Pesach 2: Freedom in the form of a tweet

Something from Law and Tradition: ‘On Freedom’

Judaism believes deeply in freedom, freedom of choice, freedom of conscience, freedom of movement, freedom of expression. But nowhere does Judaism proclaim unconditional freedom as an end in itself. ‘Freedom from’ is always connected to ‘freedom to’; there is no freedom without purpose. Thus, even as Moses repeats God’s demand to Pharaoh ‘Let my people go’, he invariably adds ‘so that they may serve Me’. Freedom without purpose is not the final destination.

This can be seen in the different meanings of the Hebrew word avad. The noun eved often means a slave, as in the sentence ‘Avadim hayyinu – We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt’. The verb la’avod means to be a slave. In its causative form, leha’avid, it signifies ‘to enslave’, as in the verse ‘The Egyptians forced (vaya’avidu) the Children of Israel into harsh slavery’ (Exodus 1:13).

Yet at the same time that very same word means ‘to serve’. We are enjoined to serve God – le’ovdo – ‘with all our heart and with all our soul’. The Children of Israel are ‘avadai, My servants’, says God, ‘whom I brought out of Egypt’. Judaism understands its central spiritual purpose as the service of God.

The intriguing way in which this one word holds both meanings of ‘servitude’ and ‘service’ suggests an important truth: the only route out of slavery may indeed be service. We are enjoined to struggle for freedom in every domain of life, including freedom from tyranny, injustice, cruelty and prejudice. However if that becomes the desire for unfettered freedom to do as we will, it is liable to lead us back into a different kind of slavery, to the tyranny of our own self, its appetites, whims and fears. The people I’ve met who truly feel free and happy are those who have found meaning in service. They are not slaves, because they follow their path willingly; rather, they are servants because they commit themselves to a higher goal. That goal, in my experience, always involves a higher end: the care for people, or nature, or beauty, or art; in short, the service of God through the service of life.

Something from History

Mavis Hyman recalls Seders in Calcutta from her childhood: ‘My lasting memory is that the Seder was conducted in three languages, first in Hebrew (because that’s the tradition), next in Arabic (for my father, whose parents were from Baghdad) and in English (for my mother and the younger generation, who were taught in the local Jewish girls school.)’ And how long did all this take? ‘Oh hours, Jonathan, hours! But we had a strange competition: who stayed up – in my parents’ generation – the longest. It was a great merit to stay up late. But what we loved so much was the Charoset, which we made from date juice. The dates were soaked, boiled down, then squeezed (which is easier if you have a press).’

So even the very language of the Seder reflects our wanderings and migrations.

Something Practical

I have never tried this (yet!) but it might make an interesting opening to a Seder to invite participants to prepare in advance their personal definition of freedom in the form of a tweet. A tweet is limited to 140 characters, including spaces; so if ‘brevity is the soul of wit’ the responses should prove engaging. You might allow a photograph as an attachment, or even a reference to a poem or quotation. The ‘tweets’ could either be offered all at the same time to create a dialogue. After all, there is a strong case that the Seder is based on the Greek symposion, a Platonic debate on a pre-set topic. Or they could be shared one or two at a time at key points during the Seder, whenever the subject of freedom appears in the Haggadah.

Pesach 1: Seder in the bomb shelter

Something from law and tradition

The Mishnah, edited c. 200CE, gives a clear impression of what the Passover Seder would have been like in Temple and immediate post-Temple times. It states:

They should not provide even the poorest person with less than the four cups of wine. (Mishnah Pesachim 10:1)

One can easily be so preoccupied with one’s own needs and arrangements that one fails to see the basic concerns with which others are struggling. This Mishnah instructs us to take note of the needs of even the poorest. We are not allowed to begin our own festive Seder until we have helped enable everyone else to do the same. The Chafetz Chaim comments on the practice of providing the poor with flour for baking matzah, noting that we also need to give them sufficient fuel to bake it, and that this is part of what the Torah stipulates when it requires us to give ‘sufficient to supply [the poor person’s] need’ (Shulchan Aruch: Orach Chaim 429:1 note 4)

