Crossing the Sea – 7th Day of Pesah 5776 (2016)

The story of the parting and crossing of the Red Sea has always moved and inspired me. I love its drama and the radical sense of possibility that it conveys. Even when stuck between a rock and hard place, there is a way out for our ancestors (and by extension, for us). The combination of faith and audacity – emunah and hutzpah – reveals a path that only moments before wasn’t visible. For me, the Sea is the wow! moment of the Exodus and of Passover. 

dura_europos_fresco_jews_cross_red_sea                (splitting of the Red Sea, panel from Dura-Europus, 3rd Century, C.E.)

According to Rabbinic tradition, the parting and crossing of the Sea took place on the 7th day after the Exodus itself. As a consequence, the Talmud assigns the Torah’s account of the Red Sea as the Scriptural reading for the end of Pesah. Rashi (11th Century) lays out the time frame: “they came and informed Pharaoh on the fourth day. On the fifth and the sixth [days after the Israelites’ departure], they pursued them. On the night preceding the seventh, they went down into the sea. In the morning [of the seventh day], they [the Israelites] recited the Song…”

Rashi’s schedule offers a fascinating detail. At the beginning of the seventh day, at nighttime, our ancestors went down to the Sea. But, it seems, they didn’t cross until the morning, which explains Rashi’s claim that they sang the Song in daylight, on the morning of the seventh day. What happened during that whole night of waiting at the shore of the Sea?

A number of ancient interpreters of the Bible share a tradition that a rebellion against Moses took place right then and there. In one version, the people divided into four camps, each making a different claim. One group said, “let’s go back,” another said, “let’s fight the Egyptians,” a third said, “let’s scream and confuse them,” and a final group said, “let’s just fall into the Sea,” and call it a day. (Targum Neophyti to Exodus 14:13-14] Perhaps not surprisingly, our ancestors spent this great, momentous night, not a week after another great, momentous night of redemption, arguing!

By the last days of Pesah, I, too, am weary of matzah. Yes, this holiday does promote a certain kind of crankiness. To judge from the Targum’s report curmudgeonly impatience was embedded into the original event. We’ve been a contentious lot from the very beginning!

The 16th Century Tzfat kabbalists transformed that sacred skepticism into an intriguing and beautiful spiritual practice that came to be known as Tikkun leyl Sh’vi’i. A leading Tzfat mystic, Abraham Galante, describes it this way: “On the seventh night of Passover they rise at midnight and recite until the parting of the Red Sea…; they sing songs of Torah until dawn. They then recite petitionary prayers at the conclusion of which they rise to their feet and sing the Psalm “When Israel went out of Egypt” (Psalms 114) in a sweet voice.”

Tonight, then, is a brilliant opportunity to meditate on this next crucial step on the path of freedom and redemption, whether you choose to pull an all-nighter or not. Even with a miracle, crossing the Sea didn’t happen without a struggle. As we continue to walk that road, let’s remember that freedom is neither automatic nor inevitable. Embracing it takes work, sustaining it takes even more.

Hag Sameah & Shabbat Shalom.

Free the Slaves – Pesah 5776 (2016)

With the cleaning and kashering (hopefully) in the rear view mirror, it’s time to focus on sitting down to Seder. Tonight we gather to make the journey from slavery to freedom. Our ancestors made the actual trip, traversing the geography of ancient Egypt and the Sinai desert on their way to the Land of Israel. In celebrating and remembering their passage, we also focus on our own internal struggle to seek and find liberation in our lives. Both are challenging trips; both require determination, creativity, courage, and audacity; both demand our attention and intention on Pesah.

As we take that inward turn tonight, I want to suggest that we not lose sight of the larger world where the very concrete struggle for physical freedom is, alas, still very much with us. There is still slavery in the world, and it’s much more widespread than you might think. And, we can do something about it. Before you sit down to Seder this evening, take a minute to explore the Free the Slaves website – – where you’ll find ideas for raising awareness about contemporary slavery at your Seder.

We’ve made it to Pesah, that great moment of liberation in our people’s life and in our lives. Too many others haven’t gotten there yet. Even as we celebrate our freedom, let’s remember those who in 2016 remain enslaved and oppressed. Tonight, let’s learn about their struggle; next week let’s act.

Hag Sameah and a Zissen Pesah.

Very Present Help – Shabbat Metzora-ha’Gadol 5776 (2016)

This past Sunday, I stood in the pulpit of Mother Bethel AME Church at 6th and Lombard, and shared the words of Psalm 46 with the congregation. By the time I reached the second verse I understood that this Psalm, one I knew only in passing, had deep and resonant significance. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” I heard myself recite the beginning of that sentence. From the comma on, the congregation had drowned me out. Everyone in the house knew those words, and much of the rest of the poem, by heart. Hearing hundreds of worshipers proclaim in one voice “there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God” was profoundly moving. At the beginning of this first week of Nisan, Psalm 46 stirred my soul.

The occasion was the bicentennial celebration of the founding of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, America’s very first organized African-American church. Individual black churches existed wherever there were communities of free blacks. On April 9, 1816 five such congregations joined together to form what we now know as The Black Church. That gathering took place at 6th and Lombard. The hero of the story was the founding pastor of Mother Bethel, Bishop Richard Allen.

