Biblical Empathy at the exodus from Egypt

Bible tells of ten plagues that struck all Egyptian people in the battle between God and Pharaoh, culminating with “God smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt from the firstborn of Pharaoh to the firstborn of the captive in the dungeon and all the firstborn of cattle….there was a great cry in Egypt for there was not a house where there was not one dead.” The Egyptians hurried the Israelites away, giving them everything they asked for – jewellery, animals, clothing, gold, because they said “We are all dead”.

One can only imagine the grief, the terror and anguish of the Egyptians on that night, the night that we celebrate as “leil shimurim – night of vigil”, now Seder Night. As we celebrate and remember the story of our liberation, we are also observing the anniversary of these deaths, and on Seventh Day Pesach we will recall the deaths of the Egyptian soldiers, drowned as the waters closed over them while they pursued the escaping Israelites.

The bible tells the stories unflinchingly, recording the screams of the people facing their dead at midnight, the fear and distress of the Egyptian forces caught on the seabed unable to flee as the waters roll back.  It tells of the real human cost of our freedom. And Jewish tradition picks up this theme so that our observance of Pesach not only tells the story of the Israelites gaining freedom, but also the story of grief and fear experienced by those cast as our enemies.

The book of Proverbs tells us “when your enemy falls, do not rejoice” and rabbinic tradition reminds us to lessen any  joy gained at the expense of others. So we recite only half-hallel for the last six days of Pesach, we take out drops of wine at our Seder while recounting the plagues, and  remind ourselves that freedom  comes at a cost that we must never forget.

 

written for and first published by London Jewish News “the bible says what?” column March 2018

Seder and Simanim for Rosh Hashanah: a compilation of sources

Seder Rosh Hashanah

Usually translated as the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah means “the Head of the Year”. In biblical times it was called Yom Teruah – the Day of the Sounding of the Shofar; Yom HaZikaron – “The Day of Remembering”, and in Talmudic times it received the name Yom HaDin, the day of Judgement, and Rosh Hashanah.

For the Rabbinic Tradition Rosh Hashanah has a number of important themes. It is the anniversary of the creation of the first human beings – the sixth day of creation according to the story in Genesis. It is a Day of Judgement when we all stand before God and consider how we have been living our lives, and it is the day where we renew our covenant bond with God.

The tradition of eating symbolic foods, and of making a feast day, is based in a verse from Nechemiah:

Nechemiah 8:10 “ Then he said unto them: ‘Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions to the one for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our God; neither be grieved; for the joy of the Eternal is your strength.’

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר לָהֶ֡ם לְכוּ֩ אִכְל֨וּ מַשְׁמַנִּ֜ים וּשְׁת֣וּ מַמְתַּקִּ֗ים וְשִׁלְח֤וּ מָנוֹת֙ לְאֵ֣ין נָכ֣וֹן ל֔וֹ כִּֽי־קָד֥וֹשׁ הַיּ֖וֹם לַֽאֲדֹנֵ֑ינוּ וְאַל־תֵּ֣עָצֵ֔בוּ כִּֽי־חֶדְוַ֥ת יְהֹוָ֖ה הִ֥יא מָֽעֻזְּכֶֽם:

At Rosh Hashanah, our Sages suggest that we eat sweet dishes and avoid sour dishes.  This is mentioned as early as Talmud when Abaye (4th Century) named several foods for Rosh Hashanah because their Aramaic names resonate with good fortune and the end of misfortune. The Responsa of the Geonim (8th century) also mention this. Some scholars believe that the Jewish tradition of eating special foods at the beginning of the year to influence future events derives from Roman usage.

Said Abaye: Now that it has been said that omens are of significance, a man should make a regular habit of eating, (or of seeing)  at the beginning of the year, pumpkin, fenugreek, leek, beet and dates (Babylonian Talmud: Horayot 12a, Keritot 6a)

Rav Hai Gaon would say the blessings over the fruits and his students would take them home to eat. He would also eat honey on this occasion.

