Clash of opposites

It’s a challenging clash of opposites: this week’s Torah portion includes the injunction ‘Love your neighbour as yourself, I am the Lord’, while Sunday night brings Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. (The date was established by the Knesset in 1951 as the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, in honour of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. This year it’s postponed by one day so as not to clash with the close of Shabbat.)
The Torah teaches that ‘a hanged man is a curse unto God’, even when such a death is imposed by due judicial process. He must be taken down and buried that very day. In illustration the Talmud tells a shocking parable, partly perhaps to explain why the rabbis shunned the death penalty:
  • This is like two identical twin brothers who lived in the same city. One was appointed king; the other took to robbery and murder. The king issued a command and they hanged him. All who saw him said: ‘The king’s been hanged!’ The king issued a further command and they took him down.  
In such parables the king always represents God. The murderer is God’s identical twin. Made in God’s image, we contain them both in potential. Which twin shall humanity be?
The Nazi Holocaust, like all previous and subsequent genocides, is the product of at least three kinds of evil.
First are evil ideas. The Nazi degradation and dehumanisation of the Jew had many roots: in envy and fear; in the need for a scapegoat; in a history of political anti-Semitism; in certain Christian images of the Jew, and in popular theories of race. Without the principle of Aryan supremacy in the merciless competition for land and survival, what ensued could not have taken place.
This is followed by evil processes. Government, the judiciary, the press and the administration became instruments of persecution. The Nuremberg Laws stripped Jews of citizenship and turned them into subjects in the worst sense: subjects to everything the state might choose to inflict upon them. Nazism was subtle as well as violent. Rights were progressively withdrawn by ‘legal’ means: to work, to access monies, to shop, to travel, to possess a radio, bicycle or warm coat, to move, to breath.
This is accompanied by violence legitimised by a total release from the demands of moral law and conscience. The brute within the person is set free; is it not, after all, perfectly legitimate, have we not been instructed by the higher powers, to kill these mere non-humans? When a state descends to that level, no-one can know with certainly whom he or she may prove capable of becoming.
Only when we, the whole of humanity including every group and person within it, succumb to none of these evils will it ‘never happen again’.
Every human being therefore has to ask him- or herself: do I harbour ideas or notions which deny the equality and dignity of others? Do I support or benefit from laws or practices which steal from others, or curtail, such rights and forms of dignity as I would seek for myself? Are all my deeds governed by fairness and compassion and weighed in the conscience?
Although the conditions and challenges governing the choice are never equal, each of us ultimately chooses which twin we want to be. No doubt we all harbour ambiguities.
To carry the divine image faithfully, to represent truly ‘I am the Lord your God’, means ‘to love your neighbour as yourself’. To that unending task, at once simple and unfathomably difficult, each of us and humanity as a whole must rededicate ourselves without cease.

