Thursday, April 5, 2012

#BlogExodus, Nisan 13: Who asks the questions and who provides the answers?

As we sit down at our Seder tables this year we repeat, as we do every year, the words that remind us that it is important for us to remember the exodus from Egypt as if we, ourselves, experienced it.  If we engage in the ritual of the Passover Seder as more than just another family meal, we find a whole toolbox laid out in the manual we call the Haggadah, that can help us to do this.  There are tastes, there are words and stories, there are questions and (sometimes) there are answers (but it is the search that is more important than the answers themselves).  There are songs and, if we choose, there is storytelling through acting, reminiscing, the young asking the old, and the old asking the young.

The haggadah tells us that we have to find a way to make the experience of gaining freedom from slavery come alive for each and every generation.  This is not only to ensure that we don’t forget our heritage and our story; it is also because some of the early generations of Rabbis who crafted this ritual understood that the way Jews related to this story in one generation or in one era would be different to the ways that it worked for Jews of another time.

The meaning and the purpose of Passover has changed over the centuries – it fulfilled a different need for us at different times.  Once it was an agricultural celebration.  At other times it was a story of hope when we were oppressed and discriminated against.  In the last generation in the USA it became a vehicle for Jews now living freely to speak about their obligations to help free others from their shackles, giving birth to Haggadot that focused on civil rights, women’s rights, the environment, and more.

What will Passover mean for the next generation? What ‘job’ will it do that adds significant meaning to their lives? It might have something to do with autonomy or the ability to feel like they can still make a difference in an era of powerful corporations and the undue influence of money.  It might be the freedom to make different kinds of lifestyle choices.  It might mean a psycho-spiritual kind of freedom that comes from within.  It might inspire them to engage in local or worldwide social justice actions to help free others. We don’t know what the next generation will dream. 

But, while the Passover has traditionally always been a time when the youngest ask the adults the questions so that they will understand where they come from and the inheritance that is theirs, it is essential that we adults ask our children questions too.  If we want them to imagine that it is they, themselves who are leaving the slavery of Egypt, we need to ask them what that means to them.

You can do this with children of any age, but I especially encourage those with teenagers or young adults at their Passover table this year to ask the question, as I will be doing this year at my Seder.  I am confident that your Seder will be transformed into an interesting and important conversation, and I’d love to hear what you learn from our next generations.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

#BlogExodus, Nisan 9: Springtime as Freedom-time

I've missed a few days of #BlogExodus blogging, but the great thing about a project that involves many people, is that you can read lots of other great blogs on each and every day of this month of Nisan/lead-up to Pesach project.  You can track them all on Twitter by searching for #BlogExodus, but here are just a small selection from the past few days:
On 'Cleaning' check out this procrastinator's musings.
On 'Slavery', a reminder that it is still real today, and not just a symbolic matter.
On 'Freedom', check out The Huffington Post.
The 7th of Nisan focused on 'Redemption' - take a look at a more personal reflection here.
The 8th of Nisan turned to themes of 'Courage and Faith' - here is a thoughtful reflection on bullying

And so now we've reached the 9th of Nisan and our theme today is 'Spring'.  The following is my Passover message for our local weekly newspaper consortium, Hersam-Acorn, in print in several local towns this coming week:

Is it mere coincidence that the Jewish festival of Passover, beginning this Friday eve, April 6th, falls in the early weeks of Springtime? The answer is ‘no’, both from a historical perspective but also from a symbolic perspective.  Historically, several scholars suggest that there was a pre-existing Springtime celebration before the Jewish people assigned Passover and the re-telling of the exodus from Egypt to this time in the calendar.  In fact, we see hints of this earlier celebration embedded in the Exodus story itself.  Exodus, chapter five begins: ‘And afterward Moses and Aaron came, and said to Pharaoh: 'Thus says the Eternal, the God of Israel: Let My people go, that they may hold a feast for Me in the wilderness.'   Spring is the season of new flowers and buds appearing in nature, and it is the lambing season. The centrality of the sacrifice of a lamb just before the tenth and final plague that led to the Hebrew slaves being allowed to go free may well have been related to an earlier celebration where a first-born of the new flock was offered up in thanksgiving.

Today we do not sacrifice animals as part of the Passover celebration; instead a shankbone is placed as one of the symbols on a Seder plate that takes center stage in the home-based ceremony held in Jewish homes all over the world to mark the beginning of the holiday.  Another symbol of fertility and new life is also found on this plate – an egg (a Spring time symbol shared by our Christian neighbors at Easter).

But Spring time remains deeply symbolic as a time not only of new birth, but struggles for freedom from oppression over the centuries, new hope and new possibilities.  We may be most familiar with the recent waves of unrest and uprisings against dictatorial leaders in the Middle East, dubbed ‘the Arab Spring’.  These movements did not literally begin during Springtime, but commentators quickly adopted the phrase that can be traced back to the 1800s.  Ben Zimmer, author of, finds the earliest usage with a German philosopher, Ludwig Borne, in 1818.  Referring to several European revolutions in the mid-1800s, in French the phrase used was printemps des peuples (springtime of the peoples) and, in English, ‘The People’s Springtime’.

What is common to both the current socio-political changes, the European revolutions, and the Biblical Exodus is that the journey from slavery to freedom is never straightforward.  We are much more certain about what we are seeking freedom from but it usually takes a lot longer to know what we will do with our freedom.  For the Hebrews it took forty years of wandering in the wilderness but, along the journey they created a covenant with God that provided them with laws and structures for creating a new society in a new land, where time and again they were reminded not to oppress others, because they had once been slaves in Egypt.  This is a message that we all need to hear, year after year, precisely because it is so easy to forget the greater purpose of freedom once we have the power to choose our own path.

This Springtime, in the weeks following Passover, the Jewish community is joining together with Christian, Muslim, and Hindu brothers and sisters for an ‘Interfaith Spring’ on Sunday, April 29th.  Together we will both celebrate and remember our obligation to care for our natural world, joining to clean up the Greater Bridgeport area.  We begin with a BBQ at Rodeph Shalom at 1 p.m., taking interfaith groups to work in cleaning up the city for the afternoon, and returning at 4.30 for more music and celebration.  To join us, please email