From Shulchan Aruch Chapter 583: Customary Foods to Eat The Night of Rosh Hashanah:

 One should be accustomed to eat on Rosh Hashanah:

Fenugreek  or Fennel (רוביא) which is a curly green plant called סילקא תמרי”.  When you eat fenugreek, you should say “may it be your will that our merits are multiplied”   יה׳ר שׁירבו זכיותינו

 Leeks (כרתי).  You should say, “… may our enemies be cut off” יכרתו שׂונאינו

 Beets (סילקא); and say “… may our enemies be smitten” יסתלקו אויבינו

Dates (תמרי); and say “… may our enemies be orphaned/bereaved” יתמו שׂונאינו

Pumpkin (קרא); and say “… tear up our (bad) decree and may our merits be brought before you”  יקרע גזר דיננו ויקראו לפנין זכיותינו

 

[There is the custom to eat apples in honey and to say “… may you bring upon us a sweet new year” תחדשׁ עלינו שׁנה מתוקה…” and such is our custom.  Some eat pomegranates and say “may our merits multiply like a pomegranate”.  It is customary to eat meat, oil/fat, and anything sweet. (Gloss by Moses Isserles]

  1. We eat the head of a lamb and say “may we be made into the head and not the tail” נהיה לראשׁ ולא לזנב” and “remember the ram of Isaac”  זכור לאילו שׁל יצחק

 [Some are careful not to eat nuts since nuts have the numerical value of sin.  Also, they cause a lot of gas, interrupting prayer.  We go by a river to say the verse “ותשׁליך במצולות ים כל חטאתינו. “and throw in the depths of the sea all of our sins…” Micah 7:19).   It is also our custom not to sleep during the day on Rosh Hashanah and this is a good custom.]

THE SEDER BEGINS WITH KIDDUSH

Blessing over the candles

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו, וְצִוָּֽנוּ לְהַדְלִיק נֵר שֶׁל (שַׁבָּת וְשֶׁל)  ליום טוב – יוֹם טוֹב. ׀

Blessed are You Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who makes us holy through the mitzvot and commands us to light the candles of (Shabbat and) Yom Tov

Kiddush (the blessing over the wine)

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הַגָּֽפֶן.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, borei p’ri hagafen.

Blessed are You Eternal our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who creates the fruit of the vine.

From Sh’nei Lukhos HaBrit by the late-sixteenth-century kabbalist Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, who wrote, ‘May humanity be enlightened in t’shuvah – returning to the right path – in saying these invocations; and may these things be fervently asked for with a whole heart.’ :

“MAY WE BE ENLIGHTENED THROUGH SAYING THESE BLESSINGS, AND MAY WE ASK FOR THESE THINGS FERVENTLY AND WITH A WHOLE HEART”

Eternal God, as the New Year begins, we have come together to pray.

Yet each of us stands alone in Your presence.

Each of us comes before You with special hopes and dreams;

Each of us has a prayer no one else can utter;

Each of us brings a praise no one else can offer.

Each of us feels a joy no one else can share;

Each of us has regrets which other cannot know.

And so we pray:

If we are weary, give us strength.

If we are discouraged, give us hope.

If we have forgotten how to pray, teach us anew.

If we have been careless of time, forgive us.

If our hearts have been chilled by indifference,

Warm us with Your presence, and inspire us

With the glowing spirit of this holy night.    From Machzor Ruach Chadasha

 

 

  1. Challah

Uncover the challah and say:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, הַמּֽוֹצִיא לֶֽחֶם מִן הָאָֽרֶץ.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, hamotzi lechem min ha-aretz.

Blessed are You Eternal God, Sovereign of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the earth.

 

  1. Apple in honey

Pick up a slice of apple; dip it in honey, and say:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הָעֵץ.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam, borei p’ri ha-eitz.

We praise You, Eternal God, Sovereign of the Universe, Creator of the fruit of the tree.

Then add:

Y’hi ratzon milfanecha, Adonai Eloheinu v’Elohei avoteinu v’imoteinu, shetchadesh aleinu shanah tovah um’tukah.

May it be Your will, Eternal our God, that this be a good and sweet year for us”

Eat the apple dipped in honey and say:

Y’hi Ratzon, May it be Your Will, that as this apple is round, so should our year go full circle.

