Thursday, April 2, 2020

What a Familiar Haggadah Tells Us This Year

The Haggadah text is so effective and meaningful because it is so familiar.

In 1973, after the Yom Kippur War, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was invited to be the guest of honor at a dinner in New York hosted by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.  Rabbi Shlomo Riskin was there and witnessed the following exchange. 

During the dinner, the Prime Minister already was looking looked bored as an unplanned presentation was added to the program.  She was given a new copy of Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan’s interpretation of the Haggadah.  In this new version, the Egyptian slavery was replaced by the Holocaust, and the State of Israel was center stage as the Israelites travel in the Sinai desert.  Mrs. Meir skimmed quickly through the Haggadah and returned it, saying “Thank you very much, but I’m not really interested.” 

The American leaders making the presentation were shocked.  “But you are not Orthodox, and this new rendition makes the story more relevant for a generation that experienced the horrors of the Holocaust followed by the creation of the State of Israel!”  Golda’s response was priceless: "No, I am not Orthodox, and I never will be. Nevertheless, I do host a Pesach Seder each year, especially for my grandchildren. What is most important to me is that my granddaughter at the Seder uses the same words that my grandmother said at her Seder.” 

The beauty of the Seder is that the very familiar words are relevant in all times and situations.  Here are some thoughts on what the Haggadah says to us during this extraordinary year of the Coronavirus pandemic.

הָא לַחְמָא עַנְיָא דִּי אֲכָלוּ אַבְהָתָנָא בְאַרְעָא דְמִצְרָיִם
This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in Egypt…

This year, we have a deeper, personal understanding of affliction.

 כָּל דִכְפִין יֵיתֵי וְיֵיכֹל
Let all who are hungry eat…

Usually, we make this declaration as a reminder to open our homes for the Seder and beyond to those in need.  This year, we cannot welcome a guest or even family members.

הָשַּׁתָּא עַבְדֵי, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּנֵי חוֹרִין
Now, we are slaves. Next year, we shall be free.

This year, we are burdened, constricted, and restricted. Next year, please God, we will, quite literally, be free, outside, and together.

מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת 
How different is this night from all other nights! Why is this night different from all other nights?

This year, we know how and why this night is different.  And, yet, we still have so many questions.

בָּרוּךְ הַמָּקוֹם, בָּרוּךְ הוּא
Blessed is the Place (Omnipresent), Blessed is God

This year, our places, our homes, require blessing.  We have a new appreciation for space and place.

מִתְּחִלָּה עוֹבְדֵי עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה הָיוּ אֲבוֹתֵינוּ
In the beginning, our ancestors were idol worshippers

This year, we look to the past for new insights into the present and guidance towards the future. Our ancestors have withstood challenge before. So, please God, shall we again.

וְהִיא שֶׁעָמְדָה לַאֲבוֹתֵינוּ וְלָנוּ
This has stood for our ancestors and for us

What is “this?”  Maybe “this” is faith.  Maybe, as we raise our glasses for this passage, “this” is our ability to raise our cups to celebrate no matter the circumstances.  This year, we need to rely on “this” more than ever and maintain confidence and joy in the face of fear and uncertainty.

וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־ה' אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ, וַיִּשְׁמַע ה' אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ
We cried out to the Lord, God of our ancestors, and God heard our voice

This year, we double down on the need to call out in prayer for those who are ill, for those who are suffering, and those heroes on the front lines providing care for those at risk and in need.  And, this year, we know God will hear our voice.

אֵלּוּ עֶשֶׂר מַכּוֹת שֶׁהֵבִיא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא עַל־הַמִּצְרִים בְּמִצְרַיִם
These are the ten plagues that God brought against the Egyptians

This year, we can better understand the power of a plague.

כַּמָה מַעֲלוֹת טוֹבוֹת לַמָּקוֹם עָלֵינוּ
How many levels of kindness has God bestowed upon us!

This year, despite the difficulty and uncertainty, we appreciate all the kindness God continues to bestow upon us, the little gifts we can find in everyday life.

