The Spoiler at the Passover Seder

The Spoiler at the Passover Seder

In a number of plays and movies, the central theme is a family holiday celebration, sometimes Thanksgiving, at other times Christmas.  Among the gathered family is a son, daughter or relative carrying a deep grudge.  Through their acid comments, they bring to the surface submerged hatreds and bitterness that poison the celebration.  For Jewish families the holiday celebration par excellence is the Passover Seder.  Here, too, there is often a spoiler.

At our family Passover Seder the spoiler was my uncle Dave, my father’s brother-in-law.  He was a member of the American Communist Party until, as the family never stopped reminding him, he bought his first apartment building. Uncle Dave then exchanged Marxist dialectic materialism for plain, old fashioned Capitalist materialism. The only remnant of his former Communist allegiance was his antipathy to religion.  It was particularly religious ritual which he dubbed nonsensical and irrational..

Dave made his views clear to my father, the Master of the Seder, a learned modern Orthodox Rabbi, with a University of Chicago graduate education. Dave’s arguments stirred up controversy all around the Seder table.  When my father gently sought to reply to Dave’s arguments, my uncle pulled out his hearing aid and hilarity convulsed all the guests at the Seder table.

As childhood memories of family Seders surface before Passover, it seems to me that our Rabbis, who created the Passover Haggadah, were keenly aware of spoilers at Passover Seders.  So they included one among the four sons and called him the Rasha, the evil son.  What makes the Rasha, the evil son a spoiler?  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his Haggadah commentary suggests two motivating factors. The wayward son may have had a faulty education.  In addition, says Rabbi Hirsch, there is the tendency of sons and daughters to challenge the authority of parents. It is part of the process of maturation and self independence.  This is particularly the case where the culture at large, as in Hirsch’s time, attracts young people away from the life style and traditions of parents.

From our contemporary experiences, we can add to Hirsch’s commentary.  The sons and daughters of rabbis sometime rebel against the restrictions of Jewish observance of which they are supposed to be exemplars.  It is particularly difficult for them in a highly secularized Jewish community where Jewish observance is minimal or non-existent.  Then, there are the negative experiences that some people have had with Jewish religious authorities, including abuse in some cases, rare as that may be.

How do we relate to spoilers?  The Hasidic commentators on the Haggadah, including Breslov and Habad, are most insightful.  They remind us that there is a bit of spoiler in  each of us.  They emphasize that the Rasha is also part of kelal Yisrael, of the Jewish people and also has a part in God’s plan.  Such an individual must be treated with respect, with kindness, and if it is a child or family member, with great love. At the same time the Rasha’s views must be challenged gently but firmly.  The phrase in the Haggadah “hakheh et shinav”, dull his (or her) teeth, i.e., answer bluntly, is interpreted in some Hasidic sources as remove the sharpness of the bite by sweetening the mouth. I still remember as a young boy how my father took me aside after the Seder and instructed me that Uncle Dave had a very difficult life in Europe and in this country and was to be treated with great respect, kindness and love as a member of our family.  A joyours Pesah to everyone.


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The Dual Facets of Hanukkah

Every person has a public and a private personality. The public self is how we present ourselves to others. The private self is where lie our hopes, our fears and our spiritual yearnings. The emotionally healthy individual, more or less, keeps the two aspects of self in balance. The disturbed human being is unable to do so. The private self is sacrificed for the public one, or the public life is effaced and the private one made dominant.

Religions also have public and private selves. The ancient Romans whose saturnalia celebration held at the winter solstice, when the daylight hours of sun are fewest, was the pagan counterpart to the Jewish Hanukkah and later the Christian Christmas. It was all materialistic and external. A mardi gras environment prevailed with public entertainment and parades.

In contrast, the Jewish Hanukkah began as a profoundly inward, spiritual experience. Its source is the book of Daniel, chapters 7-12 in the Hebrew Bible, written by an apocalyptic visionary at the beginning of the Maccabean persecutions. Its focus is on the Jewish martyrs, their resurrection at the End of Days and their heavenly reward. In these dark times, the author, using enigmatic language, describes the revolt of the Maccabees as “a little help.”

