Posts tagged " Passover "

The Ups and Downs of Freedom

April 15th, 2019 Posted by Thought Tools 9 comments

During the administration of George W. Bush, I was privileged to be appointed to a presidential commission. I received a document that included something akin to the words, “power to execute the duties of this office.” Lopping off a few words, I tried to explain to my children that now, in the manner of the Lord High Executioner in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta, The Mikado, I had been granted the power to execute. What a difference a few words can make!

Passover, which we look forward to celebrating in a few days, is often misconstrued as a holiday celebrating freedom. Not quite. It is a holiday celebrating the overthrowing of human tyranny and slavery while accepting God’s dominion over our lives and our own responsibility to properly use the freedom we have. The first part of the equation only exists in conjunction with the second part.

In that way, Passover not only  commemorates something that happened long ago, but it is an annual opportunity to rise above our own Egypts, those circumstances that block the path to our own Divine destiny.  Egyptian slavery is the ultimate model of any oppressive force that obstructs our attempts to reach the purpose God has planned for us. Each detail of the Exodus provides us with a route to overcoming the limitations and constrictions in our own lives.

A peculiar phrase used in the description of the Exodus guides us towards one escape strategy.

…and the Children of Israel are going out with a high hand.
(Exodus 14:8)

Perhaps because present tense is so rare in Scripture, the King James translation of the Bible incorrectly substitutes the past tense. That misses the Divine message. Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that the present tense emphasizes the relevance of this section to anyone wishing to emulate the Children of Israel and escape his own Egypt.  It applies to each of us today.

We should look as well at the Hebrew word used for high—RaMaH.  It appears in a similar context in Deuteronomy 32:27:

…lest they will say, “our hand is high; the Lord has not done this.”

ר  מ ה

RaMaH means high and dominant.  However, look at this verse:

…the horse and its rider has He flung down into the sea.
(Exodus 15:1)

How perplexing that the Hebrew word used for ‘flung down’ is also RaMaH.

To make matters worse, see this verse from Job:

How much less man, who is [after all] a worm
(Job 25:6)

The Hebrew word used for ‘worm?’  RiMaH.  Regular readers of Thought Tools know that RaMaH and RiMaH are the same word with slightly different pronunciations. With the special power of Hebrew, their meanings are also related.  How can the ideas of high and low be related? Identifying that relationship exposes us to deep spiritual insight.

The mysterious message of the twin words RaMaH and RiMaH suggest that though they appear to be antonyms, there is a spiritual link between high/dominant and low/abject.  Furthermore, this link is a key to escaping one’s own Egypt.

That majestic record of Jewish durability known as the Hagadah, read at the Passover Seder, hints at the link. Not surprisingly, the Hagadah relates how the powerful and mighty Egyptians were humbled and the Israelites elevated.  But another essential characteristic of the Hagadah is its commencement with deprecating accounts of the ignoble beginnings of the Israelites.  The Hagadah reminds us that Abraham’s father was an idolater before relating the achievements of his children.

Therein lies the valuable key. Life is not static. If you happen to be riding high at this point in your life, retain humility by remembering how easily and quickly high can turn into low. No matter what struggles you face today, you must remember how much lower you or your ancestors were yesterday. Neither the depths of misery nor the heights of triumph are constant states.

In this way, the Passover Seder serves as an annual inoculation against thinking that the status quo defines you. With God’s help and in the blink of an eye, we can go out from our difficulties with a high hand. 

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Yet We Live

April 12th, 2018 Posted by Susan's Musings 11 comments

As human beings, we struggle to know ourselves; no matter how close we are to someone it is impossible to completely know another person. This is particularly true for our parents.

When my friend, Naomi*, was sitting shiva (the Jewish week of mourning) for her mother, she discovered some flabbergasting news. Naomi’s father was her mother’s second husband. Not only had she been previously married, but she and her first husband had two children. That husband and those children were murdered by the Nazis.

