Haggadah

Two Views (Pesach 5768)

The very word הגדה (Haggadah) conjures up wonderful memories of Sedarim past, reliving the story of the Exodus with family, friends and students. It’s used to refer colloquially to the booklet -- a compilation of texts and commentaries -- read at the Seder, but the word itself actually contains a wealth of information about the way in which a truly memorable and effective Seder should be conducted. Allow me to share some ideas:

According to Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen, the way to discover the core meaning of a Biblical word is to look at the first time it appears in the Torah. In the case of הגדה, the root word first occurs in the story of Adam and Eve. When God addressed Adam after the Sin, we find the following dialogue:

The Lord God called to Adam and said to Him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard your voice in the Garden and I was afraid because I am naked, so I hid.’ [God] said, ‘Who told (הגיד) you that you are naked? Have you eaten from the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?’ (BeReishit 3:9-11)

Rashi explains that God’s question is to be understood in the following way:

How do you know? What shame is there is standing naked? (Rashi ad loc.)

Before the sin, Adam and Eve wore no clothes but were not ashamed (BeReishit 2:25); however, they subsequently acquired a sense that there was something embarrassing about being naked.

It can be seen from this that the word הגיד means to acquire new information. This has an interesting implication for Seder night: the story must be told in a way that is new and exciting for the participants. One cannot fulfil the requirement of הגדה (which is primarily directed at one’s children) by merely reading the text or presenting a stale version of the Exodus. Instead, one must find a new angle on the story each year and create interest and fascination by finding new nuggets of information and by telling it in a refreshing way: one that will grab the imagination and retain peoples’ attention well into the night.

Based on ‘Hegioney Halachah’ Haggadah by Rabbi Yitzhok Mirsky

The Avney Nezer of Sochaczew pointed out that an accurate reading of the word הגדה can be derived from the Aramaic Onkelos translation of the word:

And you shall tell (והגדת) your son on that day as follows: because of this that God did for me in bringing me out from <st1:place style="font-style: italic;"   (Shemot 13:8)

And you shall point out to your son… (Onkelos ad loc.)

It seems that the word הגדה means to show or to demonstrate that something is true, rather that merely tell a story. This fits with the Rambam’s version of the text of a key paragraph of the Haggadah:

In every generation, one is obliged to see oneself (לראות את עצמו) coming out of Egypt (standard text)

In every generation, one is obliged to show oneself (להראות את עצמו) coming out of Egypt (Rambam’s text)

While the standard text suggests one’s mindset during the Seder, the Rambam’s text (supported by the Targum) regulates one’s behaviour by re-enacting aspects of the Exodus. The Seder should demonstrate the facts of the Exodus and present them in a tangible and accessible way such that leaving Egypt becomes a real, rather than purely intellectual, experience for the participants.

In fact, the text of the הגדה itself indicates the use of props to turn the Seder into a demonstration, rather than a purely intellectual process. We may only tell the story when the illustrative ‘props’ are in place:

One might have thought (that one should begin telling the story) from Rosh Chodesh (Nissan), so the verse writes, ‘on that day’ (only). But perhaps ‘that day’ means while it is yet daytime (of Erev Pesach), so the verse writes, ‘because of this’. One can only say, ‘because of this’ (by pointing towards something tangible) when the Matzah and Maror are present.

This could be considered the original multi-media presentation: one can only properly fulfil one’s obligation of הגדה by turning the occasion into an experiential show.

Based on the Haggadah of the Shem MiShmuel of Sochaczew

With a little thought over the remaining hectic days until Pesach, it should be possible to plan for a Seder that incorporates both of these ideas: telling the story from a new perspective, and bringing it to life for the participants.

May we be blessed with inspirational Sedarim, the impact of which will remain with us throughout the year. Chag Kosher VeSamayach.

This post originally appeared on Cross-Currents

Un-hijacking Hanukah

Hanukah and the Greeks

Many of us will have come across presentations of Hanukah that portray it as the anniversary of the ultimate victory of Jewish history – that of Judaism over the secular culture of the time. In this depiction, a pure, unadulterated Judaism, untainted by any non-Jewish influence, prevailed over an engagement with the surrounding society, its aspirations and intellectual activity.

