What’s Driving Jews Away From Synagogues? Not Dues, but ‘Membership’

It is no secret that the traditional synagogue model is showing signs of age: Over the past two decades, membership has declined across the United States, forcing many synagogues to merge and even to close for good.

There has been abundant analysis on this trend, especially after the Pew Report was released in the fall of 2013. Fingers have been pointed in various different directions, and, because there remains widespread agreement about the value of synagogues, varying prescriptions have been written to cure the ills of these legacy institutions.

One popular target is the traditional dues model that most synagogues today utilize as the backbone of their financial model. This model, which was developed and has been left largely unchanged since before World War II, stipulates a set fee that would-be congregants must pay in order to become a “member” of the community. Membership, in turn, grants the individual (and his/her family, if relevant) certain rights and privileges within the congregation.

Only a member, for example, can attend services on the High Holy Days, vote in congregational decisions, serve on committees and boards, or have access to clergy for counseling and lifecycle officiation. Aside from the obligation to pay one’s dues, little or nothing is generally expected of members. Members are free to utilize the services and programs offered by the synagogue as much or as little as desired or necessary, and are similarly free to participate in congregational life and leadership if they so choose.

Critics of this model often point to the high cost of dues at the typical synagogue, arguing that many American Jews struggle to afford them and, moreover, that many do not affiliate because of the expense. More to the point, critics of the traditional dues model point out that many Jews feel the expense of membership far exceeds the benefits. Considering that most synagogue members only attend their temple on the High Holy Days, and rarely if ever utilize the other benefits of membership or participate in synagogue leadership (especially after the last child has his or her bar or bat mitzvah), they might rightly ask what they are receiving for their two grand (or more) per year.

American Jews, especially young ones, who are increasingly less religious while, at the same time, experiencing greater financial pressures than their parents or grandparents, look at synagogue membership (and institutional memberships in general) as too costly for the value provided.

The challenge of the expense of membership is significant despite the fact that many synagogues offer dues reductions. Indeed, the dues reductions process at most synagogues – sometimes requiring invasive financial disclosures and committee reviews – is itself problematic. Critics point out that this often painful and embarrassing ordeal highlights the ways in which the typical membership model is out of step with the times, out of sync with synagogues’ purpose, and discordant with Jewish values. Many understandably choose to drop membership, or not apply for it at all, rather than face that process.

For these reasons, there has been a growing movement in the American Jewish community for synagogues to change their financial model. Advocates for change usually advance a voluntary-giving model of one kind or another, While there are a number of different versions of voluntary-giving structures (many of which are analyzed in detail in the exceptional new book “New Membership & Financial Alternatives for the American Synagogue” by Rabbis Kerry and Avi Olitzky (Jewish Lights, 2015)), they all more or less advocate decoupling membership from financial obligation. Membership is free, universal giving is encouraged.

Yet, many congregations are wary of transitioning to systems like the voluntary-giving model, as they are inherently less predictable and have less of a proven track-record of sustainability than the traditional dues model.

At the moment, my synagogue is one such congregation. Over the past year, a team of thoughtful and sensitive leaders was tasked with studying and analyzing these alternative models in order to determine whether changing to a new model would be right for our community. Ultimately, they concluded that the risks outweighed the potential rewards, and as people who cared about the congregation’s long-term future, they could not recommend a change.

As this taskforce presented its findings to me and our congregation’s “visioning” committee, I was disappointed. Years of studying the sociological trends and organizational best-practices had led me to conclude that voluntary-giving models were the wave of the future, not only because they were more in sync with the zeitgeist, but also because they were more in line with Jewish values of communal inclusion.

But as the conversation progressed, something dawned on me: the major flaw in the traditional model is not necessarily the fixed cost typically associated with membership but, rather, the notion of membership itself. Voluntary giving systems will ultimately be ineffective unless they address the fundamental flaw inherent in the traditional membership model. Similarly, congregations unwilling to part with a traditional dues system can yet remain relevant, vital, and vibrant, so long as they address this flaw.

How did I arrive at this conclusion? The more I heard the word “membership,” the more I realized that it is an inherently transactional term. A member of an organization is typically one who pays some sort of premium in order to receive certain benefits that organization provides at no additional cost. It is, therefore, the very definition of fee-for-service. Consider the things we are members of today: I’m a member of my gym, of Costco, of Netflix and Amazon Prime. The one thing all of these memberships have in common is that I am a regular consumer of their products and services. The membership premium makes sense so long as I remain a regular customer.

Synagogues, however, generally purport to be communities, not merely service providers. Community is supposed to be covenantal, not transactional. Communities are made up of people committed to supporting each other and to the infrastructure and systems that facilitate communal well-being. While a member of an organization is primarily interested in what he or she is receiving for him or herself, a participant in a community, while not necessarily sacrificing his or her own needs, is simultaneously interested in the welfare of his or her neighbors and in the success of the community as a whole.

Using the metaphor of “membership” to define belonging to a community reinforces and perpetuates a mentality that is the very antithesis of community.

It is precisely this reality that drives contemporary Jews away from the traditional synagogue model. Individuals who want Jewish experiences can consume it in any number of different venues, with much less baggage, and for much cheaper. One can effortlessly find a freelance bar mitzvah tutor or readily rent a rabbi to officiate his or her family’s lifecycle events. One can access all the Jewish information one could ever possibly need, for free, on the Web.

Thus, even those synagogues that have adopted a voluntary-giving model won’t change the dynamic driving their decline unless they also stop identifying belonging as “membership,” because even free or pay-what-you-want membership is still fundamentally transactional. At the same time, synagogues that are unprepared to adopt a voluntary-giving model can still transform themselves so long as they reframe what it means to be a part of the community.

How can synagogues do this? For starters, they can employ a term other than “membership,” something that connotes covenantal responsibility rather than consumer transaction. For example, a pastor friend of mine uses the term “teammates” instead of “members” at his rapidly growing startup church. I like that. “Partner,” “supporter,” or “builder” are also good options.

My humble suggestion? Use the term “friend” instead of “member.” Why? First, because the Hebrew word for member is haver, which also means friend. (Those who may find a change of this magnitude difficult can take comfort in the strong linguistic continuity between the two terms.) Second, because there are few words more evocative of a covenantal relationship than “friend,” a concept virtually synonymous with support, interdependence, and sharing, all essential elements of communal participation.

Friendship isn’t free. As a midrash puts it, “One only acquires a friend through great effort” (Sifre Devarim, Piska 305). Thus, it is not inherently antithetical for a synagogue to expect potential friends to give a specific financial amount as a statement of their dedication and as an acknowledgement that covenantal communities require resources to sustain them. However, the term “dues” is as fraught with unhelpful transactional connotations as “membership,” so it should probably also be replaced, perhaps with something like “investment” or “commitment.”

But synagogues must also make clear to potential friends that belonging to community is not a fee-for-service transaction. True friendship also takes a commitment of one’s time and talent. Becoming a friend of a synagogue community must thus also require active personal involvement – participation in programs and in leadership – in addition to monetary commitment. Only then can friendship fulfill the promise it implies, and only then can synagogues truly flourish.

Synagogues in our era will only flourish if they cease being transactional, service-providing organizations and become true covenantal communities. Changing terminology won’t itself accomplish this task. But then again, recall that when God set about creating the world, God chose to do so through words.

Originally published at https://www.haaretz.com/jewish/.premium-membership-is-stopping-jews-from-paying-synagogue-dues-1.5387705?=&ts=_1528491543125

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Haspel nomination reignites torture debate

On 9/11, I was a brand-new college student living in New York City for the first time.

