Passover is sweeter when we celebrate our freedoms

Passover Greetings for 5781! And also a very happy Easter to my friends and loved ones celebrating that holiday. The Spring Equinox* is nothing to sneeze at, either, except, maybe, for the allergies, a little.

May spring offer hope, renewal, and joyous freedom to everyone reading this post.

You can gauge the season in my home by the drift of matzah crumbs across the kitchen floor. Note to those new to a cracker-based diet: no, it is never a wise idea to eat matzah without a plate for catching the inevitable crumbs. Don’t let my husband or children tell you otherwise!Passover Pesach matzah

In 2021, I found myself rueful that yet another פֶסַח Pesach would be celebrated without guests or even family. Due to necessary medical appointments, we were socially if not spiritually distanced even from my in-laws who live downstairs within our home as this holiday commenced.

Yet, still, we had so much for which to be grateful.

Chief among all blessings, the festival of liberation from bondage reminds me annually of my husband’s exodus from an oppressive regime which persecuted his family for its Jewish heritage. Thank God for a United States of America welcoming refugees! My husband, his beloved parents, and his grandmother z”l all benefited from that largess.

Anyone familiar with DH’s academic record knows how the USA benefits, in turn, from his ground-breaking scholarship in—and beyond—the natural sciences. Certainly, IMHO, the likelihood of international fame ought not be a prerequisite for offering refuge to “your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”** And yet, time and again, immigrants such as my husband prove their worth far beyond such beleaguered beginnings.

Cover of Richard Codor's Joyous Haggadah book

I hope that not a day goes by when I do not thank God for the blessing of my husband’s freedom, but I thank Passover for the fact that a year never could. The Haggadah—the story of Passover related by Jews at a סֵדֶר seder or order of telling—includes the answer, “It is because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt” to the question asked by a child who can’t even formulate a question about what the holiday means.

“It is because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt.”

I must admit to not being particularly literal in my general understanding of the Torah. I believe God gave us a legacy of poetry, using metaphor to offer millennia’s worth of new understandings of the same old words, letting scripture rise to the occasion of ever-evolving human capacity.

And yet… in this case, I take scripture fairly literally. It is, frankly, because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt that everything else in my life carries so many of its multitudes of meaning.

That Egypt is a metaphor, yes. But, from where I sit, “Egypt” is a place I was, yet here I am, free.

Compared with 2020, I gave thanks in 2021 for plenty of capacity at the stores to get groceries delivered, and no shortages of either mundane or ritual items we needed for our seder.

At this time of year, in addition to counting my blessings, I am inclined to count my freedoms. The liturgy of the season Deuteronomy (26:5–8) includes the phrase:

God took us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”Bible open to show Deuteronomy 26:1-5 on the page

Bible open to show Deuteronomy 26:5-8 on the pageUnderstanding the mighty/strong hand tends to be trivial. God is mighty; God is great. Translation doesn’t dilute this understanding much, in my experience.

The outstretched arm is, perhaps, less obvious, but sometimes more compelling, at least, to me.

You can find Jewish scholarship on the topic of the strong hand and outstretched arm all over the internet. But here’s what that extended arm means to me.

The outstretched arm reminds me of my obligation—always!— to reach out to the wider world. I believe I must use my personal freedom as a tool to work toward the liberation of others. At my seder, I can’t help but reflect upon current events. This year, that included paying attention to the illegal coup taking place in Myanmar, formerly Burma.

The New York Times reports that:

“Ten days after seizing power in Myanmar, the generals issued their first command to journalists: Stop using the words “coup,” “regime” and “junta” to describe the military’s takeover of the government. ”

When that didn’t work, the military junta that staged the coup in Myanmar—overthrowing the legitimate, democratically elected government—arrested more than 50 journalists for continuing to report the truth.

I wish I could do more than thumb my nose at these tyrants by defying their chosen vocabulary. This is the small strength of my individual hand, however, so that’s the little bit of power I will wield today.

Page view from Haggadah describing The Simple Child

After mentioning this outrage against human dignity, I’m also inspired to consider the question: Which child of the Passover seder am I aping, as I ask?

The Pesach Haggadah prompts us to answer questions about our liberation from slavery in Egypt for the benefit of four children: the one who is wise, a wicked child, a simple son, and the one who doesn’t even know how to ask what s/he needs to know.

