Matzah, Passover, and Freedom

 

This ancient Aramaic ditty begins the Passover story as told in the Haggada, the traditional text commonly accepted as the guide for the seder ritual.

Ha lahma anya di achlu avhatana b’ara d’mitzrayim
Kol dihfin yeteh ve yehchol
Kol ditzrich yehteh veyifsach:
Hashatah hacha
Leshana haba, b’ara d’Yisrael!
Hashana avdeh
Leshana haba, bnei horin!

Translation:

This is the bread of affliction, the poor bread
which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.
Let all who are hungry come and eat.
Let all who are in want share this bread.
As we celebrate here, we join with our people everywhere.
This year we celebrate here.
Next year in the land of Israel.
Now we are still in bonds.
Next year may we all be free.

Matzo bread

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes in his version of the Pesach Haggadah:

“Matza represents two things, the simple food of enslaved people and the bread eaten by the Israelites as they left Egypt in haste.”

However, the matzah also has profound and less well-understood symbolism.

Nothing about the story of the enslaved people of Israel escaping their bondage is predictable or straightforward. The steps are many and strange, and the people are called on to follow Moses’ instructions as God inspires him. Many skeptics struggle and challenge God’s instructions throughout the process, among the Israelites and even Moses himself.

Moses speaks to God after his first session asking the Pharoh to release the Israelites, and the Pharoh instead increases their burden: – (Exodus Ch 5,v 22-23) “Moses returned to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord! Why have You harmed these people? Why have You sent me? Since I have come to Pharaoh to speak in Your name. He has harmed these people, and You have not saved Your people.”

The technical definition of matzah is “a mixture of flour and water permitted to be mixed and to sit for no longer than 18 minutes. If the water and the flour sit any longer, it is not kosher matzah.” Growing grain and making bread is the symbol of settled civilization itself. It seems that the Egyptians discovered the yeast process that allows the water and dough to sit and rise to become the bread that we love. The matzah is only the first possible stage of any sustainable food, just as leaving Egypt is only the first of many steps in the quest for freedom.

The road to freedom and redemption is long and winding and does not end when the Jews leave Egypt. It is only the beginning! This, too, is symbolized by the matzah.

Many have sought to define freedom.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who led the American war effort during World War Two, explained that there are four essential freedoms that any free people must always be ready to defend: the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want, and the freedom from fear. *2

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik parses four additional freedoms that are referenced by the Passover seder. *4

  1. The freedom of children: The ritualized Passover seder meal first and foremost engages the children because our children, who are to carry on our tradition, are the keys to any future freedom.
  2. The freedom of intergenerational continuity refers to Jewish history, seen through the Torah’s canonized texts, shared in the Haggadah. On this night, it is an obligation for young and old to tell and elaborate on the Jewish people’s story. The Hagada states, “The more one elaborates on the story, the more he is to be commended.”
  3. The freedom of time: The enslaved person has no control over his time, man’s most precious nonrenewable resource. This is one of the worst aspects of slavery. A free person owns the freedom of choice – free to use his time, hopefully, to his advantage, to advance himself, his family, and his world. And the first commandment given to the Jewish people is to establish their calendar. “This shall be the first of the months for you.”- This commandment is given just before the Israelites leave Egypt and refers to the Hebrew month of Nisan. *2
  4. The fourth and most counterintuitive freedom is the freedom of the law – The halacha – the regulations of an ordered society provided by the divine prescriptions and narratives of the Torah enable and give us the potential for humans to live together in peace and harmony. And this forms the foundation for all Jewish communities and Jewish continuity.

The Passover holiday marks the first phase of the march to freedom, the freedom from oppressive conditions. Still, it is not yet the freedom of redemption. That only comes seven weeks later at Mount Sinai when the nation of Israel receives and accepts the Torah and agrees to exchange the wicked slavemaster, Pharaoh, in order to serve the heavenly loving and compassionate God/Father who has miraculously managed to free us from slavery.

This is the drama of the seder night. On the second night of Passover, Jews begin to count the “omer,” the forty-nine-day countdown to the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates receiving the Ten Commandments and the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Table Served for Passover Seder

On this seder night, my family and I are grateful for the freedom from oppression we have achieved to date, but we know that freedom is elusive and must be guarded and preserved in every generation and every land.

This year, in particular, we have witnessed the sudden attack on the freedoms of the Ukrainian people.