 

 

  1. Blessing for a special occasion

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְי  אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הַעוֹלָםָ שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה

Blessed are you Eternal our God, sovereign of the universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us and brought us to this time.

 

  1. DATES. תמר Related to the word תם —to end.

Take a date and recite:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, בּוֹרֵא פְּרִי הָעֵץ.

 

 

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Sovereign of the universe, who creates the fruit of the tree.

After eating the date, take another one and say:

 

יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ לְּפָנֶיךָמִ  רָצוֹן יְהִי

רָעָתֵנוּ מְבַקְשֵׁי וְכָל  וְשׂוֹנְאֵינוּ אוֹיְבֵינוּ  שֶׁיִּתַּמּוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ וֵאלֵֹהי

 

Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu she’yitamu oyveinu v’soneinu v’kol m’vaskshei ra’ateinu.

 

May it be Your will, Eternal our God and the God of our ancestors, that there come an end to our enemies, to those who hate us, and to those who wish evil upon us.

 

 

FENNEL רוביא Or else Haricots verts, green beans or black-eyed peas. Lubiya or rubiya in Aramaic, related to and a play on the Hebrew words “rav” (many) and “lev” (heart):

 

Take some fennel /beans and say:

יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ לְּפָנֶיךָמִ  רָצוֹן יְהִי

וּתְלַבְּבֵנוּ זָכִיּוֹתֵינוּ שֶׁיִּרְבּוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ וֵאלֵֹהי

 

Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu she’yirbu zakiyoteinu u’t’leivavenu.

 

May it be Your will, Eternal our God and the God of our ancestors, that our merits shall increase and that You hearten us.

 

 

 

LEEK כרתי  A play on the word כרת —to cut.

Take a leek and say:

 

יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ לְּפָנֶיךָמִ  רָצוֹן יְהִי

 

רָעָתֵנוּ מְבַקְשֵׁי וְכָל  וְשׂוֹנְאֵינוּ אוֹיְבֵינוּ שֶׁיִּכָּרְתוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ וֵאלֵֹהי

 

May it be Your will, Eternal our God and the God of our ancestors that our enemies, haters, and those who wish evil upon us shall be cut down.

 

Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu she’yicartu oyveinu v’soneinu v’kol m’vaskshei ra’ateinu.

 

 

 

 

BEETS סלקא Related to the word סלק —to depart.

Take a beet and say:

יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ לְּפָנֶיךָמִ  רָצוֹן יְהִי

 

רָעָתֵנוּ מְבַקְשֵׁי וְכָל  וְשׂוֹנְאֵינוּ אוֹיְבֵינוּ שֶׁיִּסְתַּלְּקוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ וֵאלֵֹהי

 

May it be Your will, Eternal our God and the God of our ancestors, that our enemies, haters and those who wish evil upon us shall depart.

 

Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu, she’yistalku oyveinu v’soneinu v’kol m’vakshei ra’ateinu.

 

 

 

GOURD/ SQUASH/ PUMPKIN  קרא Related to the word קרע —to rip apart and also קרא to announce

Take a gourd and say:

יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ לְּפָנֶיךָמִ  רָצוֹן יְהִי

 

זָכִיּוֹתֵינוּ לְפָנֶיךָ וְיִקָּרְאוּ דִּינֵנוּ גְּזַר רוֹעַ שֶׁתִּקְרַע אֲבוֹתֵינוּ וֵאלֵֹהי

 

Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu, she’tikra roah gezeira dineinu, v’yikaru l’fanecha zakiyoteinu.

 

May it be Your will, God and the God of our ancestors, that the evil of our verdicts be ripped, and that our merits be announced before you.

 

 

 

POMEGRANATE רימון

Take the pomegranate and say:

יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ לְּפָנֶיךָמִ  רָצוֹן יְהִי

כָּרִמּוֹן מִצְוֹת מְלֵאִים שֶׁנִּהְיֶה אֲבוֹתֵינוּ וֵאלֵֹהי

 

May it be Your will, Eternal our God and the God of our ancestors, that we be filled with

mitzvot like a pomegranate [is filled with seeds].

 

Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu, she’nihiyeh m’lei’im mitzvot ka’rimon.