That need is immense today. Our community is particularly concerned for those escaping the fighting in the Ukraine. (We are investigating how best to support a local food kitchen. Fleeing westwards, people arrive destitute in already overstretched and impoverished communities. The world is more riven by fighting than perhaps at any time since WW2 and there are millions of refugees. Our responsibility begins with our fellow Jews, here, in Europe, Israel and everywhere. But it does not end there, and we are forbidden to sit ‘idly by’. Whether we can contribute more, or less, we are not at liberty to do nothing.

How can we sit down to eat ‘the bread of poverty’, as the matzah is described, without concern for the poor?

Something from history

‘I remember Seders in the bomb shelters’, our friend Olga Deaner told me. ‘I must have been very young’. She made a circle with her arms, indicating the small circumference they must have formed down there in the shelter. ‘We kept the Seders very short. But one night the Blitz was really awful, the bombing was very heavy and for some reason we didn’t go down but stayed at the Seder table. My grandfather, who spoke Yiddish and was a very gentle man opened the door. He looked up at the sky, shook his fists and let forth a stream of swear words at the Luftwaffe’. Olga laughed. ‘I couldn’t follow a thing, but I understand the language was very choice. We didn’t think he even knew words like that’.

(If you have a personal or family memory you’d like me to share, please tell me!)

Something Practical

The Haggadah (literally means ‘the telling’, isn’t just refer to a ‘story’. It’s a story of stories; stories woven round a story. The central thread is clear: the account of how we were slaves in Egypt and God redeemed us from bondage. But wound around it are the stories of the Jewish People throughout the ages, and of other peoples also (think of where and by whom ‘Go down Moses…’ was sung). The Haggadah becomes real when we weave the stories of our own lives and times, of our own journeys, fears and struggles for freedom into it. Ask your friends, guests, children to help you do that this Seder night…

Festival of welcoming

It’s in the air again this morning, the same sharp freshness which brings the daffodils out of the cold earth and opens the buds on the trees. It smells of the vigour of life, life which yearns for freedom, adventure, love.
I always think of Pesach as ‘the festival of spring’ and the long hand-sore process of scouring, scrubbing and dusting until not one crumb of leaven, no scab of encrusted chametz, remains on the most fat-spattered hob or the bottom-most, least-examined drawer, as in truth a festival of welcoming, a throwing open to the fresh new air of every inch of the kitchen and every cob-webbed cell of the brain. Yes, this crazy spring cleaning is definitely hard work, but let it be a joy-driven chore.
When it’s done, and the old oak-wood dining table and the new pine kitchen table smell of steam and wax, even an old life feels fresh and ready to recount its adventures once again. It’s time for the Haggadah, the Telling: tell us the story of freedom, the story of ‘Tell old Pharaoh “Let my people go!” the story in which are included all the struggles against tyranny, cruelty, injustice and moral ignorance that ever have been and shall be, because it’s the story of how God calls out to liberty and goodness within every heart, even in the heart of hearts of the most recalcitrant, with signs and wonders which are often as simple as the straw in the beak of a nest-building bird and the new leaves on the trees.
Slavery, says the story, is not the last word; persecution is not the final act; hatred is not the heart’s desire; cruelty is not what the conscience wills. It is not these which make the earth in spring smell sweet and the souls of children sing.
On this journey we are driven by a great force of life. It is this force which in the nineteen-thirties and forties carried the vision of our people beyond the murders and death trains and gas ovens of Nazi Europe to the founding of a new land with the same indomitable vitality as animated the prophets when they spoke of how the children would return to their borders, the ruined places would be rebuilt and war be learnt no more. It is this spirit which made my father’s uncle Alfred write from Jerusalem to his brother in New York in 1943 congratulating him on the birth of a baby daughter and for being the ‘only one in the family to think of the future’, and which led him to take up pen again to say joyfully in the spring of 1945 that ‘right now the entire country is in flower’.
One day, if we listen to it, that spirit and energy could lead us all, even those who now see each other as enemies, to liberty and safety. That hope is at the heart of the Jewish faith, and all true faith.
This is the journey on which we must try to guide one another, whoever we are, leaving nobody behind. When we travel it, although we do so for ourselves, we never do so for ourselves alone but for each other and for everything that lives:
        In me are people without names,
        Children, stay-at-homes, trees.
        I am conquered by them all
        And this is my only victory.  (Boris Pasternak)


