Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Sedarim of my childhood...

I spoke last week to a group of parents about the issues I discussed in a previous blog post. I couldn't help but bring up what Pesach was like as I grew up. I suppose that on some level I have always known and appreciated that they were truly exceptional. Here's why:

  1. My parent's policy was to invite anyone who otherwise would not have access to a traditional seder. People with pretty marginal connections to the Unterbergs would find themselves in that packed living room/dining room. (Of course, there was the now legendary time that my cousins brought along African royalty, who read the Ma Nishtana in Swahili. He also ended up with glass fragments in his afro when my cousin Maury's seltzer bottle squirt went wild and caromed out of his glass and exploded the chandelier. But that was sort of unusual) Relatives and friends from all sides of the family would come. Some of them we would see periodically threoughout the year, some were special just for Pesach. And the numbers were pretty wild. I'm pretty sure that we peaked around 30.
  2. Did you read that last sentence? My mother basically went beyond baala busta and into the range of caterer. Believe me, the food was endless. How did she do it? How did we afford it? I have no idea. But those meals were epic.
  3. I am amazed in retrospect how dynamic, fun and exciting the conversations were. And they really focused on the haggada! My Dad was able to somehow find a balance between Maury's philosophical meanderings and the length of the children's attention span. Not to mention somehow assuaging the nagging of the hungrier participants. Honestly, I just sit back in awe. How did he do it? He managed it like an MC, a ringmaster and talk show host all rolled into one. It seemed to effortless and natural, and maybe it even was. I sure wish I could ask him about it. Of course, I'd much rather just watch him keep doing it.
  4. Two words: Bubby and Zaydie. I think that having them there was the part I probably took the most for granted. Just by being a presence there, they created a living link to the past. You felt that you were the next link in a chain stretching back for ages. But they also made such a strong impact as personalities. Zaydie made everything come alive not only with the big song renditions, (always ending with the dramatic bass “Thank You!”) but even the more casual sing song reading of the more mumble worthy parts of the hagada. I just can't do it. It wasn't all fun and games, once he got into a solid sing-song, it was rough for my Dad to hit the breaks for a question. But that was part of the fun of the show. Bubby, of course, was a larger than life personality at any time. At the seder she wandered, cleaned, cooked, served, shmoozed, laughed, sang, cheered, clapped and basically just filled the whole preceding with joy and love. She was the dynamo from Muzsyna, and we all basked in that love.

Are the things that made these seders unique more special than the things that make other people's seders unique? (How is this unigue night different from all the other unique nights?) Probably not. I'm not arguing that ours were better. I'm saying that they were ours, that they were wonderful, and they make up an important part not only of how I experience Pesach, but of who I am as a person and a Jew.

How do you thank your parents for that?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why is charity called tzedakah?

It seems odd doesn't it? Etymologically, the word charity comes from the ideas of loving and giving. Tzedaka, of course, comes from the word for justice. The english word seems much more correct. After all, when I give my hard earned money to a poor person, that is lovingkindness. The recipient didn't earn a penny. That's not a value judgement, and the poor person may be honorable. But when I help him, he gives me nothing in return. All that I get is a good deed and the satisfaction that it brings. You have to wonder why we don't call charity chesed. It is accurate to describe it that way, but the name that we give to charity is tzedakah.

I have a theory to explain it. Between the two individuals, the giver and receiver, that act is one of chessed and not justice. Tzedaka from the micro perspective is indeed a misnomer. But from a national perspective it is a form of justice.

The Torah is absolutely concerned with the redistribution of wealth, in order to minimize the gap between rich and poor. This can be seen in the forgiving of loans and canceling of indentured servitude in the shemita year, and also the resetting of land ownership in the Yovel year. This leveling process is apparently described as tzedaka, because charity is a means of ensuring equal opportunity and access to all citizens. That makes it a central concern of social justice.

When individuals give charity, that is chessed. When a nation takes care of its weakest members and makes sure that they share in all of its blessings as equally as possible, that is justice.

