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.

Call me Ishmael. And you can call me Isaac.

Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(Uffizi)

Welcome to the desert. Hot, dry, barren, scorpions scuttling and shades of beige. It is seemingly not the most inspirational of landscapes. This is where the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are born. Many of us in “the West” seem to forget that our spiritual roots and patrimony come from the desert. Wait, what? You mean all of that Bible stuff didn’t happen in an Italian Renaissance painting? As if! Lush landscapes, plump people, and rich flowing garments are pretty appealing but it seems hard, thirsty, rocky environments propel men toward transformation. We see this in all three of the major monotheistic traditions. And now here is the quickest reverse chronology of a few men in the desert. Each one, both inspired and tormented by the harsh surroundings and his own inner struggle, reached out to the One, and was answered.

  • Islamic tradition says that somewhere around 610 A.D., Muhammad was in a cave near Mecca when he received the first revelations of the Koran from the messenger angel, Jibreel. By the way, Jibreel might sound familiar because he is also known as Gabriel, the messenger angel familiar to both Jews and Christians. Interesting, right? Muhammad would retreat to this cave regularly to pray, to meditate and to contemplate. He had a busy trading business, a wife who was no shrinking violet and a tent full of kids. What man wouldn’t need to get away? We haven’t even mentioned the social and civil unrest he was dealing with. Through Jibreel, Allah speaks to him and Muhammad comes home transformed.
  • Jesus was in the desert for forty days and forty nights after his baptism by John. He was tempted by the devil. Forty long days, and it’s doubtless that those were even longer nights. Scarce water, locusts for food, facing choices about power and worldly riches, struggling with his human and divine natures, battling evil. His mind, soul and heart are tried. He endures, he decides, he rejects what is laid at his feet and he accepts his path both willingly and knowingly. Whether literal or metaphorical in one’s reading of the Bible, there is no controversy that Jesus returns transformed.
  • Abraham was a man of the desert when he was called to leave his home, trust in the one God, have faith that he would have a son, and learn some serious lessons in hospitality and obedience that we still talk about today. He had already lived a long life by the time we meet him in the desert and it was only going to become more eventful. His wife, Sarah, like the landscape, is also barren. In the emptiness and desolation, promises are fulfilled and Abraham is transformed.

That all of this takes place in the dessert seems profound to me; it can’t just be a geographical coincidence. We find ourselves when we are stretched, tormented, stressed and pushed to our limits. Inner reserves are summoned and strength of character is revealed under the harshest of circumstances. But when deprivation of the body, mind and soul force man beyond those limits, when his reserves are depleted and character no longer suffices, in desperation one may reach out to the divine, to that which is greater than the “I”. He empties his self and stretches out to God and for some, God answers. Abraham was answered, and he listened, changing all of human history. That is a pretty bold statement, but I think we can really back it up.

Abraham’s situation, in a convenient short wrap-up where I am clearly taking liberties for the sake of brevity, is that he was childless. Sarah, his wife, had not yet delivered them a child. That is a heartbreak as anyone who wants a child and does not have one well knows. In an ancient society where one is valued for and whose very survival depends on their progeny, it is all important. I hesitate to paraphrase God, and do not mean to be flippant, but, the basics of the story are that God told Abraham that he should leave his home and in return, God would make of him a great nation. To be more precise, He will “make his descendants as numerous as the stars”. What a beautiful, poetic phrase. Here is where we back up the idea that Abraham is one of the most profound figures in human history. I mean, he is a REALLY BIG DEAL because God kept his promise and as mentioned in passing the last time we chatted, 55% of the world’s population today sees Abraham as their spiritual predecessor. Given all the people who have lived, loved and shone in between, that is indeed a starry, beautiful night. Mind = blown.

In order to keep that world altering promise, Abraham needed a son. Sarah, wife of Abraham, eventually delivered a son and that boy was named Isaac. The promise was fulfilled. Yay! In his long life Abraham also learned some pretty important lessons on obedience, hospitality and welcoming strangers as well as this lesson in faith and trust. These are all lessons valued in Judaism, Christianity and Islam to this very day — again, Abraham is a BIG DEAL. But, let’s back up a bit because for the moment, we are focusing on his progeny.