Modernity offers most of us instant connections across the globe, yet few of us seem blessed with the wisdom to use what should probably be considered a superpower to its utmost. Staring at the atrocities in Myanmar, I wonder if I’m the child who can’t even formulate a sensible question.

Who should determine the form of government of any nation? Am I remiss in assuming the majority’s opinion offers the critical vote?

What is our obligation, as outsiders, to support those agitating and risking their lives in hopes of bringing democracy to a nation? Is it enough when I simply simply ponder their fate?

When are we called upon to act as opposed to bearing witness? How many civilians must a military coup murder before free people of the world feel obligated to take action?

Where should I draw the line between my own liberation and that of another oppressed person?

Why have I been blessed with so much more freedom than the people of Myanmar?

How can I make the world better given my limited strength and resources?

In this spring of optimism across the developed world as a pandemic God willing wanes, I hope those of us living in the bosom of privilege, safety, and freedom from want can provide some sort of meaningful support for those in  Myanmar and elsewhere living beneath a cloak of oppression.

* With a special nod to the pagan holiday of Ostara, aka Eostre, from which Christian Easter stole borrowed what it needed to convert the masses. Please note, friend Christians, that I don’t think Jesus himself is in any way incriminated in this wholesale holiday obfuscation. The social history is pretty fascinating, however, to a nerd like myself.

Hebrew acronym for zikhronah livrakha, meaning “May her memory be a blessing.” Read more about this Jewish acronym at My Jewish Learning dot com.

** Excerpted from Emma Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus, as etched at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Here’s one rabbi’s thought on understanding how translation affects a well known, widely “understood” passage such as the one I’ve quoted here.

When is a box really a coffer?

My father-in-law is a gentleman of the Old World whose interest in art often takes him to local auctions. For himself, he attends auctions in search of under-valued original works of art. But, when he finds a good deal on housewares that are antique, delightful, and a bit too fancy for his own table, he often thinks of me.

Yay!Silver box etched with floral ang geometric patterns

He gave me this silver plated box a few years ago.

Maker's mark indicating James Dixon & Sons, Sheffield, EPBM 1155My fairly brief investigation into the hallmark engraved on the bottom gives me the impression that this box is not too fancy, and not so valuable. It is electroplated silver over base metal, made by James Dixon & Sons, of Sheffield, England.

Regardless, I find it quite fetching.

2 lit tapers on wooden table next to open silver chest containing beeswax candlesI immediately put my little silver box to good use. I store my Shabbat candles inside.

There is a notion in Judaism of Hiddur Mitzvah, whereby the act of beautifying a ritual enhances its spiritual significance. I find myself in complete agreement with this idea: to engage all of the senses in worship seems, to me, an obvious acknowledgement of the beneficence of the ultimate Creator.

One day, during the pandemic, I asked my child to fetch the coffer so I could put out the Shabbos candles. This led to the sort of inane conversation with which all parents are likely familiar.

“Please bring the silver coffer out of the cupboard, my darling,” says Mother, “so that I can get the candles for Shabbat.”

“The what?” asks Punk Kid #2.

“There is a shiny silver box inside the Kitchen Queen in the dining room,” replies Mother, still beaming with the sabbath peace. “The candles are inside.”

“What’s a Kitchen Queen?” responds Punk Kid #2.

“The Kitchen Queen is the antique wooden cabinet in the dining room that came from my grandmother, of course,” says Mother, rapidly losing her cool.

“Some people would call it a Hoosier Cabinet,” I offer as the steam billows out of my ears, my dear child looking on, taking no action, drooling, and perhaps going a bit cross-eyed…

Shalom bayit recedes into some future Shabbat during which I fail completely to engage with my own children and therefore achieve inner peace…

We could go on at some length describing how not one, but two, intelligent children failed to find a quite visibly special box containing the ritually important candles used to usher in the day of rest in a Jewish home, but, well, what value is there in teasing my kids?

I found it fascinating how definitely I defined my silver box as a coffer, and how my younger child immediately latched on to his own mental definition when I asked for one.

He was looking for a “box full of gold,” by the way, which is not a ridiculous notion for what a coffer might be.

Dictionary defining coffer as a chest or strongboxMy little box—it is about 6″ tall and 6.5 × 8.5″ at the base—may not be as imposing as a medieval lord’s strongbox. The lion heads at the sides, however, imbue a certain gravitas. Their noble expressions may be my very favorite part of the box!Lion head holding ring handle on side of silver box

Candles were a scarce, valuable resource in the not-so-distant past, needing protection from nibbling* by mice or rats. It’s not ridiculous to guard them with the mightiest of cats. They deserve to reside in a finely decorated coffer.