 

CARROT  גֶזֶר the Hebrew word for carrot ‘gezer’ is similar to ligzor, to decree, so we ask that God judge us with a positive decree. Also in Yiddish the name for carrots “mehren” means to increase, so we ask God for a blessing of plenty. The carrots are cut to look like golden coins.

  

יְהִי רָצוֹן מִלְפָנֶיךָ יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ  שֶׁתִּרְגֹז עָלֵינוּ גְזֵרוֹת טוֹבוֹת

Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu, she’tirgoz aleinu g’zeirot tovot

May it be Your will, Eternal God and the God of our ancestors, that you decree for us good outcomes.

   

 

RAM’S HEAD ראש כבש  (or the head of a cabbage or lettuce can be used)

 

יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ לְּפָנֶיךָמִ  רָצוֹן יְהִי

 

לְזָנָב וְלֹא לְראֹשׁ שֶׁנִּהְיֶה אֲבוֹתֵינוּ וֵאלֵֹהי

 

Yehi ratzon milfanecha Adonai eloheinu v’elohei avoteinu, she’nihiyeh l’rosh v’lo zanav.

 

May it be Your will, God and the God of our ancestors, that we be a head and not a tail. (A leader and not a follower)

 

 

Let us ask ourselves hard questions, for now is the time for truth.

How much time did we waste in the year that is now gone?

Did we fill our days with life or were they dull and empty?

Was there love inside our home or was the affectionate word left unsaid?

Was there real companionship or was there a living together and growing apart?

Were we a help to our partner or did we take them for granted?

How was it with our friends: were we there when they needed us or not?

The kind deed: did we perform it or postpone it?

The unnecessary jibe: did we say it or hold it back?

Did we live by false values?  Did we deceive others?  Did we deceive ourselves?

Were we sensitive to the rights and feelings of those who worked for us?

Did we acquire only possessions or did we acquire new insights as well?

Did we fear what the crowd would say or speak out against injustice?

Did we mind only our own business or did we feel the heartbreak of others?

Did we live right?  And if not…

Then have we learned and will we change?

Jack Riemer

 

A Key on the Seder Plate: Remembering those who are detained indefinitely while their applications for asylum are being processed.

keysforfreedomImagine the fear of being subject to indefinite detention. No way of knowing how long you will be there,” feeling like you have been put into some sort of human storage facility” (Ajay from Freed Voices).  Imagine trying to keep your sense of self, already damaged by the treatment you have received earlier in your own country, the torture and abuse you have fled, leaving behind family and home in an attempt to save yourself.  Imagine the dangerous journey to freedom, the cold and the heat, the hunger and the insecurity, the anxiety for those you have left behind, the fear of what the future will hold.

Imagine then arriving at a country of sanctuary, hopeful, grateful, ready to work hard to create a new home and make new relationships, to build a good future. And then imagine the bureaucracy, the suspicion, the black hole you fall into as you try to do all the things that will bring a new start. Imagine the xenophobia, the misery, the violence of those who are losing all hope. Imagine that your innocence is questioned, that being locked up without any time structure is seen as normal. Imagine the limbo you find yourself in, no end in sight, nothing to hold on to. In 2015, 255 people had been detained for between one and two years, 41 for over two years.  But these figures exclude the many people who are held in prisons under immigration powers, so the true figure is likely to be significantly higher.  Detention is justified as a way to deport people, but the majority of people detained for more than a year are not ultimately deported.

There is no clarity or transparency in the process. It just grinds on slowly – at least you hope it is grinding on – how would you know if you are not forgotten?  How do you hold on to your humanity when others see you only as a statistic, and a hostile statistic at that?

As one detained asylum seeker said:    “In prison you count the days down to your release, but in detention you count the days up and up” (Suleymane from Freed Voices”)

In 2015 official figures report that almost three thousand people were placed on suicide watch, eleven of them children.  And the figures for suicide attempts inside these centres is going up. The mental health of detained asylum seekers becomes further fractured by the fear, the lack of any clear process or time structure, the prison conditions in which they are held.

As Richard Fuller MP said at an interfaith event hosted by Tzelem and Rene Cassin in the House of Commons yesterday (20th April 2016) “the system is costly, it is inefficient, and it is unjust”. It costs £70 thousand a year to hold someone in detention in Colnbrook detention centre – money that could be used for their rehabilitation and to facilitate their entry into society.