This portrayal may be at odds with a number of ancient Jewish sources. In an allegorical reading of the laws governing the parah adumah (red cow, the ashes of which were used for spiritual purification), the Zohar learns:

'Unblemished’ – this refers to the Greek kingdom, for they are close to the path of truth. (Zohar HaKadosh 2:237a)

In the same vein (although in reality, this has no modern application), one may write certain holy texts in Greek as the sole alternative to Hebrew. The Sages find a source for this ruling in the post-diluvian blessings given by Noah to his sons: Shem, the progenitor of the Jewish people and Yefet, the ancestor of Greece. The usual translation of the verse is:

God shall give beauty (usual translation is ‘broaden’) to Yefet, yet He shall reside in the tents of Shem… (BeReishit 9:27)

The Talmud radically rereads the verse:

God shall give beauty to Yefet, and it shall reside in the tents of Shem – the interests of Yefet shall reside in the tents of Shem. (Megillah 9b)

These sources may indicate that far from rejecting Greek thought and culture, there is a view that incorporates them into the Jewish world. The Greeks developed the aesthetic aspects of life, such as music, art, literature, mathematics, and certain types of philosophy. This is the ‘beauty of Yefet’, which the Talmud encourages us not to revile, but to place firmly within the ‘tents of Shem’.

Yet while we Jews may subscribe to the coexistence of the physical and spiritual worlds, many Torah sources attribute to the Greeks an unwillingness to admit any connection between this world and the next. They may have believed in a higher reality, but considered it to have no impact on human lives. As such, the Torah could be revered as a classic of world literature, but not as the Divine guide to purposeful existence; it could take its place in a library alongside the works of Aristotle, but could never be considered a tool for human elevation.

In this light, we may recast the distinction between Jewish and Greek ideologies and hence the true nature of the victory of Hanukah. Having uncoupled the physical and spiritual worlds, the Greeks saw literature, philosophy, music, etc., as autonomous pursuits, rather than ways of experiencing spirituality within the physical world. In contrast, Jewish life encourages these endeavours only when they are a means to touch the Divine, but never as ends in themselves. The beauty of Yefet can and must live only within the tents of Shem.

The difference between our world view and that of the Greeks may seem slight, but it lies in understanding the very purpose of all cultural and other ‘secular’ pursuits. The victory of Hanukah – one of means over ends – is one that changed the face of the world.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

The Avinu Malkenu Paradox

Yom Kippur 5768

Since Rosh HaShanah, we have said the beautiful prayer Avinu Malkenu – our Father, our King – numerous times. Painfully aware of our inadequacies, we approach God, our benevolent father and ruler, and beg Him to bless us in every possible material and spiritual way. Its first and last lines read:

Our Father, our King, we have sinned before You….

Our Father, Our King, show us grace and answer us, for we have no [good] deeds. Perform acts of benevolence and kindness for us and save us.<

The text is familiar, yet the opening phrase of each line expresses a surprising reality about our perception of God, touching on what is sometimes called the ‘immanence-transcendence paradox’. It is axiomatic that God is distinct from everything in creation, perfect and unbounded in every way – as the ruler of the universe, He transcends it. Yet we also perceive Him as our Father, concerned and intimately involved with the affairs of each of us, our constant support and rock. Struggling with this contradiction is a feature of any meaningful religious life.

In the Avinu Malkenu prayer, the paradox is simply stated: it is acknowledged in every line, but not resolved. When we stand before God we ask Him for life, health, success and redemption as though He were our father, yet simultaneously we recoil in awe, overwhelmed to stand in the presence of transcendent, wholly other-worldly, power. We sense that we may have to live with the paradox and not let it overly trouble us.

That is until the Ne’ilah, (closing) service of Yom Kippur. Just before finishing ten arduous days of prayer and introspection, we again say Avinu Malkenu, but append a short affirmation, said only on this occasion and by a person close to death. The key line of this declaration is borrowed from I Melakhim 18:39:

Adonay hu HaElohim.

Translated roughly into English, this equates to saying that God is God, which seems to be tautology. However, the original context of the verse offers some insight: it is the story of the prophet Elijah fighting the false prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel. After a fierce religious contest, the outcome of which would determine the fate of the Jewish people, God answered Elijah’s prayers by consuming the entire altar upon which he had prepared an offering with fire. When the people experienced the sudden revelation of the true God:

they fell on their faces and said: Adonay is Elohim.

The name Adonay refers to God in His essence – the ruler of all, unbounded by time or space - whereas Elohim describes Him manifest in this world. There is often a huge dichotomy between our expectations of the perfect King and the harsh reality of the imperfect world in which we live, where suffering and inequity abound. We may find it impossible to accept that the source of all life and love is the same God who allows pain and apparent injustice to exist.

In the time of Elijah, the Jewish people had been attracted to Ba’al worship; like other ancient religious systems, it probably drove a wedge between heaven and earth - between two different and apparently irreconcilable perceptions of the Divine. It acknowledged that God may be in heaven, but claimed that the forces controlling life on earth are not in His control and must be worshipped separately. Yet when the fire of God consumed Elijah’s offering, the people realised, albeit momentarily, that there really is no distinction – Adonay is indeed Elohim. It may remain beyond our comprehension on all but the rarest of occasions, but it is true nonetheless: the God of perfection is the same God who inhabits and is manifest within our imperfect reality.