Though my children had managed, somehow, to not even notice my box’s presence, it has become an integral part of my celebration of the weekly joy that is Shabbat.

The idea of a holiday, every seven days, given to us to break up the monotony of a lifetime of work? I find the very notion miraculous. I’m eternally grateful for it.

During a pandemic, the relief of such a holiday is even more wonderful. Where one day piles up upon the next in a potentially never-ending heap, a simple break is a gift in a web of byzantine complexity!

Jewish menorah and hanukkiah candelabrae

Coming up soon, of course, for some of us, is another very light-specific and candle-involved holiday: Hanukkah. My photo here shows a Hanukkah menorah, or hanukkiah, next to a standard Jewish menorah with only seven branches.

While the pandemic pounds the normalcy out of so many of our experiences in 2020, it has little influence on the celebration of a small band of guerilla fighters against the greatest army in the world during the second century BCE.

When I take a candle from my coffer to kindle against the darkness on 25 Kislev (10 December, 2020), I will commemorate and publicize a miracle. I will battle darkness with my own small light. I am good, and I will defeat that which is wicked.

May humanity deal COVID-19 a similarly devastating blow in 2021, offering us a future of uncovered faces and robust health for the multitudes.

EPBM stands for “Electro-Plated Britannia Metal,” which is a cheaper version of the electroplated nickel silver that was, itself, a cheaper imitation of sterling silver goods.

*Remember that early candles were made of tallow, or beef fat. For a rodent, that stuff is like caviar or manna from heaven.

Wear a mask, people of faith, or live in sin

Wearing a mask or other face covering to reduce the spread of coronavirus should not be a political issue because protecting members of our own communities is so obviously the right thing to do.

Safety goggles, cloth face mask, and disposable glovesThis partisanship doesn’t even make rational sense in the context of America’s “culture wars.” Republican party members often proclaim themselves pro-life,º yet many refuse to don protective gear during a pandemic, callously risking the lives of others because the price of a few dollars and mild inconvenience is too high.

GOP.com suggests that Republicans believe Culture should respect and protect life.

You should wear a mask—and follow government mandates ordering you to do so—for the same reason you shouldn’t drive while intoxicated: these rules are enacted to save human lives. We have always limited some freedoms via the common law when one person’s actions infringe upon the rights of others’ lives or property.

It’s none of my business if you are an adult who chooses to get drunk; it is anyone’s business to intervene if you callously murder other people by operating a motor vehicle in that condition. I make no moral or ethical distinction between that action and firing a gun with a bullet in its chamber into a crowd, nor should the law. Mask directives land squarely in this legal territory.

I’m not making accusations from a place of partisanship, either. Objective evidence suggests that Republicans are those least likely to wear masks. A New York Times article from June 2, 2020, referenced a Gallup poll showing fewer than half of Republicans had donned a mask in public. In the same poll, 75% of Democrats had worn one, as had 58% of my fellow independents.

While this inaction flies in the face of the GOP’s pro-life position, it also repudiates the Christian faith of the majority of its members. A 2017 Washington Post article gave me the figure that “73% of the Republican party is white Christian.”Jewish Torah, Good News Bible, and cloth face mask

The 6th Commandment: Thou shalt not kill

I grew up attending a United Methodist Church, though I converted to Judaism as an adult. My daily life is enriched by living amongst observant Christians. While I won’t pretend to be any kind of theological scholar and I personally believe much of the revealed truth of Torah/the Bible to be allegorical, I find the Ten Commandments clear and straightforward, especially this one:

Thou shalt not kill.

There are variations in understanding the Ten Commandments depending upon whether you ask a Jew, Protestant, or Catholic. Thou shalt not kill is usually cited as the 6th*.

Wearing a mask definitively reduces the chances that the wearer will infect someone else with COVID-19. Doctors and scientists are still working to unravel the many mysteries of this novel coronavirus, but there is solid evidence that many cases are transmitted by asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic individuals, i.e., people who don’t think they are sick. If you wait to wear a mask until you are sick with COVID-19, you may well have already infected another innocent victim.

COVID-19 has killed over half a million people around the world already, and it is especially lethal when it infects the elderly. I can’t help but leap from this fact to another of the Ten Commandments, number five:

Honor thy father and thy mother; in order that thy days may be prolonged upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.

