Whose Choice is It?

No man is an island, Entire of itself…

Each man’s death diminishes me, For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know, For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee.

by John Donne

Abortion is a very private and personal decision. Nevertheless, Josh Healy, the comedian, pushes all the relevant buttons as he describes his inner monologue on hearing his university girlfriend of six months tell him that she is pregnant!

 

You are probably aware that those who would forbid abortion claim that society has an overriding interest in abortion because it involves respect for the unfolding life of the human fetus. They claim that the fetus, from conception, acquires the rights of any living human person, and anyone who assists in the process of abortion is an accessory to the crime of “murdering a human being.”

On the other hand, while murder is a categorical prohibition of the Jewish faith, and although the first mitzvah, religious instruction, given to Adam and Eve is “Pru urvoo” – Be fruitful and multiply, the Rabbis of the Talmud who interpret these instructions always prioritize the mother’s mental and physical needs over the fetus’s right to life. Thus, Jewish law – halacha – may approve an abortion for any Jewish woman based on the woman’s psychological and physical needs at any time during the pregnancy.

But what about the actual social ramifications of both abortion and childbirth? Is there a risk of overpopulation?

Indeed the fear of overpopulation was widespread and accepted in the science of the nineteenth century.

Crowd

The British economist, Thomas Malthus, was convinced that population growth would lead to mass starvation: This is what he wrote in his “scientific” formulation.

“The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.”

Malthus has been disproven by history. Since his time, scientists have invented fertilizer and improved agricultural techniques to feed expanding populations. The source of starvation in the twentieth century has not been the lack of food but somewhat misguided government policy and war, as in the Soviet attempt to enforce Communist ideology on Ukrainian farmers in the 1930s, which led to the starvation of millions amid the abundance of Ukraine’s bread basket. Professor of History Timothy Snyder places the blame for the “Holodomor” –  Ukrainian for “to kill by starvation” on Stalin in his 2010 book Bloodlands and he points out that the Nazis also practiced starvation as an instrument of war by rationing food and systematically starving prisoners of war and Jews in concentration camps and ghettos.

The fear of overpopulation led the Chinese government to institute the one-child policy, which led to the horrifying practice of state-sponsored abortions. As a result, children were left to die on the side of the road, and many female children were abandoned in orphanages, a few of whom were lucky enough to be adopted through Chinese-created international channels. I have friends in Montreal who have adopted Chinese infants in this way. This was also the subject of a documentary entitled One Child Nation, which told the story of one of these children who chose to return to China to find her family of origin and uncovered this harrowing and unsavoury history of state control over reproduction. In recent years, China has renounced the one-child policy since it has been disastrous over the long term, resulting in a shortage of women of marriageable age and a shortage of children who can provide workforce and care for the elderly.

 

The Value of Children to Humanity throughout the Ages

A recent podcast studying the archeological record of children in the Pleistocene Ice Age, based on April Nowell’s book, Growing Up in the Ice Age: Fossil and Archaeological Evidence of the Lived lives of Plio-Pleistocene Children*5, explains how having children is a clear benefit to the advance of civilization.

“Nowell’s studies look at cumulative culture: the process of adults passing down knowledge to their children, and so on through successive generations.”

Nowell demonstrates how:

“Youths weren’t simply an empty repository. They remembered some lessons, forgot others and chose which lessons to build on throughout their lives to pass on to their own children.”

Wooden mannequin prototype of human evolution

If we trace the Torah’s genealogical record, we can see how successive generations have influenced the Jewish story and ensured the Jewish legacy.

The first book of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis, is devoted to the propagation of the first families starting with Adam and Eve, who also encounter the first fratricide – Cain and Abel. But Adam and Eve continue the human race by having a third son Seth. Ten generations later, Seth gives rise to Abraham. When Abraham’s brother, Nahor, dies, Abraham marries his brother’s wife, Sarah and adopts his nephew Lot before embarking on his theologically motivated journey detailed in the Bible.

Acquiring progeny was not easy for any of the patriarchs, each one, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, had his struggle, and the outcome was unpredictable. Abraham has to struggle with the conflict between Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac had to deal with the sibling rivalry between his twin sons, Esau and Jacob, and Jacob had to deal with his ten sons trying to do away with their brother, Joseph, due to their overwhelming jealousy of Joseph’s importance in their father’s eyes.

