Passing over and wandering on

exodus

It’s hard to even know where to begin. My fingers want to fly over the keyboard and write about the freedom to wander and then I also want to tell you about the Seder plate, and the amazing chicken liver I had a few years ago at a dear friend’s house (shout out to Staci!). Like the Jews wandering in the desert, we’ll just take a step forward and see where the journey takes us.

It’s not likely necessary to reiterate the story of Passover. If you have ever seen the epic Ten Commandments film (conveniently broadcast during Holy Week/Passover each year) starring Charlton Heston and Lily Munster (you may also know her as Yvonne De Carlo), then you know the story. If you haven’t seen the film, then what the heck is wrong with you? Sigh… in that case, here is the fastest retelling ever:

Baby Moses is Jewish. The Pharaoh (Egyptian ruler) issues a decree that all male Hebrew children should be drowned because the number of Hebrews was becoming dangerously high. He feared they may revolt or ally with his enemies. Baby Moses’ mother tries to save her child’s life by floating him down the Nile in a basket (hence the Moses baskets that new Moms favor these days, however I don’t think his original cost $185 from Plum & Sparrow, shipping extra). The basket and the babe are recovered from the river by the Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses is adopted and raised in the palace with the royal family. Fortuitous river currents, right? Moses later kills an Egyptian master for beating a slave, discovers his Jewish heritage and begins to seriously rebel against the tradition of Egyptian slavery of the Jews. He flees Egypt. While he is on Mt. Horeb or Mt. Sinai (the Bible cites both) which is IN THE DESERT BY THE WAY, he encounters God as a burning bush and is commanded to return to Egypt to deliver God’s people out of slavery. Moses and the Pharaoh battle this out. God, via Moses, afflicts the Egyptians with Ten Plagues and eventually, after the horrible tenth plague, Pharaoh lets the people go. The tenth plague is when God sends the angel of death to the first born son of each family. If there is lamb’s blood over your door, the angel of death will pass over. Boom – we have Passover. The Jewish people quickly fled Egypt, their bread not even having time to rise (lotsa matzoh). God, through Moses, parts the Red Sea so the Hebrews can make a fast escape. They then wander in the desert for forty years before entering the Promised Land. Moses and his brother Aaron are not able to enter because, as you may recall, they hit a rock with a stick, somewhat embellishing on the Lord’s instructions, and lost their right to proceed with the people.

Phew! There is a lot to unpack here, but we will try not to wander around this topic for forty years. Passover celebrations come from this story as does Sukkot. Christians see foreshadowing or prophecy for Jesus, who is the Lamb of God, delivering Christians from death. The desert features prominently, in a line of succession from Abraham through Moses and right through to Jesus. Man and God, alone, seeking each other in desolation. If you are Muslim, you follow that line of succession to Mohammad. And as much as we think Mohammad is the most important name in Islam, interestingly the Koran mentions Moses more than any other person. Clearly, this is a seminal story in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheistic tradition. But let’s get back to the chicken liver, I mean Passover…

The Jewish Passover celebration does more than celebrate this story; it virtually reenacts it during the Seder meal. (Seder means order or sequence in Hebrew.) Using the Haggadah, a sort of guidebook and script for the Seder, Jewish people relive their journey to freedom. All aspects of the Seder plate harken back to the slavery, escape and freedom of the Jews. The ritual plate includes:

  • matzoh – there are three pieces that are symbolic of the Kohen (priests), Levites, and Israelites
  • roasted bone – represents the lamb that was sacrificed to smear the blood over the doorways
  • egg – this was a food that was offered as a Temple sacrifice during festivals. There are other layers of meaning for the egg. For example, the Aramaic word for egg is bey’a, which also means “pray”.  Some also think the egg embodies the hope and renewal of the Jewish people.
  • bitter herbs – for the bitterness of slavery
  • charoset  – this is a mixture of apples, pears, nuts, wine, etc (recipes vary) that is a reminder of the mortar that the slaves used to build for the Egyptians
  • parsley – the meaning of this gets into Hebrew language and some numerology which is way beyond my ability to synthesize and explain, but it is dipped in saltwater and eaten to remember the tears of the slaves

