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The Real Miracle of Passover

David Ben Gurion

The Passover story is one of miracles and marvels: the parting of the sea; the plagues that struck Egypt; the protection of the blood on the doorposts of our people’s houses, as the Destroyer struck down the Egyptians; the miraculous redemption of our people from slavery.

Did these miracles really happen exactly as described in the Book of Exodus? I leave that to you for this particular moment. But here is a miracle that did happen, and happens every single year as we tell and retell the story of our Exodus from Egypt. It is the miracle that is described in this speech by David Ben Gurion, , exactly 70 years ago, before the UN Commission on Palestine (the “Peel Commission,” established by the British as they tried to extricate themselves from the Arab-Jewish quagmire).

300 years ago, there came to the New World a ship, and its name was the Mayflower. The Mayflower’s landing on Plymouth Rock was one of the great historical events in the history of England and in the history of America. But I would like to ask any Englishman sitting here on the commission, what day did the Mayflower leave port? What date was it? I’d like to ask the Americans: do they know what date the Mayflower left port in England? How many people were on the boat? Who were their leaders? What kind of food did they eat on the boat?

More than 3,300 years ago, long before the Mayflower, our people left Egypt; and every Jew in the world, wherever he is, knows on what day they left: the 15th of Nisan. And everyone knows exactly what food they ate: matzah. And to this very day, Jews all over the world eat matzah on the 15th of Nisan. And they tell about the Exodus from Egypt, and the sorrows the Jews have experienced from the day they entered into Exile. And they conclude with two declarations: “Now we are slaves, next year we shall be free; this year here, next year in Jerusalem!”

What is the real miracle of Passover? Even now, over 3,000 years later, we – all of us – all over the world – still gather on the night of Passover, to tell and retell the story of our miraculous redemption from Egyptian bondage. Whether here in the United States and Canada, in the State of Israel, South America, in Europe, or Asia, or around the Pacific Rim, we tell it. In so doing, we remind ourselves as well of the core values of our history: our mandate to establish a more just and compassionate society, from the lessons we learned in the bitterness of slavery and oppression.

And so, in our celebration of miracles, and our hope for the coming of a better day on this Earth, I wish you and your families a Chag Sameach and a Ziessen Pesach – a sweet and joyous Passover to all.

The Voice of a Woman

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The Dance of Myriam by Marc Chagall. 1966. Musée national Marc Chagall, Nice, France.

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: “Sing to the Eternal, who has triumphed gloriously; horse and driver God has hurled into the sea.” (Exodus 15.20-21)

These are the last verses of the Song of Miriam, as the Israelites crossed the sea on dry land. The song is also called the Song of the Sea, and it begins with Moses as he leads all the Israelites in this song of praise to God. This Friday morning at our Service for the Conclusion of Passover, our cantor, Emma Goldin Lutz, will chant this song for us. I am grateful for every opportunity I have each year to either chant this song myself, or hear someone with as beautiful a voice as Emma’s chant it. I hope you will give yourselves that opportunity as well this Friday at 10:30AM. The text of Mi Chamocha, Who is like You, O God, that we know from all our evening and morning services, comes from this song.

There is a poignant irony, and for many, a bitter one as well, in this Song of Miriam. The irony is known to us by the phrase Kol Ishah Ervah. It is Talmudic shorthand for the concept that if a man hears the voice of a woman (kol ishah) raised in song, it is tantamount to his committing sexual impropriety, ervah literally meaning nakedness. Miriam the prophetess, sister of Aaron and Moses, would have blanched at such a law – a law written over a millennium after she led the women in song. This is the law that has driven, at least in part, the opposition to Women of the Wall, who have sought for 25 years now to hold morning services together at the Kotel Hama’aravi, the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Read a fresh look at this Talmudic prohibition by Professor Aharon Amit, a scholar of the history of the Talmud at Bar Ilan University.

This past Sunday, on the second day of Passover, thousands of people flocked to the Kotel for the traditional Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing. On the Festivals of Pesach and Sukkot, those men who are descended from priestly families come to the Kotel, stand in the men’s section, and raise their hands and voices to pronounce the blessing upon the people. When they raise their hands, their fingers are separated into 3 groups to form the letter shin, for Shaddai, one of the divine appellations. They also cover their heads with a tallit. For his portrayal of the character Spock on “Star Trek,” the late great actor Leonard Nimoy reached back into his experience as a child in synagogue, and brought this hand formation to accompany his own “Vulcan Salute.”