Declaring Adonay hu HaElohim at the end of Yom Kippur is the profoundest achievement of the entire religious year: the apotheosis of ten days of devotion. It is an incredible, unparalleled spiritual moment, in which we find ourselves able to shout out with complete conviction that Avinu – our Father – is Malkenu – our King.

The earth-shattering collapse of boundaries in our understanding of the Divine that characterises the end of Ne’ilah may only last for a few moments, but its impact must reverberate throughout the rest of the year. One of the remarkable gifts we can take from Yom Kippur is a heightened awareness that the imperfection that seems to pervade our world is not as it seems. A close friend pointed out to me that every experience, including those challenges that seem unfair, unjust or are unbearably painful, emanate from a perfect, all-knowing and all-loving God, who while He is not always evident to us, acts for our long-term good. He is, despite appearances to the contrary, simultaneously Adonay and Elohim. This provides us with a fresh lens though which to greet with fortitude everything that God has in store for us in the year ahead.

Based on a short address given each year by the author to his community at the end of Ne’ilah.  The ideas here are based on the Nefesh HaChaim of Rabbi Chaim of Volozhyn.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents

At Least Remember The Rabbi's Joke

The Rabbi's Rosh HaShanah 5768

A childhood memory: I am walking home from Shul on Rosh HaShanah with my father. En route, fellow congregants are discussing two aspects of the recently-finished services: whether the rabbi’s joke was funny and how long his tekiah gedolah (final shofar-blast) had been. Years later, and now the likely subject of such pre-prandial chit-chat, I hope that I will feel inspired to preach on a topic that will disturb my congregants’ conversations well into lunch, perhaps even beyond their Yom Tov afternoon nap. Should I fail, I trust that they will at least remember my joke and that they will have cause to glance at their watches before my breath gives out!

Preceding Rosh HaShanah, the month of Elul, is traditionally dedicated to introspection, extra prayer and reviewing the past year’s achievements ahead of the season of Divine judgement. It is difficult for anyone with a busy schedule to manage this, but paradoxically, this period can find a pulpit rabbi torn between personal and communal responsibilities.

Part of the problem is simply a matter of time. During this period a rabbi (supported by his lay-team) must ensure that all of the practical details, such as timetabling and arranging officiants, are in place. He will need to rehearse relevant parts of the services, prepare news-sheets containing community information and inspirational ideas, assemble numerous special lectures and, of course, write those all-important sermons. As Yom Kippur and Sukkot approach, the number of halakhic questions that congregants ask increases, and before Yom Tov, senior rabbis will often find their counsel sought by a bevy of junior colleagues. This will have to be fitted around a rabbi’s regular teaching, as well as any pastoral, consultancy and writing commitments.

My ideal Elul would be a more private and personal one. It would consist of days scrutinising the texts of the Yamim Norayim (High-holy days) prayers, repairing relationships with those I have upset during the year, internalising the guides to self-improvement of Maimonides, Luzzato and Rav Kook, exercising more than usual, and getting some early nights. However, since it is simply impossible to completely accommodate both sets of demands, some aspects of personal development must be shelved in favour of communal responsibility.

But beyond the fact that there is insufficient time to achieve everything in the pre-Yom Tov period, there is a clash of paradigms that is seldom mentioned. It is often unclear what expectations occasional congregants have of their Yom Tov Shul visit, but it is likely that they differ considerably from those of their rabbi. Ask an Anglo-Jew, ‘Why participate in the three-times-a-year show?’ and the response will probably be, ‘it’s just something I’ve always done,’ or, ‘I’d feel guilty if I didn’t’. Ask the same question to that person’s rabbi and he will say something like, ‘it’s an unparalleled opportunity to reawaken one’s divine consciousness, repair one’s relationships with other people, and declare God sovereign over all creation.

This explains why a rabbi may conduct himself as though the first day of Rosh HaShanah (in most Anglo-Jewish Shuls, the noisiest of the year) is the ultimate moment of mystical union with God, while some of his congregants are catching up on a year’s news. This mismatch of expectations can inhabit every aspect of the Yamim Norayim experience, including the style and timing of the prayers, what constitutes appropriate conduct during services and, it must be said, the objective of the sermon. Some pulpit rabbis are fortunate to have a community of receptive, intelligent and knowledgeable people, eager to hear an inspirational Jewish message. Yet others may struggle to square the rich aspirations of their own ‘inner’ Yom Tov with the reality of their congregants’ expectations of light entertainment.