‘Don’t you lose your faith?’ I was asked yesterday. What kind of faith wasn’t specified in the question, faith in people, faith in God, faith in life itself, that the buds on the oak trees will open and the blossom emerge on the grey apple twigs?

I can’t explain why my final answer is ‘no’. It isn’t even something willed or deliberate, but more of an intuition, a trust and a hope.

Yet it’s not been a good week. Yesterday the appalling slaughter at the Bardo Museum in Tunisia penetrated all the news. The attack was shocking, despicable and closer to home than it may sound. ‘We went there; it’s a wonderful museum’, said a friend. Our thoughts are with the families of those killed, with the wounded and with everyone who will suffer as a result of this abomination.

Nearer to home, I attended the dinner of the Community Security Trust and listened to the powerful speech by the Prime Minister in which he condemned without reservation all forms of violent extremism, racism and anti-Semitism in the name of the central democratic, liberal and pluralist values which characterise this country. But what made the deepest impact on me was the CST’s film documenting incidences of attacks here in the UK against school children, synagogues, Jews who happened to be passing by, even the gravestones of the dead. Why does hate seem to spring eternal in the human breast?

Regarding Israel, only one person accosted me enthusiastically so far, hoping to share his delight with the results of the election. They point to the centrality of questions of fear and security, understandably so. But they don’t open the shutters onto a vista of hope.

So why not lose heart?

Perhaps it is because of the overwhelming and irresistible force of life itself. The last days of winter still offer their growing buds to the first warmth of spring. The daffodils and cyclamen are no less beautiful. The blue tits are picking up the dry stalks from the grass and making their nests. These things make the spirit sing.

It’s also because of people. It’s the love, courage, striving and hope which I witness every day, even when that hope is frustrated and the love sometimes turns to pain. I was sitting with a man going through old family photographs, a ritual of solace and solidarity. ‘Look at that!’ he said, placing next to me a picture of a child in a garden and smiling for the first time that hour. Life isn’t in the end about power, honours or even accomplishments. It’s the about the impacts of companionship and love; that’s what tells our deepest story in the end.

Tonight brings the new moon of Nisan, the month of redemption, bringing Passover and the memory of the Exodus of Egypt. Once again we will wind our own lives and their meanings around that ancient narrative as it carries us from slavery to freedom, from degradation to dignity and from hopelessness to hope. Once again we will ask how we can travel further on the road to redemption, how God’s light can guide us, and how we can liberate others and be liberated by them.

We shall never give up hope.