In the aftermath of that day’s tragic events, I, like other Americans, was consumed with fear and anger. But then, as the War on Terror began, and on its heels the invasion of Iraq, stories about Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and the torture of detainees made me feel the Bush administration’s responses to 9/11 were eroding our moral authority, emboldening extremists, and, ironically, making us less safe.

Wrestling with the profound ethical challenges of that era is part of what propelled my journey to the rabbinate. As a budding spiritual leader, I began speaking out on the abuses of torture in the War on Terror, and, as the Bush years ended, it seemed that we had turned a corner, and the better angels of our nature had prevailed.

But in the coming days, the debate over torture will be reignited as the Senate considers the nomination of Gina Haspel for director of the CIA. Haspel, a career intelligence operative, ran a notorious CIA “black site” in Thailand, one that committed such atrocities as waterboarding, forced nudity, walling (in which a person’s neck is enclosed in a collar used to slam them against the wall) and cramped confinement boxes.

There are credible reports that Haspel even personally supervised the waterboarding of a detainee and then participated in the destruction of videotapes documenting torture, thereby preventing members of Congress, including those on the intelligence committees, from viewing them.

If Haspel becomes our next CIA director, she will be the first CIA director — in fact, the first Cabinet-level official in the modern era — who is known not only to condone torture, but also to have been directly involved in the use of torture. And were the Senate to confirm her nomination, it would effectively be condoning the practice, if not endorsing it outright.

As a rabbi and member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, I find this unconscionable. Torture is immoral, and those who tolerate its use, much less participate in acts of torture, ought to be considered unfit for high office, especially for positions like director of the CIA.

Jewish history testifies to the immorality of torture. During the Holocaust, the Nazis and their collaborators systematically murdered 6 million Jews and millions of other innocents. But they also tortured virtually all of those victims, plus millions more.

I have been honored, as a rabbi, to serve congregants who survived these atrocities. I have been forever changed by hearing their stories and by seeing how, even in old age, they are still tormented by their experiences.

The pervasiveness of torture during the Holocaust reveals a fundamental truth about the practice.

Torture — the act of inflicting severe pain on an individual, whether as a method of punishment, coercion, or extracting information — is predicated on the mindset that a captive is somehow less human than his captors, that the prisoner is a mere vessel for whatever the captor wants from him.

The Jewish ethical tradition, on the other hand, holds as foundational the belief that every human being, whether friend or foe, is created equally in God’s image. That’s why in Jewish law a criminal may not be punished in a way that would make him suffer more than his victim. And every person is entitled to due process, ensuring that no harm befalls an innocent person. Torture violates these teachings: It is routinely employed in circumstances where guilt has not been established, and it is designed to be unfairly harsh. Adding insult to grievous injury, torture does not even produce useful intelligence.

From a Jewish perspective, even the realities of war must not change these core values. While Judaism is not a pacifist tradition, the Bible forbids the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians in battle, carefully regulates sieges, and bans the rape of war prisoners. War may sometimes be necessary. But brutality — inhumanity — is always forbidden.

President Trump has repeatedly said that he would like to restart the widely condemned torture program our country briefly endorsed in the aftermath of 9/11. Fortunately, others — including his own Secretary of Defense James Mattis — have pushed back. But given her history, we cannot count on Haspel to stand up to the president should he order torture resumed. Additionally, confirming a CIA director who has condoned and allegedly practiced torture would imply that we, as a country, endorse torture, giving license to the practice elsewhere, emboldening extremists, and making us less safe.

Over the weekend, it was reported that Haspel has sought to withdraw her nomination. For the reasons outlined above, I hope she will indeed remove herself from consideration. But if she remains the nominee, I urge the Senate to take a stand against torture and reject her.

Originally published at: http://www.richmond.com/opinion/their-opinion/guest-columnists/michael-knopf-column-haspel-nomination-reignites-torture-debate/article_ff8bca21-8dbf-5dbc-8614-5a2a380e8996.html

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A Powerful Conversation at Governor Northam’s Interfaith Passover Seder

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A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to sit down with Gov. Ralph Northam and a small, interfaith group of religious leaders for a Passover seder at the Executive Mansion in Richmond. Passover is the Jewish holiday commemorating the biblical story of liberation for the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. As the festival begins, it is customary to have a Seder, a special celebratory meal bookended by prayers, symbols, and conversation.

From what I know, this was the first such Seder to be held at the Executive Mansion. It was the initiative of Northam and his wife Pam. The Northams aren’t Jewish. The idea to host a Seder was borne of a genuine desire to learn more about the Jewish tradition and to reach out to minority religious communities.

In attendance were Baptist and Episcopalian ministers, a Muslim Imam, and a Hindu scholar, along with spouses/partners, a few Jewish members of Northam’s staff, and a couple of the Northams’ Jewish friends. There were no reporters, television cameras, or press releases, and the invitation list was kept deliberately small (just 16 of us). This was not designed as an opportunity for public relations, rather it was to create a space for meaningful conversation among people of diverse religious backgrounds.

Our dinner conversation focused on the Seder’s radical proposition that,“In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see him or herself, as if he or she personally left Egypt.” I invited participants to understand that statement, not as a narrow Jewish commandment, but a universal invitation to view our current circumstances through the prism of the Exodus story.

If we were to do that: What would be Egypt? Who would be Pharaoh? Who are today’s Israelites? Who is oppressed, and why? Who is in need of redemption, and how might they be redeemed? And what is our overall role in the drama?

A powerful discussion ensued.

Many participants drew a connection between the subjugation of the Israelites and the modern African American experience. This conversation was prescient and emotional, especially considering that Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, had just been killed by Sacramento police officers a few days before our gathering (all he had in his possession was a mobile phone). Coincidentally, the Seder also coincided with the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. King, a modern-day Moses, frequently connected the struggle for Civil Rights with the Exodus story. This loomed large over the evening.

The Parkland school shooting and the recent activism surrounding gun control – powered by young people – was also fresh in many of our minds. Many of the participants at the Seder connected the pervasive fear of gun violence with the terror engendered by volatile Egyptian taskmasters.

Our Muslim participants also spoke passionately about their experiences with anti-Muslim bigotry – views now tragically being championed at the highest levels of the US government. It was not hard to draw a link between the modern marginalization of American Muslims and the ancient Israelites, both of whom were targeted because of their religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Northam, an outspoken advocate for racial justice, tougher gun laws, and inclusive policies seemed moved by these analogies. However, as these conversations were unfolding, Northam rarely spoke. Instead, he listened intently to what each of us had to say. At one point, he acknowledged his silence. He explained that, growing up on the Eastern Shore, he was not exposed to much diversity, and even harbored unconscious prejudices about the people and communities he didn’t know very well. Over time (and, in his view, with Pam’s guidance), he came to understand that his position of social privilege as a white Christian man required him, first and foremost, to listen to and learn from the experiences of those from different backgrounds. In so doing, he could see their common humanity and empathize with their challenges, enabling him to be an ally and an advocate for those individuals and communities.

Unsurprisingly, President Donald Trump cast a large shadow over the evening, with some participants identifying the President with the Pharaoh of the Exodus. Others were more cautious, but nevertheless saw clear parallels between the increasingly oppressive regime of the Exodus and the tyranny seemingly growing in our own time. If true, then our role in the story ought to be standing with the oppressed, resisting despots and despotism, and championing liberation.

The conversation, however, wasn’t merely an opportunity for political finger-pointing. Instead, as we discussed the relationship between the Exodus and current events, many of us, including Northam himself, candidly noted the ways in which we have contributed to the brokenness of our world.

