From Goshen to the Sea: Passover as the In-Between

red seaThis coming Monday is (unofficially) Red Sea Crossing Day.

We mark Passover at this time of year because this is the time of the events of the Exodus as recounted in the Torah. According to the Torah the march out of Egypt began on the 15th of Nissan, the first day of Passover. It was on this day that Pharaoh, after the tenth and final plague resulted in the death of the first born of Egypt, told Moses that he and the Israelites are free to leave.

As the story goes, after marching out of Egypt the Israelites were brought to the Red Sea. Pharaoh, regretting his decision, amassed his army to chase after the Israelites. Facing a vast body of water in front of them and an approaching army behind, the Israelites appealed to Moses and God for help. Moses and God then split the sea in two, allowing the Israelites to cross through on dry land and drowning the approaching army. It is the climactic moment of this epic story of liberation and redemption.

The traditional anniversary of the crossing of the Red Sea is the seventh day of Passover, which is Monday (beginning Sunday night). It was on this day that the Israelites finalized their liberation from bondage and permanently left Egypt behind. (“Will the last person leaving Egypt please turn out the lights?”) With the physical crossing of the sea the Israelites also spiritually and emotionally crossed into a new chapter of their national saga and development. It is such an important episode of the entire Exodus narrative that reference to it is found in most prayer services (“mi chamocha”).

So while we celebrate the entire story of the Exodus on Passover, the holiday does span a specific time period of the story: from the time the Israelites left Goshen, where the they lived in Egypt, to and through the Red Sea. And while the overall theme of Passover and the Exodus is freedom, during this specific time of the story the Israelites were not completely free-the emancipation had been proclaimed, but they were still in Egypt. It was only after crossing the Sea that we can say they were truly out of Egypt.

Thus while we look at Passover as a celebration of redemption and transformation, it is also a marking of that liminal and dangerous period of in-between on the way to that redemption and transformation. Passover marks that period between leaving what one knows and approaching what will be known. Passover marks that necessary period of transition that bridges enslavement and emancipation.

Our Christian brothers and sisters are celebrating Holy Week this week, recounting the events of the crucifixion (on Good Friday) and resurrection (on Easter Sunday) of Jesus. In regards to the season, my friend and colleague the Rev. Elsa Peters of the United Churches of Olympia recently wrote that while Christians recount and remember the resurrection on Easter, it is done while still living in a “Good Friday world.” In other words, Easter represents the world as it could be and Good Friday represents the world as it is.

Which brought me to wonder–what about Saturday? What is the Christian theological “mood” of the time between the crucifixion and resurrection? It is, as Elsa put it, “the time between the worst thing that could happen and the possibility that we can live again.” It is a necessary time; one can not go directly from one to the other. Within Christian thought and practice too is this notion of a liminal and dangerous period of in-between.

Judaism has the notion of sacred time, such as the weekly Shabbat. But sacred time is not limited to just a day at a time. Judaism has the notion of sacred time span as well-certain extended periods of time have significance. We have the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but we also have the month of Elul immediately preceding to prepare for these events, and the 10 Days of Repentance between the two. We have Passover and Shavuot (the festival celebrating the gift of Torah and covenant), but we also have the Omer, the seven week period linking these two holidays. And as we have noted, several of the holidays themselves-such as Passover-are not limited to just a day.

Remembering these spans of time reminds us that so much of our spiritual lives are lived not in the moment, but in the movement. Not at the ends, but in the middle. We live much of our lives in the scary center, the fragile and liminal places. While we seek transformation, and sometimes find it, the process is not immediate, and we must learn to be comfortable with the idea of becoming.

All the moreso when we remember the story of Passover through the eyes of Pharaoh, who was less of an actor than one upon whom life acted upon. Life is not always fair to us, and we many times find ourselves in those middle places not by choice but by necessity.

Passover does not mark slavery and it does not mark freedom; it marks the transition between the two. As we conclude the festival in the coming days, as we walk through the muck and mud at the bottom of the sea and watch the waters close up behind us, we end one journey but begin another. And we are mindful that as we do, we move not from one end point to another, but rather one in-between space to another.

