Category Archives: Passover

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Seder 5776 Recap

 April 28, 2016

Seder 5776 Recap

Seder KearaGabriel and I were nervous until everyone was seated. The hotel was being very strict as to the number of participants we could have.

We had worked for weeks on the program, getting speakers, layout of the hall, placements and more. I had already consulted the previous year as to what is the minimum of the Hagadah that must be performed according to Jewish law. As people filled the hall there was a palpable energy in the air. For many years, the Seder had been exclusively for needy families and individuals, who all participated at no cost to them, many of them coming mainly for the meal. This year, we reserved many spots for those willing to pay (a subsidized fee). The mix gave it a much greater community feel.

Finally, most of the guests had arrived and we were ready to start. It is no simple thing to have your voice heard by 280 people sitting at their tables, and with no microphone. But we pulled it off. There were a few key principles:

  • Keep it short
  • Keep it moving
  • Keep it interesting
  • Keep changing
  • Sing whenever possible.

We sang the Shalom Aleichem for Friday night (each verse only once). Kiddush, check. However, the wine glasses were particularly big, and as per Jewish law I drank at least half of it. On an empty stomach I immediately felt it. We had ten washing stations in the hallway, which most of the guests used. Dipped the potato in the salt water, check. Broke the Matza, check. Sang Ha Lachma, check. Then our first speaker took the floor, young Mica Kreiner. She enthralled the audience with her succinct and powerful speech. I immediately noticed that more people paid attention when our guests spoke than when I spoke – guests speakers – good.

Ma Nishtana was sung with great gusto by children and adults alike. Sang Avadim Hayinu. Spoke briefly about the 4 sons, then talk from our next speaker, Marcos Israel, an eloquent and seasoned community leader. Sang Vehi Sheamda, performed the Makot in simultaneous Spanish translation and then the final guest speaker, community veteran Simon Lamstein with a moving tale of how an Annus (converso) family kept Pesach. At the point where we mention how in every generation an enemy rises to destroy the Jewish people, we remembered David Fremd z”l, who had been murdered in Paysandu, and sang his favorite song, Hine Ma Tov, emotionally.

Boisterous singing of Dayenu. Loud proclamation of Halleluyah. Massive declaration of “Pesach, Matza, uMarror.” 2nd large cup of wine. Now it really hit me and I’m starting to see double. I think I conducted the rest of the Seder half drunk, which might have contributed to its great success.

Everyone returned to the hallway to wash their hands, including a special guest, my friend Cardinal Daniel Sturla, the Archbishop of Montevideo, who sat next to me. I instructed the participants not to speak between washing hands and eating the Matza. Someone approached him after he washed hands to engage him in conversation and he signaled that he couldn’t speak. At least one person knew how to follow instructions well. He thoroughly enjoyed the Seder, participated fully and came with his own bright red kippah, which is used only by Cardinals.

People seemed to actually take the commandment of eating Matza seriously, as they did the Marror and Hillel’s sandwich. Then came the main event most people were waiting for: dinner.

The catering by Burcatovsky was superb. After the first course of gefilte fish, delicious chrein and a selection of salads, I had everyone stand up and exit the hall. In the hallway, the large crowd was blocked by a wall of blue (tablecloths). With suitable introduction the wall parted, allowing the Israelites to escape the pursuing Egyptians and make it back to their tables in time for a hot and tasty matza ball soup, as we sang Siman Tov Umazal Tov in celebration.

The main course was outstanding, of stuffed chicken, potato kugel and tzimes, with one participant claiming it was “the best chicken he had eaten in years.” This was followed by a delightful fruit salad concoction.

We ate the Matza of the Afikoman. Sang the beginning of Birkat Hamazon, had the 3rd cup (at this point I switched to a mixture of grape juice as I had trouble keeping my balance), sang Echad Mi Yodea fully, 4th cup (also a mix), sang Leshana Haba and released everyone to go home.

The responses of gratitude and appreciation were immediate. Many, many people approached me and thanked me for the best Seder they had experienced in many years. They were pleasantly surprised by what they expected would be a worse experience than what they might have had at home. The place was great, the food was fantastic and they liked the conduction and the program very much.

Though there are already plans to build on the success of this Seder and have an even better one next year, a part of me also prays as we do in the Hagadah: Beshana Haba’a Beyerushalayim. Next year in Jerusalem.