But this particular Sunday was a bit different in Jerusalem. In a move by Women of the Wall, those women who traced their ancestry back to priestly families, planned to raise their hands and cover their heads, as they too raised their voices to pronounce the Birkat Kohanim from the women’s section of the Kotel in a Birkat Kohanot. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the Rabbi of the Kotel, prohibited the women to raise their hands and voices, and the Kotel police cordoned off the women into a holding area, so they would not be seen or heard by other worshipers. Funding for the effort mounted by WOW for the Birkat Kohanot was provided by Leonard Nimoy’s estate. Read a news report of this incident.

If Miriam the prophetess had suddenly appeared at the Western Wall, I wonder what Rabbi Rabinowitz would have done. I suppose we’ll never know. What we do know is that those of us who are committed to equality for women in Jewish life, no matter where we live, will never relent in this ongoing movement.

Come to services this Friday and raise your voices with us.

From Schmutz to Soaring Inspiration

martin-luther-king-jrThis week we are reading the portion Tazria in our Torah; at first blush, not very appetizing reading. Most of the portion concerns itself with what we, in less elegant vocabulary, might call schmutz; skin infections, mold on houses, and the like – not one of the more inspirational portions in our literature. On the other hand, perhaps more than any other, this text’s preoccupation with schmutz may represent the most immediate reality that any of us faces in real human existence. How did this schmutz appear in our midst, and how do we remove it so that, hopefully, it doesn’t return? In Ancient Israel, the primary responsibility devolved upon the kohanim – the priests – to control and monitor schmutz. In our own lives and in our own time, it devolves upon us – all of us.

I am struck by the fortuitousness of our reading this portion this year during this first week of April for a poignant reason. Earlier this week, on Monday, we were reminded that it was the anniversary of the assassination of The Rev’d. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee – April 4, 1968. We remember that Dr. King went to Memphis to support a strike by the sanitation workers of that city, who were demanding more equitable pay and working conditions; men who dealt with schmutz, if you will, every day of their lives – but the most important word in the sentence is men. These men were people like all others, and deserved to have someone stand up for them and assert their rights to a living wage. I guess sometimes we might fall into the trap of associating the people with their work. But Dr. King was hell-bent on reminding all of us that sanitation workers were endowed with the same level of human dignity as anyone else, and needed to be recognized and treated as such. And so, Dr. King went to Memphis.

The speech that Dr. King gave that night is one of the gems of American oratory. I have excerpted the text of final segments of it below for a specific reason. We are coming up on our celebration of Passover – our great Festival of Redemption. This Shabbat is Shabbat HaChodesh, the first day of the month of Nisan, the first month of the Hebrew calendar year, and the month of Passover. Though the towering personality of Moses appears nowhere in the Haggadah, he certainly figures prominently in the Biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt and our redemption from slavery. There can be little doubt that Dr. King, at the core of his being as Baptist preacher, saw himself very much as a “Moses” figure in bringing about redemption for his people in this country, and for oppressed peoples the world over. Throughout the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses rehearses the entire narrative of the birth, enslavement, redemption, wandering, and arrival at the bank of the Jordan River, of the People Israel. And then, Moses gazes over to the Promised Land, where he will never go, and dies there in Mo’av. And the people cross over without him. Much of Dr. King’s final speech is reminiscent of Moses’ final soliloquy.

I have often speculated that if Martin Luther King had been Jewish, his Hebrew name would have been Moshe. And so, in the midst of some of the schmutz, if you will, to which we have been subjected during this campaign season, I offer for you some real inspiration in the final words of the Rev’d. Dr. Martin Luther King to his people, as he stands with the garbage workers of Memphis. I will begin the transcript with the New Testament’s parable of the Good Samaritan. And for Dr. King we say, zecher tzaddik liv’rachah – May the memory of the righteous be for a blessing.

Dr. King. . . .

“You see, the Jericho road is a dangerous road. I remember when Mrs. King and I were first in Jerusalem. We rented a car and drove from Jerusalem down to Jericho. And as soon as we got on that road, I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road. It’s really conducive for ambushing. You start out in Jerusalem, which is about 1200 miles — or rather 1200 feet above sea level. And by the time you get down to Jericho, fifteen or twenty minutes later, you’re about 2200 feet below sea level. That’s a dangerous road. In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”

“That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to my job. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?” The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” The question is, “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.

“Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination. And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation. And I want to thank God, once more, for allowing me to be here with you.

“You know, several years ago, I was in New York City autographing the first book that I had written. And while sitting there autographing books, a demented black woman came up. The only question I heard from her was, “Are you Martin Luther King?” And I was looking down writing, and I said, “Yes.” And the next minute I felt something beating on my chest. Before I knew it I had been stabbed by this demented woman. I was rushed to Harlem Hospital. It was a dark Saturday afternoon. And that blade had gone through, and the X-rays revealed that the tip of the blade was on the edge of my aorta, the main artery. And once that’s punctured, your drowned in your own blood — that’s the end of you.