The UK is the only European country with indefinite detention for asylum seekers. The immigration bill is coming back to the Commons with many amendments from the Lords, one of which is to set a time limit of 28 days. As we go into Pesach, our festival of freedom, let’s do all we can to remember and to hold in our hearts and minds the frightened people held in indefinite detention in our own country. Put a key on your Seder plate and pledge to work for the freedom of all people to live in security and peace, to work for the ordinary and common desire we all share to be able to get on with our lives without fear.

Musings – what other foods might we put onto a seder plate?

It is becoming common now to have an alternative seder plate with foods to remind us about the importance of the festival themes. So there is an orange to represent the alienated and isolated Jews, be they women, gay, transgender… There is the olive to remind us of the need for peace in the world, and specifically the need to make peace between the Israeli and Palestinian inhabitants of the Land. There is the fairtraid cocoa bean and also the tomato, to remind us of the modern slavery endured by others in order that we have such products cheaply… There is the cup of water filled for Miriam the prophetess who is credited with providing water in the desert.

Image I was asked last year what else I might choose to put on a seder plate, and here is my response:

I would choose a pomegranate to be on my Seder plate as a reminder of the many different strands of my Judaism and the fact that I am free to have a complex layered understanding of tradition. The pomegranate is one of the seven species the bible tells us about growing in the land of Israel, (the shivat haminim), fruits which are traditionally eaten on Sukkot, a full half year from Pesach, a reminder of the connection to the Land to which I remain spiritually attached. It was said to be one of the fruits brought back by the spies to demonstrate the fertility of the land – a tempting luscious fruit that can only be eaten sensually, as Song of Songs reminds us.

Tradition tells us that a pomegranate has 613 seeds – equivalent to the mitzvot, and I particularly like the chutzpah of such a statement and that fact that we remember it while knowing that it is not remotely true. I like that the mitzvot are likened to the jewelled seeds, and the implication of richness and nourishment within them, while remembering the hard pip within each seed that can be both irritation and pleasure, and that can stay with one long after the juicy flesh has been taken. And I like the way that pomegranates are so useful in so many ways – as health food, as astringent, as spice and decoration, as traditional remedy for any number of ailments right through the body, as drink and paste and marinade. It prompts me to think of the multi-faceted ways Judaism is expressed, from the traditional covenantal relationship and discipline of mitzvot, to the loose warmth of ‘kitchen Judaism’ as people respond to the remembered smells of the different festival foods though the year.

Bible tells us that Aaron wore a special garment as high priest, and it was decorated with alternate bells and pomegranates on the hem, so that when he moved the sounds of these objects clashing would be heard and people would know he would be safe – indeed the bible is starkly clear – “so that he will not die”. This brings me from the sacrificial system of Biblical Judaism right into the modern world of Jewish community – people will pay attention to how others are, particularly those who are vulnerable. They will notice if they haven’t seen or heard them, and do something so that their lives are sustained and preserved. The pomegranate is the standard bearer for communication in community.

Another tradition tells us that the forbidden fruit eaten by Eve in Eden was not the apple (a later pun on the Latin ‘malum’ to mean both bad and apple) but the pomegranate. If it is truly the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, it would be a potent reminder at Seder that we have choices in what we do, a freedom in our lives with consequent responsibilities. We cannot accuse others for our not having achieved what we know we should have, or take refuge in the modern day ‘slavery’ to routine. The pomegranate would challenge us –“know what is important, do what is right”.

A pomegranate is similar in shape to a grenade (indeed its name in both English and Hebrew reflects this) and so it would be a salutary reminder that even that which is beautiful and health giving could easily become dangerous and destructive in the wrong circumstances, another warning on the Seder table to remind us that our Judaism can either sustain us in living well or in living selfishly and without care or thought for the other among whom we live. Choose Life! says the bible, but both blessing and curse are set before us and it is our freedom to decide which way to go.