Interestingly, in one particular telling of the Exodus story, the Pharaoh is not even mentioned. My fellow dinner goers were quick to point out that it was the average Egyptian, and the Egyptian people, and not necessarily the Pharaoh, who was responsible for abiding, benefiting, and perpetuating the centuries-long enslavement of the Israelites.

The moral of this story? We, too, bear responsibility, if not guilt, for the oppression that endures in our free society.

Similarly, despite the Bible’s acknowledgment that courageous women were central to the Israelites’ liberation, women are largely missing from the traditional Haggadah, the book that lays out the Seder’s rituals. We acknowledged the ways in which women are too often invisible in our society and how we still shamefully silence their voices. We also noticed that Moses was absent from the Haggadah. We reflected on the possibility that this was inviting us to remember that we should not wait for a Moses to appear to save us. Any of us could be a Moses. We just have to step up in defense of the vulnerable, demanding that the Pharaohs of our world set their enslaved subjects free.

In the end, I walked away from this experience with a profound sense of hope: that we have political and faith leaders who are genuinely interested in understanding different perspectives and bringing people of diverse backgrounds to the table. The fact that we can honor and learn from our differences and that my ancient faith can enrich the lives of people from very different backgrounds is significant. It is also significant that their perspectives can transform my understanding of my own tradition. Perhaps all we need in these bitter and divisive times is for everyone to have a place at the table.

That, and perhaps a few matzah balls.

Originally published at https://rvamag.com/news/community/opinion-a-powerful-discussion-at-governor-northams-interfaith-passover-sedar.html. 

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30 Days of Liberation 2018

The Talmud teaches that, during the 30 days before Passover, we should learn about matters related to the holiday. In that spirit, I composed a brief message for each of the previous 30 days, drawing from the wisdom Passover imparts. I hope you find these messages meaningful and inspiring, and if you do, feel free to share any or all of them far and wide.

Day 1 – According to the Talmud, Purim and Passover must always be connected, perhaps because the two stories underscore the difference between salvation and redemption. Purim represents salvation. The Jews of Persia are saved. But their situation at story’s end is fundamentally the same as at the beginning. They are still subjects of the King. On the other hand, the Passover story is about redemption. In the Exodus, the Israelites’ situation is radically transformed, from serving Pharaoh to serving God alone. Purim reminds us of the intermittently violent, intermittently safe, but ultimately unredeemed world we inhabit. As the ancient sage Rava said, “We are still slaves of Ahaseurus.” Passover, on the other hand, reminds us of the redeemed world that might yet be. The two are connected to teach us that we have redemptive work yet to do.

Day 2 – Why must Purim and Passover always be connected? Perhaps because Purim is a story of patriarchy: Ahasuerus marries, Vashti, a powerful royal woman. After consolidating power by ingratiating himself to the Persian noblemen, he demands Vashti obey him or face banishment. After capturing and forcing hundreds of women into a life of sexual servitude, Ahasuerus marries a smart, strong Jewish woman, Esther. Queen Esther is the story’s hero, but she never challenges the fundamental power structure. The story has a happy ending for the Jews, but the stage is still set the same as it was at story’s beginning. The Passover story, on the other hand, holds up a different model: courageous women undermine and dismantle the brutal existing order. In the end, the stage is radically reset. Pharaoh’s dominion, with its male-dominated hierarchy, ends and God’s begins. And under Divine rule, full equality is finally possible. Purim represents the reality and brutality of the existing patriarchal order. Passover represents the possibility of its being resisted, dismantled, and replaced with true equality. We connect the two holidays to remind us where we are, and where we are called to be.

Day 3 – Harder than taking the Children of Israel out of Egypt was taking Egypt out of the Children of Israel. The episode of the Golden Calf is a great, if tragic, example. The people had come to ascribe divinity to a man, Moses, whom they credited, rather than God, for taking them out of Egypt. Coming from a society where a man, Pharaoh, was God, this must have made sense. But when Moses disappeared on Mt. Sinai for 40 days, the people panicked. The idea of not having a tangible supreme authority was too much to bear, so they made a calf out of gold. The idolatry of worshipping a statue is no different than that of bending the knee to a human being. Both entrench hierarchies, reinforcing the oppression of the weak by the powerful. Little wonder that when Moses returns, the Torah indicates that the Israelites were acting like participants of a Pharaonic regime, demeaning and possibly even subjugating each other. We who today venerate the tangible are similarly at risk for serving gods of metal or flesh. We may be out of Egypt, but we can only know if Egypt is truly out of us if we treat all others as our equals, and fashion societies that affirm the dignity of all.

Day 4 – One of the world’s great myths is that of the “self-made man,” the person who, through nothing but hard work and determination, has become a success. The implication of this myth is that if one is not a success, it must be because he has not fixed hard enough on his goals or worked dilligently enough to achieve them. The Exodus story comes like a sledgehammer to shatter the “self-made man” myth: The Israelites were enslaved in Egypt for centuries. Did they remain in bondage because they didn’t work hard enough to get ahead or because they didn’t desire fiercely enough to be free? Of course not. They remained slaves because factors well beyond their control conspired to keep them that way, regardless of how much they yearned for freedom or how hard they worked. The only way for their poverty to end was to dismantle the system that kept them impoverished. The same is true today: While by-your-own-bootstraps gumption is important, and may work for some people sometimes, systems of oppression must be eradicated and replaced by systems of uplift, for people to have a chance to succeed.

Day 5 – When Pharaoh decrees that all Israelite baby boys be cast into the Nile, Moses’ mother hides him in a reed basket and sends him downriver in an effort to spare his life. Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the basket, opens it, sees a baby crying, and declares, “This must be a Hebrew child!” How did she know baby Moses was a Hebrew just by looking at him? In his recent book, “Here I Am,” Jonathan Shafran Foer suggests that she recognizes Moses as a Hebrew because “he was crying in Jewish.” How would one cry in Jewish? Maybe, Foer suggests, Moses was laughing. Perhaps laughter is how one cries in Jewish. It’s not so much that our tradition forbids sadness, or that pain is taboo. It’s just that we prefer to turn grief into giggling, sadness into song. Maybe that’s what saved Moses. And maybe that’s what will save us.

Day 5 (edited) When Pharaoh decrees that all Israelite baby boys be cast into the Nile, Moses’ mother hides him in a reed basket and sends him downriver to spare his life. Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the basket, opens it, sees a baby crying, and declares, “This must be a Hebrew child!” How did she know baby Moses was a Hebrew just by looking at him? In his recent book, “Here I Am,” Jonathan Shafran Foer suggests that she recognizes Moses as a Hebrew because “he was crying in Jewish.” How would one cry in Jewish? Maybe, Foer suggests, Moses was laughing. Perhaps laughter is how one cries in Jewish. It’s not so much that our tradition forbids sadness, or that pain is taboo. It’s just that we prefer to turn grief into giggling, sadness into song. Maybe that’s what saved Moses. And maybe that’s what will save us.

Day 6 According to the Torah, after years of oppression, “the Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.” God hears their cries, and is moved to come to their aid. But God is not the first character in the narrative to leap into action after hearing the cries of the oppressed. Pharaoh’s daughter sees baby Moses crying and saves him. Moses sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and intervenes. Then, Moses chases away a group of shepherds he sees harassing some Midianite girls. Maybe God refrained from rescuing the Israelites until people began taking action themselves. Or perhaps God’s intervention is a metaphor for the process of liberation that had already begun with these heroic human deeds. Or maybe, just maybe, God follows our example, and not the other way around. Divine action in the world corresponds with our own. When we lift up, God joins to bolster our efforts.