You see, things are never simple or easy. Your life is full of tests and has challenges, so why wouldn’t Sarah’s face the same things? Perhaps people who lived thousands of years ago have more in common with us than we would like to think. The human condition has not changed. In summary: Life. Is. Hard. Before Isaac comes on the scene, Sarah has a major crisis of faith and she doubts if she will ever have a child. She decides to take matters into her own hands and puts another woman into Abraham’s hands, or rather his bed. Sarah gives her Egyptian slave named Hagar to Abraham and tells him to, um, well, you know. So he does. This seems so very strange to us; women don’t usually ask their husbands to lie with another woman and, well, you know. However, it was a different time with very different mores. Hagar was a slave and that meant Hagar was Sarah’s property — lock, stock and womb. If Hagar has a child, that child could be claimed by Sarah.  Boom! Progeny problem solved.

As you may have figured out by now, two women, one man and a maybe a baby in a tent in the desert turned out to be less than idyllic. Predictably, Sarah and Hagar were locked in battle, Sarah complains that this is all Abraham’s fault (huh?) and Abraham says, “Do what you want because she is your slave.” It was probably pretty ugly. I know it would be if that were going on in my tent. I don’t even like another women in my kitchen nevermind doing you know what with my you know who. Hagar is expelled from the tent and she flees to the desert (we’re back in the desert again!). There she is met by an angel. The angel tells her to return home, her descendants will be many, and she will in fact bear Abraham a son. She should name the boy Ishmael. Oh, and by the way, he’s gonna be a handful. In fact, the angel tells her that Ishmael will “be a wild donkey of a man” and will “live in hostility toward all his brothers”. Uh oh – that is ominous. As promised, Ishmael is born. Sarah later conceives and gives birth to Isaac. Abraham’s desert desolation and obedience to God is rewarded with two sons, and their innumerable, starry descendants, which might even include you.

A lot of this is familiar to you if you are Jewish or Christian. Some of you may be able to quote vast passages from Genesis by heart (I can’t. I was raised Catholic, so, yeah.). Isaac and Ishmael are probably not new figures to you. But, here is where it gets kind of interesting. If you are Muslim, the story follows very similarly. Hagar is an even more sympathetic figure and Ishmael looms larger. According to Islamic tradition, Ishmael is the ancestor of the prophet Muhammad and a prophet in his own right. Ishmael is a very real, actual and physical link in the familial chain of succession that extends from Abraham to Muhammad. If you believe that Islam descends from Ishmael and Judaism and Christianity follow a line from Isaac, that kind of makes the Judeo-Christian faiths and the Islamic faiths into step-brothers. Whoa. Let that sink in for a minute. And now extrapolate a bit…. that’s quite a family squabble we see in the news everyday.

Wait! There is more! If that weren’t enough food for thought about how very closely Judaism, Christianity and Islam may be related in the very hearts and minds of adherents, we need to talk about the sacrifice on the stone that was so brilliantly painted by Caravaggio up above. (Fun fact: It is not a certainty that Caravaggio painted “Sacrifice of Isaac”.  Art historians believe it may have been painted by one of his proteges. There are certainly a lot of mights, maybe and who knows in history, right?) Anyway, back to the boy on the stone. That’s Isaac, right? Sure it is! For some of us. But if you are Muslim, it could very well be Ishmael. And just to make this all murkier, not all Muslims would claim it to be Ishmael. The point here is that one of the most powerful lessons on obedience to God (complying with God’s request to slay your own child is extreme obedience in any one’s book, be it Bible or otherwise) that can be found in any religious tradition may have featured Isaac or Ishmael on the stone, depending on what you believe. This is a seminal story for all three traditions. Obedience is one of the first lessons of all three traditions. It does not get any more elemental than this. One of these boys is a central figure in this lesson, the potential sacrifice. Please note that I am not taking a stand here or stating a fact as to who was on the stone. That’s up to you — I won’t tell you what to believe. You can absolutely yell at the computer and say, “What the heck, girl? That is Isaac <alternatively insert Ishmael here>! What kind of malarkey and blasphemy are you spewing?” Go ahead and yell — I can’t hear you anyway. Ha! Again, my point is that one of the crucial stories about arguably one of the most important figures in human history is deeply meaningful and instructive yet still divisive amongst Jews, Christians, and Muslim. We all take away the lesson of obedience, but we argue about the central figures from whom we learned it. Like one big, not so happy, step family, we are still fighting over who nearly did what to whom and why and where and what it means today. Fortunately, we all agree that no son was slain on the stone and God was merciful to his faithful servant, Abraham. Now there is a nice glimmer of agreement and hope. I love finding that silver lining.