Excerpt of page of Torah/Bible showing Exodus 20:12-13From my again, admittedly, allegorical interpretation of this commandment, wantonly endangering the lives of any elderly person is quite literally a sin. Even according to a strict interpretation of the words, not wearing a mask to protect your own parents would be the sin. Taking part in a culture of resistance to protective measures makes you complicit in endangering this vulnerable population whether you’re the one who infects your mom or a member of her church does.

Refusing to wear a mask while a virus ravages the weak is an indefensible position for anyone purporting to ascribe to Judeo-Christian values.

The author wearing an improvised home-made face coveringI didn’t need more reasons to cover my face in public during a pandemic, but, upon reflection, I found two more in my faith.

º The Republican party website, on its Platform page, has a poll “Why Are You A Republican?: Tell Us Which Principles Are Most Important To You.” The choices are compiled from previous visitors feedback, and include the option: “Culture should respect and protect life.”

Dated September 6, 2017, but behind a paywall. You could try searching for “The stark racial and religious divide between democrats and republicans in one chart.” Please note that the racial aspect of this chart had nothing to do with my point, but this was the first recent and reliable source I found for statistics on the religious makeup of the Republican party. Presumably there are Christian people of color in the Republican party as well, so it is likely that more than 73% of party members consider themselves to be followers of Jesus Christ.

* Catholic interpretation would say this is the 5th, not 6th, commandment.

Catholics omit the second clause, but the shared portion makes my point. For them, it is commandment number four.

Note: The author’s improvised face covering shown in the last photo is not ideal COVID-19 protection for others as it fits too loosely around the face. See the CDC for further advice. This hat+mask combination was my first attempt when PPE was still scarce for health care workers, but the idea of home-made cloth masks was introduced as a reasonable alternative for civilian wear in daily life. It was comprised of a napkin and pipe cleaners and designed to be worn on local walks where social distancing could usually be expected. A loose mask like this is still better than no face covering, however, and it is much easier to breathe in during socially distanced exercise.

Teen wearing medieval plague doctor mask leaving house for a walkMy teen opted for a rather more historical mask that he happened to have lying about the house. My claustrophobia would make this style very difficult for me to wear, but we did get some great photos that day.

Larry Levine’s Meats & Deli saves our pandemic Passover with Seder in a Box

If it weren’t for the generosity of local Jewish charities and businesses like Larry Levine’s Meats & Deli of Peabody, Massachusetts, my family would not have had a proper Passover seder this year.

Larry Levine Kosher Meat Market & Deli contact info

Yes, I, too, was googling “how to make matza at home”… but I don’t keep any wheat flour in the house since we cut gluten out of our younger son’s diet due to his autoimmune disease and a relative’s diagnosis with celiac. Things were about to get really artsy-crafty around here. Oh, yes, and I was a nutcase!

On Tuesday, April 7th, I left my house for a public space other than the park/a sidewalk for the first time since March 12, 2020. I went out to pick up a “Seder in a Box” kit at Larry Levine’s kosher deli.

Seder in a Box Larry Levine 2020 pandemic letterOur “Seder in a Box” was organized by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies group out of Boston. I’ve received email from CJP and other local/regional Jewish organizations for years as our family has gratefully enjoyed programs like PJ Library which offers amazing, free monthly Jewish books for kids of Jewish and interfaith heritage.

In case you are wondering, a “Seder in a Box” includes all the elements that need to be represented on a seder plate, a box of matzah, and a small bottle of Kedem grape juice. You’ll still need to prepare the “festive meal” to go along with the kit to make a full and proper Passover seder.

seder plate with bitter herbs, charoset, shank bone, etc.More properly described as a “seder in a paper bag,” the package had everything one needs for the seder plate plus approximately enough grape juice (8 oz.) for a skimpy* solo seder.

crystal goblet filled with wine on silver salverHere’s Elijah’s cup on our table. Poor Elijah, like me, had to make do with mostly grape juice this year.

Manischewitz kosher wine bottle, mostly empty, on silver salver

Luckily, I had a bit of Manischewitz sweet kosher wine in the house and one 32 oz bottle of organic concord grape juice to supplement. The one full box of matzah included in our kit was sufficient for our family of six to celebrate a Passover seder, though I rationed matzah in a way I’ve never done before.

My hope is that each of us can eat at least a bit of the matzah we received in our Seder in a Box every day throughout the eight days of the Passover holiday to fulfill the commandment to eat unleavened bread. Luckily, I feel confident that God will understand if we fall short of orthodox religious interpretation this year amidst pandemic and societal chaos.