Day 6 (edited) According to the Torah, after years of oppression, “the Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help rose up to God.” God hears their cries, and is moved to come to their aid. But God is not the first character in the narrative to leap into action. Pharaoh’s daughter sees baby Moses crying and saves him. Moses sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew and intervenes. Then, Moses chases away a group of shepherds he sees harassing some Midianite girls. Maybe God refrained from rescuing the Israelites until people began taking action themselves. Or perhaps God’s intervention is a metaphor for the process of liberation that had already begun with these heroic human deeds. Or maybe, just maybe, God follows our example, and not the other way around. Divine action in the world corresponds with our own. When we lift up, God joins to bolster our efforts.

Day 7 The moment the Children of Israel settled in Egypt, they concentrated themselves in the Goshen region, fertile land in the Nile delta suitable for grazing and farming. This meant that from the beginning, the average Egyptian probably never met an Israelite. No wonder Pharaoh had such an easy time convincing his people that the Israelites were enemies to be controlled or destroyed. No wonder the Egyptians were unsympathetic to the enslaved Israelites’ suffering. Today, most of us live in socially, economically, and often ethnically homogenous areas. But when we are isolated from people of different backgrounds, experiences, and situations, we become more likely to fear or vilify them, and risk becoming indifferent to their needs. We don’t need to necessarily get up and move to more diverse neighborhoods. But unless we deliberately encounter and engage with diverse people, we might end up just like those ancient Egyptians.

Day 8 After God asks Moses to lead the people out of bondage, Moses begins the journey from his home in Midian back to Egypt. Something strange happens on the way: God tries to kill Moses! God was angry that Moses had left without circumcising his newborn son. The story underscores the “paramount importance of the institution of circumcision and the surpassing seriousness of its neglect” (JPS). Indeed, according to rabbinic tradition, “the survival and redemption of Israel was assured because of the two mitzvot,” Passover and circumcision. Why these two things? Because they represent our body and soul. Without the soul, the body is just a machine. But without a body, a soul is but a ghost. Without Jewish wisdom and tradition, embodied by Passover, there can be no living Jewish people. But without flesh-and-blood Jewish people, symbolized by circumcision, there can be no container for Jewish values. We cannot sacrifice people for values any more than we can trade values for people. Our redemption requires both. For what it’s worth, the one who ultimately intuits this truth is not Moses, it’s Zipporah, making women once again our greatest teachers and redeemers.

Day 9 – When Moses encounters God at the Burning Bush, God says that the Divine name is “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh,” or, “I will be what I will be.” According to a rabbinic tradition, God is alluding to God’s one-ness. In our world – a place of division, strife, and oppression – God’s unity, while theoretically a reality, is not fully realized. The purpose of the Jewish people is to help build a world more aligned with the unity that in truth, even if not in experience, pervades reality. Thus God’s message to Moses: I am freeing the Israelites from Egypt because redeeming the oppressed advances an agenda of one-ness. Their responsibility, once liberated, is to continue the work of building a world that reflects God’s unity, a world where all creations are one with each other and with their Creator.

Day 10 At the Seder, when the youngest child asks “Why is this night different from all other nights?” we are prompted to respond with technical answers: on other nights we eat leavened bread, while tonight we eat matzah, for instance. But what if we heard the imperceptible incredulity in our children’s voices when they ask that question? On this night, we see ourselves as personally enslaved so that we can know the heart of the oppressed. On this night, we deride bondage and celebrate liberation. On this night, we see injustice set right and sing songs of praise. Why not other nights, too? Why, our children are asking, IS this night different? Why, they demand, is EVERY night not like this night?! How will we answer them? How can we even look them in the eye?

Day 11 Pharaoh’s illusion of control – or, perhaps more accurately, his desire to be perceived as in control – entrenches his behavior and culminates in his and his country’s ruin. If only he had acknowledged, if only he had been willing to reveal, his limitations! If only he had been willing to be human, to show others his humanity, then the whole story might have changed. Similarly, our desire to mask our own imperfections, our own brokenness, our own shortcomings – from others, yes, but also from ourselves (perhaps especially from ourselves) – can entrench us in destructive patterns of behavior. If we permit ourselves to be honest with ourselves and others about who we truly are, if we allow ourselves to be imperfect, if we humble ourselves to seek the help we need, then there’s no telling how our stories, too, might change.

Day 12 Moses stands up for justice, but it costs him. The Prince of Egypt sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite slave and intervenes. This act of protest against the legal order makes him liable for execution, or at least exile. Moses chooses the latter, renouncing all his Egyptian wealth and honor. Sometimes, this is the choice we all must face when confronted with social injustice: do we care enough about righting wrongs for others that we are willing to risk our privilege and our position for the cause? The 19th century Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, reflecting upon this dilemma, said: “If I used my talents and my position in a politic way, I would soon become rich, and nothing could prevent me from entering upon pursuing successfully a brilliant career. But if I remained true to my convictions, the bent of my nature, then I must be ready to renounce wealth, honors, recognition, and love.” Ultimately, like Moses, he reached the following decision: “Come what may and how it may, I will not swerve a hair’s-breadth from my convictions.” The Passover story invites us, today, to muster a similar kind of courage.

Day 13 – The Israelites are enslaved for a long time. They groan under their bondage and cry out. God hears their moaning and sees their suffering. Then, the Torah teaches, “God knew.” What did God know? And why did God only know then? Recall that, centuries before the Exodus story begins, God had told the patriarch Abraham that his descendants would suffer in a foreign land for 400 years before the time was right for their ultimate redemption and restoration to the Promised Land. Many biblical commentators observe that the biblical chronology suggests the actual period of enslavement falls far short of that lengthy period, maybe by as much as two centuries. Perhaps “God knew” that it was time for the people’s suffering to end, even if prematurely. Perhaps God discovers that God’s plan was perfect in theory but brutal in reality. And perhaps even God could only know this after hearing the Israelites’ cries and seeing their degradation. As my wise, dear friend Rev. Wallace Adams-Riley, an Episcopalian priest, reflected to me recently, “Some things you can only know once you experience them.” If this can be true of God, how much the more so of us?

Day 13 (edited) The Israelites are enslaved for a long time. They groan under their bondage and cry out. God hears their moaning and sees their suffering. Then, the Torah teaches, “God knew.” What did God know? And why did God only know then? Recall that, centuries before the Exodus story begins, God had told the patriarch Abraham that his descendants would suffer in a foreign land for 400 years before their ultimate redemption and restoration to the Promised Land. Many biblical commentators observe that the actual period of enslavement falls far short of that lengthy period, maybe by as much as two centuries. Perhaps “God knew” that it was time for the people’s suffering to end, even if prematurely. Perhaps God discovers that God’s plan was perfect in theory but brutal in reality. And perhaps even God could only knew this after hearing the Israelites’ cries and seeing their degradation. As my wise, dear friend Episcopal Reverend Wallace Adams-Riley reflected to me recently, “Some things you can only know once you experience them.” If this can be true of God, how much the more so of us?

Day 14 – The dominant theme of the Seder is that everyone has a place at the table. For instance, we make space for the four widely different types of children and the diverse group of Rabbis of Bnai Brak. We even lament the absence of the Egyptians who died during the Exodus, and welcome the spirit of Elijah the Prophet. As we are instructed to say at the Seder, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!” Indeed, this is perhaps the Seder’s most poignant lesson: hunger is something we all share. It is a reminder of our common humanity, the fact that, despite our differences, we are all of us fundamentally the same, all of us members of a common human family, all of us equal and worthy of a place at the table. The Egyptians wouldn’t even dine with the Israelites, considering them abominable, subhuman. We respond by saying that everyone with an appetite—that is to say, everyone period—is as deserving of a seat as are we.