It would have been enough for us!

This year, we each have our own personal “Dayeinu!”  Enough sickness.  Enough time inside.  Thank you, God, for everything, but it’s enough. 

בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם
In every generation, a person is obligated to view themselves as actually leaving Egypt.

This year, we can appreciate the feeling of anticipation for the moment of redemption. We yearn for freedom and a release from our current circumstances.

לְפִיכָךְ אֲנַחְנוּ חַיָּבִים לְהוֹדוֹת, לְהַלֵּל, לְשַׁבֵּחַ
Therefore, we are obligated to thank, praise, and laud

When the moment of redemption comes, we will sing and rejoice.  This year, we sing with gusto in anticipation of better times and knowing that, please God, we will have much for which to praise and be grateful.

לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בִּירוּשָלָיִם הַבְּנוּיָה
Next year, in a rebuilt Jerusalem!

This year, we are acutely aware of how much we yearn for next year.  This year, despite our situation and surroundings, we can sing with confidence that, next year, we will celebrate a joyous Pesach Seder unlike any other before.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

The World Lacks Nothing

It’s Rosh Chodesh Nissan!

According to Jewish tradition, Nissan is the true beginning of spring.  This is reflected in a lesser known blessing that is appropriate to recite during this month: birkat ha-ilanot – the blessing over blossoming trees.

If one is outside during the month of Nissan (maintaining appropriate social distancing, of course) and sees fruit trees that are blossoming, one recites this special blessing.  With this blessing, we praise God’s ongoing renewal of creation during the season of redemption in which we renew our commitment to serving Him on the Pesach holiday.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁלֹּא חִסַּר בְּעוֹלָמוֹ כְּלוּם וּבָרָא בוֹ בְּרִיּוֹת טוֹבוֹת וְאִילָנוֹת טוֹבוֹת לֵהָנוֹת בָּהֶם בְּנֵי אָדָם.

Lord our God, King of the universe, You are the source of all blessing, Who has withheld nothing from His world, rather has created in it beautiful creatures and trees for human beings to enjoy.

Expressing our appreciation for the wonders of creation is always appropriate – especially as springtime brings with it the renewal of nature.  At this time, can we really understand the words of the blessing of “Who has withheld NOTHING from His world?”  We are, of course, grateful for our many blessings, but these words don’t match the tenuous and challenging times in which we find ourselves.  How can we make sense of this blessing during these times?

Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm explains that this blessing of the spring gives us permission to create a “holy fiction.”  For just a moment, as we behold the wonder of the renewal of nature, we shut out the outside world, try to transcend our difficulties and sadness, and create the “holy fiction” that everything really can be perfect.  Stopping to appreciate spring also reminds us that, even with all of the uncertainty that surrounds us and the terrible illness afflicting so many people that we know, we have the permission – and even the obligation – to remember that a perfect world is possible and to count our blessings.

We should each try to carve out time each day to create this “holy fiction.”

There is plenty of uncertainty.  When will things reopen?  How to manage with being furloughed or out of work?  How will the Seder be joyous without the family?  At the same time, there is tremendous good all around us.  There are the first responders and medical professionals heroically caring for those who are sick.  There are people staffing supermarkets and restocking the shelves.  There are small acts of kindness being performed, phone calls being made, and ideas being shared to maintain sanity and bring a sense of security and joy to those who need it.  We can create meaningful mini-moments with a phone call, an email, or joining a Zoom meeting.

The world today is far from perfect, yet the world is beautiful and lacks nothing.  The arrival of Nissan and the blessing over the trees comes just in time to reinforce for us this “holy fiction.”

Today, I will recite the birkat ha-ilanot on our terrace.  (Naama has been caring for her pear tree all winter!)  I hope you have the chance to recite the blessing.  (It can be recited all month long)  May it bring each of us some comfort and inspiration and be a harbinger for a full blossoming of spring and a season of healing and renewal for all.

Chodesh tov!