The public persona of Hanukkah is found in the First Book of the Maccabees. There we get a detailed account of the battles of Judah Maccabee and his brothers, their ultimate victory and the establishment of an independent Jewish state ruled by Maccabean high priest-kings. The Second Book of Maccabees describes the early battles and victories of Judah Maccabee and the Jewish guerilla army against the overwhelming Syrian Hellenists. But it also focuses on the courage of the martyrs who suffered and gave their lives. It emphasizes that the strength of the Jews lies in the fulfillment  of the practical observances (mitzvot), and faith in God. This is what made possible the victories of Judah Maccabee and his men. Clearly the author of this book is seeking to establish a balance between the public realm of Judaism, the early victories of the Maccabees, and the inner soul realm, the faith and courage of the martyrs and their observance of the commandments.

As the later Maccabean high priest-kings succumbed to the religious and ethical-moral corruptions of the Greco-Roman world, the Essenes and the Qumran community withdrew to their own spiritual communities in the Dead Sea region. They gave up on the public persona of Judaism and concentrated on its inner soul. Similarly, the Rabbis of the Talmud, living after the destruction of the Temple, also viewed the latter day Maccabees with a critical eye. For them, it was God’s miracle of the oil for the eternal light in the Temple that sufficed for only one day but burned for eight days that was the basis for the holiday. Their only acknowledgment of Hanukkah‘s public face, the victory of the Maccabees, is very brief- and emphasizes God’s miracle of the triumph “of the few over the many.” The entire focus is on the inner dimension of Judaism.

Fast forward many centuries to the Holocaust and the birth of the State of Israel. The destruction of the great spiritual center of East European Jewry focused Jewish attention on the inner dimension of Judaism. The song of the martyrs, “Ani ma’amin, I believe with a perfect faith in the coming of the Messiah,” was incorporated into Jewish observances. But the victories of the Israel Defense Forces against overwhelming enemies overshadowed the martyrs of the Holocaust. For a while in Israel and the diaspora there was an attempt to distance Jewish consciousness from the passivity of the martyrs. The emphasis was on the “new Jews” including partisans who fought the Nazis and the Israel Defense Forces.

This emphasis on the public persona of Judaism has succeeded so well in our secular world that there is a clear danger of losing Judaism’s spiritual dimension. This is in spite of Holocaust Museums and Holocaust Remembrance Days. Thus, the challenge is to remember the spiritual heroes of Hanukkah, extending from the martyrs of the Book of Daniel, to Eliezer and Hannah and her seven sons in 2 Maccabees, to the talmudic focus on the miracle of the oil for the eternal light, to the martyrs of the Holocaust and those killed in terrorist attacks in the land of Israel. In remembering them along with the Maccabees of old, and those in the Israel Defense Forces, we restore the critical balance to the Jewish tradition.

The lighting of large menorahs at public sites and gala community celebrations of Hanukkah are important. They are Judaism’s public face. But let us not forget to light the small Hanukkah candles in our menorahs at home. These are symbolic of Judaism’s inner soul. As the sage in the biblical Book of Proverbs reminds us: “The candle of God is the soul of the human being revealing all the inmost parts”(Proverbs 20:27).

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Replays of Life

Like  the replay of a favorite CD, life often replays for us in the present events of the past. Mark Twain expressed it this way: “History does not repeat itself in exactly the same way but it does rhyme.”  As in the replay of a CD in which we adjust the CD player for a finer tone to the music and a clearer expression of the lyrics, so in life’s replay we seek to repair the mistakes and reemphasize the contributions we made in the past.

The Jewish tradition calls this replay of life in which we change course, teshuvah, commonly translated “repentance” but literally a return to our better selves. Here is my popular rendering of how Maimonides puts it in his great code of Jewish law. “When the replay of life enables you to transgress in a way you have done before and you refuse to do it, not our of fear or owing to physical weakness, but out of conviction, that is teshuvah.

In a fascinating article in the Boston Globe, Timothy Snyder, a professor of history at Yale, whose book, Black Earth:The Holocaust as History and Warning, points out that the refugee crisis today in Europe is a replay of a previous refugee crisis. In the nineteen thirties Jewish refugees seeking refuge from Nazi oppression were turned away again and again by European countries. The  tactic was to deprive them of citizenship and then deport them to Germany or Nazi occupied territory where the Germans were willing to murder them at Auschwitz and other death camps. Even the United States, England and the Commonwealth countries accepted a paltry number of desperate Jews, men, women and children.

