Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“God’s hand came upon me. I was taken out by the spirit of GOD and set down in the valley. It was full of bones.” (Ezekiel 37:1)

Three times a day I recite my daily prayers. These include the prayer, Baruch Ata HaShem Mikhiyei HaMetim – “Praised are You, O Lord, Who brings the dead to life.” The prayerbook I use at my synagogue, which is Conservative, deliberately changes the translation – “Praised are You, O Lord, Master of life and death.” It seems to be the way of Conservative Judaism to leave the Hebrew alone but change the English, making it less controversial.
My friends in the Reform Movement are a bit more consistent. They change both the Hebrew and the English, Baruch Ata HaShem Mikhiyei HaKol – “Praised are You, O Lord, Who gives life to everything.” But classical Judaism literally teaches bodily resurrection. That is why in Jewish tradition we try to bury the body as complete as possible, even with amputated limbs. No one wants to hobble around on one leg when they come back to life.
This idea of resurrection is central to Christian theology. The holiest day of the Christian calendar is Easter Sunday. The day is not about the Easter bunny or coloring Easter eggs. It is about the core Christian belief that Jesus rose from the dead. This is vital for Christians. But for Jews, such resurrection is delayed to a Messianic future.
Why am I mentioning resurrection of the dead this week? Because the Prophetic portion we read in synagogue is Ezekiel’s famous passage of the valley of the bones. Ezekiel is shown a valley filled with bones and told to prophesize to the bones. Suddenly flesh returns to the bones and they come back to life. It is the classical image of the resurrection of the dead. Many have seen this as a prophecy of the people Israel rising from the ashes of the Holocaust to build a Jewish state. It is a highly emotional image for Jews.
But the Rabbis of Talmudic times took a much more literal view of bodily resurrection. We are literally coming back. When I come back, I do not know if I want this particular body. (It would be nice to have Brad Pitt’s). But how do I really understand this ancient Rabbinic idea? I will give my opinion, but it may mean I will lose my place in the World-to-Come. “These are the people who have no place in the World-to-Come. Someone who says there is no resurrection of the dead in the Torah” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1).
The Torah says nothing about resurrection of the dead. When we leave this world, our bodies sleep in the ground and our souls return to God Who gave it. So how did this idea develop? I think it represents a powerful idea developed by the Rabbis. We each have a job to do in this material world. And none of us can possibly finish that job in our lifetime. As Rabbi Tarfon said in the Talmud, “You do not have to finish the work, nor are you free to avoid it altogether” (Avot 2:16). We will come back because we have work to do in this world. And our tradition is not about some perfect spiritual world, but this imperfect one in which we live.
In the Jewish mystical tradition, a slightly different tradition developed. Perhaps under the influence of Eastern faiths like Hinduism or the Greek teachings of Pythagoras, the mystics taught a principle of gilgul nefeshot or reincarnation. Our souls will come back, but we will be given new bodies. Many thinkers have built on this idea that we have lived lives in the past and our souls have come back to continue their work. One thinks of Brian Weiss’s extremely popular book Many Lives, Many Masters. Whether Weiss is correct about past lives, there is something deeply appealing about the idea of our souls coming back to continue what was left unfinished.
Whether one believes in resurrection or reincarnation or some combination of both, there is something very appealing about the idea. Life is not about getting into heaven. It is about trying to perfect this world as a Kingdom of God. Each of us has a job to do in this world. We do not know what will happen when we are gone, but while we are alive, we need to focus on this world.