The Torah narrative includes both family joys and tribulations at every turn. For example, Abraham’s great-grandson Judah must be tricked into marrying his daughter-in-law, Tamar, to continue Judah’s son’s line. As we learn in the Book of Ruth, Judah’s blood relative, Boaz, although elderly and distant, marries Ruth, the Moabite, to continue her late husband’s legacy. Their great-grandson is destined to be the biblical King David. These stories illustrate the biblical “Levirate law,” which prescribes that if a married man dies without offspring, his closest relative,  usually the dead man’s brother is to marry the widow and have a child with her to continue the bloodline of the deceased man. This social responsibility is a way to ensure the continuity of that particular family.

Recently I attended Shaker Village in the Berkshires. The Shakers were a creative and wise Christian religious sect famous in the US during the 19th century.

  • They believed in celibacy based on the idea that sex, even within marriage, constitutes original sin. 

Due to the lack of procreation, they are no longer with us as a community. Only their philosophy, buildings and effects remain in the form of a museum, Han cock Shaker Village= which I visited.

The desire to have children seems to be hard-wired in many species, including the human one. The Talmud, the central authority on Jewish theology and law, ascribes a passion for children as especially hard-wired for the female species. This is the source of differential religious commitments for men and women. For example, women are exempt from most time-based laws or mitzvot, such as prayer services, due to the physical demands of child birthing and rearing.

Miscarriage – naturally occurring abortion – is a mini-death and generally an occasion for private grief and mourning. In the past, miscarriage and fetal death have been so common that no specific religious commemoration has been prescribed. However, in recent times many books and podcasts have noted the absence of ritualized mourning and sought to correct this through affinity groups. Le Groupe de partage L’Empreinte is one such group located in Montreal.

On the other hand, birthing children is a serious and long-term commitment that not everyone is willing to embrace. This has become more apparent in recent times and has been especially noted in the decreasing childbirth rates in many western countries where contraception and abortion have been more readily available. Interestingly, among western democracies, Israel seems to be the exception to this rule of decreasing birth rates and not just among the less educated or more religious groups.*

Every male or female child’s birth and naming is an occasion for public celebration within the Jewish tradition. On the 8th day, a male child is introduced to the covenant of Abraham through circumcision and given a Jewish name. This is the occasion for a public celebration called the Brit or covenant. Circumcision is a symbol of the bond between Abraham and his G-d, who made specific promises to Abraham about the destiny of his progeny. A female child is also named and celebrated in a public ceremony, but female circumcision (FGM), common in African societies, was never practiced among Jews.

Children are a potential blessing and benefit to society; at every age, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and neighbours are called on to be partners in this process. And on the other hand, any abortion, whether natural or induced, is not just a loss for the individual but also a social loss that ought to be collectively mourned.

In summary, children embody our faith in a better future. However, this better future cannot happen without the concerted efforts of all of us to nurture and sustain the next generation.

 

An Exceptional Book of Historic Interest

Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, 1847-1947, is a fascinating book exploring the infinite variety of humanity expressed through Jewish lives around the world. It upends Jewish stereotypes and arouses sheer wonder.

The book is read from the pen of a novelist, taking us into the personal lives and imagined thought processes of the many fascinating Jewish geniuses in the arts, music, science and politics from 1857 through 1947.

Norman Lebrecht is primarily a London-based journalist whose passion is music. He grew up in a traditional Jewish home and had an early Yeshiva education in Israel. His writing reminds me of a Talmudic-stream of consciousness style in how he brings together disparate elements when focusing on a theme, even personal connections, those of his own or his family or acquaintances that may reflect on the music. It would be more fitting to name this book “Truth is Stranger than Fiction.” Lebrecht always gives us the back story of the characters’ intimate lives as it may have been revealed in diaries or letters. The book recounts the lives of Marx, Freud, Einstein, Kafka, Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, and many Hollywood producers, directors, artists, musicians, and other creatives you have probably never heard of but have nevertheless left their mark on this world. There are vignettes about who researched and produced the first contraceptive pill, who pioneered the science of blood transfusions, the discovery of DNA, and who first tested, on himself, radiography for cancer treatment, all in brief vignettes.

I found the stories and characters of the last chapters – from 1905 – even more astounding than the first several chapters, as these later chapters are centred on personalities caught up in the recent history of our times.

Chapter 12, Four Murders, 1933, recounts forgotten political assassinations, including the mystery of who murdered  Victor Arlozorov on a beach in Tel Aviv in June 1933.