These unarticulated tensions can obviously lead to frustration, but also to something worse – a miserable rabbi who assumes that all the preparations have been pointless, even that the Yom Tov season was a failure. To avoid this, I try to focus on two things. First, despite what I have written, I endeavour to plan a sermon that will stir both me and my congregants, by concentrating on some universal aspect of the human condition, such as the challenges of faith or the importance of personal growth. Indeed, I would like to think that my most successful sermons to date were those that almost moved me to tears when I delivered them. Second, and perhaps more importantly, I try to remember that it is a sublime privilege to be the religious leader of a community. For whatever reason, God has granted me the opportunity to carry hundreds of people with me on a spiritual journey at this time of the year: this fact alone allows all of us to share the same inspiration and makes the whole enterprise indubitably worthwhile.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished here with permission. 

Pesach And Jewish Continuity

Pesach 5767

Can the message of Pesach retain its value and meaning in the world of 2007 – a world of MRI scans, al Qaeda and Richard Dawkins? This is not just a question about Pesach, but also about the whole of Jewish life and thought. If Pesach is no longer relevant to our children, then we have no hope of successfully promoting the concept that the Jewish past must inform the Jewish future. If we find ourselves unable to relate to the national life of the Jewish people, if we fail to be inspired by its achievements and governed by its rules, then we may as well shut up shop now, and go with the flow of assimilation. The Pesach experience, especially the Seder, is seminal to the process of what is sometimes called Jewish Continuity. In its true form, Jewish Continuity is certainly a precious goal, something for which we all strive and hope. Every person reading this wants to have Jewish grandchildren who are not merely Jewish by name, but have a sense of Jewish history, an appreciation of Torah concepts and ideals and at least a modicum of observance, all coupled with the will and enthusiasm to impart all of that to their children.

It is clear that in Anglo-Jewry we have not broadly succeeded in doing this. To be sure, the observant community is growing in leaps and bounds, but elsewhere, in the heartlands of Anglo-Jewry, the message is not getting through. To be sure, there are many notable exceptions: Shuls, communities and outreach programmes that have had a major impact, but many places, the prognosis looks dire.

One of the keys to success is persistence. There is a beautiful parable for this, which will make things clearer. (It also involves a frog, which makes it suitable for Pesach!) A frog once fell into a bowl of milk. It realised that it had no hope of survival, as the milk was deep and the walls of the bowl too high to climb – the best that could possibly managed would be to tread water / milk for a while until exhaustion would set in and drowning became inevitable. So, thought the frog, why bother – I might as well drown now and save all the trouble. He shut his eyes, stopped struggling and drowned. A second frog fell into a bowl of milk. After making the same assessment as his lantsman, he closed his eyes and drowned. A third frog fell into a bowl of milk, but this one was a fighter. He paid no heed to the hopelessness of the situation, and ignoring all evidence to the contrary, remained convinced that he would survive. So he paddled and kicked with all his might, determined to keep going. As his flailing became more and more vigorous, the milk began to turn into butter and when most of it had solidified, he simply climbed out, tired, but alive to jump another day. The application of the parable is clear – continuous efforts, despite perilous conditions, are likely to produce some results. The Haggadah tells us:

In every generation, one is obliged to see oneself as if one has personally come out from Egypt…. Not only did the Holy One, may He be blessed, redeem our ancestors, but He redeemed us with them…

Can we really see the exodus as a personal experience – didn’t it happen over 3300 years ago? The truth is that unless we see Judaism as an experience of the here and now, we are finished. History is interesting, but by definition, it lives in the past – in books and memories, but not in the present. We can’t sell people a history book as a lifestyle, unless the experiences are direct and meaningful today.

Pesach and the Seder represent for us the conjunction of history and present. Rabbi Berel Wein, a well-known contemporary Jewish thinker and historian, points out something very interesting about his own family Seder. He notes that as a child, he sat at his grandfather’s Seder, at which his grandfather recalled his own childhood experiences with his grandfather, a man who could remember the great 19th century ethical teacher, Rabbi Yisroel Salanter. At Rabbi Wein’s Seder, he sits with his grandchildren, who will be able, in due course and God willing, to share stories about their grandfather with their own grandchildren. Thus at one current Seder, we can see an experience potential spanning several generations. As Rabbi Wein points out, very few (less than 20) such structures are needed to bridge the gap between the exodus and the present day.

But to create meaning across the generations, tremendous effort is required. Indeed this only has meaning if the imperatives, ethics and goals of the past are shared with the present. Otherwise, in our minds, grandfather’s grandfather is a dinosaur, an artefact from a long-dead age, while grandchildren’s grandchildren inhabit a future unimaginably different from the world of today. The redemptive spirit of Pesach seeks, through our own efforts, to redress this – it links us to our past and, perhaps more importantly, it helps to assure our future. Only if we take Judaism and its wealth of ideas and experiences seriously can we say that we ourselves have been redeemed. We always have the chance to start afresh – to be redeemed and commence the path of spiritual growth once again. If we are prepared to do this, we, like the frog, may be able to climb out of the milk once and for all and create an unshakeable link across the generations. This is true Jewish Continuity.