And finally – the best way to eat a pomegranate is to cut it into two pieces, turn each upside down in one hand and hit it with a wooden spoon so that the seeds fall into a waiting container. A satisfying if difficult thing to do well, a metaphor for much of the Jewish world one might think. But the best bit comes last – once the Seder is over and a home must be found for the objects on the Seder plate, to eat a wonderful juicy fresh pomegranate must be the best end to the ritual I can think of!

From Purim to Pesach – the flavour of slavery as we prepare for the scent of freedoms

By tradition the days from Purim to Pesach have a character all their own – that of mental preparation and of physical hard work. For if tradition tells us that Rosh Chodesh Adar brings with it increasing joy, we know that it also sounds the starting pistol in the race to make everything ready for Pesach.

There are those who search through every book on their shelves, for crumbs fallen as the reader fed their body as well as their mind. There are those who begin at the top of the house and ruthlessly unearth every speck of leaven from the pockets of jackets hanging in wardrobes to the linings of handbags and suitcases put away after earlier outings.

There are some who ruthlessly scrub every surface be it inside or out, regardless of whether food could possibly come into contact or not, and there are those he maniacally turn out pot and pan drawers, cutlery containers and the shelves of artefacts kept unused just in case one might want a fish kettle/ pasta maker/ mousse mould.

From Purim to Pesach the traditionally minded Jewish householder experiences a little of the flavour of slavery our ancestors experienced in Egypt. The injunction for this story of redemption from slavery to become our own personal story is taken quite literally as servitude to the ideal of a sparkling clean leaven free home means sore back muscles, peeling fingernails and a pervasive smell of bleach on the fingers of the zealous leaven hunter.

There is, I know, a wonderful feeling of satisfaction when the work is done, the house a no-go zone for non pesachdik condiments, the shopping done, the Seder table set and the ritual foods ready along with the feast that follows. But alongside the satisfaction is the niggling sense that we need to remember that a clean house and communally enjoyed meal is not the purpose of the exercise. It is only the route towards considering the meaning of freedom.

We are to think ourselves beyond the physical and emotional labour necessary to prepare for it, in order to experience the meaning of the Seder in all its rich complexity. Having a nice meal with extended family, all work done for the moment, is not the point, however enjoyable it may be. We are having Pesach and the Seder meal in order to remember. The event is to memorialise through reliving and retelling a story that must belong to us. It is to remember our past and the formative narrative of our redemption by God. It is to make our memory something that does not simply narrate or contain the past, but something that causes us to be active in the present.

What are we doing when we memorialise, when we ‘remember’ the story of our people as if it is our own experience? We are ‘remembering’ in the sense of putting something together,‘re-membering’. We are putting together the experiences that formed us as a people and thinking about how they are still playing out in the world we live in today – both giving us our own identity as Jews and giving us understanding of all who share the experience of oppression and lack of freedoms. And from this understanding we begin to notice that we are not the only people who have a narrative of pain, we are not the only ones who are looking to be and to stay free.

The most repeated sentence in bible is “Remember you were a slave in Egypt”. Why so? It cannot be simply to remember painful times in order to dwell on them or be grateful that they are gone. It must be because action has to emerge from our remembering. Our remembering of what it was like to be oppressed and burdened has value only if we work to remove such oppression and trouble from the world we inhabit now.

These days we often understand this command to remember our own slavery as being the nudge that should give us empathy towards those who are suffering without freedoms – that we are somehow more likely to care for the downtrodden and the disenfranchised because of our own history and experience. But there is at least one medieval source which tells us almost the opposite – that once we have escaped our own pain it is easier to deny it, to treat others badly as we were once treated in order to  keep our distance from the experience. So the injunction to remember our slavery is repeated so often in our texts precisely because we are more, rather than less likely to ignore the pain of others. There are resonances in modern psychological thought – that we repeat the dysfunction of our childhood experiences in our own families, a vicious cycle that takes mindful and conscious effort to break out from.  If this is so, how much more so does the journey from Purim to Pesach and the climax of the haggadah narrative force us to remember our own suffering in order to help others whose suffering is happening right now.