Day 14​​​​​​​ (edited) The dominant theme of the Seder is that everyone has a place at the table. For instance, we make space for the four widely different types of children and the diverse group of Rabbis of Bnai Brak. We even lament the absence of the Egyptians who died during the Exodus, and welcome the spirit of Elijah the Prophet. We say at the Seder, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!” Indeed, this is perhaps the Seder’s most poignant lesson: hunger is something we all share. It is a reminder of our common humanity, the fact that, despite our differences, we are fundamentally the same, all of us members of a common human family, all of us equal and worthy of a place at the table. The Egyptians wouldn’t even dine with the Israelites, considering them abominable, subhuman. We respond by saying that everyone with an appetite—that is to say, everyone period—is as deserving of a seat as are we.

Day 15 – When Moses begins his campaign to free the Israelites, the Israelites themselves rail against him: They said, “May the LORD look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers—putting a sword in their hands to slay us.” See, the Israelites may have been slaves, but even in their oppressed state they enjoyed a fairly comfortable status quo. As soon as Moses starts to agitate for change, their situation worsens. So they demand he stop speaking out. His political agenda was making them profoundly uncomfortable. Fortunately for them, and for us, neither God nor Moses recognize the people’s comfort as a primary value. Justice is a primary value. Liberation is a primary value. God’s truth is a primary value. But not making anyone uncomfortable? Not so much. The question is not whether the prophet’s message makes us uncomfortable, or even whether the oppressor responds with deeper injustice. The question is whether the message is true and the cause is just. If so, even through discomfort, we are duty-bound to listen and act.

Day 15​​ (edited) When Moses begins his campaign to free the Israelites, the Israelites themselves rail against him: They said, “May the LORD look upon you and punish you for making us loathsome to Pharaoh and his courtiers—putting a sword in their hands to slay us.” The Israelites may have been slaves, but even in their oppressed state they enjoyed a fairly comfortable status quo. As soon as Moses starts to agitate for change, their situation worsens. They demand he stop speaking out. His political agenda was making them profoundly uncomfortable. Fortunately for them, and for us, neither God nor Moses recognizes the people’s comfort as a primary value. Justice, liberation, and God’s truth: all primary values. But not making anyone uncomfortable? Not so much. The question is not whether the prophet’s message makes us uncomfortable, or even whether the oppressor responds with deeper injustice. The question is whether the message is true and the cause is just. If so, even through discomfort, we are duty-bound to listen and act.

Day 16 – Pharaoh rises to power under the pretext of the falsehood of not knowing Joseph. He enslaves the Israelites through a distortion of facts, claiming that their sheer numbers proved their menace; he then uses the same lie to justify murdering their babies. The way the Bible tells it, scarcely a word Pharaoh speaks throughout the entire narrative can be considered wholly true. This ought not be surprising. Untruth is the currency of the despot. After all, “if nothing is true, then no one can criticize power,” as Timothy Snyder puts it in his recent book, “On Tyranny.” Rejecting despotism, Snyder argues, requires steadfastly venerating fact, insisting on veracity, and refusing to retreat an inch from demanding truth, especially from those in power, even if the fiction is more pleasant or personally beneficial. The liberation of the Israelites depends, first and foremost, on exposing Pharaoh’s lies. But true redemption will arrive only when the Children of Israel fully devote themselves to a God of truth, a God whose very seal is truth.

Day 17 – In her commentary on Exodus, Aviva Zornberg points out that Moses is a man with neither nationality nor language. The point, perhaps, is that Moses could be anyone, and that anyone could be Moses. How might you treat the beggar on the street, or that difficult person at work, if you recognized that he or she might one day become a great liberator? And what if the redemption of an oppressed people depended, ultimately, on you? If anyone – of any background, of any ability – could be Moses, then perhaps we ought to walk through the world with the assumption that everyone we encounter is a potential Moses. And, maybe most importantly, we ought to regard ourselves as potential Moseses, and fulfill our destinies.

Day 18 – When Israel left Egypt, they did not leave empty-handed. On the contrary, the Israelites “asked the Egyptians for objects of silver and gold, and clothing” (Exodus 12:35). The Egyptians, for their part, “let them have their request.” (12:36). According to the classical commentators, the biblical narrative was being modest. In reality, the Egyptians gave approximately 600,000 Israelites the equivalent of 400 years worth of backpay. Call it whatever you want, these are reparations for centuries of enslavement. Without them, the Israelites never would have survived the sojourn in the wilderness, conquered the Promised Land, or built a strong sovereign nation. Freedom from bondage was not enough. The Egyptians had a responsibility to ensure that the Israelites could actually flourish as a free people, that Israel’s opportunity to thrive would be equal to Egypt’s. Recalling this very experience, God later commands Israelite slaveowners that they must eventually free their slaves, and when they do, they must furnish them handsomely with food, clothing, and property. We have a responsibility not only to redeem victims of injustice from oppression, but also to ensure that those victims and their posterity, once redeemed, will play on a level field with their oppressors and their oppressors’ descendants, and enjoy the same opportunities.

Day 19 – At the Seder, are we supposed to be experiencing the bitterness of slavery or the sweetness of freedom? We eat matzah, nibble on bitter herbs, and dip in salt water. But we also recline on pillows and drink copious wine. So on this night, are we paupers or princes? The answer of course is both. When we are brought low, we recall that we are actually the children of royalty. And when we are riding high, we recall that we, too, were once marginalized and oppressed. We remember not to exalt those with privilege and power, because on a fundamental level they are no different and therefore no better than the lowest serf. And we remember too that the beggar is as much a divine being as the billionaire.

Day 19 – (edited) At the Seder, are we supposed to experience the bitterness of slavery or the sweetness of freedom? We eat matzah, nibble on bitter herbs, and dip in salt water. But we also recline on pillows and drink copious wine. Are we paupers or princes? The answer of course is both. When we are brought low, we recall that we are actually the children of royalty. When we are riding high, we recall that we, too, were once marginalized and oppressed. We remember not to exalt those with privilege and power, because on a fundamental level they are no different, therefore no better than the lowest serf. The beggar is as much a divine being as the billionaire.

Day 20 – In his new book, “The Exodus,” biblical scholar Richard Elliot Friedman argues, among other things, that Moses may have actually been a Midianite and not a Hebrew. While Friedman’s argument is pretty compelling, this assertion may undoubtedly be shocking to some. But if it’s true, consider what the Bible would be teaching: If he’s actually Midianite, Moses would have been neither victim nor culprit in the drama of Israelite enslavement. He would have been a bystander. Perhaps God deliberately asks a bystander to become a liberator in order to teach us, in the words of later biblical passages, “You must not stand idly by” and “You must not remain indifferent” when others are suffering. And, if he’s actually Midianite, it helps explain why Moses has to first partner with Aaron the Levite and make allies of the Israelite elders. Because privileged ones who are neither victims nor perpetrators of an injustice are critical in the pursuit of justice, but only if they become allies of the oppressed, rather than trying to play the role of savior. The oppressed always must play a role in their own redemption, buoyed by the support of privileged and powerful allies. Moses the Midianite would model both the responsibility of the bystander and the strategy of sacred partnership.