Thinking of Overland Park–and beyond–this Passover

overland park

As we sit around the Seder table this year, I am sure the shootings in Overland Park, Kansas are on everyone’s mind. A blatant act of aggression and violence directed toward the Jewish community leaves us shaken, upset, insecure and angry. For me personally, the children of a friend and colleague were at the JCC at the time, and to put a known face on the terror makes it all the more palpable.

During Passover, we reenact the story of the Exodus through song, story and symbolic foods. The reenactment is the key—we don’t just retell the story, but relive it in a fashion. We are meant to put ourselves squarely in the story of the Exodus. The story of enslavement and liberation, oppression and freedom is not just relegated to history, but to our lives in our own day.

This can be both a scary and liberating prospect. On the one hand we are reminded that subjugation still exists. We can look around and see where we as a society are “enslaved,” where systems of oppression are still present. The shooting in Kansas is a harsh reminder that for us, anti-Semitism still lives. Whether subtle disregard for Jewish experience, to casual reference to stereotypes, to, unfortunately, horrific acts of murder, Jews still remain “other.” We must remember that no matter how comfortable we feel or integrated into society we become, anti-Semitism is a specter that has not gone away.

On the other hand, we are reminded that oppression can be overcome. The Israelites were liberated from their system of oppression. Similarly contemporary systems of oppression can be broken, contemporary “slaves” can be liberated. Jews have benefitted over the years from alliances with other oppressed groups, and Jews have been at the forefront of fighting for civil, political and economic rights. This must remain our mission; the Passover story is both particularistic and universal. Let us remember that we are called to create a world where all are free, no one is oppressed, violence does not rule the day and transformation is possible.

We here in Olympia are familiar with such hate having experienced shootings at the Jewish Federation in Seattle a few years ago, a march by neo-Nazis in our city, and other forms of discrimination. As we celebrate Passover this year, we send out prayers of comfort and healing to all those affected by the shootings in Overland Park. And we commit ourselves to work towards a day when such prayers are unnecessary.

Chag sameach

More Questions for a Meaningful Passover

The Passover seder is an ethical answer to a series of questions. It is structured as a lesson, the symbolic foods and retelling of the story comes in response to 4 questions (or 4 variations of 1 question) asked traditionally by the youngest person at the table: why is this night different from all other nights?, or in other words, why are we celebrating this holiday?

 

The story of Passover tells the ancient story of the Exodus. How our ancestors the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, appealed for divine help, and found in Moses a deliverer. How plagues were brought against a stubborn Pharaoh who eventually capitulated. How the Israelites left enslavement only to come to an expanse of water pursued by a vengeful Pharaoh. How the waters were parted and the Israelites left, closing behind them to signify the point of no return.

It is a paradigm of redemption, of moving from narrowness to the expansive, from that which oppresses us to freedom.

In that spirit, and in the spirit of asking questions, here are a few other questions you may wish to ask during this Passover:

  • In what ways as a society are we still in Egypt? It what ways personally are you still in Egypt?
  • A recent study by the Pew Forum shows that 70 % of Jews celebrate Passover, more than any other ritual practice. Why do you think it is so popular? Why do you celebrate? Why do you not?
  • What is your favorite part of the Passover story? What is your favorite part of the Seder?
  • When we recite 10 Plagues as part of the retelling of the story, we take one drop of wine out of our glass for each plague. This is to remember the suffering of the Egyptians, or, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls it, “the victims of our victory.” For what/whom else should we take wine out of our glass this year?
  • What modern day “plague” should be enough to compel a society to act differently?
  • Which symbol on the Seder plate is most meaningful to you? (judging by symbolism only, not taste)
  • Passover baked goods that mimic non-Passover baked goods: OK or not?
  • What is a favorite Passover memory? Food? Tradition/practice not related to the Seder?
  • If you grew up celebrating Passover, how is your observance now the same as when you were younger? How is it different?
  • The Torah story relates how the Israelites were in slavery for over 400 years before they were released. Have you ever been in a hole so deep you didn’t think you would ever get out?
  • Matzo balls: sinkers or floaters?
  • Moses was called by God at the burning bush to redeem the Israelites, but he was reluctant at first. What are you being called to do this Passover, and what is holding you back?