Naomi had known that her mother was in a concentration camp, though her mother never spoke of those years. She knew that her parents met in a DP camp; she knew that she and her older siblings, named for slaughtered grandparents, were born after her parents reached America’s blessed shores. But she never imagined that her mother’s life had included a previous young family. This information explained so much. She now could see her mother’s hyper-vigilance combined with a certain emotional gruffness not as personality quirks but as the tortured expression of inestimable pain.

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Each Generation We Must See Ourselves

April 4th, 2018 Posted by Susan's Musings 25 comments

We are in the midst of Passover and I am delighted to be sharing the festival with so many children and grandchildren.  At the same time, that means that my computer and I haven’t seen a great deal of each other this week. My head is full of menus and cooking timetables, leaving little room for pondering current world affairs. One main focus of Passover, however, is realizing that without continually keeping an eye on the past, present and future, humans are prone to mess up. With this in mind, I’d like to share a Musing from April, 2012 that is no less relevant today.

 

“In each generation every person must view themselves as if they left Egypt.” A few nights ago, Jews around the world recited a sentence expressing this thought at the Passover Seder. Shortly before the holiday started, my son, Ari, saw one aspect of this idea come to life.

I think most of us picture ourselves on the right side of history. Had we lived in different times and places surely we would have stood with the abolitionists rather than the slave-owners; would have joined the Resistance rather than the Nazi Party; and would have opposed Stalin rather than embracing him. We more easily picture ourselves following Moses through the sea rather than ignoring him and the God he represented.  But the majority of Jews did not leave Egypt. Eighty percent chose loyalty to Pharaoh and the status quo.  Bad choice.

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Problem or Progress?

March 29th, 2018 Posted by Susan's Musings 27 comments

Do you wear a watch? The answer to that question may depend on your age. You could say that watches are the new handkerchiefs.

I rarely iron. Nonetheless, when I was a young girl my mother taught me to do so and the first items entrusted to my care were my father’s handkerchiefs. I remember taking great satisfaction in watching a wrinkled piece of fabric turn into a tidy, pressed and folded square. Yet, the box of handkerchiefs my grandmother gave me when I was a young teen lay  unopened in my closet for decades.

While disposable facial tissues are described in an account of 17th century Japan, in the United States Kleenex were introduced after World War I, slowly replacing handkerchiefs over the course of decades. While some very environmentally conscious individuals are urging a return to the cotton square, most Americans never think twice at the idea of grabbing a tissue from a readily available box.

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Matzoh, Money and Marriage

March 27th, 2018 Posted by Thought Tools 20 comments

Here’s an unusual thought experiment: Imagine meeting a twenty-year-old man who is suffering from near total amnesia. He explains to you that he knows how to read and write, drive a car and live healthily, but has no idea at all of what he ought to be doing to prepare for successfully living the rest of his life.  What are you going to tell him?

Upon some reflection, I think I’d say to him, “There are two really important things that are vital for happy living and neither is intuitive, so I am delighted that you asked me.”

The two are money and marriage.  Nothing at all is taught about either one at GIC’s (Government Indoctrination Camps formerly known as public schools.)  Not surprisingly, the result is a huge number of twenty-year-old men who have never given a realistic moment’s thought to earning a living.  Public education’s indifference to marriage has also resulted in a significantly diminishing percentage of young men marrying.  If nobody teaches young males how money works and why marriage is important, how could they possibly know? 

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Recite, Repeat, Rejuvenate

April 14th, 2017 Posted by On Our Mind No Comment yet

Very early in the Passover Seder we ask a question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” followed by four examples of unusual behavior. This section is often inaccurately called “The Four Questions.” From there, we annually follow the same program, reading, singing and/or chanting the same words, eating the same foods and doing the same actions as our ancestors. Yet, if that is all that you do, there is every chance that your Seder can become an uninspiring chore. It may foster warm family feeling, but do little for one’s relationship with God.

The test of a truly successful Seder, is one that indeed is exactly like every previous one in its details, but that is breathtakingly groundbreaking in terms of the discussion, questions, debate and insights. What a wonderful model for any family, group or country that wants to survive and thrive over the long term. If you break away from the core requirements, you lose your connection to the past,  becoming something new rather than a continuation of your past. If you cling so narrowly to the past that you can’t explore new avenues and see things with fresh eyes, you become a fossil.