 

Pesach: Fear, Discomfort and Growth

Pesach: Fear, Discomfort and Growth 
freedom

What shall we be free of this Pesach? It is the holiday of Freedom, isn’t it? Most of us today live in democratic countries, with freedom of movement, of expression, of religion – so what other freedoms can we be seeking? What freedom can we suckle from this age-old celebration, this call-to-freedom, which is so fundamental to the Jewish people?

It turns out that Pesach has the capacity to free us, if we wish, from many things that enslave us in our daily lives. Freedom from materialism. Freedom from superficiality. Freedom from the meaningless and the trivial. However, I would like to focus on a specific angle: the freedom to be a better version of ourselves.

What’s wrong with the current version, you may ask. Plenty. We wouldn’t be human otherwise. But the celebration of Pesach is a clarion call to wake up, to discard the fears and habits that hold us back and to improve ourselves.

First we start by eliminating all of the Chametz, all of the leavened products, from our homes, our sight, our possession and our lives. Besides for the practical aspects, it is also a dictate to eliminate the extraneous things from our lives. Our lives quickly get cluttered with extra weight. We need to shed that baggage, existentially become lean and focused, leave the hang-ups of the past, for a meaningful present and a rewarding future.

Then comes the diet of Matza, simple, humble, clean, nothing added, just the basic ingredients of life, flour and water. We need a diet of simple to get back to our personal basics. What are the things that really matter? What is the direction my life is taking? How is my family life? How is my spiritual life? How is my internal life? Does my life have meaning? Or am I stuck in a certain course, a certain behavior and don’t have the strength and the courage to change course? Will I wake up at the end of my life filled with regrets, for those roads I didn’t take?

Then comes the Marror, the bitter herbs. Sometimes, many times, even most times, we need to bite the bullet. We need to take the hard road. Comfort and security are not always the optimal choices. Sometimes we need to leave our comfort zone to grow. Sometimes we need to overcome our fear, our distaste, our placidity, to truly awaken, to truly reach moments of meaning which in turn hold the hope to leading lives of greater meaning.

However, life is not all struggle and discomfort. We have to celebrate! We are the children of Kings and Queens, Prophets and Sages. We have a special relationship with the Creator of the world. And on this day, he took us, our people out of the bondage of Egypt to be his emissaries in this world: To be a light in the darkness; the joy amongst the somber; the serious amongst the frivolous; the revolutionary amongst the complacent; the respectful amongst the unruly; the meaningful amongst the meaningless. We drink. We feast. We dine like kings. We lean on our sides and remember the tribulations of the past and the hopes for the future. We are noble. We cannot forget that either.

But often we do. We get stuck in our own personalities. We have an innate fear of changing who we are. We have a practiced cynicism; a quick dismissal of the pure and the noble. We believe that reality demands a certain harshness, both with ourselves as well as with others. Someone good? It can’t be. They must have ulterior motives. They must have some benefit we don’t see. For us to be so good? We would be branded hypocrites. That is how corrosive and destructive our fear of our better selves has become. We do not allow ourselves or others to reach those heights.

That is part of what Pesach is coming to cure. Get back to basics. Don’t fear change or leaving your comfort zone. We can be noble and altruistic. We can sustain it, beyond pangs of conscience. We can return to lives filled with beautiful meaning and purpose. We can be that light, that joy, that seriousness, that respect, that revolution.

And when we all remember that, when we all act on it, then we shall truly celebrate Pesach together next year in Jerusalem.

Chag Kasher Ve’sameach!

Ben-Tzion

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Well-traveled Pesach Food

April 13, 2015

Well-traveled Pesach Food

macaroons

Short version: Luggage Found

Long version below:

For those who read my Casablanca post, you will know that my luggage was lost en-route. The bulk of that particular bag contained Kosher for Passover food for me to enjoy during the holiday. While not of terrible urgency, it is certainly a time-sensitive product, becoming highly desired for Pesach, but much less attractive immediately afterwards.

As fate would have it, on the last day before the final day of Pesach, I received a call that my long-lost bag had been located, but would only land that evening (when it would already be the holiday and I could not travel to retrieve it). Yesterday, Sunday, I finally retrieved my possessions from the airport, just a few hours after the completion of Pesach.