“Eliyahu HaNavi – Elijah the Prophet, Elijah the Tishbi, Elijah the Giladi, May he soon come in our days with the Messiah the son of David.” (classical Hebrew chant, often sung at the Passover Seder.)
As I am writing this, I just returned from a bris (the ritual circumcision on the eighth day of a baby boy.) Elijah the Prophet was there. We even had a special chair for him. In fact, according to tradition Elijah the Prophet is present at every bris. After his confrontation with the prophets of Baal, Queen Jezebel tried to put him to death. Elijah went into hiding. In his despair, he cried out that the people Israel had forgotten the covenant. So God told him, as proof that the people will remember the covenant, that he must visit every bris.
At Passover seders round the world we will also open the door and invite Elijah in. A special cup of wine is poured for him. When I was a young child, my parents told me to look very carefully at Elijah’s cup when we open the door. The amount of wine will go down a bit. When I complained that I did not see anything, my parents explained that Elijah has a lot of seders to visit. Elijah does not want to become too drunk. So he takes the tiniest sip.
Do not think that Elijah visits circumcisions and seders because he has a drinking problem. Certainly, wine is served at both. But he visits seders to answer an unanswered question. Should we drink four or five cups of wine at the seder? Traditionally we drink four cups. But there is a strong argument for drinking five. So we pour the fifth cup of wine and leave it for Elijah. According to Jewish tradition, someday Elijah will come and answer all the unanswered questions of our tradition.
According to the song mentioned at the beginning of this message, we sing to Elijah, declaring that he will bring the Messiah. This is a verse from Malachi that we read in synagogue last Shabbat, Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat before Passover. According to Malachi, Elijah will come to declare the coming of the Messiah. We sing the song to Elijah each Saturday night at the end of the Sabbath. The Messiah will not come on the Sabbath, because it is already a foretaste of the Messianic Age. But when the Sabbath ends, we sing the hope that this will be the week that the Messiah comes.
We can see from this that Elijah has taken a major role in the rituals and traditions of Judaism. Nonetheless, when he was alive, he was a zealot for God with little patience for the people. I cannot imagine Elijah as the kind of person I would want to go out for beer with. He was harsh and impatient. Nonetheless, he had a deeply developed sense of right and wrong. One of my favorite moments in the Bible was when Elijah returns to Mt. Sinai, where amidst lightening and fire God gave us the Ten Commandments. Elijah heard an earthquake, a great wind, and a fire, but God was not in any of these. Then, in one of the most quoted Biblical moments, Elijah heard God in a “still small voice” (I Kings 19:12). God speaks to us not in great dramatic moments but in the inner voice of conscience.
In the end, Elijah did not die the death of a normal man. According to the Bible, he ascended to heaven in a fiery chariot. This gave the Rabbis a vision of Elijah still alive, traveling between heaven and earth. There are multiple stories of Elijah visiting a good-hearted, poverty-stricken person, to create a miracle for them. Other times, the Rabbis would get a message from Elijah declaring what God was thinking. The Talmud gives the famous story of the Oven of Achnai where the Rabbis ignored a voice from heaven regarding a point of Jewish law. Elijah said at that moment, God was laughing and saying, “My children have defeated me.” (Baba Metzia 59b.)
As we open the door for Elijah, let us consider the man we are inviting into our Seder. He continues to play an amazing role in our tradition.


“Rabban Gamliel said, whoever does mention these three things on Pesach has not fulfilled their obligation – Paschal offering, unleavened bread, and bitters.”

I came across a thirty second seder (Passover dinner ritual) on the internet.  It went something like this: “Thanks for the wine.  Thanks for the greens?  Why eat matzah?  Why eat bitters?  Why dip twice?  Why slouch?  Dayenu.  [That would be enough.]  Let’s eat!” Such a Passover seder certainly falls short.  But I have seen reasonable 30-minute seders that include the most important rituals, and seem ideal for young families.

I have also been to seders that seem interminable.  The Haggadah (the booklet containing the details of the seder) speaks of five rabbis who stayed up all night telling the story of the exodus from Egypt.  They were finally interrupted by their students who came to say their morning prayers.  I will admit that I have never quite understood this story.  Jewish law says the Paschal offering (today the afikomen) must be eaten by midnight, ending the sacred meal.  There is speculation that the five rabbis were really planning the Bar Kochba revolt.

There are minimal seders and maximal seders.  I try to conduct one somewhere in between, keeping in mind my audience, particularly if there are young children.  I do the most important rituals, both those before and those after the meal, but I do not say every word of the traditional Haggadah.  What is important to me is a lively had gadya (song about “one little kid”) at the end.  In fact, we have a family tradition of trying to sing the entire last stanza in one breath.