Now the eyes of my eyes are opened

In a week which has brought the first bright sunlight of approaching spring, making the daffodils glow golden, two short meditations have somehow stuck in my mind.
I saw one of them on a poster outside Friends House opposite Euston Station yesterday: ‘Live simply. Find God in every person’. I’m not sure if the two sentences were part of the same idea or if each was sufficient to itself; but it was the second which caught my immediate attention. It was on a Quaker poster, yet the idea was familiar from the very first chapters of the Torah in which we are told that God makes every human being in the divine image and breathes into them the sacred breath of life.
‘Find God in every person’: it’s not so easy. What about when they annoy one? Or when one simply hasn’t got the time? Or when they are so familiar that one takes them for granted? In fact, how often does one ever consider with respect to another person: how do I find God in you today? What would it even mean?
Thinking about it, how often does one ask oneself, ‘Where’s God in me today?’ I wonder what it would entail to experience the world like that. How might it make a mere few minutes feel different? I can’t imagine God would not want to notice something beautiful, like the purple crocuses, or those daffodils, or the hazel catkins. I can’t think God would want me to rush past another person without pondering who they are, what might be glowing in their imagination, what could be weighing on their heart.
Opposite the poster outside Friends House sat a woman with a pile of The Big Issue on her lap. I guess she may have been from Bosnia. She’d brought her own low plastic chair on which she’d placed a cushion to make her vigil less uncomfortable. In the ten minutes I stood waiting for the person I was due to meet I don’t think anybody stopped to say a single word to her. Where was God in her today? In her loneliness, I imagine. Or perhaps in the questions she herself may have been asking about the legs rushing past her line of vision: where are you carrying your hearts and minds? Do I, or others like me, exist at all to you?
I can’t imagine God in us being anything other than our deepest, most comprehensive, most generous and least selfish sensitivities.
The second meditation is from Rachel Remen’s Kitchen Table Wisdom. It’s simply a short prayer her surgeon asked if she might share with her before her operation. She took her hand and said: ‘May we be helped here to do whatever is most right’. Rachel was, she admitted, ‘startled’ for a moment, but then she felt all her fears subside.
The two thoughts go well together. To do what is most right we need to try to sense where God may be within ourselves and in each other. It’s a very different direction of thought from working for the most convenient, least troublesome or most profitable outcome. It opens into a wider world, of sensitivities so often missed or unexplored, of wonder and awareness:
       i thank You God for most this amazing / day…
       this is the birth / day of life and love and wings…
       (now the ears of my ears awake and
       now the eyes of my eyes are opened)   E E Cummings

Cedar planks and goatskins

I want to recount some of the acts of loving kindness, gemilut hasadim, which I have witnessed over the past few weeks. They may seem nothing much compared to the great actions in the world. They can’t put the heads back on the shoulders of the poor people whose last lonely moments fill the front pages. They usually can’t even prevent heartache, though I regularly find myself wishing they could. But acts of kindness, small as they may seem, may be the only reliable materials we have for creating places of sanctuary in the world, as our ancestors once did symbolically with cedar planks and goatskins, spaces where God is somehow more deeply felt and the spirit finds comfort and inspiration.

‘Would you like some time alone with her?’ says the nurse to the two young women who sit in the hospital bay with their grandmother. The doctor has been and they’ve agreed that it’s time to end the life support; it is only prolonging the dying. The nurse slips quietly out through the curtains surrounding the bed. She returns and puts a hand on the shoulder of each of the granddaughters, saying nothing. She goes to the bed and touches the grandmother’s head, strokes her grey hair, as if it were in blessing. Only then does she turn to the machines.

Outside, the man at the fruit and vegetable stall takes another brown paper bag. ‘How are you today?’ he says with an easy cheer. ‘It’s the apples you’re after again, isn’t it. The coxes are pretty good, and there’s a real flavour to those russets. I’d go for them if I were you. How many d’you like?’ A moment ago it felt like a cold winter day; all of a sudden it feels like a bright winter day.

The vet has come to put the man’s dog to sleep. The gentleman himself must be every bit of eighty-five; the dog’s fifteen. She lays the animal on his favourite rug. ‘You give him a biscuit and hold his head’, she says. Tears land on the dog’s nose. ‘I’m so sorry’, the old man says; after all, men don’t cry, especially old men. The injection goes into the vein and the animal’s legs fold gently; now he lies still on the blanket. ‘This little fellow kept me going when my wife died’; more tears run down his face and drop into his dog’s open eyes. ‘You hold his head for a little longer’, says the vet, ‘Then we’ll carry him together.’ At that moment the cleaner walks in. For a second she just observes, then she crosses the room and takes the old man’s hand.