Choosing A Lulav And Etrog

Sukkot 5767

At Sukkot-time, one often sees an image of a bearded man examining an etrog with a jeweller’s loupe; those who have seen the popular Israeli film ‘Ushpizin’ will recall that selecting a beautiful etrog is a serious business.

The observance of Sukkot involves the use of four species: lulav - palm branch, etrog - citron, three myrtle sticks and two willow twigs; they are waved in devotion during the Hallel psalms. The Torah stipulates (VaYikra 23:40) that the etrog must be ‘beautiful’, but the rabbis understand beauty to be a prerequisite for all four species. Here, however, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder, for the criteria of ‘beauty’ are very carefully specified in what has become a vast body of halachic literature.

So how does one select a beautiful set? Here is a very brief guide:

The lulav should be fresh and green, especially at its end. The leaves grow in pairs, all of which should be intact and together, particularly at the top. The leaves above the ‘spine’ of the lulav should be completely whole. Special attention must be paid to the central leaves.

The etrog must be undamaged, with its top (pitom) and bottom (uketz) protrusions intact. It should be as free of marks as possible, especially on the part that tapers; any black marks are particularly problematic. The etrog should be yellow, bumpy (not smooth like a lemon), with a wide lower portion narrowing symmetrically towards its pitom. Some varieties grow without a pitom; these are great for clumsy people!

The myrtles should be fresh and green, with the end of the stick and the top leaves intact. Myrtle leaves appear in threes from its stalk (meshulash – tripled); each group of three leaves should emerge at the same level from the stalk, ideally along its entire length, but at least for the majority of it. The leaves should be upright and interlocking, covering the branch.

The willows too should be fresh and green, with the end of the stick and the top leaf intact and the leaves in good condition. One should select a variety with long, smooth-edged leaves and red stems.

Daunted by all this? Fortunately, pre-checked items are available for the uninitiated, although one of the great pleasures of the season is selecting them oneself. As for the loupe, it isn’t necessary, as the naked eye at a normal distance will do; it is only used for resolving uncertainty.

Walking The Walk And Talking The Talk

Rosh HaShanah 5767

At this time of the year, rabbis often encourage their flock to live good lives, study Torah a little, come to Shul more frequently and generally commit to becoming exemplary members of the community. To support this, all kinds of Jewish sources are mustered to bend the congregants’ ears into submission. What does Jewish tradition really promise those who actually succeed in living a purposeful and righteous life? The Talmud offers us a brief insight:

In the ultimate future, God will make a dance-circle for the righteous and He will sit in the middle of them in the Garden of Eden. Everyone will point to God with his finger.

<o:p></o:p>So after a life of righteousness, self control and altruism, what happens to our budding tzaddik when he reaches the afterlife? He gets to dance round and round and point to God, presumably for all eternity. A dance! Is that all? After an entire life dedicated to spiritual pursuits, is that the best we can hope for?

Of course, the Talmud is actually conveying a profound message in the form of an image. Regrettably, we often assume that the parables of the sages are simple fairy-tales, but if we are prepared to dig beneath the surface, we will always uncover the most uplifting concepts. As such, the dance-circle is a sophisticated image that may be understood as follows.

While it is not always apparent, there are many manifestations of Judaism – different styles of observance, degrees of engagement with the outside world and outlooks. Of course, all must be predicated on the belief in the historical truth of the revelation and the eternal imperative of Jewish law (devoid of these, of course, we don’t have Judaism at all). But part from these indispensables, there is considerable flexibility within the system. One of the wonderful things about Judaism is that, within certain parameters, there are a range of possibilities. This idea is expressed beautifully by the great mediaeval thinker Ritva:

When Moses went up to receive the Torah, for every subject he was shown forty-nine ways to prohibit it, and forty-nine ways to permit it.

God Himself presented us with a religious system that recognises that we aren’t all the same and that we each need some degree of individual expression in our religious lives. Interestingly, as this flexibility is God-given, the truth (or if we like, validity) of each manifestation is not compromised, as they are each a version of the Divine will. It’s an amazing idea – rather than there being one right or wrong way to live, we need to function within parameters. As an aside, this idea should not be considered licence to consider anyone’s personal preference a legitimate expression of Judaism, as there are clearly boundaries beyond which one may not go.

In this lies a challenge, perhaps one of the most important that we will face in our lives - recognising (always within the parameters) the validity of other peoples’ views. This can be immensely difficult; we all feel comfortable with those who share our particular world-view and perspective on Judaism; less so with those with whom we differ. We are often especially poor at respecting those people whose life-style seems very alien to ours; they quite probably feel the same about us!

Yet to profit from the flexibility of the system, we must authenticate the religious expressions of others. This takes a great deal of maturity, but it is extremely rewarding. Through doing so one gains a breadth of perception, and understanding of others, a sense of love and tolerance for those with whom we disagree.