Wishing you a chag sameach (happy holiday) and a week of meaningful questions.

Movers and Shakers

1072072_10152301506444583_983034628_oI love my children’s elementary school, Lincoln Elementary. The school is an alternative program, called Lincoln Options, that focuses on values, community building, creativity and social justice. The experiential curriculum integrates subjects around guiding themes and topics. And there is a garden with chickens!

Every year the school chooses an overall theme, and each class develops a project around that theme. This year it was “Movers and Shakers”–in other words, people who make a difference. Some classes looked at broad social movements, some looked at famous leaders in history. My son’s kindergarten/1st grade class looked at “human giraffes”–i.e., people who “stick their neck out” for others.

One class focused on local movers and shakers, people in Olympia who are community leaders. I was so touched and honored to be selected as one. I was interviewed by a student in the class (who also happens to be a member of the congregation) and we had an engaging conversation about my background, my role as a rabbi in the community and some of my general thoughts on life. He brought these to life in a sign and diorama that was spectacular!

I try my best to make a bit of difference in my community and those around me. Like many others who do similar we don’t do it for recognition. When it does come, however, it is meaningful, and I can’t think of a more wonderful recognition than this one at the school.

It was nice to be named as such but, as I told my interviewee, we can all be movers and shakers. And even if we can only do a little, it all adds up to a lot.

Holidays and Red Lights: On Dayenu and Social Change

This week we entered the new month of Nissan—the month of Passover. The season of the Festival of Freedom is upon us.

It is time to make our preparations for this physical and spiritual journey. We buy the matzo and special foods, we plan our Seders and special meals. And we think about the story of the Exodus, and how this ancient story of bondage and oppression and liberation continues to echo in our own day.

When we gather around the Seder table, we tell this story. The special book we use at the Seder is called the Haggadah, from the word for “telling.” But it is of course not a strict retelling, for the story is embellished, primarily with symbolic foods, but also with special songs and recitations.

One of my favorite piyyutim, or liturgical poems, from the Seder is Dayenu. The poem recounts the different miraculous steps the Israelites took in their journey to freedom, the gifts from God, with each step followed by the refrain, dayenu—It would have been enough.

If God had given us Shabbat, but not brought us to Mount Sinai, dayenu, it would have been enough.

If God had brought us to Mount Sinai, but not given us the Torah, dayenu, it would have been enough.

On its face, the essence of the song is the need to be thankful for each of the little steps of freedom it took for us to get to where we needed to be. But the irony of Dayenu is that while we say “it would have been enough” after each miracle, it isn’t really true. We hope for more, and the miracle of each step is not only that it is a miracle in and of itself, but it is a stage in the journey. The journey doesn’t end, we are looking for what needs to happen next.

Both are true. We offer thanks for the steps we have taken, while also looking at the larger picture of the path we must travel.

Earlier this week I had the honor of attending the bill signing for SB 5173, which creates two “holidays of faith or conscience” for public employees and students—an additional two (unpaid) days off. This bill was championed by the Muslim community initially, and it had a broad base of support across faith traditions. I testified for the bill on behalf of the Jewish community, and I stood by the Governor’s side (along with many other folks) as he signed it into law.bill signing

On one hand, it doesn’t seem like much—two days off of work with out pay. On the other hand, it is a huge step towards religious equality and diversity, the recognition that in order to have true religious liberty there sometimes needs to be accommodations made to minority faith traditions. At one point it would have been dayenu to be granted permission off work without supervisors giving a hard time. Now it is dayenu that the law of the State of Washington grants two days off.

And there is more to go to achieve religious liberty. But this is how social and legal change is made—in stages, in dayenu moments.

Currently as part of our Tikkun Olam (repair of the world) efforts at Temple Beth Hatfiloh we are focusing on hunger. We will conduct a food drive, spend a day of service at GRuB and participate in the community wide CROP Walk—all with the goal of increasing awareness around issues of hunger in our community.

We kicked off these events by watching the documentary A Place at the Table. This is very powerful film looking at poverty and food insecurity in America. It was tough to watch, especially with the growing realization that so much of the issues around hunger in our country have to do with systemic issues relating to laws and policies. Relief through food banks and feeding programs are mere band-aids. While it is extremely important to continue to provide and support these, real change must come through shifting of priorities at the highest level.