(H/t to Rabbi Mark Dratch for sharing this idea)

Friday, March 20, 2020

There's (These Days Literally) No Place Like Home

I would imagine you’re reading this at home.

“There’s no place like home.”

“Home is where the heart is.”

“What I love most about my home is who I share it with.”

There is a lot of sharing going on these days.

Home is the place my wife, my four children (yes, Meira came back from Israel due to the situation there), and I spend LOTS of time together these days.  I am sure this is a familiar feeling.

HHH  Home is also, interestingly, a central motif in Parshat HaChodesh (Shemot 12:1-20), which is read this Shabbat.  God tells the Jews that each home should take a lamb for the Pesach sacrifice.  If a home is too small for a lamb of its own, that home should join with neighbors.  The blood of the lamb should be placed on the doorposts of the home as a sign that is a Jewish one.  God will smite the Egyptian firstborn while passing over every Jewish home. 

In reading Parshat HaChodesh, we cannot help but see how the home is integral in the Pesach story.  We know that Pesach is a home holiday.  It is about family and tradition.  This year, even for many who go away and have never been home for Pesach, we are all focused on the home.

We know that Judaism focuses on family.  At this time, though, our world literally revolves around and within the home.  We are cut off from family, friends, and community.  Our whole world is the home.

A member of the community recounted that when he was growing in the 60's, the great majority of people he knew celebrated Pesach with only their nuclear family since many in his community were the children of Holocaust survivors.  There were no grandparents.  This year, he noted, it will be like that again.

A Pesach with just the nuclear family may sound lonely or less exciting.  I feel that pain as my children will not celebrate Pesach with their grandparents as planned.  Let’s face it.  A lot in the world is not going as planned.  This week’s Torah reading, though, reminds us of the importance, necessity, and power of the home.  

“Maybe the reason you can never go home again is that, once you’re back, you can never leave…”

The home provides us with our values, shapes our identities, and fuels our behavior.  The home is with us always.  These days, we are spending a lot of time at home.  It may frustrate some of us and drive us crazy.  At the same time, the home is where we need to be right now, and we need our home to shape who we need to be. 

So let’s all strive to ensure our homes remain “home, sweet home.”  Let’s talk to each other more, share with each other more, show kindness with each other more, and use out time together at home to reinforce the best we have within ourselves.  Hopefully, the will transform us and the world around us when, please God, we all get to leave home and return to the world outside.  (For some meaningful sentiments to provide perspective, see HERE.)

I close with the traditional birkat ha-bayit, blessing for the home:

בְּזֶה הַשַּׁעַר לֹא יָבוֹא צַעַר. בְּזֹאת הַדִּירָה לֹא תָבוֹא צָרָה. בְּזֹאת הַדֶּלֶת לֺא תָבוֹא בֶּהָלָה. בְּזֹאת הַמַּחְלָקָה לֺא תָבוֹא מַחְלוֺקֶת. בְּזֶה הַמָּקוֺם תְּהִי בְרָכָה וְשָׁלוֺם.

Let no pain come through this gate.  Let no trouble come to this dwelling.  Let no fear come through this door.  Let no conflict be in this place.  Let this home be filled with the blessing of joy and peace.


Monday, January 6, 2020

Israel is the Land of Our Stories

I’m in Israel finishing a week helping lead AIPAC's Leffell Fellows Educational Seminar for two dozen rabbinical students from Conservative, Orthodox, and Reform seminaries.

It has been an incredible - and exhausting - experience. 

We met, listened to, and learned from thought leaders such as Rabbi Dr. Daniel Gordis and Yossi Klein Halevi. We learned about the Israeli-Arab experience from noted activist Mohammed Darawhse, and got the Palestinian perspective from Chief Palestinian Negotiator Dr. Saeb Erekat. We learned about the left from Yariv Oppenheimer, former General Director of Peace Now, and got the settler perspective from Ored Revivi, Mayor of Efrat and international spokesperson for the Yesha Council of Judea and Samaria. And this is only a partial list of presenters and topics. 