This is the meaning of the dance-circle of our original source. Note that the righteous dance in a circle, not a conga! The centre of the circle is equidistant from every part on its circumference. (As a mathematician, I can tell you that this defines a circle!) Each person on the circumference has a slightly different angle on life, a different form of traditional Judaism, yet is equidistant from God. No one is closer than any other and each can point to God and perceive Him from their perspective. But here’s the really exciting bit – as they dance round the circle, they experience the world from the viewpoint of each of the others in the circle. This is the greatest reward on offer – a direct perception of God with the maturity to appreciate the world through the eyes of others.

It would seem to take a lifetime to righteousness to reach this level of personal maturity. This Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is a great time to start working on this aspect of personal growth. It is common in all parts of the community to view anyone to the ‘left’ of oneself as a dropout and any to the ‘right’ as a lunatic. Even the nomenclature ‘left’ /‘right’ is unhelpful in this quest. We are poor at tolerating difference within the observant community and mistakenly expect our children to all turn out the same way as each other. When one thinks about the extent of this problem in our families and communities, one quickly realises just how elusive the dance-circle really is. But one must try to take those first faltering steps along it: try by listening carefully to the viewpoint of a member of the Jewish community with whom one usually disagrees, consider, at least for a moment, that a man dressed in Chassidic clothes may lead a rich and sophisticated Jewish life, recognise that a child may need encouragement to express Judaism in a way different from his or her parents.

Karpas And The Wait For Dinner

When's Dinner?

And now the fifth question – when do we eat? This question, a joke of course, should actually help us to focus on a vital Pesach theme: the extent of our ability to delay gratification for a higher purpose.

More than just a commemoration, every festival is intended to help us recapture a major event of Jewish history and internalise its message. As the Exodus was the moment of the founding of the Jewish people, Pesach is an opportunity to consider what it means to be a member of the Jewish nation. What character traits are we to inculcate and which areas of personal growth are we to spotlight at this time of year? What will we have gained from all the intense preparations, from the Sedarim, the vast expense and effort? If all we will be left with after Pesach is exhaustion and a few extra pounds to shed, will it be worthwhile?

The ability to delay gratification is a key determinant of adult human behaviour; it distinguishes us from everything else in the world. Animals are driven by irrepressible needs; hunger, fear, the urge to reproduce. Once a need arises, its fulfilment becomes paramount; all energies are channelled into its realisation. Babies are scarcely different; when little Jimmy is hungry, tired, cold or has a dirty diaper, nothing will divert him from screaming until he gets what he wants.

In contrast, adults have a sense of higher meaning and value, which can often be strong enough to enable us to delay realising our immediate personal needs in lieu of achieving something of greater overall significance. There are dozens of examples of this phenomenon, ranging from the simple decision not to eat another piece of chocolate, to complex life-choices in which personal needs are completely marginalised in favour of national or even world improvement. This is, of course, a function of the struggle between the physical and spiritual drives; while Judaism prioritises the harmonisation of the two, there are occasions in life when the higher, spiritual yearnings must overcome and sublimate the lower, physical needs. The extent to which we are capable of doing this determines just how successful we really are as human beings.

As popular psychologist M. Scott Peck puts is. ‘Delaying gratification is a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with.’ (The Road Less Traveled) I think that Jewish sources would view it quite differently. While initially there may be a sense that one is scheduling the pain before the pleasure, the capacity to do so is one of the most profound human achievements, one that transforms the ‘pain’ into purpose and possibly a higher form of pleasure itself.

While central to meaningful human experience, the ability to delay gratification doesn’t come easily. We don’t naturally graduate from childhood into mature and disciplined altruists. What we gain at adulthood is the capacity to control ourselves, but development in this area is a lifetime’s work. One need look only at advertising and the media to see that immediate gratification with no consideration for the consequences is very much in vogue. High-risk sports, sexual exploration and many other activities that focus solely on immediate gratification are as popular as ever. The descent into instant fun and the consequential move away from the development of quintessential human sensitivities is all too easy. And we have all experienced people consumed with physical needs of one sort or another – they are unstoppable until they have what they want. In position as major leaders, such people can quite literally destroy the world; they nearly have on a number of occasions.

The Jewish people are expected to be the world experts in the field of delaying gratification, when necessary, to achieve higher goals. All humanity was originally destined to be proficient in this area, as evidenced by the prohibition of eating from the fruit in the Garden of Eden. Seen through Kabbalistic eyes, God did not demand that Adam and Eve forever deny themselves the fruit, only that they wait to eat it until after the first Shabbat. Had they demonstrated their ability to postpone their desire to eat it in order to fulfil God’s will, they could have enjoyed the fruit legitimately. Instead, they were expelled from the Garden, forever changing the course of history.