It seems like an obvious answer. Why did this seem odd to us in the first place? Perhaps the cold war left many of us in the West in general, and America in particular, disturbed by socialist implications. This is so even when pursuing what Judaism considers social justice. As Jews, we should be wary of movements and ideologies that don't argue for the justice that is charity.

Jeremiah Chapter 7

1 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD, saying: 2 Stand in the gate of the LORD'S house, and proclaim there this word, and say: Hear the word of the LORD, all ye of Judah, that enter in at these gates to worship the LORD. 3 Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place. 4 Trust ye not in lying words, saying: 'The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, are these.' 5 Nay, but if ye thoroughly amend your ways and your doings; if ye thoroughly execute justice between a man and his neighbor; 6 if ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt; 7 then will I cause you to dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your fathers, for ever and ever.

מסכת אבות

ה,ט  [י] ארבע מידות באדםהאומר שלי שלי, ושלך שלך--זו מידה בינונית; ויש אומרין, זו מידת סדוםשלי שלך, ושלך שלי--עם הארץשלי שלך, ושלך שלך--חסידשלך שלי, ושלי שלי--

P.S. Am I the only one who thinks that ornate and expensive tzedaka boxes are vaguely distasteful?


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

More than just the Afikoman...

It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education.
Albert Einstein

I have always loved learning and hated school. In some ways that makes me an odd teacher. But wether you love school or not, I imagine that everyone can agree that school is functioning at its worst when it is stifling student's innate curiosity and love of learning. That's why I get pretty frustrated every year around Pesach.

There is a central mitzva on the seder night, and it is "sippur yeztiat mitzrayim" - telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt. It is formulated as a cross-generational process in the Torah: "V'higad'ta - and you must tell your son on that day, saying: ba'avur zeh..." (Shmot 13:8)  Somewhere during the second Temple era, the Rabbis endorsed a Haggada, formalizing this mitzva with common text and customs for all. Perhaps they found that too many parents did not know how to engage their kids, or where uncomfortable engaging in this mitzva without some help. Perhaps there was no specific reason, and the haggada is just part of the overall Rabbinic process of formalization and standardization that the entire Oral Law went through. Whatever the reasoning, the Rabbis created a Seder - an orderly program to serve as the method for fulfilling the mitzva of sippur yeztiat mitzrayim. And that's how things went for centuries. Imagine, if you can,  how exciting and stimulating a seder would have been to kids in the days before formal education.

I contend that modern schooling has sucked some of the life out of this mitzva. For reasons beyond my ken, early Jewish education seems to universally feature the "model seder". There, students are taught to be prepared for every twist and turn that the seder has to offer. Not a single surprise is left to arouse their curiosity on the night of Passover. The following conversation at a seder can easily be imagined:

Adult: Now who knows why we wash without a bracha and then eat carpas?
Child: OH, I know. We learned that in school. That is to get kids to ask questions!
Adult: Good job! I sure am spending my tuition dollars well!

I hope the irony there is obvious.

As kids get older, we move from model seder to pre-programmed divrei Torah for kids to recite. Once again, parents are happy when their kids come with pre-packeged content. To be fair, some of the blame lies in the haggada itself, as (for example) it does pre-package four questions for kids to ask. But I see no reason for exacerbating the problem the way contemporary Jewish schools have. With the end of surprise comes the end of spontaneity.

The Rambam demands a more fluid approach to fullfil this mitzva properly. You can see the Rambam's formulation in Holchot Chametz U'Matza Chapter 7 if you go here, but I'll paraphrase the relevant parts. He explains that you must make changes that night, in order for the kids to notice and ask why this night is different, so that you can explain the answer. He suggests that you might, for example, give out nuts and treats before dinner. In other words even in the time of the Rambam, you could not rely on the haggada to create stimulating surprises to generate questions. A parent is required to use their initiative and creativity. So although schools in our day have made it harder for kids to erupt with spontaneous curiosity on Pesach night, this problem has been with us for a really long time.