“It came out in the New York Times the next morning, that if I had merely sneezed, I would have died. Well, about four days later, they allowed me, after the operation, after my chest had been opened, and the blade had been taken out, to move around in the wheel chair in the hospital. They allowed me to read some of the mail that came in, and from all over the states and the world, kind letters came in. I read a few, but one of them I will never forget. I had received one from the President and the Vice-President. I’ve forgotten what those telegrams said. I’d received a visit and a letter from the Governor of New York, but I’ve forgotten what that letter said. But there was another letter that came from a little girl, a young girl who was a student at the White Plains High School. And I looked at that letter, and I’ll never forget it. It said simply,

Dear Dr. King,

I am a ninth-grade student at the White Plains High School.

And she said,

While it should not matter, I would like to mention that I’m a white girl. I read in the paper of your misfortune, and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing you to say that I’m so happy that you didn’t sneeze.”

“And I want to say tonight — I want to say tonight that I too am happy that I didn’t sneeze. Because if I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1960, when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters. And I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.

“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.

“If I had sneezed — If I had sneezed I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation, and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.

“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have had a chance later that year, in August, to try to tell America about a dream that I had had.

“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been down in Selma, Alabama, to see the great Movement there.

“If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been in Memphis to see a community rally around those brothers and sisters who are suffering.

“I’m so happy that I didn’t sneeze.

“And they were telling me –. Now, it doesn’t matter, now. It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us. The pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”

“And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

“And I don’t mind.

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

“And so I’m happy, tonight.

“I’m not worried about anything.

“I’m not fearing any man!

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!”

Purity and Taint: Crossing the Line of Life and Death

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Spring in Eretz Israel

Of four special Shabbatot leading up to our celebration of Pesach, this coming Shabbat is the third. It is called Shabbat Parah, and is built around a ritual whose internal meaning seems quite remote for us. The “Ritual of the Red Heifer,” the parah adumah, is an extra reading in traditional practice, taken from the Book of Numbers, 19.1-22. If a person has come into contact with a dead body, he/she is believed to become contaminated. According to this ritual, a red heifer is slaughtered, its body and blood are burned in a fire with specific woods and plants, and then its ashes are mixed with water into a paste that is sprinkled on those who have been contaminated, thus purifying them. The Jewish Publication Society translates this as the “water of lustration.”

Okay, pretty gory, I admit; a ritual from a distant time, and puzzling in its real intent. The ancient world was filled with fears and rituals regarding purity and contamination, and how to regain the one, if exposed to and tainted by the other.

Certainly in the modern world we have learned a number of lessons about hygiene and physical cleanliness. One of the most elementary principles of cooking, for instance, is that when you prepare raw poultry to be cooked, before you touch anything else, wash your hands (!), and any other utensils that came into contact with the raw poultry. Otherwise, we’re almost begging for cross-contamination, and the potential for salmonella and all kinds of other horrors.

So we understand the principle of physical contamination. But there seemed to be an even deeper fear here in the case of the Red Heifer. Here, the cross between purity and contamination seemed to represent the more overwhelming fear of death, and crossing over that line, from which, of course, there was no return.

In our own time, we are familiar with various rituals which act out our need to make this separation between life and death. You may have noticed, for instance, that it’s rather tough to dispose of all the excess food from a house of shiva. While it’s okay to eat food within a house of shiva that is served to visitors, some people fear that it’s bad luck to take food out of a house of shiva – as though we’d be bringing the “taint of death” along with us. (I often advise that a good way to work around this bugaboo is to bring uneaten food to a local soup kitchen or to a particular individual who could particularly benefit from it.) Likewise, there is a custom that upon leaving a cemetery we wash our hands, as if to wash off the taint of death.

In these weeks leading up to Passover, we experience the rebirth of spring, which we celebrate on Passover. Passover itself is a festival rooted in the spring barley harvest. The month of Nisan itself was originally called “Aviv,” the “spring month.” We leave the deadness and cold of winter behind, as our spirits are buoyed by the rebirth of nature all around us. In addition, the historic overlay of the festival reminds us of our redemption from death in the drama surrounding our exodus from Egypt.

So in the coming weeks, I hope we will take advantage of these special Shabbatot, which can help to focus our attention on the multi-layered significance of the Passover festival, and in so doing, heighten our attention to the gifts of life and freedom with which we have been blessed.