As the nation of the Torah, the Jewish people are charged with the task of restoring, by example, this capacity to the whole of humanity. This began at the Exodus, the birth of our people. Our ancestors clearly demonstrated the capacity to wait for redemption, to tolerate the backbreaking Egyptian slavery, to put their dearest yearnings for salvation on hold until the right moment. Some members of the tribe of Ephraim had not been able to wait and had escaped before the appointed time; the Talmud records that they sadly died in the desert. Even when the time for deliverance seemed to be at hand, the Israelites’ ability to wait enslaved until God was ready for them was tested to the limits. No sooner had Moshe introduced himself to Pharaoh than the slavery deepened; the Jews were no longer given straw, yet were expected to maintain the same level of brick production. Just when they thought the end of the slavery was in sight, they discovered that they had to wait a little longer. When the Exodus finally occurred, the nascent Jewish people were already well-trained in the art of waiting.

Each Pesach, and especially on Seder night, we are afforded a unique opportunity to relive those crucial final moments in Egypt. The lessons learned there were so central to our national and personal mission that we must revisit them every year to ensure that we are attuned to our key Jewish responsibilities.

This message is most obviously expressed in the structure of the Seder. We begin the evening in much the same way that we would commence any Shabbat or Yom Tov. Kiddush is followed by hand-washing, in preparation for the meal. But instead of eating the matzah and commencing the delicious Yom Tov feast, there is disappointment in store. Each person gets a small piece of vegetable dipped in salt-water (known as Karpas), then the matzah is broken, as if to eat it, but then hidden away and the plate containing the Seder foods is removed from the table, to be replaced with story books! We are tempted into thinking that the meal is coming (the fifth question – when do we eat?); we are taken to the point when the food is almost in our mouths and then told that we will have to read the story of our ancestors’ miraculous escape from Egypt before we can actually have the meal. The Karpas makes matters worse, for it is a salty hors d’oeuvres; not only do we prepare for the meal and then take the food away before eating it, but we make the participants extra-hungry before doing so!

This is all part of a genius plan to ensure that the annual re-enactment of our redemption inculcates within us the same sense of priorities as the original Exodus experience. We have waited all day to start the Seder, we are hungry, delicious food odours are wafting from the kitchen and all the ‘let’s eat now’ switches have been thrown (Kiddush, hand-washing, hors d’oeuvres, breaking matzah). Pavlov would have been proud. Yet something much more important than food must happen first – recounting the story of the Exodus. Understanding our roots, the very fibre of our national being, the unfolding Divine plan for Mankind, God’s miraculous intervention in human history and the very concept of purposeful freedom – all of these must be achieved before we may begin our meal.

On Seder night, we sacrifice our need for immediate gratification (having rather cruelly stimulated it) to the noblest ideal; transmitting the wonders of Jewish history and our unique relationship with God to the next generation. This should inform our sense of priority in all our endeavours, throughout the year. We have seen that developing the capacity to delay gratification is central to the Jewish understanding of real achievement, defines us as a nation and contributes to rectifying the primeval sin of the Garden of Eden. If we finish this Pesach having learned, even a little, to delay our immediate needs long enough to pursue some of the majestic goals of Judaism, then it will all have been worthwhile.

Have a kosher, joyful Yom Tov and meaningful and uplifting Sedarim.

Based on a sermon for the first day of Pesach at Golders Green Synagogue, a version of this article first appeared on Jewish World Review.

A Seder In February?

Tu B'Sh'vat and the mystics

Tu B’Sh’vat (15th Sh’vat) is best known today as a celebration of the importance of trees in Israel, but it actually hails from ancient times. The Mishnah (Rosh HaShanah 1:1) offers two choices for the date of the ‘new year for the tree’; Jewish law follows the School of Hillel, who opt for the 15th of Sh’vat.

This ‘new year’ is relevant only to the laws of tithes pertinent to fruit trees that grow in Israel. Since each year’s produce must be tithed separately, the ‘year beginning’ is important, as it divides one crop from the next. For most fruit-bearing trees, the moment when the buds appear determines the year in which they are tithed – so those that bud before Tu B’Sh’vat are tithed in one year and those that bud after Tu B’Sh’vat in the next. Although a good part of the winter is still to come, Tu B’Sh’vat is chosen as the cut-off date as most of the winter rains have passed and, as Rashi puts it, the sap starts to rise in the trees at this time of year. Although these laws were hardly observed for many centuries, the return to the Land means that they are widely applicable in modern Israel.

