the point. Too many of us get trapped into thinking that the main endeavor of the Passover holiday entails sweeping attics, vacuuming bedrooms, packing up half-filled bottles of catsup and shlepping boxes of dishes from the basement to cupboards emptied and scoured clean. And if we don’t turn our houses over according to strict Jewish law, we still manage to get caught up in the pressure of preparation. Our friends finish their Passover shopping the day after Purim and brag about three dozen matzah balls in the freezer. We worry about keeping the brisket from drying out and whether our sponge cake will rise as high as our mother’s used to do.
None of this is the main point.
The main point of Passover is that we were slaves in Egypt for four hundred years and God took us out with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. We are commanded to remember this narrative and teach it to the next generation, ensuring that the Jewish people will never forget our origins. We tell the story over and over about how we began as slaves to ensure that others do not suffer as we did. We marvel at all of the miracles God performed, plagues and parted seas, and we understand that we are surrounded by daily miracles. We are thankful to God for delivering us from Egypt and remember to be grateful for all the good that is ours.
Rabbi Yitz Greenberg writes about Passover in The Jewish Way: “By the magic of shared values and shared story, the Exodus is not some ancient event, however influential. It is the ever-recurring redemption; it is the once and future redemption of humanity.”
So, yes, I have been sweeping and vacuuming, packing and shlepping. I have resisted panicking over the masterful shopping of boastful friends but I am actually quite worried about the height of my sponge cake. How do I stay focused on the main point? First, I remember my own best advice regarding Passover cleaning and cooking mantra: “My best is good enough.”
Then, I remind myself that the physical preparation for Pesach is just a metaphor for the spiritual preparation with which I am meant to engage. At Passover, my soul is redeemed from the slavery of the everyday (think: calendars, iPhones, To Do lists, and unreasonable expectations). Once a year, in the month of Nisan, I remember that I am blessed with the greatest gift of all. I am free. I remember this truth every time I tell the story of the Exodus. And that is the point of Passover.
Wishing everyone a beautiful, freeing and meaningful Passover, Rabbi Paula Mack Drill
“What is certain is that you love bringing things back to life. It is a wonderful feeling to identify the undermining factors, eradicate them, and restore something to its true glory.” Tom Rath, StrengthsFinder 2.0 (Gallup Press, 2007, p. 153)
Strengthsfinder 2.0 is a popular assessment tool for identifying and applying an individual’s strengths. The book is based on the premise that we should spend more time in our professional lives building upon our strengths than trying to overcome our weaknesses. Everyone loves the story of an underdog overcoming overwhelming odds to achieve, but that model of success is not usually the best application of our resources! The quote above refers to the person who possesses a “restorative” talent, the ability to resuscitate and rekindle the vitality of relationships. Indeed, institutions can be revitalized; relationships can be resuscitated. This can only happen, however, when the right “match” is achieved—when a restorer is brought into a relationship where restoration is needed.
As an adjunct lecturer at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I work with students who are preparing to transition into new professional settings. Among my goals is to help budding cantors and rabbis recognize their own strengths, and identify the professional opportunities where they will experience fulfillment and success, and feel valued for what they bring to the task. Not every available opportunity is the right opportunity for every candidate. In the moments of rejection, we learn about the nature of relationships, the needs of our potential partner, and our own strengths and talents.
This week’s haftarah for Shabbat Hagadol, from the prophet Malachi, tells us that a day of restoration is approaching. The children of Israel seemingly stand back to back with God, too ashamed in their imperfection to face the Divine, perhaps anxious about the prospect of confronting their strained relationships. The prophet announces that God will provide a restorer in Elijah, one who will reconcile the open and eager hearts of parents and children to each other.
Passover, the season of restoration is once again upon us. Many of us are headed home at this time of year—children to parents, families to one another, even institutions to their missions–perhaps anxious about the prospect of confronting those with whom we have strained relationships. Not everyone is cut out for every task. Perhaps there is someone among us who is particularly “restorative” by nature, who will restore our hearts to each other?
Who among us is prepared to play the role of Elijah?
Rabbi Craig Scheff
If we say, “Next year in Jerusalem” at a seder in New York, what do we say when we make a seder in Jerusalem? The answer is that we still say, “Next year in Jerusalem” because we pray to be in Yerusalayim L’Malah, Jerusalem on High, the future Utopian time when all will be peace. Singing about being in Jerusalem is a moment of hope and open-heartedness every year at the end of the seder, but this year, actually sitting at a seder in Jerusalem, I felt even more optimistic.
We made our seder with my brother Eric and lots of my cousins at a hotel in Jerusalem. As I looked around the large ballroom, I saw tables of thirty and tables of three. There were Jews in white shirts and black pants, Jews dressed in high fashion, and Jews in jeans. As each table began to sing “Dayenu,” we heard more different tunes than I thought possible. There were tables that were being served dinner before our table asked even the second of the four questions. While we sat at the table singing for a long time, we still were not the last table in the room. Every kind of Jew in Israel celebrates Pesach. Walking back through the streets of French Hill to our apartment at close to 1:00 a.m. I felt that anything is possible. Next year in Jerusalem.
We have been spending Chol HaMoed (the middle days of Passover) with Sarah’s boyfriend Sagi’s family on Kibbutz Mefalsim (next to Sederot, in the south), mountain biking and hiking. Everywhere we go, we see Israeli families enjoying the Passover vacation. It is the gift of Israel to be on the same calendar with everyone else! If I am hoping for next year in Jerusalem, so are all the other Jews I see.
Our youngest, Joshua, announced his intention to make aliya and follow his sister’s footsteps into the IDF. We couldn’t be more proud. With the great possibility of two out of four of the Drill children making lives in Israel, it will really be true for many years to come that we’ll be saying, in a real way, “Next year in Jerusalem.” As a Jew with faith, optimism and a belief in Jewish destiny, I will always say, “Next year in Jerusalem.” I’ll say it when I am here for Pesach, here among people living according to the Jewish calendar, here as a mother of Israeli offspring. I’ll say it when I am with all of you at the OJC for Pesach, among the people in the congregation that I love. My task never sways from working to bring about a better day for all humanity. Bashana haba-ah B’Yerushalayim.
L’hitraot, See you all soon! B’yedidut, with friendship,
Rabbi Paula Mack Drill