Archives for April 2014

Passover Reflections, 2014 – Preparing for Passover #3

A Connection Through Time       

Sunday is coming to a close, and tomorrow night is the first night of Passover. I just finished cleaning our house and I can’t imagine there could be any chametz  anywhere. Chametz is the Hebrew word that stands for all leavened foods forbidden during Passover (wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt and their derivatives). The outer act of cleaning our homes — of emptying our homes from chametz –– is there to trigger the beginning of an inner process of emptying ourselves from our leavened ego, our puffed-up-ness, which will continue to unfold over the eight days of Passover.

Tonight, as the sun sets, I will gather my children around me, and the three of us will walk through the house at the light of a candle to symbolically look for the last bread crumbs that might have escaped my spring cleaning. I always look forward to this moment. It connects me back to my childhood and doing this with my father and brother, like my father did with his father growing up. Generations of Jews have repeated this ritual called b’dikat chametz year after year for the last two millennia, collecting the crumbs in a container to be burnt in the morning (biur chametz.) Lior, my 10 year old son, asked this morning — as he was watching me getting the house ready — why Passover is such an important holiday compared to others? The first answer that came up for me was that, however religious, whatever their belief or lack thereof, Jews all over the world will be sitting at the Seder table tomorrow night, retelling the story of the Haggadah and partaking of the foods of the Seder plate. Perhaps this holiday, more than any other, is one which connects us through time to all the generations that have come before us, a celebration that is foundational to Jewish identity. [Read more…]

Passover Reflections 2014 – Preparing for Passover #2

The Kabbalah of Passover      

A few years ago, at our annual Bet Alef Community Seder, I shared with those in attendance — members and non-members alike — a tradition that has been in my family for, I suspect, many generations. Growing up, I remember looking forward to this ritual where my grandfather (of blessed memory,) at the beginning of the Seder, would come around the table and gently touch the top of our bowed heads with the still untouched Seder plate, while chanting a short phrase in Hebrew. It felt like I was participating in a millennia-old ritual, being blessed through the hands of my grandfather by all the symbols of the Seder plate touching the crown of my head. It was always a deeply humbling moment that never failed to give me chills.

It is only four years ago, when the project of writing a new Haggadah for the Bet Alef Community Seder began, that my studies led me to discover the deep Kabbalistic connections to this family ritual. Who and when in my North African Sephardic family had integrated this Kabbalistic ritual, and how did it come to be a family tradition? I guess I will never know. But I thought I would share it with you as part of these Passover Reflections as it now appears in the Bet Alef Haggadah. [Read more…]

Passover Reflections – April 2014

Preparing for Passover #1

Mah Nish’tanah? What Has Changed?     

This is the time of the year, personally, when I delight in re-opening the Passover Haggadah and in looking inside for more treasures to be revealed. Four years ago I compiled a new version of the Bet Alef Haggadah, drawing from many sources and teachers that have inspired me along the years. I thought, this year, that I would invite you into my own process of preparing myself to meet the holiday, by sharing excerpts from the Bet Alef Haggadah that call to me over the next three days. Here are a few:

Egypt in Hebrew is MitzrayimMitzrayim means “narrow places.” Our Egypts are those places in our lives that have become lifeless — aspects of ourselves that feel constricted, bound up, unable to be expressed. Our Egypts [also] represent our falling into the dullness of everyday life, the deadening routine of an existence where we have lost consciousness. The Haggadah tells the story not only of our Exodus from a physical Egypt, but perhaps most importantly, our exodus from an Egypt of a deadening mindless rut, where things lose their taste and meaning as a consequence of repetitiveness. Delving into the Hebrew for the word “Haggadah” suggests a way out of our enslavement. The word comes from the root “nagod” which means “to oppose”– to go against that which exists within the repetitive banality of our day-to-day existence. [Read more…]

Torah Reflections – March 30 – April 5, 2014

M’tzorah

Leviticus 14:1 – 15:33

Connecting Near-East & Far East    

This week’s Torah portion is, admittedly, a challenge to our modern sensibilities. This portion talks about tzara’at, a skin affliction most translators define as leprosy; although no one knows what it was exactly. Given that skin disease is generally not a favorite topic of conversation, I’ve been known to try and bypass it by seeking to extract from the text the more mystical teachings, and avoid dealing with scaly skin afflictions, and other colorful details. But this time, for a change, I found at the literal level of the narrative, a fascinating passage that brings to light a broader understanding of the context and the aim of the biblical text.

In the ancient sacrificial system of the Temple, the disease afflicted person would come to the High Priest for healing. The High Priest, not unlike the Shaman, was also a healer. This portion describes what the affected person is to do. He is to bring animals for sacrifice, and come to stand in front of the High Priest. A rather curious ritual is then described, whereby the High Priest dips the fingers of his right hand into the blood of the sacrifice, and puts it on the ridge of the right ear of the leper, on the right thumb and on the right big toe. Then the High Priest repeats the three part ritual, but this time, with oil. This peculiar encounter is described twice back to back in this Torah portion. Our sages tell us, anytime something is repeated in Torah, you have to pay careful attention. So what was this ritual about? [Read more…]

Torah Reflections – March 23 – 29, 2014

Tazria

Leviticus 12:1 – 13:59

Sin is a Divine Gift  

Our weekly Torah reading begins laying out spiritual practices connected to human birth: “Ishah ki tazria… – When a woman conceives…” [Lev. 12:2] In his commentary on these three words, Rashi (11th Century, France,) quotes a peculiar midrash by Rabbi Simlai: “Just as the formation of mankind took place after that of the cattle, beast and fowl, when the world was created; so the law regarding mankind is set forth after the law concerning cattle, beast and fowl.” [Lev. Rabbah 14:1] What is Rashi trying to tell us here? By bringing up this midrash he explains why the laws concerning animals’ sanctity — which occupy the previous Torah portion — come before this week’s reading which explores the laws concerning human sanctity.

Rabbis like Rashi are preoccupied with this order in the six-day Creation myth. On the one hand, some argue, mankind was created last because people were to be the apex of Creation. On the other hand, many counter, in order to avoid misplaced pride, mankind was created last to be reminded that even the gnats took precedence in Creation. What concerns the rabbis most is their realization that, contrary to humans, animals are incapable of sin and may, therefore, appear to be superior to mankind; at least in God’s eyes. [Read more…]

Torah Reflections – March 16 – 22, 2014

Tzav

Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47

Joy And The Possibility of Forgiveness 

The inaugural ceremony of the Tabernacle’s dedication and the ordination of Aaron and his sons to the priesthood which began with last week’s Torah portion, concludes this week. “BaYom HaSh’mini – On the eighth day” of this protracted affair the final sacrifices are made on the altar, after which, in the culminating moments, we read:

Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them; and he descended from having performed the sin-offering, the offering-up, and the wholeness-offering. Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of the Eternal appeared to all the people. Fire came forth from the Presence of the Eternal and consumed the offering-up and the fat-parts on the altar. And all the people saw, sang joyful songs, and fell upon their faces. [Lev. 9:22-24]

One of the midrashim (rabbinic homiletic exegesis) on this passage explains that on this day there was joy before God in the heavenly realms just like on the day when heaven and earth were created. Why? Our sages taught that the eighth day completed Creation. In building the Tabernacle and ordaining priests the Israelites created the possibility of teshuvah, repentance, return, and ultimately forgiveness. It takes the flawed humanity to manifestteshuvah; God alone in His perfection could not have done it without human partnership. [Read more…]