Other than agricultural laws, there are few formal practices associated with Tu B’Sh’vat. However, in recent centuries, a number of forms of celebration have emerged. Some sources mention that one should mark the day by eating fruit, thereby acknowledging the importance of trees in the Torah Weltanschauung. In some circles this is accompanied by psalms and songs of praise; in some Chassidic courts, Yom Tov clothes are worn and the Rebbe holds a ‘tisch’ – a festive table gathering with songs, food and words of Torah. Many people attempt to eat fruits from Israel, or at least the varieties (such as dates and pomegranates) for which the Torah praises the Land. The esoteric thinkers understand that the Divine blessing flows first to the Land of Israel and only then to other places in the world. So while in Europe, Tu B’Sh’vat is in the middle of the winter, the start of the spring season in Israel (as evident by the wakening of the trees from dormancy) is critical to the wellbeing of all humanity. The great Chassidic thinker Rabbi Zvi Elimelech records a tradition of praying on Tu B’Sh’vat for a beautiful etrog for the coming Sukkot. Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (Ari) understood that when one eats fruit on Tu B’Sh’vat, one should intend to rectify the error of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, who sinned by eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Even the precise number of fruits eaten is deemed significant; examples are 12 and 15.

In 16th century Sefat, the circle of kabbalists surrounding the Ari developed these ideas into a ‘Tu B’Sh’vat Seder’, not dissimilar from the more-familiar Pesach version. One enjoys certain types of fruits in the context of readings that express the philosophical and mystical aspects of the day. Apart from the fruits for which Israel is famed, fruits and nuts of various types are eaten, accompanied, à la Seder, by four cups of wine. The first cup is white wine, the second white with a little red, the third half white, half red, the fourth red with only a little white. As white wine indicates the latent and red wine the actual, the progression through the cups represents Man’s increasing capacity to maximise his potential as he grows spiritually, as well as our capacity to appreciate God’s design and greatness in the world. Fruits with inedible shells (such as nuts) are eaten first, then those with inedible stones (such as peaches), then those that are entirely edible (such as blueberries). This sequence too refers to development from potential to actualisation. The edible part of nut is completely encased by an inedible shell, representing the start of spiritual growth, in which potential is still deeply concealed by negativity. Peaches are mainly edible but partly only potential (the inedible stone). Blueberries are entirely edible, representing the world of complete actualisation.

A major goal of any Tu B’Sh’vat celebration is for the participants to gain a heightened appreciation of God’s bounty and the centrality of the Land of Israel in Jewish life.

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.

Sleeping In The Sukkah

A night in the garden

It might seem crazy, but there are people who sleep in a hut in the garden in October. We are familiar with the use of the Sukkah for Kiddush, family meals and even parties, but many Tabernacle enthusiasts go one stage further and camp out for the week of the festival.

Actually, the Talmud understands the main use of the Sukkah to be for sleeping. We are encouraged to teishvu k’ain taduru – live in the Sukkah in the way that we normally live in the house, which, of course, includes sleeping. Indeed, while a snack is permitted outside the Sukkah, one may not take even a short nap elsewhere. Of course, this only applies if the weather is dry; when there is enough rain to disturb the Sukkah-experience, one is not expected to live in it.

The Shulchan Aruch quotes this position on Sukkah-sleeping as normative. Its author, Rabbi Yosef Caro, lived in Sefat, where the autumn weather is generally clement. However, Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (Rama), the author of the Ashkenazi gloss to the Shulchan Aruch, lived in Krakow, where the climate is rather colder. He notes that only those few who are ‘scrupulous in observance’ sleep in the Sukkah.

In trying to justify the common practice, he points out that the weather is too cold! One is not required to remain in the Sukkah if it is appreciably uncomfortable. If, for example, the Sukkah is invaded by wasps, or (as has happened in Israel recently) the weather is unbearably hot, one is exempt from living in the Sukkah. The same applies to cold.

However, Rama’s preferred explanation is that married couples should live together in the Sukkah, just as they do inside the house during the rest of the year. For those with a prurient interest, the Be’ur Halachah rules that marital intimacy is permitted in the Sukkah. Since (at least in 16th century Poland), most families didn’t have a private Sukkah, sharing instead with neighbours, the lack of privacy made this impossible. Rama recommends building a private Sukkah to obviate this problem. This justification was by no means accepted universally; indeed it was roundly rejected by the Vilna Gaon.

Of course, even if one accepts Rama’s reasoning, in warmer climes (or even elsewhere, armed with a heater and sleeping bag) and especially with the advent of private Sukkot, not sleeping in the Sukkah is hard to justify. In fact, even in England and the US, there has been an increased interest in sleeping in the Sukkah, whereas in Israel it is extremely common.

It is worth noting that despite the halachic normalcy of sleeping in the Sukkah, members of some groups (Chabad, for example) follow the tradition not to, even in ideal circumstances. This is because they understand the intense, all-encompassing holiness of the Sukkah to be incompatible with the state of sleep. Conversely, other mystical thinkers consider sleeping in the Sukkah to be the ultimate surrender of even our subconscious to God’s care. Better hope it doesn’t rain!

A version of this article first appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. It is republished with permission.