Psalm 46, among a few other favorite chapters, spoke to Allen, echoing his own life experience as a slave who purchased his own freedom and went on to challenge Philadelphia’s all white church hierarchy on his way to establishing his own house of worship and a denomination that united and continues to unite millions of African-Americans. Judging from the congregation’s powerful response, Psalm 46’s words of “collective thanksgiving after victory over an enemy” (Robert Alter) resonate still.

Prior to Sunday, I knew only vaguely of Richard Allen and his story. A week of reading up on him has made a dent, but I have much more to learn. The experience of standing in his pulpit, helping to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the church he established, has helped to focus my attention and intention on the essential themes and messages of this time of the year. These days before Pesah, filled with preparations (and anxiety about those preparations) are meant also to be a time to reconnect with our people’s central narrative which, like Richard Allen’s life story, is a tale of liberation from bondage and a forty year journey to freedom.

Freedom doesn’t happen overnight. It emerges from the kind of struggle spoken of in Psalm 46. At that struggle’s heart lies a sense of hope, a deep rooted optimism that believes that tomorrow can be a better day. In our tradition, just as in the heritage of the African-American church, God is the source of that hope. As Robert Alter puts it: “Even when the whole world around us falls apart, we trust in God’s help and do not fear.” Or even better, in the words of the Psalm itself: “God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.” Now those are lines worth committing to memory!

Shabbat Shalom.

Who’s In; Who’s Out? – Shabbat Tazria-ha-Hodesh-Rosh Hodesh 5776 (2016)

Parashat Tazria puts it bluntly: “As for the person with a leprous affection, his clothes shall be rent, his head shall be left bare, and he shall cover over his upper lip; and he shall call out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.” [Leviticus 13:45-46] One who is unclean is excluded, required to dwell apart.

The Maftir for Shabbat ha-Hodesh, the Shabbat on or just before the beginning of the month of Nisan, is similarly blunt in its description of the requirement to eat matza and avoid hametz during Pesah: “For whoever eats what is leavened, that person shall be cut off from the community of Israel, whether he is a stranger or a citizen of the country.” [Exodus 12:18-19] Bagels and bread on Passover remove one from the community.

How do we handle the Torah’s overriding concern here, and in many other places, with hard and fast boundaries? At a minimum, our 21st century tendency to stretch and even ignore limits, our contemporary desire to include everyone everywhere, resides uneasily with the Torah’s opposite instinct. Is the Torah wrong? Are we?

Or maybe an either/or approach to questions of inclusion and exclusion is ultimately unhelpful. Perhaps the Torah’s focus on drawing lines is meant to invite us to more deeply consider the ways in which we seek to balance the boundaries needed to create community with our heartfelt desire to welcome and include others whenever and wherever possible.

A Talmudic thought on the Tazria verses, I suggest, points toward such a synthesis. Commenting on the leper’s public declaration of “unclean, unclean,” a baraita claims that “s/he needs to announce his/her sorrow in public, and others will seek mercy on her/his behalf.” (Talmud Bavli, Niddah 66a) We exclude, sometimes reasonably, more often unjustly. How we face and think about individuals who have been excluded deeply matters. The Talmudic call for compassion in the face of exclusion should catch our ear this Shabbat and always. I can hardly imagine a better step in the direction of balance.

Shabbat Shalom.

New Heart, New Spirit – Shabbat Sh’mini-Parah 5776 (2016)

The Torah, and our later tradition, builds much of its ethical and religious discourse in binary terms. Things are holy or they are profane, pure or impure, clean or unclean; one can sanctify the Divine Name by one’s actions or desecrate it. The closing words of Parashat Sh’mini, which summarize the Torah’s listing of forbidden and permitted animals, gathers together a number of our tradition’s main conceptual pairs.

“For I the Lord am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy…For I the Lord am He who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy. These are the instructions concerning animals, birds, all living creatures that move in water, and all creatures that swarm on earth, for distinguishing between the unclean and the clean, between the living things that may be eaten and the living things that may not be eaten.” (Leviticus 11:44-47)

The path of holiness involves distinguishing between unclean and clean, treif and kosher, and, ultimately desecration and sanctification. How to make that conceptual frame work in our everyday lives and in the real world? It’s not a simple challenge, certainly not as clear cut as the priestly authors of Leviticus would have us believe.

The prophet Ezekiel’s stirring oracle, which serves as the haftarah for Shabbat Parah, complicates the question. Ezekiel invites us to conceive of the God of Israel, the people of Israel, and the land of Israel as one linked entity. And to that triad, he colorfully applies many of the Torah’s binaries. The people defile or desecrate the land which leads to their exile. In exile, they desecrate God’s holy name, only making matters worse. The Divine response, undertaken to restore God’s good name, is to bring the people back to their land, to purify them, and to implant in them “a new heart and a new spirit,” replacing their “heart of stone” with a “heart of flesh.”

Aspiring to a new heart and new spirit feels compelling and uplifting to me. Losing my autonomy and free will, the essence of my humanness as I understand it, is of no appeal. And yet I find myself stirred and challenged by Ezekiel’s words, even if I can’t accept his theology. What might it take to transform “that desolate land” into a likeness of “the Garden of Eden?” How can we move the needle away from stone and impurity and desecration toward flesh and cleanness and holiness? The very possibility of a new heart and a new spirit ought to inspire us. The work is hard, and the possibility of transformation is real. That, for me, is Ezekiel’s deep message. Badly needed in our world at this very moment.

Shabbat Shalom.