Countdown to Pesach 5

Something Practical – Searching for Leaven 

Some years ago I was given a facsimile edition of the Copenhagen Haggadah. The manuscript was completed in 1739 in Altona-Hamburg; the artist-scribe was Uri Pheibush son of Isac Eisik Segal. It contains the full order of the Seder together with many illustrations in powerful colours, and the songs are accompanied by translations into both Yiddish and Ladino. The work is beautiful.
On the first page, inside the gold leaf of the letter caph, for the word Col, is depicted a rather prim gentleman in a pink gabardine holding a candle and brushing the crumbs off a table. The text is, of course, the ancient formula said when nullifying any leaven one may have found in one’s possession: ‘All leaven which may be in my possession, whether I have or have not seen it, and which I have not removed, let it be as the dust of the earth’. 
The instruction to remove all leaven from our homes, and not to eat or even to possess it, is stated clearly in the Torah. The ceremony of bedikat chametz, searching for the leaven, is rabbinic. ‘With the dark on the fourteenth of Nissan [the night before Seder night]’ opens the Mishnaic tractate Pesachim, edited in the Galilee at the close of the 2nd century, ‘one searches by the light of a candle’. A candle was chosen because it gave the best light, and a feather because it captured even the last crumb of leaven; the remaining requisite was a board onto which anything found could easily be swept. The next day, leaven, candle, feather and board are all burnt by the time of the biur, or disposal, (11.33am this year in London, but leaven may not be eaten from10.05am) after which the ownership of chametzis strictly forbidden.  
A blessing was instituted for the ceremony, in which we praise God ‘who commanded us concerning the removal of chametz’. Because it was widely felt that once such a blessing was said the search should not be in vain, it became common practice to hide pieces of bread or biscuit, which were then duly found and disposed of the next morning. In our family the women hide and the men search. In this we are ably assisted by a male dog whose capacity to detect bread in the dark far exceeds that of his humans. This short ceremony is great fun; we all enjoy it, and burning the findings the next morning provides a significant outlet for those with pyromaniac tendencies.
I cannot fully explain why this short ritual, completely and utterly absurd as it might appear to an outsider, should move me to the core. But it does. I set those words ‘All leaven…’ in my head to the same melody as that stirring verse one chants at the very beginning of Yom Kippur as the Torah scrolls are carried through the silent synagogue, ‘Light is sown for the righteous’, and follow the candle through the dark house. 
Something about the Haggadah – the blessing of redemption
What are we looking for on Seder night? It’s not quite true that the deepest theme of Passover is freedom, even though the rabbis called the festival zeman cherutenu, the season of our liberation. The blessing in which the narrative culminates, the goal towards which we travel, is not just freedom but redemption – ge’ulah.
There is more at stake here than the substitution of an obscure religious term in place of a popular secular ideal. The biblical, and rabbinic, concept of redemption is all-embracing; redemption involves not just freedom for some, but liberty for all. Redemption is when the whole world is as God might have dreamt it to be. It is envisioned as a time of all-encompassing justice, kindness and goodness; of fair trade and fair relations between people, faiths and countries. It is the goal to work towards which we need our freedom; freedom is a precondition, but it can yet be squandered on the way. True freedom is in service to redemption.
So what should I have in my heart as I scour the sink, try to get the ingrained fat off the oven-racks, drop tens of knives and spoons into boiling water, and prepare to tell the story at the Seder of our Exodus from Egypt and listen to many people reflecting on its meanings?
An extraordinary commentary, which I believe is to be found in the Amsterdam Haggadah of 1712, likens the readying of the kitchen before Pesach to the preparation of the conscience before Yom Kippur. Just as we clean the stove, so we strive to cleanse the heart. Just as we search the rooms of our home, so we examine our inner being, for ‘a candle of God is the human soul, searching all the chambers of the womb’.
Maybe that, without my ever trying to express it in such terms, is what moves me when we search the house for the leaven. For to the rabbis, leaven symbolises what prevents us. What is there in me, good and bad? Am I free to be of service? How can we deepen, celebrate and use our freedom together to bring the world nearer to redemption?

Countdown to Pesach 4

Something Practical – About Matzah

The Torah calls it both matzah and lechem oni, ‘unleavened bread’ and ‘the bread of affliction’. Some people love it, others find it the cause of affliction, but I’ve never met anyone who’s indifferent to matzah. But what makes matzah into matzah: how is this bread different from all other breads?
There are at least three kinds of answer. Firstly there’s the question of the ingredients and the way in which matzah is baked. Matzah may be made of any one of five species of grain, wheat, barley, spelt, rye or oats, – precisely the same kinds of grain used to make bread. What’s unique about the recipe is that the only other admissible ingredient inmatzah is water. But the baking process is entirely different from bread-making. From the first, the grain to be ground into flour for matzah must be treated with the greatest of care so as not to allow it to become damp. The Hasidim would ‘watch’ it from the time of reaping, keeping it in a double bag in the kitchen from the day of the harvest until the eve of Pesach, in order to fulfil in full the injunction ’unshemartem et hamatzot’ – ‘you shall watch, or guard, the matzot’. Others say that it is sufficient to watch and protect the flour from the time of milling. The heavy grinding wheels of the mills had to be specially cleaned and the flour carefully kept dry.
In the process of baking, every measure must be taken to prevent the dough from rising. It is the current custom to allow just eighteen minutes from the moment the water touches the dry flour until the rolled and finished matzah enters the preheated over. Water, flour and hands must be kept cool. The dough may not rest idle for a moment. If that happens, or if it produces the ‘signs’, – either cracks like a locust’s horns or a silvery grey colour across the surface -, the dough has begun to leaven. The rolled out matzot should be perforated all over to keep them flat, but one is not permitted to make designs in case one should be tempted to spend too long trying to fulfil one’s artistic ambitions and the dough rises up in revolt. These are the technicalities of matzah baking in a (kosher lePesach) nutshell.
But there is a second kind of explanation. Matzah is called lechem ani, says the Talmud, the bread of the poor; just as poor people bake in a team, so matzah can only be made by teamwork. Look at the quaint illustrations in any old-fashioned Haggadah and you’ll see: one person measures out the flour, another holds the water, others knead the dough, yet others roll it out, a further person has the pronged roller (it looks like a miniature plough, the sort you could imagine harnessed to a guinea pig)  to make the holes. A final member puts the matzot in the oven and takes them out ready baked. Indeed, a small note in the Shulchan Aruch, the 16th century code of Jewish law compiled by Joseph Caro, indicates that since all matzot look fairly alike, if one has them baked in a communal oven one shouldn’t mind if they get mixed up with somebody else’s productions. In other wordsmatzah is the food of community, the product of solidarity.
A third explanation in the Talmud plays on the word ani, as if it derived from the verb ana, or ‘answer’: this is ‘the bread over which questions are answered’, it explains. Matzah is the bread of the story.