Let's be honest, this is quite a challenge for parents. Let's observe a few of the problems:
1. People of many ages sit around the seder table. How do you keep them all interested and not kvetching about the late meal?
2. How do you top yourself year after year? Aren't the kids going to catch on to your shtick at a certain point?
3. Who has the time and/or ability to be that kind of creative in the middle of the whirlwind of career, Pesach prep and plain old regular life?
4. But: the actual mitzva from the Torah is a kind of inter-generational discussion of the Passover story. So we cannot afford to allow the night to become perfunctory ritual.

While we're being honest, let's admit that I "Kobayashi Maru"ed my way around this problem. Not everybody can be married to a brilliant Jewish educator like Dara, so I have a big advantage over most people. But I'm not the only one bothered by this problem. There is a Google document floating around as we speak being built by Wexner alumni which is essentially a brainstorm of ideas to solve this problem. There was also a list of resources on the internet from Lookjed that sort of addressed this need. There are some really clever ideas in our friend Jonathan Mishkin's book.

I'd like to briefly share a few of the different ideas that we have tried out over the years. You can find some of them in the resources above, but we came up with them ourselves. Honest! Basically, when the moment feels right to me and Dara, we spring some of these ideas on the family, and see what sort of tomfoolery ensues, and then direct the chaos into discussions of the Exodus story. Below is a Power Point style presentation with some of our basic ideas so far. 

Here's the thing: I'm going to set this presentation to allow anyone to add ideas to it! Please feel more than invited to contribute, and together we can build a great resource to swap ideas in a creative way!
The important thing is not to stop questioning.
Albert Einstein

P.S. Here are some materials that Dara sent me! Included are: questions for Jeopardy, Pesach bingo, (with pre-made cards at the end of the Power point below) instructions to make a paper fortune teller, (with a template in the Power Point) and even some Pesach jokes. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Moshe Rabbeinu gets a new job

The Torah is not supposed to repeat itself or waste words, right? If not, then why do Moshe and Hashem's conversations in the beginning of Sefer Shmot seem like deja vu? The first of these coversations takes place at the burning bush, (in chapters 3 & 4) and the second in Egypt. (in chapters 6 & 7) Let's note the similarities before we examine the differences.

In both prophetic conversations:

1) Hashem identifies Himself
2) He explains that he has noticed Israel's suffering
3) He explains His plan to fulfill his promises to the Forefathers, rescue the people and take them to Israel
4) Tells Moshe he must go to Pharaoh and ask for time off for His people. 
5) Hashem shows Moshe a wonder to perform to ensure belief
6) Moshe complains about his difficulties as a communicator *
7) Hashem assigns Aaron to help Moshe.

Two questions come to mind. First of all, why does Moshe need this much repetition? Didn't he get it the first time? Secondly, there must have been a shorthand way to say that these elements recurred. "And the Lord told Moses all the things that had been said in Midian", or something to that effect leap to mind. One could answer the first question by saying that Moshe had faced his first setback, (Pharoah rejected the request and took away the Israelites straw) and needed a pep talk. But this does not answer the second question. 

There are also, of course, differences. Professor Nehama Leibowitz always argued that when you run into any of these biblical “repetitive” passages, the differences are what deserve our attention. In this case it is these differences that show that the second round is much more than a “pep talk”. So what are the differences?
In the middle of this version of the conversation, (at the point when Moshe complains about his speech) Moshe and Aharon are reintroduced through a long family tree. There is a key, tell-tale statement at the beginning. In chapter 6, verse 11, Hashem says, 'Go in, speak unto Pharaoh king of Egypt, that he let the children of Israel go out of his land.' 12 And Moses spoke before the LORD, saying: 'Behold, the children of Israel have not hearkened unto me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?'