If any of this interests you further, Bruce Feiler wrote a fantastic book titled Abraham. Feiler travels throughout the Holy Land and investigates the life of Abraham. He interviews archaeologists, theologians, priests, rabbis and imams. He talks to scholars and believers alike. He undertook his journalistic investigation (he is a journalist by trade) after September 11. He wanted to find our common roots, though the branches have long grown apart.  In it, he summarizes the life of Abraham thus:

“He has no mother. He has no past. He has no personality. The man who will redefine the world appears suddenly, almost as an afterthought, with no trumpet fanfare, no fluttering doves… [Abram]…goes on to abandon his father at age seventy-five, leave his homeland, move to Canaan, travel to Egypt, father two sons change his name, cut off part of his penis, do the same for his teenager and newborn, exile his first son, attempt to kill his second, fight a world war, buy some land, bury his wife, father another family, and die at one hundred-seventy-five.”

Quite an eventful life by anyone’s measure. I wonder what Abraham thinks of his children, we who are as numerous as the stars, our Jewish, Christian and Muslim step siblings. Be kind to your brothers and sisters. Peace, my friends.

 

Around the world in 150 pages?

sikh plane

I have started and stopped so many blog posts. The problem with my writing is that it only seems to come from intensely personal places. The loss of my father started my fingers flying and then weight loss prompted me to expose my self in more than one way. (By the way, that has been holding steady, for those interested. I’m working on those pesky body dysmorphia issues at the moment. Who is that in the mirror? A horse of a different color, surely.) Short stories have been started and stopped. A novel idea has bounced around in the back of my brain and sprinkled a few pages. But, since the novel was not really very novel, those soggy pages are abandoned. I have even gone so far as to take a Creative Writing course at the local community college. I do love the course and have met interesting folks. A few of them have unique voices that jump off the page. I want them to write more, I want to hear them speak to me, and I find my own voice muted in comparison. It all just falls flat at the moment. But, perhaps, perchance, might and maybe and it could possibly just be, in its inexplicable way, divine inspiration has struck. (That’s going to turn out to be a pun, by the way.)

What has always moved and fascinated me was the multitude of ways that humans try to connect with each other, with “the other”, with the divine, and with their inner selves. These efforts broadly fall under the heading of “religion”. If you’ve known me for five minutes or met me on an airplane, if you sat next to me at Starbucks or sat across from me at a table for eight in a ballroom, you know I taught World Religions for five years. I know, I belabor it. You are all pretty sick of hearing about “When I was teaching….” or “One of my old students just…” But, those years were the most rewarding years of my life in terms of touching and interacting with humanity. So much was shared, learned and gained — by me. I hope my students got something along the way, too, but I was the greatest benefactor.

So, where is this all going? I am struggling as someone who wants to write. I am despairing in our current divisive political climate. My voice has been silenced in many ways but still seeks a way out. And I am left with no inspiration and have started to hate the pronoun “I”. And then I (there it is again) saw an article yesterday about a Sikh man who was unknowingly photographed and snapchatted (or Instagrammed, who the heck can keep up?) on a flight and the man who was taking his photos was captioning that he was afraid of the terrorist when the turbaned gentleman got up to use the bathroom, was relieved when this terrifying figure fell asleep, that he was “still alive!”, etc. Lightning from the blue! A blog about religions of the world. For laymen. You know, normal people like you and me. Something not intimidating, not full of esoteric and highly metaphysical and philosophical tangents, perhaps with personal anecdotes, approachable, factual and as judgment free as humanly possible. A Huston Smith for the commoners; a guidebook for our globalized world. My old course, in blog form, and without the constraints of Catholic doctrine and adolescent students.

So, that’s the idea. If I can stop one Sikh from being mistaken for a terrorist, stop one more Muslim from being persecuted for the beliefs and actions of a subset of his faith, stop one more woman outside a Charlotte Indian grocer from having a gun pointed at her while she is nursing her baby, explain what the heck karma really is, shine a little light in a darkening world, then that is a reason to write, and it is very personal indeed. Oh, and it is super fun to write about all of the Hindu gods and goddesses and the music of Matisyahu. Bal Shem Tov, anyone?