I’m not sure if a financially comfortable family like ours is the most deserving recipient of any beneficence, but I clicked through and requested a Seder in a Box immediately when I got the email offer from CJP. I would not have gone into a grocery store for these items; not at this time, not this year. My family would not have continued our tradition of celebrating this very important Jewish holiday in the traditional fashion if we hadn’t had access to this gift.

Here’s what I know: I can’t get a grocery delivery slot from anyone these days, and I am unwilling to visit stores in person while I have ample calories available in my house. The health of my family—especially my septuagenarian in-laws downstairs—demands that I sacrifice all trivial wants at this time.

Passover, to me, isn’t really a trivial pursuit. To be fair, I wouldn’t risk the lives of anyone in my household to honor the holiday, but I will certainly go outside my comfort zone to do my very best to host a meaningful seder.

This year, the Seder in a Box was a lifeline for observing Jewish traditions that date back for millennia. I’m so grateful for what I received, and I hope the people at CJP and Larry Levine’s are aware of how meaningful their gift was to me and my inter-generational household.

* Strict interpretation of Jewish law says we should pour each of the four required cups of wine for a seder into a cup that holds 3.5 oz, and each of us should drink at least ~50 cc per cup. 4 cups x 50 cc = 200 cc = ~7 fluid oz per person.

Note: if you need to drink grape juice instead of wine for health reasons, that is totally okay! If you’re diabetic, I’m less certain. Maybe Passover will kill you unless you’ve got some insulin to inject?

Evangelical Christians trample my religious freedom by applying their convictions to all in the abortion debate

The abortion debate in America is a contentious one that I have no interest in rehashing here. While I have many thoughts and opinions on the issue, most of them fall outside of the kind of rational discussion I prefer to instigate on my little site dedicated to the wonderful as opposed to the profane.

Something I cannot ignore of late are the actions of multiple states—tellingly, states which tend to be poorer than the U.S. average with a markedly less educated populace—as they defy the moderate will of the majority of American citizens and the affirmed constitutional right of individual Americans to follow their own faiths and consciences with regard to abortion procedures.

Activists at the extreme of both sides pervert this complex and morally fraught issue by ignoring subtleties and braying out absolutes and ultimatums. I reject those dangerous simplifications from both the right and left. Most Americans believe that some abortions should be safe and legal. Less than half of Americans support either a total ban or the complete freedom to terminate any pregnancy.

In particular, as a Jewish woman, I find it offensive that conservative Christians are promoting their religious beliefs in the political arena with a total disregard for the separation of church and state.

This separation, of course, is another freedom guaranteed to each of us by the Constitution.

The actors on these Supreme Court defying laws like to portray themselves as sole legitimate arbiters of God’s will. Upon signing the most restrictive anti-abortion bill in America, Governor Kay Ivey of Alabama issued a statement that she did so because “every life is a sacred gift from God.” Of course, with no exceptions in the Alabama bill for survivors of horrific crimes against girls no matter how young or women whether competent to consent or not who become pregnant, it’s obvious that Governor Ivey feels some lives are more sacred than others, and that it is her place to judge such matters.

Jewish law argues that a mother’s life must be saved at the expense of a fetus if the parent is in danger and the process of childbirth has not yet begun. “[T]he life of those already living comes before the life of those yet to be born.”Jewish law also recognizes the mental health of the mother as a vital factor in making the decision to terminate a pregnancy. Other faiths advise their adherents differently.

It is evangelizing pure and simple for this kind of dictatorial Christian to attempt to subvert my religion with her own when it comes to my family’s medical decision making.

There are suppositions about the moment that “life” begins, but no definitive answers from science yet to trump matters of faith and belief. We may someday know when the spark of animation—or the soul—enters the bundle of cells that grow into living flesh. We do not know now beyond a general range of viability dates for human babies.

From my perspective, it would be wise for people who value unborn lives above those of living women to invest heavily in the technological leap of gestating fetuses outside the womb. If it were possible to “harvest” unwanted pregnancies and nurture them elsewhere, some of the moral quandaries would change if not diminish. Certainly at that point those with the most extreme viewpoints on the subject of abortion could offer to save every unwanted child and assume the costs—financial, social, and emotional—thereof.

https://theawarenesscenter.blogspot.com/2011/02/incest-pregnancy-abortion-and-halacha.html