Chapter 13, Cities of Refuge, 1938, documents Nazi persecution of Jews and the efforts of Jews and non-Jews who went out of their way with rescue efforts, some I had heard of, some I had not: A Chinese Consul General in Vienna, Dr. Feng-Shan Ho, a young London Rabbi, Solomon Schonfeld, a German Jewish businessman, Wilfrid Israel, head of a Jewish owned department store in Berlin, who was close to Churchill, a young London stockbroker, Nicholas Winton, as well as Joseph Stalin’s treatment of Jewish refugees, sending them back to Germany or the Gulag. And also recounts the exodus of Hungarian Jews and four excellent scientists to the US, including Leo Szilard, who, with Albert Einstein, Fermi and other scientists, was directly instrumental in inspiring Roosevelt to address the atomic bomb’s creation before Germany could get there.

Chapter 14, Black Days, 1942, documents the lives of Jews fortunate enough to emigrate to America, Israel and China during those dark times.

Chapter 15, New York, New York, 1947, documents how the Chabad Rabbi and his entourage were whisked out of the Warsaw ghetto with the help of secret Nazi operatives and the subsequent development of the movement in Brooklyn that has by now established 4000 Chabad houses in 80 countries, renewing Jewish life and maintaining its customs worldwide. Lebrecht even sheds new light on the postwar McCarthy communist investigations and Stalin’s postwar terror against Jews, his manipulated murder of Mikhoels – Director of the National Yiddish State Theatre in Moscow – and show trials and executions of Yiddish poets and Jewish doctors just weeks before Stalin died.

This book is fascinating when you realize that Norman Lebrecht writes based on his reading “everything,” including voluminous personal diaries and letters. This was brought home to me when I read Lebrecht’s densely annotated book on Gustav Mahler, the composer, Why Mahler? How One Man and Ten Symphonies Changed Our World.

Lebrecht is also the author of the novel, The Song of Names which riffs on the music industry as it plays out in a Jewish family living in prewar London. You may have seen the recent movie of the same name based on this book. The book gives a rich tapestry of a Jewish businessman engaged in the “music business” and “is family in p”ewar London.

Genius prewarxiety is a beautiful companion to Amos Elon’s book published in 20Elon’se Pity of It All: A Portrait of Jews In Germany, 1743–1933. I read Elon’s book several years ago, bringing me into German and European politics and culture so that I could finally see, hear and smell what it might have been like to live in those times. Lebrecht’s Genius and AnxiLebrecht’sther work has left an indelible mark in my mind and remains in my library.

 

Shavuot: What is it and Why Does it Matter

An All-Night Festival of Learning?

I am not a rabbi or a Hebrew scholar. My Jewish learning came from growing up in a traditional Jewish home, attending Jewish after-school classes after a full day at a Protestant public school in Montreal. My Jewish education was supplemented by a Jewish religious-zionist summer camp, Moshava, and Sabbath synagogue youth programs sponsored by Bnei Akiva. Today, I continue my Jewish learning by attending Torah classes, reading, travelling, listening to podcasts, and being active with my local synagogue. In addition, zoom has offered me an unparalleled opportunity to study the Torah during the pandemic with world-class rabbis and scholars, one of the few positive outcomes of this vicious scourge.

The rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud refer to Shuvaot as “zman matan toratenu,” the time of the giving of our Torah. This drama of the Ten Commandments is spelled out in Exodus (Ch.20, v.1-17).

Our sages have also asked why God gave the Torah to the Israelites in the desert wilderness. The answer of the Rabbis may surprise you. They say it is to advise all people that the Torah is not the exclusive property of the Israelites. In the ownerless desert, the Torah is available to “anyone who wants to receive it” – it is accessible to anyone who seeks it.

My nephew, Rabbi Yair Silverman, explores this topic in his recent video.

What is the connection of the Ten Commandments to the rest of the Torah?

The Ten Commandments are known in Hebrew as “aseret hadibrot,” the Ten Statements, supposedly coming directly from the mouth of the Jewish God at Mount Sinai precisely fifty days after the Israelites’ exodus from Egyptian oppression. The word “commandments” would apply more to the six hundred and thirteen “dinim and hukim” – laws and injunctions – prescribed by this Jewish God that the Israelites agreed to remember – zachor -and to rigorously observe -shamor. These rules are meant to cover all of man’s social, economic, intimate and spiritual relationships, initially prescribed for the Jewish people. Still, many have also become part of the world’s heritage. These Ten Statements can be compared to the American Constitution or Bill of Rights. The Torah is then the sourcebook for the six hundred and thirteen commandments derived from the book’s text. Let’s see how this works.

Here is one of the 613 laws of the Torah:

“You shall not commit a perversion of justice with measures, weights, or liquid measures. You shall have accurate scales and weights.” (Leviticus Chapter 19, v. 35- 36)

This injunction warns citizens to avoid fraud and deceit in the marketplace. It seems connected to the eighth commandment, “not to bear false witness against your neighbour,” and the ninth commandment, “not to steal.” Yet, our current Canadian society tries to monitor and enforce honesty in the marketplace through our civil and criminal courts. Indeed, we are reminded of the eighth commandment every time a court officer asks a person to swear on the bible and “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” Unfortunately, few appreciate where these ideas and rules originate.

