Wednesday, April 25, 2012

I can't take any credit for this. My colleague, Rabbi Michael Latz, posted this on his Facebook page for today--Yom HaZikaron. I found it so moving that I wanted to share:

Day 18. Spiritual Guidance for an upside down world. Yom HaZikaron-

remembering everyone who has died in the quest for peace, a poem by Yonatan

Gefen, translated by  Amichai Lau-Levie.

Setting Up Camp

We found a place for the kitchen tent and a place for the supplies,

we made a campfire, with twigs of terebinth and wild berries,

we pitched tents and called for inspection

and we drank up the canteens and jugs.

we replenished our provisions and prepare our battle packs

and set guards to scare away the dread.

near the North Star, without praise or psalm

We discovered many ordinary stars.

We analyzed the battle, counted casualties,

encouraged the two who were wounded, so lightly,

we found a place for the kitchen tent and a place for the supplies,

we found a place for the medical tent, and a place for the stretchers,

but not a place where officers can cry.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Road to Nowhere: On Wildernesses and the Omer

I'll start with a confession. I failed. Again.

There are seven weeks, 49 days, between Passover and Shavuot. These days are known as the Omer. In later Biblical times, they were the days of the barley harvest. Later, the rabbinic sages understood them to be the days we wandered in the desert, between Egypt and the revelation at Sinai. Jewish tradition asks us to count the days of the Omer; each night--from the second night of Passover until the night before Shavuot, a blessing is said and a formula recited. But, the tradition also says that if you miss a night, you are 'out of the game.' You may continue to count, but you are no longer obligated--nor entitled--to say the blessing.

I am a terrible Omer counter. Despite the fact that I actually find deep spiritual meaning in the practice, it is not something with which I grew up, and it is not something I have naturally--or even with challenges--assimilated into my Jewish practice. I am, because of various professional obligations around Shavuot, acutely aware of its arrival....but not once have I made it to the end of the Omer without missing a night. Not once have I been able to say the blessing every night from Passover to Shavuot.

I just spent the last 24 hours in Detroit, learning from and speaking with the foot soldiers and generals in the fight to reclaim, to revitalize, to recreate this American city. If you want to know more about why I was in Detroit, read here, but as I sit on the plane, reflecting on the experience, I gave some thought to why I am finding counting the Omer so difficult this year.

When I was a little kid, the month of June was often marked by toilet paper. I would set up a countdown, with a certain number of squares tacked to the wall. Each day, I would tear one off, until the day arrived: the first day of camp. I still remember the excitement, and the anxiety, that came along With the dwindling number of squares, and it was immediately to this countdown that I turned when I first learned about the custom on counting the Omer. Yet, then--as now--I recognized something significantly different. The Omer is not a countdown, it is a count up. When one counts down, there is automatically a fixed end point; you start from there and work backwards. But when one begins counting, one doesn't necessarily know the endpoint. Did our ancestors, wandering through the desert, know where they were going and when they would get there? Do I?

Meeting with these union officials, policy makers, and visionaries in Detroit had me asking the same questions on a larger scale. What does it mean to start the journey without knowing the endpoint? How do you keep the morale, the vision, the hope alive when it could be 49 days, months, or years before you reach your 'destination?' And, how do you even know what your destination is?

And, of course, as I asked those questions....I realized, that's life. And that's particularly life in the difficult times--in the times of unemployment, of family transitions, of financial or spiritual or emotional or mental or physical uncertainty. And I think that's partly why it is so hard for me to count the Omer this year in particular. It's really, really hard to start counting when you don't know when you get to stop. It's really, really hard to envision Sinai when you're lost in the desert. It's really, really hard....and maybe that's why the rabbis asked us to do it. Maybe they knew that, just like our ancestors, we too would get lost in the wilderness; after all, they were in their own political and spiritual wilderness. 