The lessons of the seder remind us to be vigilant about our freedoms and always defend them with zeal.

 

Footnotes:

  1. Torah, Jewish Bible, Exodus/Shemot, Ch.5 v. 22-23
  2. Torah, Jewish Bible, Exodus Ch.12 v.2
  3. FDR and the Four Freedoms Speech www.fdrlibrary.org/four-freedoms
  4. Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, Sacred Time Ep 9: Passover – The Four Freedoms Sacred Time Ep 9: Passover – The Four Freedoms

Letter to my great-nephew on the day of his Bar Mitzvah

A letter to my great-nephew Yonadav, on January 1, 2022, the day of his Bar mitzvah in Jerusalem, Israel.

Shabbat shalom,

God spoke to Moses and said to him, “I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but I did not make Myself known to them by My name Adonai. I also established My covenant with them, to give them the land of Canaan, the land in which they lived as sojourners. I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the LORD. I will free you from the labours of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the LORD, am your God who freed you from the labours of the Egyptians: I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I am the LORD.”

– The first nine verses of Parshat Vaera.

My dear Yonadav, as I read these words, it is as if Hashem is speaking directly to you. He is sharing not what he will do to save Israel from the Egyptians but what he has done for you within your lifetime. Seventy years ago, your grandparents were suffering the “pains and pangs of bondage,” the slavery of the Nazis. And today, you are living and growing up with total freedom, in the land of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in the very land that Hashem promised to your forefathers!

My dear Yonadav, you are no different from Baby Moses who was set adrift by his mother in a small basket on the Nile River: Because each of us, in some way, is born into an unpredictable and even dangerous world. Yet, with the help of God, your family and your community, we have lived to see this special day of your bar mitzvah. As a result, you have grown up to become a “Gibor Yisrael,” a hero of Israel.

Today, we are still in a worldwide pandemic, with dangers all around. So how do we respond to it? By living to the best of our ability with prayer and a song each day. This is best exemplified by the Psalms that were sung each day in the Jerusalem Temple of old, which we continue to include every day in our morning prayers.

On Sunday, the first day of the week, they used to sing:

“The earth is the LORD’s and all that it holds, the world and its inhabitants.”

The theme is gratitude for the beautiful world gifted to us.

On Monday, the second day, we say:

“Hashem is great and much acclaimed in the city of our God, His holy mountain.” (Psalm 24)

We are grateful for the gift of our Jewish legacy, the Torah.

On Tuesday, the third day, we sing:

“God stands in the congregation of the Almighty. In the midst of the judges does He judge to see if they will judge in accordance with the truth.” (Psalm 82)

We are grateful for our system of courts and judges – the potential for social justice.

On Wednesday, the fourth day, we say:

“God of retribution, Hashem, God of retribution, appear! Rise up, judge of the earth, Give the arrogant their deserts!” (Psalm 94)

We pray for Ultimate Justice, vengeance and grace are both in God’s hands.

On Thursday, the fifth day, we say:

“Sing joyously to God, our strength; Raise a shout for the God of Jacob.” (Psalm 81)

Here, we focus on the gifts of creativity – the arts and music.

On Friday, the sixth day, we say:

“Hashem is king, He is robed in grandeur; He is girded with strength. The world stands firm; It cannot be shaken.” (Psalm 93)

The theme is ultimate faith and trust in Hashem’s loving care for his universe.

On the seventh day, Shabbat, we say:

“It is good to praise the Divine, to sing hymns to Your name, O Most High, To proclaim Your steadfast love at daybreak, Your faithfulness each night.” (Psalm 92)

We focus on communion with Hashem through rest, joy, and rejuvenation. What can be better!

I bless you today to continue in your path of Torah and mitzvot, bringing pride and joy to all who know you.

And, a great thank you and blessing for your loving parents who have raised you to arrive on this special day.

Love,
Abigail

 

Politics, Science, and Religion

Can society hold if one only takes care of the people one loves?

If Covid has taught us anything at all, it is that no one is safe unless everyone is safe. Whether we like it or not, we are all in this together, so politics in the sense of social consensus regarding rules and practices for living within a communal structure, is just as important as science or art in addressing the present moment.

Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to study the history of European and Jewish culture and ideology with exceptional professors, lawyers, judges and Rabbis at Lockdown University. Lockdown University is an open and free website prompted by the pandemic, which has enabled thousands of subscribers worldwide to tune in for daily Zoom seminars. As a result, we have all had the opportunity to learn in-depth about artists, kings, and ordinary people. They have covered the conflict between Christianity and Judaism over the last two thousand years, the history of England, the Hebrew Bible, philosophers, artists and musicians. Recently, the focus is on the period of the Hapsburg Empire and the surrounding culture of several hundred years in Europe, the government, the arts, and politics. It is a fascinating story.

Growth of the Habsburg Monarchy in Central Europe

Growth of the Habsburg Monarchy in Central Europe.

The Hapsburg dynasty moved from 1438 through the enlightenment, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars and only broke up after the defeat of Austria in 1918. They dealt with many of the same issues we are dealing with today, such as:

  • the Bubonic plague,
  • religious wars between Protestants, Catholics and Jews,
  • the enlightenment – i.e. the philosophical attack on religion through reason
  • conflicts over sovereignty and influence between the Pope, the monarchs and princes of England, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Austria, Germany and Russia,
  • how to raise money and taxes
  • who will do the work and who will wield power and how,
  • and the growth of the printing press and general education.

All of these issues continue to impact our current reality.

It is a truism that if we don’t know where we came from, it will be challenging to assess where we are today, or where we may be headed

The Rabbis of the Talmud often debated whether wisdom comes from the heart or the brain, emotion or reason. They were fully aware of this dichotomy and analyzed it thoroughly, as they addressed real-life issues of marriage, anger, war and politics. Finally, they decided that both are important and need to work together.

Talmud Readers by Adolf Behrman

The sages of the Talmud also believed in a democratic process of majority rules, especially when it came to religious rituals. This is beautifully illustrated by the tale of the argument among the Rabbis about whether a particular oven was “kosher.” Even divine intervention is “outvoted” by the majority, and G-d is recorded as enjoying the fact that his children have bested Him.

On the other hand, they always acknowledged and were eager to learn technical knowledge from any source. For example, one of the first sentences in the Talmud is “where do the rains come from?” The scholars of the Talmud answer this question to the extent of their knowledge, drawing on all available sources of their time. This may be one reason why Jews have always been fearless in learning from everyone and tackling all subjects.

The Torah also neatly resolves the contemporary and enlightenment political dilemma of how the particular and the universal can live together in social organization. The laws necessary for creating universal civilization in the Torah are known as the Seven Laws of Noah.

The Noahide Laws are the rules that all of us must keep, regardless of who we are and where we come from. These are the seven primary institutions required for humanity to live together in harmony. G-d communicated these laws to Adam and Noah, ancestors of all human beings. That is what makes these rules universal for all times, places and people.

  1. Acknowledge a Single Divine Creator, a Singular Divine Essence that cares about our actions and desires to care for His world.
  2. Do not curse your Creator. Instead, no matter how frustrated or angry you may be, take ownership and responsibility for what is happening around you.
  3. Do not murder. We cannot measure the value of human life. To destroy a single human life is to destroy the entire world because, for that person, the world has ceased to exist. It follows that you are sustaining a whole universe by supporting a single human life.
  4. When eating, do not tear off the limb of a living animal. As intelligent human beings, we have a duty not to cause undue pain to any creatures.
  5. Do not steal. Whatever benefits you receive in this world, make sure that none of them arrive at the unfair expense of someone else.
  6. Harness and channel the human libido. The family unit is the foundation of human society. Sexuality is the fountain of life, and so nothing is more holy than the sexual act. And nothing can be more debasing and destructive to the human being when abused. For this reason, incest, adultery and rape are forbidden.
  7. Establish courts of law to ensure justice. Human judges and courts are meant to restore harmony by synchronizing with a supernal just order. Just government and just laws establish stability and balance.

Rainbow over Cana of Galilee, Israel.
The rainbow is the unofficial symbol of Noahidism, as it recalls the Genesis flood tale, in which a rainbow appears to Noah after the Flood, indicating that God will not flood the Earth once more.

Laws made by humans may change according to circumstance. But, rules made by God remain the same for all people at all times. If we fulfill only those laws that make sense to us, we will change them according to our convenience. We would be our own God. But when we understand that they are the laws of a Supreme Divinity, we realize that they can not be changed, just as He does not change.