How often I’ve wished there were some means, of word or deed or silence or prayer, to enter the places which hurt in people’s hearts and take away the pain. But only God can do that, and life, God’s gift of life.

In the street I notice a woman, evidently a carer, helping a frail and very elderly lady on her daily walk. They stop by a camellia in a hedge. ‘Look’, she says, ‘Aren’t they beautiful!’ They stand together for a long time, just looking.

Of the ten sephirot or centres of spiritual energy of which the Kabballah speaks, two are located just beneath the heart: hesed, loving kindness, on the right, and gevurah, strength, on the left. The art of living is to deepen and then balance these two faculties. Without loving kindness there would only be the remorseless battle to survive. Without fortitude we would not have the capacity to bear sorrow and hurts with forgiveness, or to dare to love and care. Where they meet is called tiferet, the place of beauty and truth, where appreciation of life’s beauty, and awareness of life’s depths and sorrows merge, in humility and wonder.

Upside-down world

Chag Purim Sameach! Happy Purim!

Here are some of the commandments and traditions connected with the festival, which begins fully tonight.
First of all, we are instructed to listen to the reading of the Megillah, the Scroll of Esther, both tonight and tomorrow morning. It is a gripping and contemporary tale. Behind the colourful facades and the numerous drinking parties, the protagonists conduct a politics which, though it may look casual and random, is cunning and ruthless. In two short sentences Haman puts before King Achashverosh every trope and feature of Antisemitism: the Jews are everywhere; they’re rich; they don’t care about you but only about themselves. Esther defeats his plans not by wiles but by courage and astute political judgment. The Megillah is the classic tale of how minorities have survived amidst the interplay of the interests of others, always on thin ice.
As if to create a different and more compassionate reality, we are instructed to give mattanot la’evyonim gifts to the poor, on Purim. Because both words are plural in Hebrew, we are required to give at least two gifts to two different people or groups of people suffering hardship. The Mishnah Berurah (late C19th commentary to the classic 16th century code of Jewish law, the Shulchan Aruch) comments movingly that ‘it is better to give much to the poor than it is to spend greatly on one’s Purim feast or in giving gifts to one’s friends, because there is no greater happiness than causing the hearts of the poor to rejoice’. It is evident from the Shulchan Aruch that in many places it was also customary to give to the local poor, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, and to bring gifts to the neighbours among whom one was living ‘for the sake of the ways of peace’. (See below concerning two groups for whom we are collecting as a community this year.)
Equally, it is the custom to take portions of food and drink to friends and acquaintances, following the instruction in the megillah that people sent mishloach manot ish lere’ehu, ‘parcels of food to one another’. It is a lovely personal and family custom to prepare cheerful baskets of basic food and treats both for friends and people one does not know. Within the community, it is a way of including alongside friends and neighbours people who may be unwell of frail so that they too can find happiness on Purim. Some communities also do this communally, using money raised for charity. We did this last year, and shall again in the future.
One of the central themes of the megillah is the interplay between appearance and identity, who people pretend to be and who they truly. There is probably no other Biblical story in which clothing features with such prominence. Hence it is the tradition to dress up on Purim. An ‘upside-down world’ is created, in which one no longer knows who is who. Add to this a carnival spirit and you enter the world of Purimspiels, cabaret acts, disguises, and fun. The date has long been a holiday for children, who wear fancy dress, and give and receive presents of food. But it’s a merit, and in the spirit of Purim, for adults to dress up too.
In the afternoon of Purim day, one gathers for the Purim Se’udah or special meal. Traditional foods include pulses (less widely eaten on Purim today) because Daniel ate vegetarian when he was an exile in the court of Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. More popular is Purim challah made with raisins inside and hundreds-and-thousands all over, and Hamantaschen, filled with anything from poppy-seed to chocolate.
Wishing everyone a Purim Sameach, a Happy Purim

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