The notion of Shavuot as zman matan Torateinu, the holiday of revelation, was a rabbinic one. Perhaps they created that link to Passover, that midpoint on the journey to the Promised Land, to remind us that at any moment, Sinai could be just on the horizon, that one more day could bring the revelation....a revelation. To remind us that even when we don't know where we are going, or when we'll get wherever that is......we can start moving.

I won't finish the Omer with all its blessings this year. But, I might continue counting nonetheless, and maybe, just maybe, I'll find a blessing along the way.

Hayom shivah asar yom, she-hem shnei shavuot u'shlosha yamim la-Omer.
Today is seventeen days, which is two weeks and three days of the Omer.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Wine Stains, Meaning, and Memory--thoughts on the Haggadah

Lots of people are talking about Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander's haggadah. A congregant emailed me a few weeks ago, asking what I thought. Here's what I told him. It's physically beautiful, and I think it is an important addition to the canon of American Jewish writing. And I will never use it to lead a seder. First, because it is big and unwieldy, but more importantly-- because it is masculine in its translation and in its theology.

Mr. Safran-Foer said of his new guidebook: "In the foreign country of our faith, our need for a good guidebook is urgent." I agree with him, but I'd like to think that in our faith, today, our guidebook would take more more meandering paths, allowing for more of us to experience Passover, its lessons, and its themes.

For all of my problems with his translation, I think that Mr. Safran Foer's op-ed about the haggadah in general is beautiful, and a must read. And below are my thoughts on that very topic, written for Passover last year.


The Sarajevo Haggadah was handwritten and illustrated in 14th century Spain, probably as a wedding gift, and along with its owner, was likely part of the expulsion from Spain in 1492.  The full details about how and when it arrived in Sarajevo are not known, but it was sold to the Bosnian museum in 1894 by a Jozef Kohen. Legends abound about where and how it managed to survive and also unknown is where it was during all of those five centuries. In 2001, a team of international experts undertook a restoration project on this 600+ year old manuscript—with one provision. Restorer Andrea Pataki, of the Austrian Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, would not do anything to remove the wine stains or other signs that bear witness to the use of the storied haggadah at seder tables across the centuries. “That's something you never touch, she said. It's part of the book's history.”

The haggadot that will grace our seder tables this week may not quite have the illustrious history of the Sarajevo Haggadah, but the wine stains they bear are, for us, just as significant. Not only part of the book’s history, those wine stains are a part of our history; like the haggadah itself, those stains incorporate collective and personal memory.

Memory is powerful. My colleague, Rabbi Josh Feigelson, recently wrote an essay about Jewish education. He wrote:

I often find that we focus on the word “meaningful.” We feel a need to make everything meaningful, which leads us to want to make meaning explicit, to teach and tell folks, “Here’s what this ritual means.” But I have often felt that perhaps the word we should be equally if not more focused on is “memorable.” We should be helping people engage in memorable Jewish experiences…

In every survey of American Jews, one fact always stands out to me: There is no holiday more widely observed than Passover. I am no sociologist, but I would posit that the reason for Passover’s enduring relevance is its ability (whether it is your first or your one hundredth seder!) to seamlessly fuse memory-making and meaning-making. But Passover is not the only Jewish experience that can be successful in doing this. In Jewish living, we hope that you make memories, but that you find meaning as well.

But the haggadah and its stains are not only repositories of our own memories. First and foremost, it is a collective story, a chance for us to place ourselves within the larger narrative of Jewish life. This year, we are celebrating our collective story in a new way. We invite you to celebrate the illustrious history of this special place in a new way.

Lastly, among the many things those wine stains represent, they represent relationships. They remind us of the time we laughed so hard at something Uncle Murray said that we knocked over our wine; they remind us of the people who have shared our seder tables over the years. Relationships, like rituals, can help us make both meaning and memories. And even if you don’t have an Uncle Murray, or don’t have a personal repository of Passover memories; we hope you can create them—the memories and the relationships--as you grow your Jewish life and Jewish community.

Wishing you a wonderful and sweet Pesach, filled with meaning, memories, and not too much spilled wine.