Day 20 (edited) In his new book “The Exodus,” biblical scholar Richard Elliot Friedman argues, among other things, that Moses may have actually been a Midianite and not a Hebrew. While Friedman’s argument is compelling, this assertion may be shocking to some. If it’s true, consider what the Bible would be teaching. If he was Midianite, Moses would have been neither victim nor culprit in the drama of Israelite enslavement. He would have been a bystander. Perhaps God deliberately asked a bystander to become a liberator in order to teach us, in the words of later biblical passages, “You must not stand idly by” and “You must not remain indifferent” when others are suffering. And, if he was actually Midianite, it helps explain why Moses has to first partner with Aaron the Levite and make allies of the Israelite elders. Because privileged ones who are neither victims nor perpetrators of an injustice are critical in the pursuit of justice, but only if they become allies of the oppressed, rather than trying to play the role of savior. The oppressed always must play a role in their own redemption, buoyed by the support of privileged and powerful allies. Moses the Midianite would model both the responsibility of the bystander and the strategy of sacred partnership.

Day 21 – The term Passover comes from the tradition that God killed only Egyptians during the 10th plague, passing over the homes of the Israelites and sparing their first born. Not an indiscriminate force within nature, the God of the Bible has will and moral discernment, deliberately distinguishing between right and wrong, good and bad, innocent and guilty, bending the arc of history toward justice. No one can no for sure if this understanding of God is factually true. But we can nevertheless understand the value it is trying to impart: the universe is amoral. It (unfortunately) doesn’t discern between righteous and evil. History only progresses in the trajectory of justice if acted upon by an outside force. As God’s only creation with godlike consciousness and moral judgment, we human beings can and must be that outside force. Emulating God, we can and must help bend the arc of history toward justice.

Day 21 (edited) The term Passover comes from the tradition that God killed only Egyptians during the 10th plague, passing over the homes of the Israelites and sparing their first born. Not an indiscriminate force within nature, the God of the Bible has will and moral discernment, deliberately distinguishing between right and wrong, good and bad, innocent and guilty, bending the arc of history toward justice. No one can know for sure if this understanding of God is factually true. We can nevertheless understand the value it imparts: the universe is amoral. It (unfortunately) doesn’t discern between righteous and evil. History only progresses in the trajectory of justice if acted upon by an outside force. As God’s only creation with godlike consciousness and moral judgment, we human beings can and must be that outside force. Emulating God, we can and must help bend the arc of history toward justice.

Day 22 – At the beginning of the Seder, we break a ceremonial piece of matzah, Yahatz. We hide the larger half (sometimes called the Afikoman) to find and eat at the end of the evening, Tzafun. As we gather at the Seder table, we acknowledge the brokenness of our world as it is. This is a world, after all, that tolerated our ancestors’ slavery in Egypt – not to mention countless other instances of unspeakable persecution and abuse – and continues to abide heinous oppression and cruelty. But as we move through the Seder’s rituals and narrative, we are reminded that subjugation can be ended, oppressors toppled, and new orders established. The broken can be made whole. That’s why we are not allowed to finish the Seder without finding and eating the Afikoman: Ultimate redemption is possible if we want it, if we seek it, if we hold fast to it, and we cannot consider our work done – at the Seder, or in our world – until we put the shattered pieces back together.

Day 23 – When Pharaoh’s daughter discovers Moses in the basket, the first thing she notices is that he’s crying. In his latest novel, “Here I Am,” Jonathan Shafran Foer asks, “What was Moses crying about? Was he crying for himself? Out of hunger or fear? Was he crying for his people? Their bondage, their suffering? Or were they tears of gratitude? Perhaps Pharaoh’s daughter didn’t hear him crying because he *wasn’t* crying until she opened the wicker basket.” Or maybe, Foer suggests, Moses was crying for all three reasons simultaneously: the pain, the sadness, and the gratitude, all at once. Right now, you are the sum total of all the experiences you’ve had up to this moment. You couldn’t be who you are without everything, the good and the bad, the pleasure and the pain, the successes and the failures. All of it was necessary to bring you to this moment. That means even pain and sadness are, in their own ways, blessings. Those experiences, when they occur, may bring us to tears. But don’tt allow your tears only to be expressions of agony. They can and should also be expressions of gratitude, for today’s pain helps you become the person you will be tomorrow.

Day 23 (edited) When Pharaoh’s daughter discovers Moses in the basket, the first thing she notices is that he’s crying. In the (previously mentioned) novel “Here I Am,” author Jonathan Shafran Foer asks, “What was Moses crying about? Was he crying for himself? Out of hunger or fear? Was he crying for his people? Their bondage, their suffering? Or were they tears of gratitude? Perhaps Pharaoh’s daughter didn’t hear him crying because he wasn’t crying until she opened the wicker basket.” Or maybe, Foer suggests, Moses was crying for all three reasons: the pain, the sadness, and the gratitude, all at once. Right now, you are the sum of all your experiences up to this moment. You couldn’t be who you are without the good and the bad, the pleasure and the pain, the successes and the failures. All of it was necessary to bring you to this moment. Even pain and sadness are, in their own ways, blessings. Those experiences, when they occur, may bring us to tears. Don’t allow your tears only to be expressions of agony. They can and should also be expressions of gratitude, for today’s pain helps you become the person you will be tomorrow.

Day 24 – After centuries of brutal oppression, with a government unresponsive to outcry and with conditions only seeming to worsen over time, one could understand if the Israelites saw their situation as hopeless. Indeed, even when Moses arrives in Egypt and begins agitating for the people’s freedom, they demand he stop. Moses would never succeed, they believed. On the contrary, they insist that he would only make matters worse. And yet Moses’ strategic plan and persistence ultimately break through Pharaoh’s recalcitrance, forcing him to change course. The Exodus story is history’s most powerful argument against hopelessness. The stubborn persistence of a state of affairs and the intractability of those responsible may present the illusion of inevitability. Yet the Exodus teaches that no movement for change is futile, and that which we see as impossible is usually just a thing that has not happened yet.

Day 25 – Pharaoh’s plot to control the Israelites through enslavement fails, so he orders the systematic murder of their baby boys. According to legend, in the wake of this decree, the Israelite men were crestfallen, and pledged not to be intimate with their wives, lest they inadvertently conceive a male child. The women, however, refused to give into the fear and sense of futility. They knew that with life, there is possibility. And with possibility, there could yet be redemption. So they conspired to beautify themselves to make themselves irresistible to their husbands. The women continued to get pregnant. One of them was named Yokheved, the woman we now identify as the mother of Moses. If the men had their way, Pharaoh would have won, and the Israelites would have ceased to be. Their hopelessness would have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. The women’s resilient hope facilitates redemption. Only a hopeful outlook can produce the outcomes envisioned by that hope.

Day 26 – Biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman argues that the Exodus was indeed a real historical event, but it did not happen the way the Bible ultimately presents it. According to Friedman, only the Levites were freed from Egypt. The rest of the Israelite tribes never sojourned in Egypt, and during the time of the Exodus, they were already settled and living in Canaan. More striking than this is Friedman’s claim that virtually all of what we now call biblical religion – including the ineffable Divine name – was brought to Israel from Egypt. The Levites’ beliefs were evidently so powerful and convincing that the indigenous Israelites were persuaded to adopt them. This theory reflects something deep. Often, an outside perspective is required to identify and reveal truths that would otherwise have been obscured from us. We can have difficulty seeing beyond our limited perspective, understanding, and awareness. When we permit an outsider to look in, they can show us things we wouldn’t have been able to see or know on our own, insights that might change the course of our lives, even history, if we let them.