Moshe had already spoken to Pharaoh. Pharaoh had not hearkened unto him. Why is Moshe expressing this in the future tense? I would argue that Hashem is not repeating his demand in verse 11. He is changing Moshe's job.

This is the key that unlocks all of the problems. In chapters 3 & 4, Hashem has appointed Moshe to be the leader of b'nei Yisrael. When this did not lead to their immediate release, they let him know at the end of chapter 5 that he was fired as their leader for making things worse. As it says in chapter 6, verse 9, “And Moses spoke so unto the children of Israel; but they hearkened not unto Moses for impatience of spirit, and for cruel bondage”

So in chapter 6, Hashem is sending Moshe no longer as the leader of the Jews, but as His ambassador to Pharaoh. This is a very new role for Moshe, and he balks at being Hashem's ambassador just as he balked at becoming the leader of b'nei Yisrael.
This is also why Moshe first shows a sign and wonder to Pharaoh in chapter 7. As leader of the Jews he had no need to turn a staff into a serpent. He only had to do that for the elders of the Jews. But now in chapter 7 he has to prove his bona fides as a Divine messenger to Pharaoh.
Hence all of the repetition. Moshe needs to be reassured again and told that Aharon will help him, etc., etc. for a new position.
You will find other pieces of evidence to support this hypothesis. Feel free to post them in the comments section below.

* I tend to assume that "heavy tongue" and "uncircumsized lips" do not refer to physical disabilities, any more than modern idioms like "tongue tied", "forked tongue" or "big mouth" do. They refer to difficulties with certain types of communication. In Moshe's case, it probably means a difficulty with diplomatic niceties. We are all familiar with the story of Moshe and the hot coals. I think that is designed less to explain the language of "heavy tongue", and more to explain elements of Moshe's childhood within the Rabbinic narrative of warning in Pharaoh's court. 

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Wow. How web 2.0 can I get?

I am kind of proud that I sent this from my iPhone. I can also create weblinks in my blogposts, and even embed power point like presentations! I'm learning a lot from this!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Why do nice guys finish last?

More perplexing than the problem of the the cheit ha'egel itself, is the role of Aharon in particular. To put the question simply, what in the world was he thinking? The many suggested answers to the question only underlie the elusiveness of a satisfying answer.

Let's take a look at the question from another angle. Can you picture Moshe having made that mistake in that situation? One could argue that it would have been difficult to picture Aharon sinning that way, yet somehow it seems so much more impossible for Moshe. Why?

To me Moshe and Aharon represent archetypes that we see over and over again. The Ish Chessed and the Ish Emet. In many ways the dynamic is similar to that of Hillel and Shammai. We are all familiar with the story of the three converts who where rebuffed by Shammai, (the Torah on one foot guy being the best known) but warmly and cleverly received by Hillel. (the story appears in masechet shabbat 31a - In light of this story, and his reputation for legal strictness, we often think of Shammai as a tough, mean sort of guy.

But was he? His motto in Pirkei Avot is, “Make your Torah study a permanent fixture of your life. Say little and do much. And receive every man with a pleasant countenance.” Receiving people pleasantly seems like a lovely motto. Why did Shammai throw the converts out in the street though? That doesn't sound pleasant. Is Shammai a hypocrite? Are the sources confused? Can we discern a real Shammai?

Things become clearly when we bring up his colleage's motto. “Hillel would say: Be of the disciples of Aharon--a lover of peace, a pursuer of peace, one who loves beings and draws them close to Torah.” Note how much more active this saying is in its aggressive kindness and love. Shammai's pleasant receipt of people pales in comparison.

What is the machloket here? Both value truth and love. For Hillel love comes first, and truth second. (just look at his answers to the converts – how accurate are they?) Shammai shares the same priorities in the opposite order. Hillel sees his biblical role model as Aharon, and I would argue that Moshe should be Shammai's. See Moshe's responses from his first encounter to people striking each other to the sins of the nation he led.