In trying to sum up the experience and leave the students with a message, I explained that Israel is the “Land of Stories.” We can debate politics, discuss policy, and explore the philosophical and historical underpinnings of the issues of the day. At the same time, it is important to realize that Israel is a place in which real people strive to live meaningful and productive lives that positively impact themselves and their children. Their stories make up Israel. Their stories are an essential part of our story. 

Some examples:


On a visit to Ir David, we walked the recently uncovered “Pilgrimage Road,” which was used by Jews on their way to visit the Beit HaMikdash. We literally walked in the footsteps of our ancestors 2,000 years ago and saw the ash that remains of the fires the Romans used to destroy the area.

It is impossible not to feel part of the story of Jewish tradition when visiting this place. 


The Kuchinate Collective is a place for some of the 30,000 asylum seekers in South Tel Aviv to come together for support. We heard the stories of the Israelis who work with his population and discussed how Judaism approaches this complicated issue. 

Israel is a place with a very active civil society story in which well-meaning people give so much of themselves to others in dozens of transformative ways. 



While overlooking the Gaza border, one can see just how close Israelis live to the terrorists controlling Gaza. In a visit to Kibbutz Kfar Aza, we saw the remnants of missiles that fell in a very nice woman’s backyard. And life goes on!

It is impossible to ignore the seriousness of the story of Israel’s security situation and not be impressed by the resilience of Israel’s citizens.


Our group visited Ramallah and, in addition to Saeb Erekat, met a young woman who is part of a group of young entrepreneurs working to better their lives. On the way in and out, we had a police escort. 

In Israel, the story of the Palestinians is not only about failed negotiations. It’s a story of people, too. 


Late Saturday night, some of us visited the graves of the Rambam and Rabbi Akiva. Both were active places even as midnight approached. People were praying, studying, and singing. 

It may not be everyone’s favorite Saturday night activity, but, in Israel, we encounter the spiritual story of our people.

These are a few of the stories we encountered. The complexity, history, spirituality, tradition, and intensity of encountering these - and so many other stories - is a connection to the land which must always remain a powerful part of who we are as Jews. 

I feel the power of being part of the Jewish story every time I visit Israel.  I hope the future Rabbis of the Jewish community feel this.  What’s your connection to the Jewish story and what will each of us add to the next chapter?

Friday, December 20, 2019

Mr. Rogers and Sharing Chanukah with the Neighbors

I admit it.  I am a Mr. Rogers fan.  I watched as a kid and even had my very own Mr. Rogers sweater.

While recently watching A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, my thoughts wandered to whether there was a Chanukah lesson from Mr. Rogers. A quick Google search, and it seems like Mr. Rogers filmed one Christmas special in 1977 in which he also addressed Chanukah.  He sang "I Have a Little Dreidel," and the trolley to the Neighborhood of Make Believe was decorated with a sign reading "Happy Chanukah" on one side.  (I like how he spelled it!)

Upon further reflection, I think Mr. Roger’s neighborliness fits with Chanukah being the perfect holiday to get to know one’s neighbors and share the beauty of the holiday.  Particularly in New York and other large cities – but it could be anywhere, people are less connected even with those who live nearby.  Chanukah is all about reaching others as the mitzvah is to publicize the miracle by placing the lights where all can see them.

“So…please won’t you be my neighbor?”

For years, I have promoted the idea of 100 Homes of Light.  All it takes is a menorah and a few refreshments, and you can create a “Home of Light.”  Each year, my family invites neighbors from our building to join us for one night of Chanukah.  We light the menorah, sing a little, and, of course, serve Chanukah treats.  (Here are some past pictures.)

It is just too easy to share Chanukah.  Everyone needs to try it.

I know some of you will agree wholeheartedly but say, “This year, we’ll be away on vacation.”  My response is to try it wherever you are!