This sort of cultural and political shift is possible, but it takes time, patience and small steps. The system as it is now is based on policies developed during the Great Depression. It would take time to undo it as well. But just because it seems insurmountable, doesn’t mean we don’t make the attempt. That is the message of dayenu—we work in stages to achieve social change, thankful for the each individual achievement with an eye towards what comes next.

As a community dedicated to social justice, we need to be engaged not only applying the band-aids but working towards real social change. The vehicle for doing this in our society is through government, through laws, through legislation. I was always interested in government and politics, and while it did not end up as my vocation, I see it as an important part of my rabbinate to be engaged politically. The power of civic action as a means of Tikkun Olam became clear as I stood next to the Governor—as a rabbi—and watched him sign this bill into law. From a concern to an idea to a conversation to a bill to a law.

And if it is of concern, a change is possible.

If you haven’t been to a bill signing, it works like this. The Governor’s Office announces the slate of bills he will take action on at a particular time, and all those who are interested assemble outside the Governor’s Office in the Capitol at the appointed time. Since there are multiple bills which may be signed, the crowd can grow quite large. An aide comes out and announces the number, and those waiting for a particular bill file in.

I was early to the bill signing, and watched the hallway outside the signing grow larger. It seemed that the contingent for our bill was one of the largest assembling until we realized how many leather-clad bikers there were. I got to talking with one of them, and he told me about his bill, SB 5141, or “the left turn bill.”

As you may know, many traffic lights are not on timers, but they react to sensors in the road to indicate the presence of a car. The sensors then change the light from red to green. However, as I just learned, a motorcycle is oftentimes too light to trigger the sensor, so the traffic light does not know it is there. This results in a motorcyclist waiting at a red light for an indefinite amount of time, especially when there are no other vehicles around. The bill (now law) gives motorcyclists the right to make a left turn through a red light if the road is clear without committing a moving violation.

Who knew? I certainly didn’t. But the bikers did. And they used our existing systems of social change to bring about Tikkun Olam for their community.

We can be cynical about our system at times and we should. Money and power can shift the system away from the common good. But sometimes too an idea becomes an effort, and through sharing the idea, and compromise and negotiations and conversations, an idea becomes enshrined in law. An active citizenry has that power.

The Exodus from Egypt that we retell at Passover is the story of an engaged, active citizenry that was able to transform their circumstance. We are grateful for each step, and we look to the next thing we can achieve. This is our legacy. This is our mandate.

If religiously diverse citizens have the ability to take time off to worship and celebrate, dayenu.

If motorcycles can run red lights when the coast is clear, dayenu.

So now, what’s next?

Whose Religion? Whose Liberty?

good-guy-rabbi-pork-abortionThere is something seemingly odious happening to the concept of religious liberty in our country.

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments in a case about (depending on how you look at it) religious liberty, reproductive rights, corporate personhood or the Affordable Care Act. In short, two corporations—the craft supply store chain Hobby Lobby and furniture manufacturer Conestoga–are suing the government to be exempt from the requirement that they pay for their employee’s health care coverage of certain contraception. Their argument is that the law should not compel employers and business owners to violate their religious liberty by forcing them to pay for medical coverage that they deem to be a violation of their beliefs.

Earlier this year, this issue came up in our state when the Legislature was considering for the second time the Reproductive Parity Act. This piece of legislation would require health plans offered in our state to cover termination of pregnancy, and while it advanced in the House, it died in the Senate. The argument of the opponents of the RPA is again religious liberty and the rights of employers—employers should not be compelled to pay for something that violates their religious beliefs.

A variation of this argument was also advanced in Arizona, in which the Legislature passed a law that would protect businesses that refuse services to gay couples based on a religious opposition to same-sex marriage. The bill was vetoed by the Governor after a public outcry.

What is troubling about these religious liberty arguments is twofold. One, while seemingly instituted to protect religious minorities, the concept of religious liberty is being invoked by the religious majority, sometimes at the expense of minorities. While I do not deny that everyone is entitled to the same rights—including those in the Christian majority—we must be careful when it is the case of a majority vs. a minority. We Jews have benefited greatly from guarantees of religious liberty because of the fact we are a religious minority in a place where Christianity and Christian culture is the norm.