Something about the Haggadah – the place of Matzah in the story

At the beginning of the Seder we break the middle of the three matzot, hold up the broken piece (the other half is hidden as the Afikoman) and say, ‘This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in Egypt’. But much later in the evening, we quote the teaching of Rabban Gamliel, head of the Sanhedrin and therefore leader of the Jewish community in the early 2nd century not long after the Romans destroyed the 2nd Temple, and say: ‘Thismatzah which we eat, why do we do so? Because there was no time for the dough of our ancestors to rise…because they were driven out of Egypt’ – In other words it has become the bread of the Exodus, the bread of hope and freedom. The mystics had yet another name for it altogether; they called it ‘the bread of healing’, by which they surely meant moral and spiritual health.
How may these aspects of the matzah be connected? It’s difficult to know exactly whatmatzah originally represented. It may well have been the food of royalty, as Rabbi Chaim Weiner suggests; after all, matzah can only be baked from newly mixed ingredients, so to be served such fresh bread would be a mark of honour. But at some point it came to represent affliction, ‘because poor people in their destitution, will take some flour, knead it, and bake it into unleavened cakes and eat it immediately’, wrote Samuel Al-Magrabi, continuing, ‘others say it signifies bread suitable to the hardships of travel’.
If I could give matzah a name of my own, I’d call it the bread of identity. I sometimes think of the illustration used by World Jewish Relief in its Pesach appeal many years ago: it showed the joy of an elderly and destitute woman upon receiving a box of matzah. She felt included, no longer forgotten, part of the story of our people’s past and the community of our present. Matzah is the bread of that journey, travelling with us from hopelessness to aspiration, from slavery to freedom. It unites us; we can’t even bake it on our own, let alone tell its story by ourselves. We do not eat it in isolation; we may not sit down to our Seder unless we’ve help enabled the poorest of our communities to do likewise. Its simplicity links us to other groups and peoples in their struggles. It thus becomes the food of our vision, the first taste in our journey towards freedom.

Countdown to Pesach 3

Something Practical – On the Seder table

It’s such a beautiful day, in the middle of the beautiful springtime. We shouldn’t forget: Pesach is named ‘the Feast of Unleavened Bread’ and ‘the Season of our Freedom’, but it is also called ‘the Festival of Spring’ – short as that brief season may be in the Middle East. For all our preoccupation with history and its politics at the Seder, we should remember that this is also a celebration of the earth, its gifts and its beauty.

At least four of the special foods on the Seder table are products which grow, and which, with little more than a single green finger we could grow for ourselves. I had my best lesson ever in this regard last Monday. Leslie Lyndon and I, who work the synagogue garden together as a rabbi-and-cantor-team, were digging away. I was plastered in soil and manure from top to toe, when out came the children from our pre-school: ‘Can we do some?’ they begged when they saw us planting herbs. ‘Rabbi Jonathan, Rabbi Jonathan, can I have a go!’ I’ve rarely felt so proud and happy to be called ‘rabbi’.

Karpas, or ‘greens’ can be any vegetable eaten raw, except what we use for the bitter herbs. Parsley, celery, tomatoes, or a mixture of them all: why not grow them ourselves? It’s not just that I’m a gardening fanatic; far more importantly, the blessing feels different when you’ve grown something yourself. You appreciate the world more deeply when you say ‘Blessed are you, God…who creates the fruit of the earth’. For some of these herbs, even a pot on a window-ledge will do.

The Maror must be bitter, but it need not be horseradish. It turns out that horseradish, which is hot and fierce rather than bitter, is a mediaeval introduction which has had its detractors: ‘Many people eat less than the required minimum of an olive’s size because of the pungent flavour of the horseradish’, wrote the Chacham Tzvi, Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi (1658 – 1718), ‘Thus they neglect the mitzvah of maror. And the meticulously observant Jews who do eat an olive’s size of the horseradish are endangering their health’. Endives, chicory, bitter lettuce, – they may all be a better choice for the bitter herbs. What about a pre-Pesach tasting, to decide which one really represents bitterness? ‘Sweetish at first, but with a bitter aftertaste’ say the rabbis, because initially being in Egypt was a boon for the Children of Israel. Don’t have so much as to detract from the commandment to eat maror at the Seder, just enough to determine which is best, or rather worst.