Day 27 – In Egypt, there is a clear hierarchy: there is Pharaoh, and there is everyone else. The King of Egypt has no equal. More importantly, he sees no one as his equal. So, if there’s a problem, his mentality is “I alone can fix it.” Contrast that attitude with Moses’. Moses constantly feels inadequate to the challenges he faces. He seeks and accepts advice and guidance. He relies on the support of others, partnering, collaborating, delegating, sharing. For the Israelites, redemption is a group effort, a team sport. None of us, alone, can fix it. But working together, there’s no limit to the obstacles we can overcome, the brokenness we can repair.

Day 27 (edited) In Egypt, there is a clear hierarchy: there is Pharaoh, and there is everyone else. The King of Egypt has no equal. More importantly, he sees no one as his equal. If there’s a problem, his mentality is “I alone can fix it.” Contrast this attitude with that of Moses, who constantly feels inadequate. Moses seeks and accepts advice and guidance. He relies on the support of others, partnering, collaborating, delegating, sharing. For the Israelites, redemption is a group effort, a team sport. None of us alone can fix it. But working together, there’s no limit to the obstacles we can overcome, the brokenness we can repair.

Day 28 – One might say that the Seder ritual is divided into two parts. There’s the pre-dinner portion, which focuses on the story and symbols of the Exodus from Egypt. And there’s the post-dinner portion, which, by contrast, is decidedly forward-facing. We pray for a time when none will go hungry and for the rebuilding of Jerusalem. We open the door for Elijah the Prophet, and pray for him to arrive, heralding the messianic era. We sing about God ultimately righting a messed up, dog-eat-dog world (or, rather, a dog-eat-cat-eat-goat world). And we affirm the hope that, next year, we will celebrate the Seder in Jerusalem, in a repaired and perfected world. Taken as a whole, it’s as if the Seder tells us: yes, you were redeemed from the house of bondage in Egypt. But you still live in a broken world, filled with violence, hatred, oppression, poverty, and injustice. You may no longer be a slave to Pharaoh, but your redemption is incomplete until *everyone* is liberated. The object of our Seder is to inspire us to build a world where everyone has reason to celebrate together in the year to come, a world where the hungry are fed, where wrongs are set right, and where peace and justice reign.

Day 29 – OK, let’s face it: Haroset is weird. Delicious, of course, but strange. This sweet dip is supposedly meant to remind us of something bitter, the brick mortar used by our enslaved ancestors in Egypt. How to explain this dissonance? While fanciful allegory is possible – we may, for example, understand the Haroset as inviting us to see the sweetness in our suffering – a better explanation can be found in the food’s origins. According to scholars of ancient Judaism, Haroset becomes a standard Seder food not because of its religious significance, but of its utility. The Seder is adapted from Greco-Roman symposia, and it was common at such meals to have a sweet dip made of fruit, nuts, and wine as an appetizer (or, possibly, as a kind of antiseptic wash for vegetables). Once it became a common Seder food, people began to ascribe Haroset with symbolic meaning, linking it to the brick mortar, or to the apple orchards where Israelite women brought their husbands to conceive babies in defiance of Pharaoh’s decree, or to the blood of the paschal offering. Haroset, in this sense, embodies the essence of what it means to be Jewish: to take the stuff of this world and make it heavenly, to turn the ordinary into the sacred, and to transform the regular into the holy.

Day 30 – The first official Pesah ritual is clearing our homes of, destroying, and nullifying our remaining Hametz. When we do this, we declare that any Hametz remaining in our possession “shall be ownerless, as the dust of the earth.” Echoing this declaration is the Seder’s opening sentiment, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!” and one of its concluding acts, opening the door for Elijah. It’s as though Pesah invites us to say, “all that is mine belongs to you, too.” Urging us to adopt this attitude – an attitude that, according to the Mishnah, is the definitive trait of the pious – may ultimately be the objective of the entire festival. Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites out of a fear of losing what he perceives to be his. He relates to everyone as means to his own ends. Our tradition responds by saying “The Earth is the Lord’s, it’s fullness thereof; the world, and all who dwell upon it.” All that we have belongs not to us, but to God. In a sense, this means that our possessions belong to others. If its sinful to see things as our possessions, then all the more so must we never see people as objects subject to our use, exploitation, or control. Passover urges us ultimately to encounter others, as the philosopher Martin Buber put it, as “Thou’s” and not “It’s.” If this holiday teaches anything, it’s to relate to others not as means to our own ends but in the fullness of their humanity and equality, seeing ourselves as infinitely responsible to and for them. Wishing you a happy and sweet Passover!

Day 30 (edited) The first official Pesah ritual is clearing our homes of, destroying, and nullifying our remaining Hametz. We declare that any Hametz remaining in our possession “shall be ownerless, as the dust of the earth.” Echoing this declaration is the Seder’s opening sentiment, “Let all who are hungry come and eat!” and one of its concluding acts, opening the door for Elijah. It’s as though Pesah invites us to say, “all that is mine belongs to you too.” Urging us to adopt this attitude – which, according to the Mishnah, is the definitive trait of the pious – may be the objective of the entire festival. Pharaoh enslaves the Israelites out of a fear of losing what he perceives to be his. He relates to everyone as means to his own ends. Our tradition responds by saying “The Earth is the Lord’s, its fullness thereof; the world, and all who dwell upon it.” All that we have belongs not to us, but to God. In a sense, our possessions belong to others. If it’s sinful to see things as our possessions, all the more so must we never see people as objects to use, exploit, or control. Passover urges us to encounter others, as philosopher Martin Buber put it, as “Thous” and not “Its.” If this holiday teaches anything, it’s to relate to others not as means to our own ends but in the fullness of their humanity and equality, seeing ourselves as infinitely responsible to and for them. Wishing you a happy and sweet Passover!

 

 

 

 

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In The Face of Injustice, ‘Neutrality Is Not a Morally Acceptable Option’

Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the enslavement and liberation of the Children of Israel from Egypt, is right around the corner. In just a few days, Jews everywhere will gather not only to recall the story of the Exodus but also, through conversation and ceremony, to internalize, personalize, and universalize the narrative.

For us Jews, the Exodus from bondage in Egypt is not mere history. Our tradition also instructs us to understand the Exodus as an allegory about the present. In every generation, the same drama plays out: Some will seek to secure their own privilege and power by relentlessly vilifying and oppressing the weak, while the oppressed will yearn for liberation, dignity, and equal opportunity. Every person, in every time and place, thus faces a fundamental choice: Either you can be a Pharaoh or you can be a Hebrew; either you are an oppressor or you are the oppressed.

Some may argue that within the Exodus story there is a third possibility. Weren’t there regular Egyptians who did not themselves enslave any Hebrews? Technically, yes. But, at least the way the Bible tells it, during the four centuries of Israelite bondage in Egypt, not once did any of those Egyptians protest Pharaoh’s oppressive policies. Only a handful of courageous Egyptian women engaged in acts of civil disobedience. Everybody else stood silently on the sidelines as an entire nation was brutalized.

How do you think Pharaoh interpreted his people’s silence? Just as any modern leader would, Pharaoh doubtlessly assumed his people supported or at least tolerated his policies. It is natural to interpret an absence of protest as agreement. In this sense, silence always benefits the status quo. So, while the average Egyptian may not have personally harmed any Israelite, by failing to speak out, he effectively sided with the oppressors. Perhaps that’s why the ten plagues afflicted all Egyptians, and not just Pharaoh.