The experiences of slavery are embedded in the very meal itself  — they are felt, tasted, pondered and endured. A traditional Passover meal also consists of other foods that are enjoyed by the family. For example, an Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish tradition) Passover meal may include matzoh ball soup, the aforementioned delicious chicken liver, brisket, potatoes, and other vegetables. Matzoh is eaten rather than bread and nothing leavened is consumed. There are a surprising number of delicious unleavened deserts, by the way. Here’s a great one. Sephardic (Iberian/Spanish descent) Jews may enjoy a meal that has more Spanish and Middle Eastern influence. Also, Sephardic charoset often is made of dates or raisins rather than apples thereby reflecting traditional regional ingredients.

Now you might think that Passover is all about the food. I can’t imagine how I left that impression, but then again it’s me doing the writing here. Like almost every other holiday in every religious and cultural tradition, the food is front but it is slightly off center because right in the center is the meaning of the celebration. The meaning of Passover is summed up in a word: freedom.  But here’s the thing… I don’t know that the people found freedom at the end of their journey. We know Moses and Aaron don’t enter the Holy Land and there is a lesson of humility in that, but the real lesson in freedom is the journey itself. For forty years they wandered in the desert. Forty long, dry, hot years. Forty years they wandered and pondered and lived and loved. It was for forty years. How long was that again? Forty years. People were born, lived and died on this journey. I am surely belaboring the point, but I think it is so important. While enslaved, there was no freedom to wander — no one could choose where to go physically or mentally. One’s existence was all in all, just put another brick in the pyramid wall. Alas! While wandering in the desert, there was blessed freedom. Moses was free to find God, the people found themselves, they learned how to be free and how to choose, and they ultimately chose God. The overarching lesson of Passover, for me, is not about reaching the Holy Land but about the freedom to wander and to choose. The Jewish people, who have no clear vision of or dogma about the afterlife, make the most of their life here and now and they choose the journey over focusing only on the destination. Here’s some actual footage * of the exodus.

Several years ago, we had the very good fortune to participate in a Seder with the best friends life could allow to walk beside you. These are old college friends who have known our troubles, held our hands in the bad times and rejoice freely with us in the good times. They know about all of our secrets from “the Stony Brook years”, my Rachel haircut in the ’90’s, Kumar’s fondness for gin and tonic, and they still love us. Go figure? Good peeps. Anyway, we were seated at their dining table and listening to them, their daughter, our kids, Nadine’s parents and extended family and friends, my Hindu husband and little ol’ always-at-a-loss-for-words me talk about the meaning of freedom. We were beautifully led in thoughtful discussion by Daniel. That night, the Passover celebration wandered into my consciousness and continues to walk around in my brain ever since. What a freeing journey that night was. And did I mention the food? Oy and vey!

Not sure where we are wandering next. Perhaps Islam. I’ve been receiving some great private feedback. If there is something you want me to write about let me know either in public comments or via a private message. Thanks for reading, and please know that I am always listening for your voice out here in the desert. Shalom, salaam, shanti and peace.

* Nina Paley’s work is not reverent. She challenges ideas and traditionally held beliefs. As always, I do not intend to offend the devout and do my best to avoid it, but I do think she captures some good things here and I love her use of Free to be You and Me. Her work is without copyright and can be shared freely.

What the small print giveth the Lord reserves the right to taketh away.

This recent flurry of blogging was spurred by my anger at an incident where cruelly captioned photos of a Sikh man were passed around on Snap-o-gram (whatever) because he is “other”. (Around the World in 150 Pages) The young man who was taking photos and writing the awful captions thought the Sikh in the turban was Muslim (News flash! Sikhs are not Muslims! Turbans don’t equal terror! I love exclamation points when I am worked up!). Despite his on-the-fly extreme vetting and decision that a Sikh man is an ISIS member, the young man in question only really succeeded in exposing himself as a bigot.