Has the world repented? The Germans somewhat, but the rest of the world hardly at all. Environmentalists point out that the current refugee crisis was triggered by drought in Syria, Afghanistan and Africa. But Assad and other authoritarian leaders responded to peaceful protests and cries of help with  repression and bloodshed. As global warming makes drought a common occurrence throughout the world, refugees will be pouring over borders everywhere. This week world Jewry approaches, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, with its central theme of teshuvah, returning to our better selves. Jews plead with a callous, corrupt world–act before it is too late.

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Time Thieves

time-2Are you aware of how much of your time is being stolen? It is an irreparable loss. Time is the canvas on which we paint the story of our lives. We carry this picture with us into the higher dimensions and there its analysis and interpretation determines the next stage of our journey beyond this world.
Each one of us is given so much time on earth and no more. Sometimes through prayer and miracle we get an extension. But that extension is not open ended.

Given the preciousness of time, it is not surprising that just as there are schemers and scammers trying to steal our money, so are there  time thieves trying to steal our time. There is a term used for this theft of time. It is called “shadow work.”  It means all the unpaid jobs we do on behalf of businesses and organizations. Businesses and professional groups are now handing customers, clients, and patients many jobs that salaried staff once did. For example, health care providers ask us to fill out detailed surveys to give them feedback on recent office visits. Craig Lambert has  written in the Boston Globe: “We have entered a self-serve world, one where self service means no service.”  Charles Darwin would call those who steal our time freeloaders. Wherever possible, we should not let them get away with it. We should remember what the Psalmist told us: “Teach us to count our days rightly that we may obtain a wise heart” (Psalm 90:12).

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Half a Matzah and a Broken World

Is half a matzah as good as a whole?

Not if one half stands for the body

And the other half stands for the soul.

The allure of the Passover seder from ancient times to the present has been its symbols and symbolic rites.  At the Passover seder the whole matzah symbolizes the two components of human life, body and soul, that should function together in an integrated way.  But in our world they are often dysfunctional. This dysfunction is symbolized at the seder by the rite of yahatz. We break the middle matzah on the seder plate. We wrap the larger piece in a napkin and set it aside to be eaten after the meal as afikomen, the after-meal desert.  In the order of the seder in the Passover Haggadah, the eating of the afikomen is called Tzafun, the hidden, i.e., the broken matzah in the napkin.

Here is a mystical explanation of yahatz, the breaking of the matzah, and afikomen, the after meal desert. It comes from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of the land of Israel and the greatest kabbalist of the 20th century. When we break the matzah in two, we point to the fact that we live in what the kabbalists call alma de peruda, a world of separation and fragmentation.  In this world human beings are separated from God and from one another. In this fragmented world the individual’s soul is distanced from the body, and the body and its needs is given priority over the soul and its needs.  In some religious groups, the split results in an emphasis on soul at the expense of the body. The body and its needs are denied. The first half of the matzah, symbolizing the body, is  eaten just before the meal when we are hungry. On this first half of matzah we recite the blessing al akhilat matzah.  In Jewish law it is called akhilah le-teavon, eating with an appetite,symbolizing bodily needs.

The second half of the matzah that is wrapped  in a napkin and hidden away is the afikomen, the after meal desert. The eating of the afikomen is called in Jewish law and tradition, akhila al ha-sova, eating when sated since we are no longer hungry after our meal. Thus, the afikomen symbolizes the soul and its needs. The afikomen is the larger half of the matzah because the soul should guide the body not the body guiding the soul. But this half of the mtzah is hidden and children, or in some traditions adults, have to search for it. Why?  The soul is deep within the self. It is not on the surface and its needs are not always apparent. In a very materialistic age such as ours, the soul, the source of our sense of kedusha, of holiness, is more hidden that ever. So, says Rabbi Kook, when we eat the afikomen, the after-meal desert, we attempt, as best as we can, to join the soul and its needs to the body and its needs in a broken world.




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Loneliness and the Social Media

In darkened rooms all over the world, people sit before lighted screens projecting themselves to friends and unknown others in the hope of making a human connection. But the selves being projected are more artifice than truth. They are scripted selves calculated  to make an impression. Aaron Sorkin, who created the screenplay for the movie The Social Network depicting the creation of Facebook, is not charmed by Facebook or the Internet.  In an interview he stated that he has serious reservations about the way they have connected people. Sorkin concedes that these digital inventions have brought people together who would never have found one another without them. Some of them have formed meaningful relationships and happy marriages. Nevertheless, he maintains that for a sizeable majority, the cynical illusions of the social media have not brought us closer together but have pushed us further apart. The darkened room and the lit screen of the online world is a very lonely place, and it is definitely not a reflection of the real world.