Everything was there, though no longer in pristine condition. It seems it had quite a journey. To recount: After departing from Tel-Aviv my bag landed in Istanbul where it waited several hours for its next flight. Unannounced, the bag was forced to stop in Casablanca, where who knows how it may have been manhandled. From there it crossed the Atlantic to arrive in Sao Paulo. However, traumatized from accompanying me, it decided to escape from my presence, removed its identifying tag and grabbed a flight to Santiago de Chile. There it enjoyed its view of the Pacific Ocean and the mountains and volcanoes surrounding the city. However, eventually, despite its best efforts at escape and subterfuge the authorities tracked the bag and forcibly put it back on a flight to Sao Paulo. It just couldn’t blend in as a Chilean bag. Resigned, the bag cooperated and deemed it time to be reunited in Montevideo.

The bag had enjoyed a two week vacation from me, and the results were readily noticed. Crumpled, wrinkled, smushed – it obviously did not travel well, despite its globe-trotting escapade. The prized Kosher for Passover food just didn’t have the same allure after Pesach.

One of the many unforeseen blessings of not having my bag (I’m sure there are many, though I have trouble enumerating them) is that I was transported to the Pesachs of my youth, where the food selection was minimal. I remembered palatatively, viscerally, Pesach. It is curious that one needs to travel to Uruguay to feel Pesach.

In Israel, in New York, in the many beautiful hotels and resorts around the world that cater to Kosher-eating Jews, the menus are so rich, so varied, the baked goods so bread-like that there is little to remind one of Pesach besides the barely eaten Matza at the table. There is something unrecognizable about our modern-day Pesach. I ponder this as I munch on stale coconut macaroons.

Adventures of a Chief Rabbi: Pesach Preparation, Experience, Quality

April 6. 2015

 Pesach Preparation, Experience, Quality

group seder

 

There is a communal Pesach Seder that has been sponsored by a local family for a generation. Last year, was the first year the patriarch of the family, who had initiated this noble tradition, was no longer counted amongst the living. In his honor his children and grandchildren continued the sponsorship and attended the Seder in full-force.

I had the distinct honor of leading that Seder. Over the years, the Seder became almost the exclusive venue for the needy and the infirm. Their main interest seemed to be the food. Immediately after dessert, 200 participants performed their own Exodus from the proceedings, leaving a handful of die-hard Hagaddah readers left.

This year, the sponsors decided to upgrade the level of the catering, hiring perhaps the best Kosher caterer in Montevideo. They also very generously donated beautiful Hagaddot – last year’s Hagaddot were ancient, poorly constructed (no page numbers and pages out of order) and insufficient.

I also came prepared.

After understanding first-hand the nature of my clientele and their interests I went on the offensive.

I consulted with my Rabbi in Israel as to what is the absolute minimum of the Hagaddah that needs to be said. I printed out a guide as to the page numbers we would be covering and handed it out to everyone. At the beginning of the Seder I announced that I would make a deal with the participants that were eager to leave immediately after dessert. I would shorten the event if they agreed to stay 15 minutes after dessert. They nodded their agreement.

We made Kiddush and drank the 1st cup of wine. We washed hands (not enough washing stations – note for next year). We ate the Karpas. We broke the Matza. We sang the popular songs. I made the youngest person at each table stand for Ma Nishtana.

We were 250 people in a large hall. 30 tables. Three long rows of 10 tables each. I divided each row into “Pesach”, “Matza” and “Marror” and had each section practice screaming it. When it came time to declare Pesach, Matza and Marror, the hall shook from the force of everyone yelling it. We did the plagues. We sang Dayeinu. We drank the 2nd cup, washed for the Matza (biggest critical path – must have more washing stations). Ate the Matza, ate Marror, ate the Sandwich and had a sumptuous meal.

I made a point of visiting every single table at least once, if not twice. The people were ecstatic with the Hagaddah, the service and especially the food. For some of them, it was likely the best meal they’ve had in years. There were a number of families that paid to participate. There were some families with young children, as well as lone elders, disabled and social services clients. We hosted a Russian-Israeli engineer who was visiting from Nigeria to work on a Uruguayan natural gas project. We also had the emissary of the Keren Kayemet together with his wife.

I got to field a variety of questions and issues, including why the Kosher chickens this Pesach had more feathers, one drunken crasher that needed to be kicked out and advising the guests that the Hagaddot were not gifts and to please not steal them from the premises.

My highlight and I think as well for many of the participants was Crossing the Sea. Between the main course and dessert I forced everyone to stand up. Then I marched them out of the dinning hall into the smaller foyer. I got four volunteers to hold blue tablecloths between them. They created a wall in front of the crowd. I recounted how our ancestors in their escape from Egypt found themselves chased by the Egyptian army and trapped by the Sea. The Jews complained (what else is new?). God commands Moses to take the people forward. The two tablecloths suddenly parted and instead of a wall we had a passageway. Two hundred people marched through the shimmering blue passageway, surprised, excited, chatting happily as they made their way to freedom and dessert.

