Bob Schwartz

Tag: Passover

Refugees and the Bread of Affliction

Passover begins this evening. As part of the festival, many Jews will be eating the flat dry bread of matzo at seder tonight; some will eat it for the next eight days. Matzo is known as the bread of affliction, commemorating the hardship of slavery and the hardship of the flight to freedom.

As we break bread—flat or otherwise—we might also remember the plight of millions of refugees around the world. To help ease their affliction, we might also consider contributing to UNHCR.

חַג שָׂמֵחַ

Chag sameach.
A joyous festival.

Buddha Bemidbar (In the Wilderness)

Buddha Bemidbar (In the Wilderness)

Moses is missing
In his place
Siddhartha sits.

Israelites are numbered
Can he free them?

The way in the wilderness
Is unpassable.
Can they pass it?

Too dark to sea
The waters give way
To dry ground
As if they were not there
From the beginning.

Walk on
The mountain next.

Heschel for Passover (or Any Time)

A reader reminds me that a year ago, I posted about including readings from Abraham Joshua Heschel in the Passover seder (A Heschel Haggadah).

You will find the readings I included in last year’s seder below. As regular readers know, I’ve mentioned Heschel a few times in this blog, and more frequently in my conversations and discussions. He may be the greatest of modern masters of Judaism or of any spiritual traditions. He is not always easy, but he is accessible, inspirational, mind-and-soul-stirring at a depth that lasts. His is not fast food; it is a long, rich, delicious meal that nourishes you for a lifetime and that you never forget—kind of like a seder. In addition to Elijah, who we expect at every seder, Heschel would be so welcome any time.

Along with the readings below, I urge you to take a look at some of the collections of readings available and then, if you like what you find, check out some of the many books (I am particularly fond of The Sabbath, but there are so many worthy ones).

Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings

The Wisdom of Heschel

I Asked for Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology  (“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”)


THE MEANING OF EXISTENCE is experienced in moments of exaltation. Man must strive for the summit in order to survive on the ground. His norms must be higher than his behavior, his ends must surpass his needs. The security of existence lies in the exaltation of existence.

This is one of the rewards of being human: quiet exaltation, capability for celebration. It is expressed in a phrase which Rabbi Akiba offered to his disciples:

A song every day,
A song every day

 

THE TABLETS ARE BROKEN whenever the Golden Calf is called into being. We believe that every hour is endowed with the power to lend meaning to or withhold meaning from all other hours. No moment is as a moment able to bestow ultimate meaning upon all other moments. No moment is the absolute center of history. Time is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose periphery is nowhere.

 

THE WORLD COULD NOT EXIST at all except as one; deprived of unity, it would not be a cosmos but chaos, an agglomeration of countless possibilities … Life is tangled, fierce, fickle. We cannot remain in agreement with all goals. We are constantly compelled to make a choice, and the choice of one goal means the forsaking of another.

 

THE PROPHETS PROCLAIMED that justice is omnipotent, that right and wrong are dimensions of world history, not merely modes of conduct. The existence of the world is contingent upon right and wrong … The validity of justice and the motivation for its exercise lie in the blessings it brings to man … Justice exists in relation to a person … An act of injustice is condemned, not because the law is broken, but because a person has been hurt.

 

THE HEART IS OFTEN A LONELY VOICE in the marketplace of living. Man may entertain lofty ideals and behave like the ass that, as the saying goes, “carries gold and eats thistles.” The problem of the soul is how to live nobly in an animal environment; how to persuade and train the tongue and the senses to behave in agreement with the insights of the soul.

 

HUMAN LIFE IS HOLY, holier even than the Scrolls of the Torah … Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for man. The fear you must feel of offending or hurting a human being must be as ultimate as your fear of God. An act of violence is an act of desecration. To be arrogant toward man is to be blasphemous toward God.

 

TO PRAY is to take notice of the wonder, to regain a sense of the mystery that animates all beings, the divine margin in all attainments. Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live.

To escape from the mean and penurious, from calculating and scheming, is at times the parching desire of man … Prayer clarifies our hope and intentions. It helps us discover our true aspirations, the pangs we ignore, the longings we forget. It is an act of self-purification … It teaches us what to aspire to, implants in us the ideals we ought to cherish.

 

THE MOST MAGNIFICENT EDIFICES, most beautiful temples and monuments of worldly glory, are repulsive to the man of piety when they are built by the sweat and tears of suffering slaves, or erected through injustice and fraud. Hypocrisy and pretense of devoutness are more distasteful to him than open iniquity. But in the roughened, soiled hands of devoted parents, or in the maimed bodies and bruised faces of those who have been persecuted but have kept faith with God, he may detect the last great light on earth.