Suppose you want to have a minimal seder, doing what the Torah requires but little else.  Rabban Gamliel mentioned the three things we need to eat to fulfill our obligations.  First is the Paschal offering, a lamb sacrificed for the occasion.  Of course, you must be in a proper state of ritual purity to make such a sacrifice, and since none of us are in such a state of purity, we substitute a shank bone and a piece of matzah (the afikomen) at the end of the meal.

We also must eat matza (unleavened bread) and maror (bitters).  I use shmura matza, hand baked matza that tastes like it came from ancient Egypt.  I also use something truly bitter, a real horseradish, not the red stuff that comes in a jar.  Do we eat the matza and the maror separately or together?  The answer is yes – we do both.  We first eat them separately, matza and the bitters dipped in haroset (a mixture of apples, nuts, and wine.)  Then we eat them a second time together, in a sandwich, to satisfy the opinion of Hillel.  In fact, one can truthfully say that Hillel invented the sandwich centuries before the Earl of Sandwich.

The other Torah obligation is to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt.  The Torah commands us on four occasions to tell the story.  That is why the Rabbis taught that there are four kinds of children – the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one too young to ask.  We must tell it so that all kinds of children can understand.  And if there are no children, even if it is a table filled with rabbis, professors, and other people of great learning, one must tell the story.  The greater the detail, the better.  (This leads into the tale of the five rabbis who stayed up all night.)

Personally, I tend to lead a seder more like an episode of Jeopardy than a reading of a text.  I ask questions, depending on my audience, and try to stimulate discussion.  For example, one question I often use.  “If it were not for the women, we would still be slaves in Egypt.  Can anyone name six women responsible for the exodus?”  [Think about it before reading the answer – Shifra and Puah (the midwives), Miriam (Moses’ sister), Yocheved (Moses’ mother), Bitya (Pharaoh’s daughter), and Tziporah (Moses’ wife).  Did you guess them all?]

The key issue in telling the story is to hold the interest of the people, particularly the children, who are there.  I remember the boring seders of my childhood, with my grandfather z’l mumbling interminably in Hebrew. Of course, there are other traditions, such as the Rabbinic requirement of four cups (cups, not sips) of wine.  But seders need not be long and boring, but powerful ways of transmitting a story from one generation to the next.


“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard like down with the kid.”  (Isaiah 11:6)

On the eighth and final day of Passover, we chant a haftarah (passage from the Prophets) that contains the beautiful image of an idealized future.  From this passage we get the phrase that “the lion will lie down with the lamb.”  One of my favorite stories, which I used in a sermon recently, speaks of the Biblical Zoo where a lion shares a pen with a lamb.  People are amazed.  “How do you do that?”  The zookeeper answers, “Simple.  Every day we bring a new lamb.”

In truth, the passage from Isaiah never mentions a lion and a lamb.  It speaks of a wolf and lamb, a leopard and a kid, a calf and a beast of prey herded by a little boy, a lion and an ox, a baby playing with a viper.  In this vision of the future, nature will become pastoral and even the animals will become vegetarian.  It reminds us of the Garden of Eden in the past.  According to the Christian theologian Augustine, nature turned destructive because of the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden.  (Judaism has a very different interpretation of that story.)  Both Genesis and Isaiah speak of an idealized vision of nature, one at the beginning of time and one at the end of time.

This is an idealized vision of nature.  But this is certainly not the real world of nature in which we humans live.  A much more accurate description of nature is in Alfred Lord Tennyson’s 1850 poem In Memoriam A.H.H., “Nature, red in tooth and claw.”  In reflecting on the death of his friend Arthur Henry Hallam, Tennyson asked how a God of love could create a nature so violent.   Shortly after the poem, Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species which speaks of how life evolves through natural selection.  Evolution is by its nature violent, speaking of some species surviving and others perishing.  Later Herbert Spencer would coin the phrase “survival of the fittest” to describe nature.  We are far from the pastoral ideal of Isaiah.