The second troubling aspect is that in these cases, the concept is being invoked in a way that will cause harm to others, either through decreased access to health care (and the financial burden that comes with it) or outright discrimination. Religious liberty is being used as a sword, not a shield.

The fact that the Supreme Court case (and the RPA) is about reproductive rights makes it a good test of these principles. Support it or not, abortion is a legal right in this country. And as with any right, whether or not one chooses to exercise that right is up to each individual’s conscience. But that does not give license to restrict another whether or not another he or she can exercise that right. (The other complicating factor is that the heart of the argument in Hobby Lobby is not abortion per se but rather emergency contraception which opponents claim is the same as abortion and proponents claim otherwise.)

While not condoning the practice as routine, Judaism does take a more permissive approach to the termination of a pregnancy. A fetus holds the potential for life, but according to Jewish tradition does not hold the same status as a person. Based in a verse in Torah (Exodus 21:22ff), in which a woman who miscarries after accidentally being struck is compensated financially (and no murder charge is levied), a fetus is seen as part of the mother and may be aborted if the mother’s life is in jeopardy. For another variant of this principle—according to Jewish law if a pregnant woman converts to Judaism, then her child is born Jewish. In other words, the mother’s conversion affects the unborn child as well. If that fetus was seen as a separate person, then one would assume he or she would not be born Jewish but would have be converted once born.

A Jewish employee of Hobby Lobby, therefore, may have a different approach to birth control and termination of pregnancy that the company has. And should Hobby Lobby prevail in its lawsuit, then that employee’s free exercise of her legal rights and religious conscience would be curtailed because of her company’s legal rights and religious conscience. This is troubling.

[Maybe the fight for marriage equality is partly to blame for the direction of these arguments. In many of the marriage equality legislations moving across the country, including in Washington, proponents have compromised in writing in religious exemption language that states a religious leader will not be compelled to officiate at a wedding if it violates the tenets of his or her faith. The problem with this language is that it was completely unnecessary. As a member of the clergy, I am not compelled to officiate at any marriage. I have colleagues who will not officiate if one of the parties is not Jewish. We are not even compelled to officiate if both parties are Jewish if we find a reason not to. Just because the state allows two people to be married, doesn’t mean a member of the clergy must officiate. So the language was extraneous. However, it gave a foot in the door for religious exemptions in neutral law that is now being exploited. That’s my two-bit non-lawyer legal analysis.]

Meanwhile, a bill in our state that does much to promote true religious liberty is languishing, waiting to be signed by Governor Inslee. The bill, SB 5173, would create “holidays of faith and conscience” for public employees and school children. Anyone, regardless of faith tradition, would be allowed to take two unpaid days off in observance of religious holidays without being penalized by the employer or school.

For Jews, this is huge. With our holiday cycle based on a lunar calendar, our festivals and celebrations shift from year to year and do not always fall on weekends or even the same date each year. The same is true for our Muslim brothers and sisters, who did much to push this bill in the legislature. (I had the honor of testifying on behalf of the Jewish community. You can hear it here starting at 3:04) If signed into law, our Jewish kids and public employees will be allowed to take time of for the High Holidays, for example, without impunity.

Aside from the practical nature of having leverage in taking time off and (hopefully) not having to negotiate, plead and argue with recalcitrant supervisors and teachers, this bill makes the statement that we live in a religiously diverse environment, and we want to extend the same rights and privileges to all. As I said in my testimony, the First Amendment guarantee to free exercise of religion means the right to worship and celebrate as one sees fit. However, this free exercise sometimes runs up against practical difficulties. This bill is a step at alleviating those obstacles. (If you want to help this bill along, I urge you to send a note to Governor Inslee asking him to sign it.)

While it passed unanimously in the Senate, the bill did meet some opposition in the House. First, an amendment was introduced and approved that would allow an employer to deny the request for time off if it created an “undue burden.” Then, some Representatives voted against it because how to determine that undue burden was not, they believe, made explicit enough in the bill.