 

WHAT WOULD ART HAVE BEEN without the religious sense of mystery and sovereignty, and how dreary would religion have been without the incessant venture of the artist to embody the invisible in visible forms, to bring his vision out of the darkness of the heart, and to fill the immense absence of the Deity with the light of human genius? The right hand of the artist withers when he forgets the sovereignty of God, and the heart of the religious man has often become dreary without the daring skill of the artist. Art seemed to be the only revelation in the face of the Deity’s vast silence.

American Freedom Seder 2017: Where There’s a Pharaoh There’s a Wilderness

It is still a while until Passover (evening of April 10), but not too early to recommend holding or attending a Freedom Seder this year. Recommended for all people—even if you’re not Jewish, even if you’re not religious. All that’s needed is faith in freedom.

Freedom Seders are a tradition that began in the 1960s, relating the Passover journey to other struggles—race, gender, justice, war, etc. It may be a long way and a long time from Egypt to the Promised Land. But we can get there.

It’s possible you believe there are some special struggles going on right now in America. Which would make it a good time to gather with like-minded friends and family, brothers and sisters, and as a community share a meal and recall that the struggle is never easy or short (and might include some flat, dry bread), but that there is a better nation at the end of the journey. One hopeful, undiscouraged step at a time.

Matzo: Dealing with Eating the Bread of Affliction

Organic Spelt Matzo

Matzo is referred to as “the bread of affliction,” symbolizing the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, who didn’t have time to allow the bread to rise as they fled through the wilderness. Talk about flatbread, this is the ultimate.

If you are observing the Passover and avoiding bread for the next week, or even if you’re not, some thoughts about eating matzo.

  1. Put away the toaster. Save the counter space. You won’t need it for bread. And you can’t toast matzo. Even if you could, it would slip through the slot.
  1. Make matzo brei for breakfast. Matzo brei is kind of a cross between pancakes and French toast, made by soaking matzo in water, mixing it with eggs, and cooking it in a frying pan. Delicious all year round. You don’t have to Jewish and it doesn’t have to be Passover.
  1. Try all the varieties of matzo, or at least the ones that don’t seem a little extreme (Organic Spelt, I’m looking at you). Once upon a time there was only plain matzo, just like there used to be plain white bread. Now everything is mixed in: Egg, Yolk-Free, Egg and Onion, Spelt, Mediterranean, Whole Wheat, Garlic and Rosemary, and Everything (which actually doesn’t have everything, just garlic, onion and poppy seeds. Go figure.)
  1. Don’t try to make sandwiches. At the seder, the tradition is to eat a tiny sandwich of horseradish and haroset (a sweet paste representing the mortar of the building the Jews slaved on) between two pieces of matzo. The great sage Hillel supposedly created this sandwich, and his name is attached to it. Even this tiny sandwich throws matzo crumbs all over the place. A full-size matzo sandwich is not a good idea. No matter how wise Hillel was.

Happy Passover.

A Heschel Haggadah

 

Heschel Stamp

Each Passover is an opportunity to craft a special theme and text for the seder meal and celebration. The haggadah is the guide to the seder. It always incorporates the traditional order and elements that have been a part of the seder for centuries—most especially the retelling of the exodus story. Beyond that, one can follow the same exact text year after year, or can get creative. In recent years, creativity has been a hallmark of Passover and the haggadah.

It is a happy struggle for me to determine which haggadah to use for seder. Happy because it is a way to deeply consider Passover, the seder, and the group of guests joining us at the table. Our library has haggadot from years past, both those in published book form and those made up of pages printed and compiled ourselves. (I am a little partial to the one that includes scenes from The Ten Commandments movie.)

After weeks of study, and with a previous suggestion about using FDR’s Four Freedoms as a possible theme, I’ve decided to make this a seder featuring the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel. I’ve mentioned Heschel a few times in this blog (and mentioned his daughter, Professor Susannah Heschel, too). I’ve run out of superlatives to recommend his work. So as I’ve said before, he is the great Jewish thinker and writer of the 20th century, and that is only the start. He is also a model of enlightened religious thought in action. He marched with Dr. King in Selma—as can be seen in the famous photo, Heschel looking every bit the bearded biblical figure. And it was to Heschel’s seder that Dr. King planned to go in April 1968, when he was gunned down in Memphis.