Loneliness is endemic to the Western world and particularly  to the American experience. The rugged individualism bred by the frontier passed into corporate America. The frontier was a lonely place, but its cold solitude was buffered by the warmth of family and community. With the breakdown in contemporary America, loneliness has become a way of life for many people.

Over 50 years ago the sociologist, David Riesman, wrote The Lonely Crowd depicting the alienation seeping into the American way of life. A number of years later the playwright and novelist, Thornton Wilder, delivered the Charles Eliot Norton Lectures at Harvard. One of the lectures was devoted to “the loneliness that accompanies independence and the uneasiness that accompanies freedom.” Wilder confided to friends that raising such difficult subjects made him uncomfortable, but he felt better knowing that all his listeners were American. It meant that “these experiences are not foreign to anyone here.”

The great spiritual leaders of the world’s religions were lonely people. Their grasp of realities far beyond the perceptions of ordinary folk  and their willingness to speak out and act on the basis of their visions did not make them ideal guests for dinner conversations. Moses, as the Torah describes him, was a lonely man and so were the Hebrew prophets. Two books attest to the loneliness of two recently departed Jewish American religious leaders. The first written many years ago by the late Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the spiritual head of modern Orthodox American Jewry, is entitled The Lonely Man of Faith.  A recent tribute to the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the 7th Lubavitcher Rebbe and head of the world wide Habad Hasidic movement, describes his loneliness. In his book, My Rebbe, Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz points out that Rabbi Schneerson was in touch, throughout his life, with thousands of people in public gatherings and in one-on-one meetings. Though all who encountered him felt his warmth, empathy and genuine interest in others, it went “only  in one direction: from him to them-but never in the other direction, from others to his inner self.”

It is not only great religious leaders who experience the loneliness of the spiritual path. Dr. Marsha Sinetar, a psychologist, has interviewed contemporaries who have made radical changes in lifestyle as the result of mystical awakenings. In her book,Ordinary People As Monks and Mystics: Lifestyles for Self-Discovery, she records an interview with a woman who told her: “I was bereft, having started on a path I knew nothing about, having left all my old friends and key members of my family.” But then she went on to say: “Feeling totally alone, I could remember flashes of experience where I’d felt myself one with the Absolute, experiences which had encouraged me in a way no social or material accomplishment had…”

This interview points up the difference between the loneliness of most people and those on a spiritual path. The conventional, materialistic, flatland perspective of many in our time understands connection as only horizontal. It is connection with other people. But when, for a variety of reasons, that connection breaks down, they are left with the poor substitutes: the darkened room and the lighted Internet screen.  For spiritual seekers there is also a vertical connection-with God.

The Jewish American financier, Bernard Baruch, had an elderly mother who lived on New York’s lower East Side. He always visited her before the High Holidays.  One year, involved in complex Wall Street negotiations, he was unable to visit her between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He called her on the telephone and asked her: “Mother are you all right? Are you alone?” She replied: “My son, I am all right, and I am never alone. God is with me!”


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Big Brother Watching Overtime

George Orwell would not be surprised. As he predicted in his novel 1984, Orwell’s Big Brother, surveillance, is working overtime these days. Not only is the government watching you, as Edward Snowden revealed, but now business is getting in on the act. Major retail and restaurant chains, seeking to fine tune their staffing and hold down labor costs, are using sophisticated software that tracks employees’ performance and sales activity. The software is integral to just-in-time scheduling systems, which help ensure that a store won’t have eight cashiers working when there’s only enough business for four.

But for workers these systems are a catastrophe. It means irregular shifts, significant schedule changes on short notice and huge variations in hours from week to week. It plays havoc with family life and the ability of unskilled workers to further their education. The New York Times profiled a part- time Starbucks barista, a single mom who couldn’t arrange child care or take classes because her hours fluctuated so wildly. Welcome to the digital sweat shop.

In stark contrast are the teachings of the Jewish religious tradition. “You shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman (or countrywoman) or a stranger in one of the communities of your land (Deut. 24:14). The first code of Jewish law, the Mishnah makes it explicit:”If a man hired laborers and bade them to work early or to work late, he has no right to compel them to do so where the custom is not to work  early or not to work late” (Mishnah Bava Metzia 7:1).