Today many people see nature as a source of spirituality.  They would rather pray at the beach than in a synagogue.  Nature can be awe inspiring, or to use a popular religious term, sublime.  I have beautiful memories of a trip to Arizona where I awoke early and said my morning prayers at the edge of the Grand Canyon as the sun rose.  The Grand Canyon is magnificent but think about the powerful forces that created it.  The beach is beautiful but imagine if a tsunami hit during our prayers.  Nature for all its wonder, is built on the forces of violence and destruction.   Even the sun, the source of all our energy, only exists because hydrogen atoms are being destroyed, fusing into helium atoms.  Nature is far from the serene vision pictured in the Bible.

Nature is also amoral.  We cannot learn good and evil from nature.  Or as philosopher David Hume succinctly put it, “You cannot learn an ought from an is.”  The late Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom Lord Jonathan Sacks summarized this idea in his last book Morality.  He first quotes the Talmud, “We could have learned modesty from the cat, industry from the ant, marital fidelity from the dove, and good manners from the rooster”  (Eruvin 100b).  Then he goes on to say, “But equally we could have learned savagery from the lion, pitilessness from the wolf, and venom from the viper.”  Red in tooth and claw indeed.

Today there is a return to the worship of nature in our culture.  There is a growth of such religions as Wiccan, Druid, and various return to nature movements.   Often these religions go by the name Neopaganism.  The worship of nature has pagan roots.  But it has been influenced by the modern ecological movement, and such ideas as the Gaia Hypothesis.  Proposed by chemist James Lovelock, this teaches that the earth itself is a living person with the same rights as human persons.

Nature can be beautiful.  After all, the Psalmist taught that “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalms 19:2).  Nature is God’s creation, but nature is not God.  It is worth remembering that on the last day of Passover, as we read Isaiah’s idealized vision of nature.


“I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon.  Gaze not upon me, for I am dark, because the sun has scorched me.”  (Song of Songs 1:5,6)

The trial of policeman Derek Chauvin for the murder of a black man George Floyd is the number one news story.  Again, race is all over the news.  It seems throughout our nation’s painful racial history, race has been in the news.  Racial issues reach back to Biblical times and the sweet book of Song of Songs, which we read in synagogue this Shabbat.

Song of Songs is a series of rather erotic love poems between a shepherd girl and her lover.  She has been taken into King Solomon’s harem and longs for her lover to rescue her.  Rabbi Akiba included this book in the canon because he saw it as a metaphor for the love between God and the people Israel.  If we imagine the story, most of us picture this shepherd girl and her lover as white.  White is our default position.  But according to the book, she is black.

Early in the book the young girl says she is black and beautiful.  She tells the other shepherd women not to gaze at her in disdain because of her dark skin, for the sun has scorched her.  This hints at a scientific truth.  People whose roots lie in Africa near the equator have more melanin in their skin, which protects them from the ultraviolet rays of the strong sunlight.  Black skin had a survival advantage.

Since most scientists believe that humanity first evolved in Africa, black skin ought to be the default position and white skin the deviation.  As humans migrated north, why did white skin develop?   The answer is evolution through natural selection.  There was no longer a survival advantage to dark skin in the north which had far less ultraviolet radiation.  However, there was a need for Vitamin D which comes from sunlight.  Less melanin allows more Vitamin D to be created, allowing a survival advantage to white skin.  Nature, and some would say nature’s God, created various skin colors to allow humanity to flourish.  Deep down we are all related.  “Have we not one father, did not one God create us all?”  (Malachi 2:10)

If God created people with a multitude of races, where did racism come from?  Race comes from nature, but racism comes from culture.  The Bible already hints at this.  Miriam, the heroine of the Passover story, in a moment of weakness, insults Moses’ wife for being black (Kushit or Ethiopian.)  Aaron is also involved but only Miriam is punished, indicating that she was the instigator.  God punishes her by causing her skin to turn white as snow with leprosy.  (See Numbers 12:1 – 15 for the story.)  It is almost as if God is saying to Miriam, if you are going to insult someone for being black, I will turn you white to the extreme.