However, even righteous indignation fueled inspiration (there’s a mouthful) can peter out. How do we move onward in our pilgrimage from the last post’s thoughts on Abraham (Call me Ishmael. And you can call me Isaac. ) to musings on Judaism? I am not Jewish (though I have some Jewish ancestry) and really feel a bit uncomfortable writing about something so important and personal as religious identity with so little authority. And then I heard about Tanya Gersh. Ms. Gersh is a realtor in Montana. A murky and likely non-existent real estate dispute has resulted in her and her family being terrorized by neo-Nazi, white nationalist Internet trolls. A troll in a storybook is “a mythical, cave-dwelling being depicted in folklore as either a giant or a dwarf, typically having a very ugly appearance”. Today’s internet trolls are even uglier, not mythical, and all too real. Maybe they live in caves — that I don’t know. These trolls  have sent some heinous stuff  to the Gersh family. For example, Ms. Gersh was hounded with tweets about the “Jew agenda”, she was sent photoshopped images of her and her young son at the gates of Auschwitz, and there were messages like “”Hickory dickory dock, the kike ran up the clock. The clock struck three and Internet Nazis trolls gassed the rest of them.” Here’s the complete story if you want the details:

CNN Story on the Gersh family

The Gersh family are not alone these days. There has been an 86% spike in anti-Semitic incidents in the US so far this year (Anti-Defamation League). I may not know all there is to know about Judaism, but I care enough about this rise in anti-Semitism to know that I won’t be silent.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

                      Rev. Martin Niemoller

Rev. Niemoller, who spent seven years in a concentration camp, knew how important it is to speak for each other. So today let’s speak of Judaism for Ms. Gersh, for my Jewish friends, for my ancestors, and for all of the other 14.4 million Jewish people in the world who I don’t know.

What does it mean to be a Jew? For many, it means you have a contract with God. There are some pretty specific terms in that agreement. These terms tell you what to eat (kosher laws), what to wear, how to settle disputes, what respect should be accorded to elders and neighbors and spouses, and even how to cut your hair. Yup, Leviticus 19:27 is an actual directive that describes the peyos (side curls) and beards required of Orthodox men. It’s not a fashion statement or nostalgia for a time long passed. It’s a law. It may seem strange to us today in the world of pink hair and man buns, but there is a point to this and to all of the laws. This grooming law makes God’s Chosen People distinguishable from those around them. God’s people are to stand out in a crowd. Kosher rules have a practical purpose. They can keep your diet hygienic (eating pork could be pretty risky in the past). Family relations have rules to ensure understanding between all parties. There’s even a detailed practice for determining if your wife is coveting your neighbor’s, ahem,  assets. The rabbi scoops up some dust from the Tabernacle floor, mixes it with water, your wife drinks it down and you wait for the result. Stomachache = she’s a veritable vixen. No stomachache = you’ve got a loyal lady.

But, why? Why does a religious Jewish person strive to live by these rules? Because the contract tells him so. The Bible tells us about that early contract where Abraham obeys, he leaves his home, he trusts, and God fulfills his contract obligations with innumerable starry descendants. Moses made an agreement, too. Do what I ask of you, Moses, have faith, and I will lead your people out of slavery. Pharaoh gets his comeuppance, the Red Sea parts and off we march into the desert. As Charlton Heston taught us in the last scenes of arguably his most memorable film, there are consequences for breaking agreements. Moses did not make it into the Promised Land. He was so close, and yet so far. Why did he get left behind in the desert? Because he violated the small print, and the Lord taketh away. 

Moses and Aaron were supposed to gather the people, stand before a rock with Aaron’s staff in hand, and call forth water. They did it, but they did something else, too. Uh oh. They added a flourish and struck the rock with Aaron’s stick. The water did pour forth out of the rock, but they paid a price for their violation. Neither Moses or Aaron were admitted to the Promised Land. Handsome Charlton Heston, with a flowing white beard and his robe ruffling in the breeze, gazes down upon the Chosen People making their way to the River Jordan at the end of the Ten Commandments. He accepts his fate. Sweeping music and fade to black….