Here is another Torah injunction regarding the treatment of workers and their wages.

“Do not withhold the workers’ wage with you until morning.” (Leviticus 19:13)
“Do not extort the impoverished wage from among your kin or the strangers that reside in your land and within your gates. Each day you shall pay him his wage—the sun shall not rise upon it—for he is poor, and he has staked his life for it.” (Deuteronomy Ch.24 V.14-15)

This, too, seems to echo the eighth and ninth principle, “You shall not steal -#8, or bear false witness -#9.”

These principles are also internally connected. For instance, the tenth commandment, “Not to covet your neighbour’s wife, manservant, maidservant, ox, donkey, or anything else that is your neighbour’s,”  may lead you to engage in murder(6), adultery (7) theft (9), or deceit (9).

Individuals, groups, and nations can be vulnerable to ideas that will lead them down the primrose path to deceit, theft, adultery and murder. This is best exemplified by the Nazi ideology that coveted the assets and talents of Jews, the lands and slave labour of the Slavs, Ukrainians and Russians. In his book Mein Kampf, Hitler claimed that the Aryan German citizens were disadvantaged by the success of German Jewish citizens living amongst them. In reality, Jews contributed their intellectual and financial strengths to the German state and any state they inhabited without asking for anything other than to be accepted and respected as equal citizens. This sad story is brilliantly portrayed in Amos Elon’s book, The Pity of it all: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch 1743-1933, which shares the intimate stories of the individuals who inhabited this period. A powerful and tragic read!

What about the First Five Commandments? How do we understand them in our day? Can these requests about how to relate to the Divinity speak to us today?

First Statement, “You shall have no other Gods before me.” Why does God worry about this? Does He have self-doubts?

The second Statement, “You shall not make for yourself a graven image.” Why is this important?

The third Statement, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” What is the danger here?

To understand these commandments, we must understand the historical context of the Jewish people’s experience at Sinai.

The Egyptian Pharoh was not just worshiped as a King. He had the authority of a God similar to autocrats of our time, such as the Soviet-era Stalin or the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il. They both have many giant statues of themselves erected in the public square. And woe to you if you criticize or dishonour their name. Unfortunately, Vladimir Putin also seems to have taken a page from their playbook.

The Israelite Divinity, by contrast, is asking the Israelites not to build statues or pictures but to follow the rules designed to safeguard society by protecting the unsuspecting and vulnerable.

In the desert of Sinai, this Jewish God is asking the Israelites to accept the dictates of an “invisible” God, one who introduces himself as “the creator of all that exists on earth under our sky” and the One “who saw and heard their pain and managed to remove them from the oppressive conditions of Egyptian servitude.”

But as I wrote in my recent blog, Matzah Passover and 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 – the freedom from oppression”.

True freedom can only come from an ordered society imbued with love and care for one another, and the Torah offers us a blueprint for this. As Rabbi Lord Jonathon Sacks has noted:

“Freedom is not won by merely overthrowing a tyrannical ruler or an oppressive regime. That is usually only the prelude to a new tyranny, a new oppression. The faces change, but not the script. True freedom requires the rule of law and justice and a judicial system in which the denial of rights to others does not secure the rights of some.” *1

But before God’s laws can be accepted, his authority must be established in the people’s eyes. This is done using the familiar Egyptian language and rituals of divine power. So, this God asks the Israelites to accord him the same reverence they previously were offering the Pharoh-God, but this time, it is not for God’s benefit but to improve the lives of the Israelites themselves. The Torah text repeatedly emphasizes that these statutes are meant not to benefit the Divinity but to improve the lives of the Israelites and all future generations following the Torah precepts.

The Jewish God differentiates himself from the Pharoh-God of Egypt by asking his subjects not to build statues to honour him but to follow specific ideas and to love and care for each other, whether family member, compatriot or stranger.

The fourth Statement advises:

“Remember the Sabbath Day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath unto the Lord your God. You shall not do any manner of work—you, your son, your daughter, your manservant, your maidservant, your cattle, and your stranger within your gates. For six days, the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath Day and hallowed it.”

Does an infinite God require rest? This, too, seems only to benefit man. The institution of the Sabbath is God’s greatest gift to humanity, a guarantee of equality of value for all peoples and animals. Many scientific studies have validated the human need for regular rest and rejuvenation. The Torah demands it as a civil right for all, and woe to him who neglects this critical rule.