May we all have the wisdom to know when to cling tenaciously to the past and when to fearlessly forge the future.

 

From Stress to Salvation: A Passover Story

April 12th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 29 comments

To the dismay of my parents and the bewilderment of my wife Susan’s parents, some years back we sailed our family from Los Angeles to Honolulu on our small sailboat. We spent nearly a year in preparation. Susan planned the meals for the entire voyage and wrote down where each item of food was stored, while I strengthened the vessel and polished my celestial navigation skills. We departed on the fourth of July and by mid-month we were about a thousand miles from the West Coast and the same distance from Hawaii.

That night, as usual, I measured our water supply and in an exhausted state from too many hours on watch mistakenly determined that we had only one more day’s water left. In a terrible panic, all I could think about was how would I keep my family alive till we reached Hawaii. In my mind that became the only problem.

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Is There Food in Your Purse?

April 4th, 2017 Posted by Thought Tools 23 comments

As the rabbi of a large congregation, my father attended many weddings and bar-mitzvahs.  My mother usually accompanied him and on rare occasions I got to go as well.  I always assumed that when this happened, I was being rewarded for good behavior.  It wasn’t until years later that my mother confided that the times when I was taken along were when the babysitter positively refused to have me at home.

While attending one particular bar-mitzvah with my parents when I was about ten years-old, I clearly remember spotting a woman surreptitiously sweeping some cookies off the table and into her rather capacious purse.  I instantly realized that she was harboring a fugitive to whom she needed to get food.  My fevered mind needed to know whether her fugitive was a criminal or a hero.  Clearly the only way to find out more was to place her under my diligent surveillance for the rest of the afternoon.  I observed her sneaking some fish and fruit into her bag.  Sooner or later, I would surely catch her leaving  the hall and by following her I would determine the identity of the person she was hiding.

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Get a Good Mood from Food Dude

April 26th, 2016 Posted by Thought Tools 1 comment

Food is fuel, isn’t it? A meal for a human is the equivalent of adding wood to our fireplace. After all, our body temperature must be maintained at about 98 degrees Fahrenheit. Just as a home furnace converts firewood, coal, oil, or natural gas into heat, so do our bodies convert food into heat. Naturally we feel cold when we are famished.

But if food is just fuel, why do we crave steak and fries today; eggplant parmesan tomorrow, and spinach quiche the next day? Why don’t we want celery and peanut butter every day? After all, we don’t fuel our fireplaces with wood today and coal tomorrow.   Clearly something else is going on. Food is far more than merely fuel. (more…)

Passover’s 15-Step Program

April 1st, 2015 Posted by Thought Tools No Comment yet

Countless people will soon be observing a Passover Seder.  There are many important aspects to running an effective Seder, but perhaps the most important and the least known is that the Seder, meaning order, is an arrangement of fifteen indispensable steps from start to finish.  In order to explain this to you, I must first explain the significance of the number fifteen.

The periodic table arranges into a grid all the chemical elements out of which the entire universe and its contents are comprised.  These elements of creation are laid out in the order of increasing number of protons in their nuclei.  Thus, for instance, the first element, hydrogen, has one proton in its atomic nucleus while the 92nd,  uranium, has 92 protons.

The fifteenth element, with yes, 15 protons, is phosphorus which has the distinction of giving off light.  It is from this element that we derive the term phosphorescence to describe anything that gives off light without being burned.  Phosphorus was used not only in the manufacture of early matches but also to make luminous watch dials in the early 20th century.

It is interesting that the fifteenth element radiates light because the fifteenth generation from Abraham was King Solomon who radiated light in the form of wisdom.  We still use the phrase ‘seeing the light’ to suggest becoming wise.  The final few verses in the Book of Ruth detail the ten generations from Peretz to David, the father of Solomon.  From Genesis we know that Abrahm, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah, were the four generations leading to Peretz for a total of 15 generation from Judaism’s founder, Abraham, to Solomon’s building the Temple, the domicile of Divine light.