The Torah also has a method for harmony between particular societies living together. These are the beautiful laws for respecting and honouring the “ger toshav,” the resident-alien who is not of your specific culture. The Torah commands, “Ger lo tilhatz” (Do not oppress the stranger.) You must include him in all of your civil laws, but he is exempt from all religious laws.

So, where does this leave us in January 2022?

Here are some of my prayers and resolutions for the coming year:

  1. Keep learning. Find your teacher, your regular classes, and don’t let go!
  2. Let’s keep working together to uncover and cancel racism and prejudice of all kinds in all places.
  3. Let us strive to deal with empathy, respect, and love, i.e. justice for all sentient beings.

Happy New Year!

 

If you are interested in the classes offered by Lockdown University, e-mail the lockdown University Team at info@lockdownuniversity.org and ask to be added to their list of subscribers. You will receive their weekly schedule with all of the descriptions of the classes and links for each week.

The Arts and Finding the Ultimate Paradise

One of the arts’ significant advantages is seeing what the self may have in common with others.

After listening to Piya Chattopadhyay’s Sunday Magazine on CBC Radio, I felt I had to write to her. The segments were excellent individually and also as a whole. They seemed to dialogue with each other.

To Paradise, Hanya Yanagihara,In her new book, To Paradise, Hanya Yanagihara, a novelist rooted in Hawaii, speaks with Piya about the themes she explores in her recent work – freedom, utopia, borders, and disease over three centuries through three different versions of the American experiment, three couples of different socioeconomic backgrounds and sexual orientations. Yanagihara also comments on the damages caused by the pressures of males in our society expected to suppress all feelings.

 

Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John KoenigPiya then interviewed John Koenig, author of Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, about creating new words for feelings that previously have not had any way to be expressed. Koenig makes these words borrowing from and putting together elements from many different languages. He points out that every language brings a different perspective, and they all have the potential to enrich our understanding of the world if we only care to see it.

 

The Next Civil War by Stephen MarchePiya’s next interviewee, Stephen Marche, has written The Next Civil War: Dispatches from the American Future. Marche tries to shine a light on the present state of the US political situation by analyzing data and interrogating and interviewing nearly two hundred interviews with experts, civil war scholars, military leaders, law enforcement officials, secret service agents, agricultural specialists, environmentalists, war historians, political scientists, and the man-on-the-street.

 

However, Marche calls it speculative non-fiction, reminding us repeatedly that although his book is based on “facts,” he can not predict anything based on these “facts.” In this sense, I find it more similar to Hanya Yanagihara’s imaginative fictional novel.

Yanagihara frames her book around the search for Paradise and how the United States embodies that dream for many people.

“Paradise” like “joy” can be an inner state accessible anywhere. The Bible speaks about Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden. But there is a way back there for each of us. Every week on the seventh day, one can bring an oasis of paradise quality into one’s life by engineering that total escape from our mundane cares. We call it the Sabbath.

Over the long term, we all continue to pray and strive for a world free of violence, war and pestilence, the ultimate Paradise.

 

The How of Chanukkah

Hanukkah has very few requirements:

  1. Lighting candles and placing them in the window or outside near the doorpost of your home when in Israel.
  2. Four short blessings are said before and after you light your candles.
  3. Celebration in the house with games, stories and food.

But it’s all done with music and song!

When the candles are prepared in the menorah or hanukkiah, a candle for each night in ascending order from 1 – 8, we do this:

 

After the candles are lit, we say a brief admonition to all. The candles are not used for any earthly purpose other than to shine and glow for us and the world outside our windows.

Hanerot Halalu, a traditional prayer, sung after the lighting of the menorah.

We kindle these lights on account of the miracles, the deliverances and the wonders which thou didst work for our fathers, by means of thy holy priests.

During all the eight days of Chanukah, these lights are sacred, neither is it permitted us to make any profane use of them; but we are only to look at them, in order that we may give thanks unto thy name for thy miracles, thy deliverances and thy wonders.

We then we sing Maoz Tsur.

 

What about food?

The Rabbis decreed, “There is no celebration without food.”

Traditional foods are potato pancakes fried in oil – latkes, and oil-fried donuts -sufganiyot.

 

And, who says you can’t have a festive meal together!

That’s it, folks!

Chanukkah Sameach! Happy Hanukkah!

PS: You can spell it any way you like – Chanukkah, Hanuka, Hannukkah, Hanukkah – as long as you light the candles, sing the blessings and enjoy the people and the food together.