After an excellent dessert I was mildly surprised to see almost everyone sitting and waiting expectantly. I had them eat the final Matza, the Afikoman, a Rabbinic command, which they had missed out on last year. We then drank the 3rd cup of wine (my head was really spinning at this point, given the large goblets we were using). We sang Echad Mi Yodea, drank the 4th cup, sang Leshana Haba Beyerushalayim and then to the surprise of many, I dismissed the crowd and thanked them for their participation.

They didn’t need to skulk off while the service was still going on. They had made it to the end — perhaps for the first time in their Communal Seder history. Almost everyone came up to me smiling to thank me as well as for the wonderful food. Many said it was their best Seder ever.

Last year I was sick going in to the Seder, couldn’t talk by the end of it and it took me a while to recover. This year, I could still speak by the end, was feeling good (though tipsy) and actually made it to and participated in the end of another Seder I was invited to.

By the next day I was already getting feedback how people thought it was an amazing Seder, and how others already want to sign up for next year.

I suspect it was mostly because of the food, though I like to think the managing also had a bit to do with it. There is something to preparation and experience that improves the quality.

 

Pesach and Genetic Memory

Pesach and Genetic Memory

As a child, I would sometimes have nightmares. The nightmares were filled with emaciated, starving people, crowded into dark wooden barracks. And they were filled with fear. Fear of an unknown, unspoken, imminent, gruesome death. There was no hope. It was no longer a question of “if”; it was only a question of “when”.

My grandmother survived the extermination camp of Auschwitz. My grandfather survived both the German and then the Russian labor camps. They never spoke of their experiences. My father also never spoke of what little he knows of their Holocaust travails. Yet somehow, without a spoken transmission, I have always had a strong visceral aversion to all things relating to that dark period of our history.

I might have been influenced by a Jewish education that remembered and commemorated the Holocaust in somber annual ceremonies and educational activities. It might have been the few pictures and accounts we saw and heard from others. It might just be a heightened sensitivity to such a horrid past or just a hyperactive imagination. But for whatever reason, I have a strong irrational loathing of Holocaust matters.

Where do these feelings come from? Have I unconsciously inherited some of the trauma of my grandparents? Or can memories be passed on genetically? There are some scientists that now believe it is possible.

In December of 2013, Brian Dias and Kerry Ressler of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences of Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, published a tantalizing discovery in the scientific journal, Nature Neuroscience, (link to scientific article: http://www.nature.com/neuro/journal/v17/n1/full/nn.3594.html and link to the less technical version: http://www.nature.com/news/fearful-memories-haunt-mouse-descendants-1.14272#/b1).

They describe experiments where a mouse is exposed to a smell while simultaneously receiving an electric shock to its body. The mouse learns to fear that smell. What is surprising is that both the child and the grandchild of the mouse also exhibit fear of the smell, despite no previous encounter with the smell. This seems to prove some type of inherited memory, or at the very least sensitivity to an ancestor’s experience.

If in fact, humans also have the capacity to inherit memories from their ancestors, or at least some sensitivities, it may help us better understand some of the rituals in Judaism.

In Jewish custom and tradition, there is perhaps no ritual that aims to transmit some experiential memory as strongly as the Pesach Seder.

Pesach celebrates and commemorates the exodus of our newborn nation from the enslavement of the Egyptian empire more than 3,300 years ago. It was a momentous, transformative event in the history of the world, when one people was separated and removed from the midst of another, with accompanying miracles, plagues, terror, and destruction, including the divine annihilation of the Egyptian military, the strongest fighting force in the world at the time.

To remember our exit from the bondage of Egypt and the formation of our people, the Torah itself, in its recounting of the event, mandates a variety of actions that are meant to be repeated for generations and are critical components of membership in the nation of Israel. This is so much so, that one who does not fulfill some of the specific commandments of Pesach is considered as if they are “cut off” from the people of Israel.

The most famous commandment is the eating of the Matzah, the unleavened bread. We also have the eating of the Maror, the bitter herbs, the drinking of four cups of wine (or grape juice); the abstention from and removal of Hametz (leavened products) from our diet and our possession; the recounting and elaboration of the Exodus event at the family table. There is the explicit demand of the Hagada (the text we use at the Pesach Seder) to feel as if we ourselves escaped Egypt.