In that same vein, here is a message that Heschel sent to President Kennedy in 1963:

To President John F. Kennedy, The White House, June 16, 1963

I look forward to privilege of being present at meeting tomorrow at 4 p.m. Likelihood exists that Negro problem will be like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody does anything about it. Please demand of religious leaders personal involvement not just solemn declaration. We forfeit the right to worship God as long as we continue to humiliate Negroes. Church synagogues have failed. They must repent. Ask of religious leaders to call for national repentance and personal sacrifice. Let religious leaders donate one month’s salary toward fund for Negro housing and education. I propose that you Mr. President declare state of moral emergency. A Marshall Plan for aid to Negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.

Now begins my review of Heschel’s volumes, looking for small excerpts that will convey the essence of Heschel and the holiday, but won’t make the seder too long. For me, if we just took part in the seder, ate a great meal, and read Heschel aloud all night, it would be fine. Let’s see how that goes.

For an introduction to the words and works of Abraham Joshua Heschel:

The Wisdom of Heschel

Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings

I Asked For Wonder: A Spiritual Anthology

“Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.”

Four Freedoms Passover

Four Freedoms - Norman Rockwell

Passover is coming. The first seder meal will be held on the evening of Friday, April 22. Even for non-observant Jews, this holiday is frequently a time for participation. One estimate says that 80% of Jews attend some sort of seder.

This year I suggest we go way back for a Passover theme. Back to FDR’s Four Freedoms from 1941.

The overall order of the seder (“seder” actually means order) has been standardized for centuries—the blessings, the rituals, the symbolic food and drink, the songs, and most of all, the recitation of the events of the exodus from Egypt. But the text and the form and the meaning have been subject to remixing, some of it pretty adventurous.

In the modern era, the freedom embedded in Passover has been extended to all sorts of concerns. During the time of the civil rights movement, the obvious connection was made between ancient and modern oppression, and the struggle to end that oppression.

In 1969 Rabbi Arthur Waskow created a Freedom Seder, making this connection more direct. He explains:

One of my earliest and warmest memories is that of my father reciting the Dayenu, the chant of rebellion, liberation, travail, and the creation of a new law that is the story of Passover. One of my latest and warmest memories is that of working with my wife and children to make of our own Passover Seder something that would speak to our deep concerns about our selves and our world.

Our efforts became sharper and more urgent in 1968, when the Passover came one bare week after the murder of Martin Luther King, the April uprising of black Washington against the blank-eyed pyramid-builders of our own time, and the military occupation of our city. Who in
those days could forget that the prophet King had remembered Moses?– had spoken of how he had been to the mountain-top, had seen the promised land, but might never enter. … And then we realized that in 1969, the third night of Passover, April 4, would be the first anniversary of King’s death.

Since then, Passover has become the platform for seders centered around all kinds of affliction, oppression, aspiration and freedom. Women. LGBT. Poverty. Peace. The Earth. And so on.

One example of this concerns a new tradition that is widely practiced. The seder plate contains a number of foods symbolizing the story of the Egyptian captivity and the fight for freedom. Susannah Heschel conceived of one more thing to add:

So how was it that the orange found its place on the seder plate as a Passover symbol of feminism and women’s rights?

Susannah Heschel, daughter of Abraham Joshua Heschel and a scholar in her own right, says that at the height of the Jewish feminist movement of the 1980s, she was inspired by the abundant new customs expressing women’s viewpoints and experiences and started placing an orange on the seder plate.

At an early point in the seder, she asked each person to take a segment of the orange, make the blessing over fruit and eat the segment in recognition of gay and lesbian Jews and of widows, orphans, Jews who are adopted and all others who sometimes feel marginalized in the Jewish community. She encouraged each guest to spit out the seeds in their orange segment to reject homophobia and hatred. The orange suggests the fruitfulness for all Jews when everyone in our community is a contributing and active member of Jewish life. (From The Wandering Is Over Haggadah, JewishBoston.com)

On January 6, 1941 President Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered an historic State of the Union Address. The world was increasingly gripped by brutal tyranny. On top of that, America was still recovering from the effects of the Great Depression. And it seemed almost impossible for the U.S. to stay out of the global fight for freedom.

In the address, FDR summarized what freedom meant—and why we would fight for it, here and abroad. That statement became known as the Four Freedoms–Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, Freedom from Fear:

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.

The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.

The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor—anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium. It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation. That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.

Some will point out the hypocrisies and ironies of the statement. At that point in American history, millions were not free and were under attack because of their race, religion, and economic circumstances. Maybe the biggest irony of all is that the final call for disarmament and the final phrase “crash of a bomb” ultimately faced the reality of a horrific war and an unthinkable bomb to end it.

But as a goal and aspiration, the Four Freedoms still ring out. Maybe we can ring them this Passover.