The charoset should be thick and sticky to represent mortar, and with bits in it to look like straw. Thus runs the familiar tradition. But a deeper interpretation tells us that it should be made of fruits, drinks and nuts mentioned in the Song of Songs, for the charoset also symbolises the love which bound the Children of Israel together despite their slavery, the solidarity which so often unites the oppressed. If you don’t have a family recipe (which usually expresses just that kind of intergenerational bond, sweet but sometimes sticky) look on the internet and see the amazing range of possibilities, or choose with your family and friends three ingredients which you feel have to be included. Or, best of all if you can, use something from your own garden!

Matzah is most often made from wheat, water and absolutely nothing else. But I’m going to leave that for tomorrow, when we’ll be making our own in the synagogue kitchen.


Something about the Haggadah – on the symbols of the Seder

‘Seder’ means order, and the Haggadah has a clear and ancient structure and order. It is usually printed on the first page, even before the Kiddush with which the celebration commences. It lists the fifteen traditional parts of the ceremony and is itself considered part of the ritual. Unlike the contents pages of most books, it is customary to sing or recite it.

It’s interesting to consider the role and importance of order in a story. Order is neither boring nor ‘uncool’. After all, try convincing a small child that this night their bedtime story is Goldilocks and the Two Bears or Snow White and the Eight Dwarves. They’ll soon put you right. Order is part of the ritual of how we form and celebrate memory and identity. Jews, argued Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in his remarkable book Zakhor, wrote little history until the modern period. Instead, we live it through our rituals and celebrations. We re-enact it in the story of the Haggadah; we taste it in the unleavened bread and bitter herbs.

I would argue the very structure and ritual of the Seder are at the heart of its theme of freedom. Going through the whole Haggadah in every detail can indeed be made a burden, if we feel enslaved by it and do it by rote, without spirit. We may, or may not, decide to shorten several sections, but we should certainly enliven and personalise them all. That’s the point: having a structure gives us the freedom to improvise; having an identity in the world gives us the liberty to discover ourselves within it; having a shared narrative allows us to make it our own by weaving our own experience into and around it. As we tell the Pesach story we speak of ourselves; as we debate its values we ponder, discuss and determine who we are and for what it is that we stand.

Countdown to Pesach 2

Something Practical – On Pesach cleaning

I’m sure it’s not cool to say it, but no, I don’t hate Pesach cleaning. This is not because I’m male and have spent my life watching others do the work. I wasn’t brought up that way and am happy to get my hands dirty, wrinkled with hot water, in short anything except burnt (again) by the boiling water used in kashering the cutlery.

There are two reasons why I actually like Pesach cleaning, at least much of the time. I’m not suggesting it’s the most important aspect of the festival or that it should become a form of slavery to every speck and spot which, unlikely as it may seem, could just possibly be a time-hardened crumb from some long forgotten slice of toast. (For the due processes of Pesach cleaning and kashering please see the relevant sections of The Pesach Companion which we hope to scan and attach tomorrow).

The first reason is that there is no learning like doing. I think I know why I know what to do at Pesach. My grandmother grew up in a devoted rabbinical household. She was by all accounts a brilliant cook; not just her recipes but her understanding of how a Jewish kitchen works must have come from observing her parents. My father learnt from her, especially from the war years in Palestine when she eked out a living for the family by providing rooms and meals for British officers stationed in Jerusalem. I in turn would watch my father and mother. This was our best companionship, dipping the cutlery in boiling water, making the bottom of the old pots gleam. We laughed, we felt close and we made the kitchen kosher. It’s not just that what we don’t do, we can’t teach. It’s that we lose the bond of generations, or of friendships, which are often sealed most deeply over the most basic matters, the sink, the stove and the spoons.

The second reason is about mess. All year stuff accumulates which one never quite musters the will to throw into the recycling bin. All year the shelves and corners fill. It is a strange joy to clear them out, to strip them bare, and to watch the steam rise from the hot water as it penetrates and cleanses every nook. And this itself becomes an important principle for the Seder; we regroup around the base of things, around the basis of our values.
Something about the Haggadah – on the story

As we simplify and reorganise our home, so we clarify to ourselves what really matters. We do so by telling the story of the Haggadah. We can shorten it (for the children, or for anyone who is unwell) or we can lengthen it (‘the more the better’ the Haggadah itself enjoins us). But we have to tell the story of the Exodus on Seder night. We must begin at the beginning and travel in the right direction, me’avdut lecherut, from slavery to freedom. Why is this story the story, the essential narrative of Judaism itself?