            The festival of Purim allows us to explore the dark sides of our world and of ourselves. The festival of Pesach does the same. But it gives us something extra – the knowledge that if we work together we can change our world. At the exodus from Egypt not only the Jews escaped slavery – an erev rav  (mixed multitude of people) took the opportunity to escape too.  May our Pesach every year mean that other people reach freedom alongside us, that we are moved to make this happen, that we remember our own stories of oppression and work to ensure that for every person and every people there will be a time when they too will be able to recite their own story as historical narrative rather than present reality.  

 

Tu b’Shevat and a recipe for date and walnut loaf

In the first Mishnah of Rosh Hashanah we are told of four different New Years, and one of them is the New Year for trees, which falls on the 15th (ו “ט   Tet Vav) of month of Shevat. It sounds odd at first – why should trees have a new year? What do they do to celebrate it? Well sadly the trees do nothing to celebrate, this is a date set for tax purposes – we are commanded to offer certain tithes from our grains and fruit trees, firstly to give ‘Terumah’ an offering to God in thanksgiving which was originally brought to the Temple, then to offer three different offerings in different agricultural years – one share given to the Levites, one share to be eaten in Jerusalem, and one share to be given to the poor.  Also the age of a tree for the purposes of “orlah” (one is not allowed to eat the fruit from a tree in its first three years) was counted using Tu B’Shevat. The criteria as to which year a fruit fell into for tax purposes included which year it was formed in, and the critical date was the 15th of Shevat. Why this date? Because in Israel it was understood that the trees begin to grow on this date, coming out of their winter dormancy and beginning to form flowers and fruits.

While for a long time after the fall of the Temple the minor festival of Tu B’Shevat was effectively not much practised except in some liturgical amendments, it was not totally forgotten and there was an Ashkenazi custom to eat the different fruits and grains of Israel on the day “in honour of the significance of the day” and so grapes, figs, pomegranates, dates, olives, wheat and barley were all consumed especially on this day.  In 16th Century Sfat in Northern Israel the Kabbalists who had gathered there connected the trees and fruit of the land with their own mystical tradition which used the idea of a Tree of Life with roots in the divine space and its branches in our world. They developed the kabbalistic Seder we know today. And of course return to the land and a renewed connection with the agricultural cycle has given Tu B’Shevat a new impetus in Jewish life today. 

Trees have always been special in Jewish tradition, and fruit trees most of all. In bible the first thing that God does is to plant a garden within which are trees of all kinds and of course those two particularly special fruit trees – the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (the fruit of which was eaten by Adam and Eve) and the tree of Life (whose fruit was specifically protected from being eaten by the expulsion from the garden of Adam and Eve).  We are told that in order to imitate God, we too should plant our gardens and tend them well and planting trees in the Land of Israel is a mitzvah for us to this day. Rav Kook, the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine wrote that agriculture has the power to unify the Jewish people, and that our ideal Jewish society should be based on agriculture rather than on commerce. Commenting on Mishnah Bikkurim 3:3 which tells us that “All the professionals in Jerusalem would stand before them (the farmers) and inquire as to their welfare,” Rabbi Kook wrote: “….When the nation is morally depraved, when individuals’ eyes and heart are only upon money, these two types, those who engage in nature and those who engage in artifice become alienated from one another. The farmers, who dwell in villages close to nature, will be the object of disrespect on the part of the professionals who have learned how to live as a society divorced from nature.”  He worried that we would develop into a people who did not value the land and those who work it and who feed us all from it.

Fruit trees have a special place in our tradition – from the biblical injunction not to cut down fruit trees in times of war and siege to the extraordinary blessing to be said on seeing for the first time that year a fruit tree in bloom  “Blessed are You, Eternal our God, King of the universe, Who has ensured there is nothing lacking in the world, and Who created in it good creatures and good trees in order to benefit and give pleasure to people, we are reminded that our lives are dependent on trees and plants, that we are nourished and sustained by them and would quickly die if they failed. 