In speaking with someone going on vacation to a warmer climate over Chanukah, they mentioned reaching out to Chabad for kosher food.  The discussion then turned to which hotel they were at and whether Chabad could come over and have a Chanukah party with them as hosts.  And…voila: A Hotel of Light!  It’s a Chanukah miracle! J

It’s not too late to make it happen!  This Chanukah, get to know your neighbors – or your fellow travelers.  Get to work – and put your children and family members to work – in sharing Chanukah with that next door neighbor, your floor, or your building.  It will be fun and create a memorable, positive Jewish experience for all involved.

May the light shine brightly for all of us as we celebrate Chanukah beyond the walls of the home in ways both big and small.  Chag urim sameach!

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Sukkot & True Beauty

This is not your grandfather’s sukkah.

Like many things these days, even sukkahs have gone ultra-luxe.  Your sukkah can now be crafted from walls made entirely of boxwood.  You can suspend cage-bird lanterns or centerpieces to rival a wedding at the Plaza.  Florists have been working frantically this week to design and decorate clients’ sukkahs. 

One designer offered a sukkah package — in which he transforms eight-day huts into an ethereal garden, or a Persian castle, according to a client’s preference.  “I love taking a traditional sukkah and transitioning it into a piece of art that people walk into and say, ‘That’s incredible.’”

The cost of a custom-design sukkah ranges from $1,500-10,000. (Check out if you’re interested!)

I thought we had a fancy sukkah growing up because we put up a fake chandelier!

Sukkot and beauty go hand-in-hand.  The Talmud (Shabbat 133b) teaches:

דתניא זה אלי ואנוהו התנאה לפניו במצות עשה לפניו סוכה נאה ולולב נאה ושופר נאה ציצית נאה ספר תורה נאה

It was taught in a baraita: “This is my God and I will glorify Him…” The Sages interpreted anveihu homiletically as linguistically related to noi, beauty.  Accordingly, the verse teaches us: Beautify yourself before God in mitzvot.  It is proper to perform the mitzva as beautifully as possible.  Make a beautiful sukkah, a beautiful lulav, a beautiful shofar, beautiful tzitzit, and beautiful parchment for a Torah scroll…

Sukkot provides several opportunities to beautify our mitzvot – sukkah decorations and a beautiful etrog come immediately to mind.  Throughout the year, our performance of mitzvoth can be made more beautiful.

They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Is there a standard of beauty to which we can all subscribe?

One Erev Sukkot, Reb Aryeh Levin, known as the Tzaddik of Yerushalayim for his constant performance of acts of kindness, entered Rubenstein’s store in Meah Shearim, which sold sefarim, religious items, and etrogim.  He asked the owner for an etrog was and was given a box.  Reb Aryeh peeked inside for a second, closed it up, and went on his way.

A young boy who had watched this exchange ran after the rabbi.  When he reached the #11 bus stop, the boy asked Reb Aryeh why he hadn’t checked the etrog for a longer time like everyone else does, examining every inch and bump.

Reb Aryeh answered:

There are two mitzvot that require hiddur: etrog, which the Torah (Vayikra 23:40) calls a “pri eitz hadar – a fruit of a beautiful tree,” and the obligation to show respect to elders (Vayikra 19:32):  v’hadarta pnei zakein – you shall show deference to the old.”  For these two mitzvot the Torah uses the word with the root “הדר - hadar.”  This teaches that one must beautify or go above and beyond in fulfilling both mitzvot.

I am now running to the nursing home to bring dentures for an old man whose teeth have completely deteriorated. He needs to eat dinner like a normal human being and if I don’t make it in time he will once again be forced to eat bread dipped in milk.  This is very important and this is also hiddur mitzvah!

Everyone is familiar with the hiddur mitzvah, of beautifying our Judaism.  We should try to focus just as much on the hiddur of respect for the elderly as well as to beautify all of our interpersonal interactions.

When it comes to enhancing our mitzvot, the most beautiful mitzvot are those that require us to give of ourselves for another.

Personally, I think the most beautiful etrog is one blemished from being passed around for others to use.

May we fulfill the mitzvah of a beautiful etrog as well as well as all mitzvot in the most beautiful way possible – and may our most beautiful actions be ones that lift up others.