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The Miracle of Hanukkah: Less is More

In his slim volume entitled Hundred Dollar Holiday, Bill McKibben points out that the holidays of December no longer work for most of us.  When Walmart extends Black Friday to five days, and we view it with dread rather than joy, something is wrong.  McKibben urges us to back away from the mall, scale back radically on spending and recover joy in simple traditions.

As we approach the eight nights of Hanukkah, let us remember that the miracle occurred in a devastated Judea and in a Temple stripped bare.  The little jar of oil, enough for one night, that burned for eight nights was seen as a symbol of God’s never ending miracles for us on a daily basis. On this holiday God wants to give us something that is spiritually invaluable, symbolized by the frail candles burning in the dark.  But because our hands are so full of the toys of this world , the Almighty has no place to put it.

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The Imponderables of Life

During the High Holiday season we pray, “Remember us unto life.”  It has been pointed out that in the center of the word “life” is the word “if.” If suggests the unpredictable, tumultuous, precarious, dangerous world in which  we live. For the young people among us it represents the hills and mountains of challenges ahead in relationship, in marriage, in family, in work. The British poet Rudyard Kipling, in a poem entitled If addressed to young people has this memorable line about challenges: “If you can keep your head when all about you, are losing theirs and blaming it on  you, If you can know yourself when all men doubt you, yet make allowance for their doubting too.”
For those in their middle or later years among us the word “if” suggests looking back at our lives as in Robert Frost’s poem, The Road Not Taken and asking the question: What if I had taken the other road?
In the center of the Hebrew word for life hayyim are two Hebrew letters each called “yud” representing the name of God, one yud representing God’s presence in our physical, material world and one yud representing God’s presence in the world of spirit and spirituality. The two yuds in the center of the Hebrew word hayyim meaning life point to God’s eternal guidance and love for us in every challenge and at every stage of life. It is this faith that enabled Kipling to conclude his poem with the optimistic line that despite challenges,”Yours is the world and everything that’s in it.” It is this faith underlying Robert Frost’s confident conclusion to his poem:  “Two roads diverged in a wood and I, I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all  the difference.”
Finally there are  the buoyant, encouraging, faith-laden words of Isaiah:
“Let every valley be raised
Every hill and mountain made low
Let the rugged ground become level
And  the ridges become a plain
The Presence of the Lord shall appear
And all flesh, as one, behold,
For the Lord has spoken.
With these words in mind let us pray on these holy days: “Remember us unto life.”









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Elevators of Religion-From Cellar to Penthouse

To expand on a previous blog entitled “Welcome to Cellar Religion”: the mission of religion is to serve as an elevator lifting people from the cellar of untamed, emotional religious enthusiasm and zeal, which needs to be disciplined and purified, to a higher level. It is at the mezzanine level of discipline, reason, ethics and morality that primal religious emotion and zeal are purified. At the penthouse level of spirituality and mysticism, the religious impulse purified by reason, ethics, morality and the discipline of a daily religious practice is elevated still further. Here there develops a profound awareness that all humans, no matter their race religion or gender are all God’s children and as our brothers and sisters are entitled to consideration, compassion and love. Here there emerges a respect and an appreciation for animals, birds and nature in all its forms, even beyond our universe, as aspects of God’s creation. Here there awakens an awe and a love of God and the heavenly dimensions.

The problem is that fanatic fundamentalists will not allow the elevators to rise above the level of primal religion. The elevators that do escape their clutches and reach the mezzanine level are discouraged from rising further to the penthouse because that is only for “kooks.” So in search for authentic religious emotion and spirituality they descend again to the cellar of primal religion.

On the other hand, there are elevators that go express-rising from the cellar of primal religion to the penthouse of spirituality and mysticism. But having skipped the mezzanine of reason, ethics, morality and the discipline of daily practice, the passengers emerge confused and distorted. They adopt what they believe are the outer forms of penthouse spirituality and mysticism, beards or shaved heads, ochre robes or black hats and gabardines for men, veils and head to foot covering for women. But they are inwardly untransformed. They still seethe with the undisciplined, unpurified emotions and zeal of primal religion that lead them to commit horrors and absurdities

My father, of blessed memory, gifted with a highly intuitive sense of people’s character, once described a man whose appearance and conduct seemed to be the hallmark of a pious Jewish mystic. “Under his beard he is clean shaven.” He implied that the man’s appearance and speech belied who he really was. He was as dishonest as any corrupt businessman not so attired and not so overtly pious in speech and conduct.

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