The posters above are by Norman Rockwell. Maybe more famous than FDR’s speech are the propaganda posters that Rockwell painted based on the Four Freedoms. As with the speech, some complain that Rockwell’s America was over-idealized and far too white. Probably so, and the images themselves may look quaint and, from today’s perspective, backward looking.

To counter that, following are a couple of works from Ben Shahn, an illustrator who was contemporary with Rockwell, artistically his equal, culturally his opposite:

Ben Shahn was born in Kovno, Russia on September 12, 1898 to Joshua Hessel and Gittel (Lieberman) Shahn and died on March 14, 1969. A Jewish-born artist, muralist, social activist, photographer and teacher, he is best known for his works of Social realism…From May to June of 1933, Shahn served as an assistant to Diego Rivera while the artist executed the infamous Rockefeller Center mural. By circulating a petition among the workers to keep the mural on display, Shahn played an important role in fanning the controversy.

Among his many famous works, in 1930 Shahn created a series of watercolor drawings for a Passover Haggadah. In 1965 these drawings were incorporated into a complete haggadah. Here, in an illustration called The Bread of Affliction, the hand of God leads the people out Egypt:

Bread of Affliction 2 - Ben Shahn

And here is a bit of Shahn’s later work, part of a series of union posters urging people to register and vote:

M25958-1 001
Happy Passover! Let freedom ring!

Passover and Freud

Moses and the Ten Commandments

What does Freud want? He might not want people attending a Passover seder, offering prayers to a God who isn’t there. But things are not that simple.

Sigmund Freud was a Jew by birth, an atheist by belief. He abstracted and analyzed religion as a powerful manifestation of powerful forces at work. But near the end of his career, he considered whether there was something in God that was more than a mere reflection of psychic need and dynamics.

In his final book, Moses and Monotheism, he suggests that while there is no God, the positing of one had forced the Jews—and all who followed on that spiritual path—to think and act differently. The gift of the idea of God was the imperative to transcend instinct and old ways, to make new and positive sense of the insensible, and to act accordingly.

Those in the Jewish communities will retell some version of the Moses story this Passover. But only some of those will have completely read the biblical account in the Book of Exodus. Even fewer will have looked beyond the popular stories to see what generations of historians and commentators have to offer.

One of those who does have something to offer is Freud. In Moses and Monotheism, he made a jump, if not a giant leap. Here is part of what Freud wrote (emphasis added):

How we who have little belief envy those who are convinced of the existence of a Supreme Power, for whom the world holds no problems because He Himself has created all its institutions!…We can only regret it if certain experiences of life and observations of nature have made it impossible to accept the hypothesis of such a Supreme Being. As if the world had not enough problems, we are confronted with the task of finding out how those who have faith in a Divine Being could have acquired it, and whence this belief derives the enormous power that enables it to overwhelm Reason and Science.

. . .

Let us return to the more modest problem that has occupied us so far. We set out to explain whence comes the peculiar character of the Jewish people which in all probability is what has enabled that people to survive until today. We found that the man Moses created their character by giving to them a religion which heightened their self-confidence to such a degree that they believed themselves to be superior to all other peoples. They survived by keeping aloof from the others. Admixture of blood made little difference, since what kept them together was something ideal the possession they had in common of certain intellectual and emotional values. The Mosaic religion had this effect because (1) it allowed the people to share in the grandeur of its new conception of God, (2) because it maintained that the people had been “chosen” by this great God and was destined to enjoy the proofs of his special favor, and (3) because it forced upon the people a progress in spirituality which, significant enough in itself, further opened the way to respect for intellectual work and to further instinctual renunciations.

. . .

In a new transport of moral asceticism the Jews imposed on themselves constantly increasing instinctual renunciation, and thereby reached at least in doctrine and precepts ethical heights that had remained inaccessible to the other peoples of antiquity. Many Jews regard these aspirations as the second main characteristic, and the second great achievement, of their religion….

It was this “respect for intellectual work” that Freud so appreciated. Freud may have seen himself as a sort of Moses, leading civilization from benighted antiquity to a new light and new heights. Just as religious innovation led Jews from the old ways to a new land, so he and psychoanalysis would lead to even further self-awareness and progress—without God, of course.

Whether or not you believe in God, Moses, or Freud, whether or not you will be sitting at a seder table this Passover, it can be a good time to consider old ways in a new light. According to Freud, the gifts of Moses are the tools to renounce instincts and move beyond mere legacy. If we are trapped as man or mankind, psychoanalysis and, yes, even a certain religious perspective might be able to liberate us.

Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is one of the most popular movies in America right now. Even with the film’s creative liberties, many of the faithful take the movie as cinematic validation of a biblical tale, just as The Ten Commandments was for an earlier generation. But some others of the faithful are bothered, as they should be, by a sense that there is something subversive going on.

Of course there is. Any retelling of our received stories can be subversive, if we are willing to investigate and recreate. In the passage above, Freud could not be clearer that for him the conventional belief in God stands in the way of reason and science. But he then begrudgingly admits that in the right circumstances, some good may and has come from it.

Moses on Krypton, Superman in Egypt

Mose & Superman
The story of the Exodus and Passover is a story of freedom, faith and return from exile. It is also a story about the universal question of identity: who am I?

According to the story told in the Book of Exodus, Moses is born a lowly Hebrew, a child of slaves. Set afloat by his mother to avoid Pharaoh’s slaying of the first born, he is found and given the Egyptian name Moses. He is raised as Egyptian royalty, though as a baby he is fed at the breast of his Hebrew mother.

It is never clear in the text when or how he first finds out about his heritage. We only know that he does discover that he is a Jew. He flees to Midian and marries Zipporah, who bears him a son. The name chosen for their son tells a story, the story of Moses and of the Jewish people. The name is Gershom, meaning “I have been a stranger in a foreign land.” (Exodus 2:22)

This famous phrase leads to a question: exactly which land is Moses a stranger in? Is he a Hebrew who has been a stranger in Egypt, despite living his entire adult life as a great Egyptian? Or is he an Egyptian suddenly identified with a people he never knew as his own?

A clue is found in the stories about Moses as a speaker. Twice Moses tries to tell God that he is speech challenged. When directed to address the Jews, Moses claims to be “slow of tongue” and “heavy of mouth.” When told to speak to Pharaoh, Moses describes himself cryptically as having “uncircumcised lips.” Some interpreters attribute this to an actual speech impediment, perhaps stuttering. But a different view is that Moses is trying to tell God something sensible: Moses does not speak Hebrew very well. And why should he speak Hebrew, when he has spent his life as an Egyptian?

At this point, we leave Egypt for a trip to Cleveland in the 1930s. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster are a couple of nerdy Jewish teenagers with a love of science fiction and a talent for comic book art. They had grown up with the stories of the Bible, including the tales of Moses. Consciously or not, they mixed these together into a comic book creation that would become a modern cultural icon: Superman.

In the Siegel and Shuster version, there is no infant floated off in a basket to avoid his death, and no Egyptian princess to find and adopt him. Instead, the Kryptonian infant Kal-el (a version of the Hebrew phrase Kol El, “the voice of God” or “all of God”) is rocketed off in a space capsule to avoid the planet’s destruction. The capsule crashes on Earth, and he is found and adopted by the Midwestern couple, Ma and Pa Kent.

The biblical infant is raised as an Egyptian and given the Egyptian name Moses; Kal-el is raised as an earthling and given the Midwestern name Clark Kent. The time will come for both of them, Moses and Clark Kent, to reclaim their true identities in order to tap into great power, to become super-men.

But this reclaiming of identity is not without difficulties. The man born Kal-el struggles with his disguises: Is he Superman pretending to be Clark Kent, or is he Clark Kent who has a second identity as Superman?

These particular stories of exile and identity are only two of many such stories in history and in popular culture. It is a story that repeats itself again and again, not only among the Jewish people in ancient and modern times, but among all people in all times and circumstances.

Think of the Jews in the midst of their Exodus, chronically uncertain about who they were and where they belonged. As much as they wanted to follow their faith and their leader to a promised place, their adopted home for generations—even if not by choice, even under the oppressor’s thumb—had been Egypt.

Think of Moses, caught between two worlds. Yet the struggle for identity turns out to be a source of strength for him. All that he accomplished could never have happened if he had been only an Egyptian or only a Hebrew. It was through his being both, and through his trying to resolve that seeming contradiction, that the events of the Exodus transpired.

Think of ourselves. We may believe that by staying in one place and simply holding tight to an unchanging way, we can maintain an identity free of questions, and we can avoid being strangers in a foreign land. But that is impossible. Those around us are constantly changing and the world around us is constantly changing. The land we think of as familiar becomes foreign to us, and we find ourselves strangers in it.

Being a stranger is unavoidable, and it can be a good thing. Like Moses, we discover who we are only when we question who we are in the particular place and time we inhabit. Along with the divine direction that he heard, it is this burning question of identity that drove Moses to do great things. It is a valuable lesson for all of us as we retell the story of the Exodus this Passover.