Perhaps after 40 days without hearing the voice of Moshe, Aharon's ability to lovingly comprimise got the better of him. He needed his younger brother's fierce love of truth to guide him away from the pitfall of the egel. Moshe, for his part recognized that he could not do his job without Aharon. He only agreed to take his leadership role when Hashem promised to put Aharon at his side. For just as Aharon without Moshe lead to disaster, the reverse could have occurred as well.

One wonders what would have happened had Aharon been the leader and Moshe his “prophet” and advisor. When the generation of the desert have been more successful? Could Aharon have lovingly guided them to reach their potential. After all, to quote the three converts, "The strictness of Shamai almost made us lose our (spiritual) world; but the humility of Hillel brought us under the wings of God's Presence." 

I find the possibility tantalizing. 

P.S. My friend, Dr. Hillel Chiel pointed out to me today that Shammai chases the man out with a builder's ruler, called, "Amat habinyan". This is certainly a pun on the words "amat" and "emet". 

שוב מעשה בנכרי אחד שבא לפני שמאי אמר לו גיירני ע"מ שתלמדני כל התורה כולה כשאני עומד על רגל אחת דחפו באמת הבנין שבידו בא לפני הלל גייריה אמר לו דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד זו היא כל התורה כולה ואידך פירושה הוא זיל גמור
OK - Here's the whole thing: 
דף לא,א
ת"ר מעשה בנכרי אחד שבא לפני שמאי אמר לו כמה תורות יש לכם אמר לו שתים תורה שבכתב ותורה שבעל פה א"ל שבכתב אני מאמינך ושבעל פה איני מאמינך גיירני ע"מ שתלמדני תורה שבכתב גער בו והוציאו בנזיפה בא לפני הלל גייריה יומא קמא א"ל א"ב ג"ד למחר אפיך ליה א"ל והא אתמול לא אמרת לי הכי א"ל לאו עלי דידי קא סמכת דעל פה נמי סמוך עלי:  
שוב מעשה בנכרי אחד שבא לפני שמאי אמר לו גיירני ע"מ שתלמדני כל התורה כולה כשאני עומד על רגל אחת דחפו באמת הבנין שבידו 
בא לפני הלל גייריה אמר לו דעלך סני לחברך לא תעביד זו היא כל התורה כולה ואידך פירושה הוא זיל גמור:  
שוב מעשה בנכרי אחד שהיה עובר אחורי בית המדרש ושמע קול סופר שהיה אומר (שמות כח) ואלה הבגדים אשר יעשו חושן ואפוד אמר הללו למי אמרו לו לכהן גדול אמר אותו נכרי בעצמו אלך ואתגייר בשביל שישימוני כהן גדול 
בא לפני שמאי אמר ליה גיירני על מנת שתשימני כהן גדול דחפו באמת הבנין שבידו 
 בא לפני הלל גייריה א"ל כלום מעמידין מלך אלא מי שיודע טכסיסי מלכות לך למוד טכסיסי מלכות הלך וקרא כיון שהגיע (במדבר א) והזר הקרב יומת אמר ליה מקרא זה על מי נאמר א"ל אפי' על דוד מלך ישראל נשא אותו גר קל וחומר בעצמו ומה ישראל שנקראו בנים למקום ומתוך אהבה שאהבם קרא להם (שמות ד) בני בכורי ישראל כתיב עליהם והזר הקרב יומת גר הקל שבא במקלו ובתרמילו על אחת כמה וכמה 
בא לפני שמאי א"ל כלום ראוי אני להיות כהן גדול והלא כתיב בתורה והזר הקרב יומת 
בא לפני הלל א"ל ענוותן הלל ינוחו לך ברכות על ראשך שהקרבתני תחת כנפי השכינה 
לימים נזדווגו שלשתן למקום אחד אמרו קפדנותו של שמאי בקשה לטורדנו מן העולם 
ענוותנותו של הלל קרבנו תחת כנפי השכינה