As a rabbi, this awareness has always fueled my social activism. And it especially drives me now, at this moment when injustice is routinely entrenched in policy and cruelty seems to have become a governing philosophy.

For instance, how can I, as someone devoted to a tradition that commands, literally dozens of times, to “love the immigrant, for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19 is but one iteration of this law) remain silent when politicians enact policies that systematically target members of our country’s immigrant community, vilify immigrants (especially those from “sh*thole countries”), conduct warrantless searches of people who appear to be foreign, hold those suspected of violating immigration law without trial or bail, break apart families, destroy lives, and shatter the dreams of young people who have known no other home? I cannot, and so I have been active in the Central Virginia Sanctuary Network and in pro-immigrant advocacy.

How can I, as someone whose tradition holds as foundational that all human beings – created in God’s image – have infinite worth and equal dignity, stay neutral when our leaders pursue explicitly stated goals like banning Muslim immigrants? Or when they perpetuate noxious myths about people of color, or when they are repeatedly accused of sexual assault, or when they support and safeguard men who brutalize and prey on women? I cannot, and so I have been fiercely committed to supporting the Muslim community in the face of rising Islamophobia, to activism on behalf of refugees, to advancing racial justice, and to helping amplify women’s voices and supporting strong female leadership.

Furthermore, my tradition mandates that, in a just society, all people have equal status, privilege, and protection (see, for example, Leviticus 24:22). How can I therefore not voice my concerns about the availability of a quality education for all Americans? How can I not express my fears over the equal enforcement of civil rights laws or the erosion of voting rights?

Our democratic institutions and the norms that support them are also reflections of the Jewish notion of human equality. Those institutions and norms are facing unprecedented daily assaults, both from hostile foreign powers and our own leaders, all while those officials who are meant to defend us from such threats have failed to protest in any meaningful way. The ways in which our current leaders have undermined and warped our democratic institutions are too numerous to list here but to name a few, the President has demanded his political opponents be criminally investigated, interfered with active investigations, threatened top law-enforcement officials, and attacked federal judges, all steps that, both individually and in the aggregate erode the independence of law enforcement and the judiciary.

Likewise, the President has ignored, and in some respects has actively encouraged, Russia’s interference in our country’s elections, actions which both make us less free and less safe. Meanwhile, congressional leaders, charged with the responsibility to check such abuses, have at best largely remained silent about them, and at worst have actively encouraged the President’s words and actions. Can I, as a rabbi, in good conscience remain silent about any of this?

How can I, as someone whose tradition insists that human life is a supreme value, stand idly by when our leaders refuse to help resettle refugees, or when millions of guns, legal and easy to buy, threaten our children at school, at the mall, at the movies, at concerts, all because our leaders value the concerns of well-funded special interests above the lives of vulnerable citizens, all but ensuring shamefully common, uniquely American, man-made tragedies like last month’s mass shooting in Parkland, Florida?

Were I to remain silent in the face of such egregious injustices, I, too, would be responsible for perpetuating them.

Similarly, since my tradition teaches that healthcare is a fundamental human right and a communal obligation, I feel obligated to work to ensure that everyone in my community has access to affordable, quality healthcare. If I don’t do my part to fight for universal coverage, then I am partly responsible when people do not receive or cannot afford the care they need.

Since my tradition calls for enough redistribution of wealth from those who have the most to those who have the least so that “there shall be no needy” (Deuteronomy 15:4), I feel obligated to purse tax policies that further the goal of economic justice. If I don’t do my part to fight against tax reform that favors corporations and wealthy individuals, then I am partly responsible when people become trapped in cycles of poverty.

Since my tradition requires planetary stewardship, I feel obligated to stop and reverse global climate change before it’s too late. If I do nothing to champion policies that would protect our planet, then I am partly responsible when our world becomes unfit for human habitation.

While I may not be guilty of all the injustices prevalent in my world, if I’m aware of them and fail to act, I nevertheless bear responsibility for them.

As Passover nears we should all be reminded that we perpetually face a basic choice: we either stand on the side of righteousness or on the side of evil. There can be no neutrality. And, just like Pharaoh and the Egyptians, the choices we make – the actions we take or refrain from taking, the injustices we perpetuate or tolerate or protest – determine our fates – it is time again to decide where and with whom we stand.

This column originally appeared in RVA Magazine.

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Purim and the Responsibilities of Privilege

When Queen Esther contemplated whether to approach the King of Persia, uninvited, to ask that the Jews be spared, the stakes were high. Stay silent, and her people would be slaughtered. Speak up, and risk death herself at the hands of a capricious ruler.

Ultimately, her uncle, Mordechai, persuaded her with the following argument: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis!” (Esther 4:13)

Those who occupy positions of privilege often feel insulated from the challenges confronting others. When it’s not impacting me directly, it doesn’t feel like my problem. So why would I risk what I have to speak out on others’ behalf?

Mordechai, however, reminds Esther that her welfare is ultimately intertwined with her people’s welfare, just as our wellbeing is bound up in the wellbeing of everyone else. We cannot be truly safe, truly free, truly prosperous, until everyone is safe, free, and prosperous. As Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail”).

We usually think that privilege is about comfort, achieving a position free of concern. On the contrary, Mordechai reminds Esther that privilege is about responsibility.

If you are reading this column, chances are good that you are among the ranks of the most fortunate people to ever live. Mordechai‘ s challenge to Esther is, therefore, our challenge as well. When there are those in our world, in our country, whose lives are at risk, do we stand by, fearful that speaking up will cost us our position? Or do we remember that our fate is bound up in their fate, too, and perhaps we have attained our privilege for just such a crisis?

This was the question of Esther’s time. This is the question of our time. As we celebrate Purim, let us honor Mordechai’s challenge, and recall Esther’s heroic response.

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Virginia House of Delegates Invocation, February 23, 2018

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Mekor ha-hayyim, somkeh noflim, matir asurim—

Champion of the downtrodden, we ask that, today and every day, You show our leaders how to walk Your paths:

Enable them to see Your image in all people, eradicating all forms of bigotry and furthering Your cause of inclusion and equality.

Embolden them to welcome the immigrant, to support the refugee, and to uphold the hopes of dreamers.

Soften their hearts to know the suffering of the poor, the marginalized, and the disadvantaged.

Source of life, we pray that, today and every day, You empower our leaders to be true champions of life:

Move them to ensure that everyone in our Commonwealth has access to quality, affordable healthcare.

Call them to safeguard us from the millions of guns, legal and easy to buy, that threaten our children at school, at the mall, at the movies, at concerts.

Grant them the will and the courage to put the lives of vulnerable citizens above the concerns of well-funded special interests. Guide them to do everything they can to preserve our health and to prevent shamefully common, uniquely American, man-made tragedies.

God of freedom, we ask that, today and every day, You strengthen our leaders’ resolve to protect the free ideals and democratic institutions that are the glory of our Commonwealth and country.

Grant them the humility to engage in respectful debate and disagreement, forging consensus where possible, yielding when necessary. Above all, remind them of their power to foster the common good, and their responsibility – above ideology, party, and political calculation – to wholeheartedly pursue righteousness and justice.

Hear our voices, God, and with compassion, receive our prayers, for we affirm that you are a God who listens to prayer. And as You bless our beloved Commonwealth and these dedicated public servants, help us all recall that, beyond supplication and petition, above all song and praise, You are a God who loves deeds of righteousness. May the words of our mouths, the meditations of our hearts, and, most importantly, the actions of our hands, be acceptable in Your sight, bringing your love, your presence, and your peace ever closer. And let us say: Amen.

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