The fifth Statement is

“Honour thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee”:

How does this fit here? It turns out that parents are God’s first deputies, the ones most responsible for passing on civilizational ideas from generation to generation. Hence, respecting and honouring parents is as crucial as reverencing this particular God.

 

How do Jews celebrate this Jewish holiday today?

Armed with tea or coffee this weekend, many Jews will settle for their annual all-night Torah studies session, which has become the traditional way to celebrate Shavuot in many communities worldwide.

It is said that the study of the Torah is as deep and as vast as the ocean. But, when a cheeky Roman soldier asked Rabbi Akiva in the 1st century AD whether the soldier could be taught all of the Torah while he stood on one leg, the Rabbi replied:

“Yes. Do not do unto others what you would not want them to do unto you. The rest is commentary.”

The Baal Shem Tov, leader of the Hassidic movement in the 17th century, taught that Torah precepts and God’s concern for us could be experienced through academic study and good food, drink, laughter, song and dance.

The Torah has served as a guiding light and a constitution for the Jewish people through good times and bad. It is designed to prescribe freedom, joy, and prosperity for all who grasp it with its many parables and six hundred and thirteen injunctions or mitzvot.

At the Passover seder meal, we are called “to see ourselves as having personally escaped from the slavery of Egypt.” On Shavuot night, we are each asked to appreciate and personally receive the Torah, the embodiment of the Jewish people’s heritage.

We are fortunate and privileged to live in a time when Torah study is accessible to all, if not live in person, at least through the internet.

I wish you all a joyous Shavuot celebration. May your festivities be filled with engagement with Torah, good food and friends on Shavuot throughout the year!

Hag Shavuot sameach,
Have a joyous Shavuot.

 

Footnotes:

*1 Passover Has Lessons For Those Fighting Freedom, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks

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. However, there were many skeptics throughout the process, even among the Israelites. And Moses himself challenges his God, wondering what exactly is going on! Here is what the Torah text reports after Moses’ first encounter with the Pharoh, asking him to give his subjects a break, to release them to worship their God in the desert and instead, the Pharoh increases their burden, insisting that now the enslaved people will have to provide the straw for making bricks themselves.

 “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.” *1

The technical, halachic/rabbinic definition of matzah is “a mixture of flour and water that is mixed and allowed to sit for no longer than 18 minutes”. Therefore, if the water and the flour are left to sit any longer than eighteen minutes, it can not be considered “kosher” matzah.

What does this definition of matzah have to do with freedom? Indeed what does grain have to do with freedom? 

Growing grain and making bread is the symbol of settled civilization. The reason Jacob, also known as Israel’s family, first arrived in Egypt was because of the famine that had overtaken North Africa and all of what we now call the Middle East: Egypt; due to the wise counsel of Joseph, the Hebrew son sold into slavery who rose to be Pharoh’s administrator, Egypt had figured out a way to store grain for the benefit of all Egyptians for just such an event. Egypt, the centre of the civilized world, had also discovered the yeast process of fermentation, allowing water and grain flour to sit and rise to become the bread we love. Matzah is the first possible stage of bread, a settled civilization’s sustainable food. But just as matzah is the first step to creating bread, leaving Egypt is only the first of many steps in the quest for freedom and ultimate redemption.

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:

  1. the freedom of speech,
  2. the freedom of worship,
  3. the freedom from want, and
  4. the freedom from fear. *2

Rabbi Meir Soloveichik parses four additional freedoms 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 praised.”
  3. The freedom of time: The enslaved person has no control over his time. Time is man’s most precious nonrenewable resource. This is one of the worst aspects of slavery. A free person owns the freedom of choice: He is 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 establishing 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: The Torah, with its 613 laws and many reports, provides humanity with the foundation for true freedom and the final redemption when all the world will live together in peace and harmony.

The Passover holiday marks the first phase of the march to 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, to serve the heavenly loving and compassionate God/Father/King who has miraculously managed to free the children of Israel from slavery.

This is the drama of the seder night. And 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, and every seder night, my family and I are grateful for the freedom from oppression we have achieved to date. Still, we know this 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 by Russian military forces.

The lessons of the seder remind us to be vigilant about our freedoms and ready to defend them with zeal at every moment.

 

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 God’s help and your family and 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. So how do we respond to it? Living to the best of our ability with prayer and a song each day. This is best exemplified by the Psalms sung each day in the Jerusalem Temple of old, which we continue to include daily 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 sang:

“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 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 to your loving parents who have raised you to arrive on this special day.

Love,
Abigail