Tu B’Shevat comes to remind us to look again at how we value our trees and our land, and how we value those who work with the land in order to provide our food. It reminds us that we are all dependent on the natural world, that we must look after it and keep it in good order not only for our time but for the generations that follow. The midrash in Kohelet Rabbah tells us that God took the first human being around the Garden of Eden and said “See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are, and everything that I created, I created for you. Be careful. Do not spoil or destroy my world, for if you do there will be nobody who will come after you to repair it”

Recipe: My mum’s Date and Walnut Bread

½ cup roughly chopped walnuts

½ lb chopped dates

1 egg

1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda

¾ cup boiling water

½ cup sugar

1 ½ cups self raising flour

Large knob of butter

 

Put dates, bicarbonate and butter into a bowl and pour on the water

Add beaten egg, flour etc and mix together

Bake in a loaf tin for one hour, 180C

(first written for wimshul cooks on wordpress in 2012)

 

 

Pesach thoughts

The story of Pesach is one of renewal. Originally it seems that there were two festivals to do with the Spring – there was Pesach which was a celebration of the new lambs, and there was Chag HaMatzah, a holiday which celebrated the first grain harvest of the year and the using up of the old. At some point, (maybe around 1250 BCE when the Exodus is said to have taken place), the two Spring festivals became one.  The verb ‘pasach’ means to jump over (the way that lambs jump about in the fields) so it became used to describe how God passed over the houses of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and did not kill the first-born people inside. The word Matzah came to be understood as the unleavened bread that was eaten because of the haste of the departure of the Hebrews from Egypt.  As ever, Judaism is adept at taking what already exists in the ritual lexicon and reinterpreting it, renewing it in order to bring about a different significance and meaning.

Pesach was a primarily a festival which rejoices in the Springtime and the hope of renewal and revitalisation it brings. It is also now an historical festival, marking the real beginnings of the Jewish people, something that will find its culmination in Shavuot. And Pesach is also a festival dedicated to ideological and the spiritual renewal– it is a festival of freedom, a promise and foretaste of ultimate redemption.

With Pesach and the Spring we are at a new beginning. The physical world is waking up and there is a sense of possibility. As Pesach approaches we deep clean our homes, removing the hametz – the old and fermented goods. The process symbolises a kind of spiritual new beginning, the removal of the stale from our lives and the opportunity to start again. 

Preparation for Pesach is a very physical activity, from Purim onwards we carry on an extreme version of spring cleaning, doing what used to called in my Yorkshire childhood ‘bottoming’ (as in I’ll get to the bottom of that wardrobe / pile of papers / overstuffed kitchen drawer). The sheer upheaval is enough to make one tired, yet it also forces a sort of internal reflection.  While making free with the bleach and the various cleansers the mind can sort of disengage and has time to think.  In fact it is not unlike the way prayer works – as the mouth and body follow the prescribed words and choreography of the siddur, the mind finds itself free to range further.

But Pesach isn’t only about the physical renewal nor the spiritual replenishment it brings – Pesach requires us to locate ourselves in our ancient narrative, to tell our story once more and place ourselves within it. To make certain our children are also listening and hearing it and taking it for themselves. Hence the rituals around the Seder, many of which are designed to attract the children, to pique their interest and draw them in. Without the telling of the story and the conversation about it that follows, Pesach is simply a Springtime ritual in order to celebrate the new agricultural year that follows the cold and forbidding winters. Without the discussion and dialogue about what the story is teaching us about freedom then and now, we are simply following an empty ritual.

 A gloss on the word Pesach teaches that besides being the verb for jumping over, it can be divided into two Hebrew words – ‘peh’ meaning mouth, and ‘sach’ meaning talking or conversation. The whole point of Pesach is to talk, to tell, to sing, to describe, to discuss, to argue examine and consider what the meaning is for us now. If we celebrate only with ritual, if we simply plonk ourselves down at the nearest Seder and work our way through the haggadah, we will be doing this most powerful of festivals a disservice. Pesach, the preparation time leading up to it, and the Seder itself all sanction conversation between the generations – to tell the story again and again, to understand what it means in our day and age. So as we prepare the ritual items for Seder, we invite friends and family to join us in the retelling of the haggadah , and merge the stories of springtime lambing and first grains with the stories of exodus from Egypt and God’s dramatic re-entry into our history. We ask ourselves the contemporary meaning of our story. We talk to each other about what we each think about freedom, what we see in the world,  and we consider what we can do about what we see. That is surely worth all the work in preparation for the festival, and it gives us our work for the year to come.