In Jewish numerology the number fifteen always signifies the fifteen steps necessary for the attainment of a lofty objective.  In Solomon’s Temple, there were fifteen steps leading up towards the Holy of Holies. The priests sang one psalm on each step as they ascended.  Thus we find fifteen psalms that open with the words, “Song of The Steps” (Psalms 120-134)

 

Similarly, the Passover Seder comprises fifteen separate agenda items, each of which is a necessary step from where we are now to where we hope to arrive by the Seder’s conclusion.

1.  Kadesh.  The blessing over the first cup of wine. The word means sanctification.  It also means separation which is a necessary first step in sanctification. We are separating and sanctifying the time we shall spend in the Seder from all other time.

2.  U’rechatz.  Washing the hands.  The primary organs for moving food from the world into our bodies are our hands.  By pouring water over them, we dedicate them in purity even though we utter no blessing at this point, elevating the physical act of eating to a spiritual purpose.

3.  Karpas.  Dipping a vegetable that grows underground into salt water and eating it.  We start off the evening acknowledging that we are from the earth and its oceans and to the earth we shall return.

4.  Yachatz.  Breaking the middle of the 3 special matzohs in half and putting one half aside for step number 12 later on.  The only way to grow is to recognize our flaws which is, in essence, the breaking of our egos.

5.  Magid.  Reciting the story of the Exodus from the Hagadah.  What distinguishes us from animals incapable of growth is our ability to speak.  This part of the Seder is exercising our ability to communicate by means of stories, questions and answers.

6.  Rachtzah.  Washing the hands again.  However, this time, on account of our already having ascended through the first five steps, we merit to bless God as we further sanctify our hands before the meal.

7.  Motzi.  The usual blessing over bread.  Although we use a substitute, matzoh, for Passover, we thank God for giving us the ability to eat, not just the fruit and vegetables of the earth but also the unique human food, bread.

8.  Matzoh.  The blessing over the matzoh.  This is the first taste of matzoh, the main food of the Seder and further suggests our willingness to subdue our egos by getting rid of all the ‘hot air’ that differentiates bread from matzoh.

9.  Maror.  Eating the bitter herb.  A mouthful of horseradish which leaves us gasping for breath with our eyes streaming emphasizes that unless we acknowledge that our past mistakes were indeed mistakes that have caused pain, growth is impossible.

10.  Korech.  Eating a matzoh bitter herb sandwich.  Our pure souls unencumbered by pompousness and arrogance unified with acknowledging yesterday’s painful mistakes is the perfect recipe for growth and transformation.

11.  Shulchan Oreich.  The set table at which we now eat a festive meal.  We don’t merely open a few cans of cranberry sauce or gobble up a mass produced hamburgers. A set table signifies that we do not eat merely for survival as do animals.

12.  Tzafun.  Eating the Afikomen.  That half of the middle matzoh put aside earlier in step 4 is eaten as the dessert.  The final taste in our mouths is not chocolate mousse or brandy flavored crepe suzette but the plain basic matzoh with which we began the evening’s process.  We never lose sight of what really matters.

13.  Bareich.  Grace after the meal.  At a time when we feel full and sated, it would be so easy to forget He who gave us the food.

14.  Hallel.  The section of the Seder in which we praise God.  After having worked our way through the first 13 steps, we know that we have made progress but we herein acknowledge that in the final analysis it is all up to God.

15.  Nirtzah.  Acceptable to God.  Here we reflect that through God’s love and acceptance of our imperfections and our efforts we achieve true spiritual transformation. Our fifteen steps are done and we feel the ever present light of the Almighty shining brightly enough to carry us through the entire year until we are privileged to do the Seder again, ideally in Messianic times, “Next year in Jerusalem.”

This ‘fifteen-step program’ leading to authentic transformation is one of many growth opportunities Passover presents. More  appear in earlier Thought Tools, including those found in our Thought Tool Set. This time of year is particularly attuned to spiritual growth. Make the most of it.

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