Can you imagine the taskmaster’s whip brutally lashing into your scarred back, reopening barely healed wounds, forcing you to inhuman feats of strength, though part of you is ready to die? Can you imagine the relief and the wonder when plagues start to hit your Egyptian oppressors, giving you, finally, the much prayed for break from the arduous enslavement? Can you imagine the sight of all your brothers and sisters, all your cousins and uncles, your entire tribe, the entire people of Israel getting ready to leave the cursed land of Egypt? Can you imagine the fear, the awe, the amazement, as you, together with your fellow escapees of the people of Israel have your back against the sea, with the entire Egyptian army bearing down on you, only to have the sea miraculously split, for you to walk on dry land within the sea and then to see the Egyptian army drowning at your feet? Can you imagine all of this? Can you talk about it? Can you convey this to your children? That is what the Pesach Seder is about.

If we say that on the Seder night we are reliving the events of the Exodus, then it hints at the possibility that we may, in some fashion, have lived through those events. What if memories somehow can be transmitted biologically? What if there is some momentous memory that our ancestors have passed down to us that is nestled deep within our subconscious? There would at the very least be some comfort, some familiarity, perhaps even a sense of déjà vu at certain reenactments. The Seder would serve to reinforce those memories. Those memories would continue to breed true in future generations.

At the Seder, our senses are exposed to a variety of memory triggers. We have the unusual but memory-stirring food, the strange but familiar aromas, the ancient time-worn liturgy, the ancestral songs, the Biblical rituals and all in the presence of family. If there is any holiday that demands the presence of generations together, of parents, children, grandchildren, it is the Seder.

There is something unique in the power of the Seder. It is perhaps our strongest anchor to our memories and connection to our past. It is the perhaps our strongest anchor for the demands, tasks and challenges of the future. Let us prepare ourselves well for our role as physical, spiritual and educational conduits of this great chain of our history.

Chag Kasher Ve’sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Bargaining with God

[First posted on The Times of Israel: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/bargaining-with-god/]

Ibn Ezra Exodus: Bo

Bargaining with God

“As I grow older, I pay less attention to what people say. I just watch what they do.” -Andrew Carnegie

The roots of commerce must be deeply ingrained in the human psyche. It has become second-nature to want reward or to give reward for products or services. However, when it comes to God, humans have a curiously different approach.

We will call to Him in a time of need. We will pray fervently for His help. We are so desperate for divine assistance that we start to promise things. “God, if you will do x for me, I promise I will do/be y.”

Some people take their promises to heart and those are often life-changing events. Many however soon forget their promises once the heavenly boon has been granted.

The Ibn Ezra hints at a more successful approach. He explains (on Exodus 13:8) that though we eat Matza on Passover to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt, in fact, the Matza was the final cause of our liberation. Eating Matza was amongst the first commands God gave the nascent Jewish people. Because they ate the Matza, because they obeyed the word of God, they merited the historic emancipation that created our nation.

God prefers to see those positive acts up front (cash) – He doesn’t always grant wishes based on promises for the future (credit).

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rachel and Ariel Tepperman on the birth of their daughter. Mazal Tov!

Everything is Timing

Ohr Hachayim Exodus: Bo

 Everything is Timing

 “Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.”

Carl Sandburg (1878 – 1967)

The Jewish laws have a love affair with punctiliousness. One minute a person can be fulfilling a commandment, but if you’re a minute too early or too late, you may warrant a death penalty (yes, harsh religion too).

In the story of the Exodus, the Ohr Hachayim (Exodus 12:17) brings our attention to one of many unusual verses:

“And you shall guard the Matzot (unleavened bread).

The Ohr Hachayim describes two time elements within the Matzo that we must guard for. One is that it needs to be baked within a very precise period of time (not more than 18 minutes) and it has to be eaten precisely on Passover. The Ohr Hachayim explains that the lessons contained within this verse refer to timing. Just as God was precise in the timing of the redemption of the Children of Israel from their Egyptian bondage, so too we must be precise in our timely performance of His commands to us.

While the above verse deals with Passover, the same can be said regarding the laws of the Sabbath, Yom Kippur, Prayer, Ritual Purity, Marriage, Festivals, and much, much more in Judaism.

For many aspects of the commandments, timing is not only everything, it is the only thing.

May we make correct and timely use of our time.

Shabbat Shalom,

Bentzi

Dedication

To Moshe Feiglin and Davidi Pearl. My choice of candidates for the upcoming Likud primaries and the Gush Etzion Regional Council, respectively. Don’t forget the vote. Use that time wisely!