Some of the same Representatives who voted against this bill, which explicitly guarantees religious liberty, also voted against the Reproductive Parity Act in the name of religious liberty. While on its face it may seem to be, it is not a contradiction—its just that the consistency lay elsewhere. The consistency is supporting the employer over the employee. It is not in religious liberty per se but in who exercises it. In other words, the message is religious liberty is worth guaranteeing if you are an employer, but not if you are an employee.

And herein lies the irony, and the danger. The guarantee of religious liberty is meant to protect the weak from the strong. Recently, however, it is being invoked to strengthen the strong against the weak. The passage of the holiday bill is a victory for the former. The fear comes with the potential victory of the latter.

Who Loves a Good Mystery? We Don’t.

As I’m sure many of you have been, this past week I have been slightly obsessed with the story of Malaysia Airlines flight 370. The complete disappearance of a Boeing 777 jet with over 200 people on board on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing is fascinating and terrifying. What happened? Was it a hijacking or equipment failure? Did the pilots have anything to do with it or were they managing in a difficult circumstance? The lack of any answers in the face of continually mounting questions, along with tiny shreds of evidence and clues, plus the ability to share opinions and ideas across the internet and other media adds up to a compelling story.

malaysia-mh370-600x450

Why is this story capturing our imaginations? Because it is a mystery.

Like with any good mystery, we hunt for clues: Why the erratic flight path? Why was some of the tracking computers turned off? Why was no one on the ground tracking the plane?

Like with any good mystery, we offer theories: There was a fire and the pilots were trying to land but ran out of time. The plane was taken to another country with the aim of being used again for terrorism. The plane disintegrated in midair, leaving no trace.

And like with any good mystery, we desperately desire a resolution.

That is the irony of our interest in this story, and with mystery stories in general: we are fascinated by the details as long as there is the promise of a resolution. We ultimately want the answer. The thought at this point of possibly never knowing what happened to flight 370 is unsettling and untenable.

Also this week, we find the news the recent discovery of gravitational waves, evidence of cosmic “inflation,” or the fast rapid expansion of the universe from its earliest moments. In other words, the first glimmers of proof of the “Big Bang” theory of the universe’s origins. First proposed over 30 years ago, the waves were first seen to exist this week after years of research and advances in monitoring equipment.

From my non-scientist/clerical perspective, this discovery does not make one iota of difference in how we live our lives. We still know what is ethically required of us. We still mark the cycles of time and life with holiday, celebrations and rituals. We still look to each other and our communities for support and aid. But this advance in science does fulfill that base human need—the need for certainty.

The origin of the universe was too big a mystery to be left alone. We need to resolve it. (Which is why, perhaps, the story of creation as told in the Torah is so inviting to be read as science fact, even though it isn’t—it provides certainty about origins that we don’t get elsewhere). So we examine, we construct, we study and we measure all in order to know for the sake of knowing.

It is a timeless desire. In our weekly Torah reading this week we continue with the sacrificial system of Leviticus. We are taught more details about the ancient Temple cult, how certain sacrifices are meant to be offered at different times for different needs. And while on the one hand thinking of goat slaughter and blood sprinkling as a means of worship seems remote and off-putting, the Torah is describing a system that guarantees certainty. It is very attractive to our frail human psyches to know one is able to absolve oneself of sin through the very concrete and real action of animal sacrifice.

Our ancestors had a desire to know. We have a desire to know. And we orient our human endeavors to try to find out the answers to the mysteries of life.

There is a need to find out some of the answers to life’s questions. If we know how certain diseases manifest and spread, for example, we can learn how to treat them and save lives. We have been successful at solving many of these challenges thus far, and we continue to expand our knowledge and awareness.

At the same time, this leads us to ask the underlying question about the disappearance of flight 370, a question rooted in human pride and, perhaps, hubris: how is it, with all of our technology and advances, is it still possible for an airplane to just disappear? That is the most unsettling question, because it challenges our need for certainty. And maybe it is a good reminder for us, even if we do eventually learn what happened: mystery is a part of life, and we need to come to terms with the fact that we do not have answers for everything. There is plenty we do know about how our world operates. And there is plenty more we don’t.

Science and intellect can only take us so far in generating certainty. The spirit is what allows us to confront the mystery.