Jeepers. That’s kind of a downer. Moses went through all kinds of heck to deliver those folks and he doesn’t make it into the Promised Land? Harsh. But, you see, that’s how the Torah God does it. Contractual obligation, to the letter of the law, must be observed. Justice is then meted out, fair and square. You might be wondering what in blazes did Moses do wrong? Moses’ infraction was tapping that stick on the rock. It wasn’t really the strike that did it — it was the bit of hubris. Moses let linger the impression that the power to bring forth water was his, and not the Lord’s. The Lord giveth, but if you don’t follow the rules, you know how this saying ends.

Some believe that to live a fully compliant Jewish life is to live according to the 613 laws of the Torah (Rabbinic tradition says there really are that many). Of course we all also know Jewish people who do not live strictly according to the Torah. There are rich variations of Jewish life and many faithful Jews who do not practice their faith “to the letter” but rather do so “in the spirit”. No matter whether strictly observant or living in the tradition and spirit of Judaism, to me, this is a faith that primarily focuses on the here-and-now. It is a faith where you can touch-and-feel your place in history, where you are called to live fully on Earth and as part of your community. The idea of living in the here and now seems really essential in understanding Judaism.

In addition to the emphasis on the law, there’s another clue to the “be here now” vibe in Judaism. Here’s a tidbit of Jewish dogma about the afterlife to impress your friends: there is no Jewish dogma about the afterlife. Say what? It seems every other religion focuses on the hereafter, and what you do here and now is almost solely for the purpose of a comfortable placement in the Great Beyond. Heaven or hell, reincarnation, transmigration of the soul, perhaps a stint in purgatory or a stop in the Bardo —  everything done on Earth is an offering for some future existence, and hopefully a pleasant one at that. In contrast to other faiths, if you are Jewish, there is no definitive teaching that promises an afterlife. You may believe that there is a heaven waiting for you, perhaps you will be reincarnated, or maybe you will enter an eternal sleep. You can believe what you want because the Torah doesn’t really say much about the afterlife. What a fascinating departure from the other major religions — live for today, love God today, love the people around you right now, accept the honor of being the Chosen People, and live this life, this day, this very moment in its fullest manner. Judaism found its beginnings in the desert, gets its framework from a contract with God and embraces celebrating and experiencing humanity right here and now.

One can argue that Jews do live in a state of waiting for something. That waiting is here on Earth in a state of hope for the coming of the Messiah. The Jewish messiah (or mashiach) is a leader, but he is not a spiritual savior in the Christian sense. He will be of place and time, he will be a leader in a social and political sense as a successor to King David. He is to gather the exiles, restore the Temple and rebuild Jerusalem. Interestingly, the messiah is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah but the anticipation is nonetheless deeply ingrained. So, even if Jews are waiting for the messiah, they still live here and now because their messiah will usher in an earthly restoration, not one in the hereafter.

As an outside observer, I see a beautiful tapestry of Jewish life. The Orthodox adhere to all of the 613 laws of the Torah and spend much of their time devoted to the study of the law and ensuring that they live as God has decreed. The Hasidic Jews follow all of these same laws but they also add a mystical dimension to their practice where they seek a palpable connection to God. The Conservative Jews maintain a strong Jewish cultural identity and community; they are the stalwarts of preserving their traditions and adhering to many of the laws found in the Torah while simultaneously living in the secular world. Reform Jews embrace their traditions, their identity, and the lessons of their faith while acknowledging the evolving world around them. Reform Judaism is often a strong voice for social justice for all peoples. Secular Jews celebrate their culture and history and identify as part of a greater community; they are definitively and proudly Jewish though they do not consider themselves “religious”. All Jewish people, regardless of practice, share a very important commonality: even if the world metes out persecution like Ms. Gersh is now experiencing, even though it may try its hardest to exterminate them, the Jewish people have an agreement with God, and a contract is something you can rely upon.

Yowza, this was some heavy stuff. I’m wiped out. Next time, let’s lighten up and find out about those Jewish holidays. Here’s a little preview…. Rosh Hashanah is fun, but Purim is where the party is at. Queen Esther is up in the house!
*My first post about religion had a disclaimer, but a reminder is always useful. I am not an expert; I am an observer and these are my thoughts. After all, that’s what blogging is all about. Please comment publicly or privately if I am factually wrong or if you want to share your thoughts. Comments are always welcome; kindness is always appreciated.