I often think of the moment right at the opening of the Book of Exodus when Pharaoh addresses his fellow Egyptians: ‘Look’, he says, ‘The Children of Israel are a nation’ before warning them that these foreigners now constitute a threat. It’s the first time anywhere that we are defined in such terms. We’re no longer just a family, but a people, a nation. This moment is therefore the start of our national history, the very moment we become slaves. Why? Why not begin with conquest and glory, or at least when God gave us the Ten Commandments?

I believe the answer takes us to the very essence of being Jewish. The first and defining experience of our people is the struggle for equality, dignity and justice. Time and again the Torah takes us back to this touchstone of our values. Shabbat, Judaism’s single most important institution, is not about remembering the creation, but also zecher le’yetziat Mitzrayim, in memory of going out of Egypt. For what would make a person value rest, free time and autonomy more than awareness of what it’s like to be a slave? Likewise, the memory of slavery is at the heart of Judaism’s concern with justice: ‘Don’t oppress the stranger’ we are taught, ‘because you’ve known what an outsider’s life is like’. ‘Don’t take a widow’s garment as a pledge…But remember that you were slaves in Egypt’.
We tell the story of the Exodus both to confirm our historical identity and continuity and to affirm our moral identity as Jews.

Dignity, justice, freedom, hope and faith: as we clean our kitchens and make them shine, we recall our essential values so that they should glow in our lives.

Countdown to Pesach 1

Something Practical – On Pesach Shopping

I visited one of the large ‘Everything you could possibly need for Pesach’ shops last week and found the experience sociologically interesting. Next year I want to write a feature on how couples talk to each other while they shop:
      Wife: ‘No, not that one! I said “The Telma soup”!
     Husband: aside ‘Who does she think I am? A prophet? How’m I supposed to know which variety is which? He finds the product. Lucky I’m not short-sighted.

Another couple in the next aisle:
     ‘We’ll have two of those kind’ ‘Yes, darling’. ‘And three of those’. ‘Yes darling’.
Shopping for Pesach can be stressful and very expensive. The only connection with the subject of freedom may be the sense that it liberates one of a fair amount of money. So here are two thoughts:

  • People often worry about what they really have to buy specially for the festival. The guide at this link lists which products absolutely require a Kosher lePesach label and which do not. Please note that there is greater leniency regarding what we buy before the festival commences.
  • Pesach is about difference. We don’t need three kinds of breakfast cereal and five kinds of cake or chocolate. Yes, Pesach is a festival and the tradition is to celebrate with special recipes. But the most important food is the matzah, which represents simplicity. It’s a chastening reminder, a counter-balance to profligacy. Traditionally the most important food we pay for is the ‘Pesach flour’ we give to those who would otherwise be unable to afford a Seder.

Something about the Haggadah – on the imagination

‘Everyone is obliged to see themselves as if they in person had gone out of Egypt’: this line from the Haggadah goes to the heart of the Seder. ‘”As if” belongs to the imagination, that wild terrain governed by no obvious rules’, writes Rebecca Newberger Goldstein in The New American Haggadah. ‘Tonight we are asked to take this faculty of the mind, so beloved by children and novelists, extremely seriously’.
The art and essence of the Seder is to read the story of the Exodus not as what happened to others long ago, but as what matters to us now. What kinds of tyranny do I struggle with in my world, in the inner world of my own being, in the society, country, continent in which I live? What the Egypt we left long ago was really like is a less important concern than the metaphorical Egypt of an unredeemed world in which many suffer vast injustice and indignity this very day.
For that reason it’s not enough to think only of ourselves as leaving Egypt. What about others? It’s remarkable how much of other peoples’ realities we don’t notice, even when we live alongside them. I often read about events in Germany, or Jerusalem, which my father lived through and in which he was closely involved, and say to myself ‘I never even thought about what that must have been like for him’. How much more true may must be of people in our community and neighbourhood, of people whose names and moral struggles we may have heard about but on which we have never reflected. And what of those whom we may have seen or passed in the street, or heard about generically, who belong like the last of the four children to those who lack the know-how to ask, whose questions never reach us?
The Seder is the great goad, to care about human dignity, and suffering, and to commit ourselves to some corner of the struggle for greater justice and compassion. It is also the night of hope, that we will succeed in travelling together from slavery to freedom, to a world which is redeemed. For commitment to the journey is the beginning of redemption. 

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