A more serious Biblical passage, long quoted by racists, is the story of Noah’s middle son Ham.  Noah says, cursed b Canaan son of Ham, he shall be a slave of slaves to his brothers (Genesis 9:25).  Ham became the father of Kush (Ethiopia).  Black Jews from Ethiopia, brought to Israel in Operation Solomon, claimed that they were from the tribe of Dan, descendants of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.  Sadly, even Israel is not immune from racism in its treatment of Ethiopian Jews.   These verses about Noah’s son Ham have a long history even in our country.  Slave owners often uses them to defend slavery, proving as Shakespeare said in The Merchant of Venice, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.”  If even the Bible can be used for racist purposes, racism must be a deep part of human culture.

We humans are part of nature, but we learn culture from our parents and our community.  As Rodgers and Hammerstein famously wrote in their 1949 musical South Pacific, “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid, of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people’s whose skin is a different shade, you’ve got to be carefully taught.”  That lyric is more than 70 years old, but today we are seeing a huge rise in anti-Asian violence, including a horrible mass murder in Atlanta.  Hatred of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and too often, Jews, seems built into our culture.

Nature created human beings of many colors.  Culture often causes human beings of one color to hate those of another.  The message of Passover, love the stranger, teaches that we must overcome this cultural bias and learn to love all of humanity, in all of its many hues.


“These are the ten plagues which the Holy One, Blessed be He, brought up on Egyptians in Egypt.”  (The Haggadah)

With extra time at home during this difficult period of social distancing, I decided that I needed to download a novel on my iPhone.   But what novel?  Although I disagree with some of his philosophy, I enjoy the writings of the French existentialist novelist Albert Camus (1913 – 1960).  I remember reading in college his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” about a man forced to push a boulder up a hill over and over, just to have it roll down.  Camus’ famous question, how do we find meaning and purpose in an absurd world?

A few years ago. I read one of his great novels, The Stranger.  But I had never read his other great novel, which today seems so relevant.  Therefore, I downloaded Camus’s novel The Plague.  It tells the story of a small, boring town near the shore in Algeria which is struck by Bubonic Plague.  (Camus grew up in Algeria.)  The town reacts exactly as most of us have reacted to the corona virus – denial, fear, blame, and then unbelievable acts of bravery.  The town is totally locked down.  Nobody can come or go.  Camus uses the term “exile,” a perfect term for Passover.  Last night I came across the following quote that jumped out at me.  “Still, if it was an exile, for most of us, it was exile in our own home.”

The difference between the Jewish world view and Camus’ world view is that, as Jews, we believe in a caring God who is involved in history.  In Camus’ world, life is absurd, there is no God, and like poor Sisyphus, we struggle to make sense in a world that does not care.  There are two world views, a caring world and an absurd world.  Which do we live in?

In classical Judaism, if there is a plague, God must have had a reason.  “These are the ten plagues God brought on Egypt.”  Plagues are a punishment.  Later in the Bible, God brings a plague in the days of King David for the sin of taking a census.  Throughout history, plagues are seen as a punishment from God.  There are always people to blame.  The horrible black plague in Europe in the fourteenth century was often blamed on Jews.  Jews had numerous laws about hand washing and other sanitary measures, which kept down the number of Jewish deaths.  But that became a reason to blame the Jews.  Today, there are voices on the right that blame the corona virus on gays.  There are voices on the left that blame the corona virus on global warning.  In this mindset, a plague means someone deserves the blame.

So, who is to blame for the corona virus?  Religion only makes sense if it goes along with the best of science.  Let us look at the science.  A virus, like every living thing, wants to be fruitful and multiply.  But a virus can only do that by taking over a cell and multiplying as the cell divides.  The corona virus takes over a human cell, and often sadly kills its host.  That is how nature works.  But the same God who created viruses created a remarkable immune system in human beings.  Our bodies are filled with millions of creatures that could kill us, but our body kills them off.  That is why we thank God each morning for the gift of our body.  But nature also creates mutations; that is how evolution works.  The corona is a mutated virus to which our bodies have not yet developed immunity.  And so, too many of us are sick and dying.

The corona is not a punishment from God but a natural event in a world created by God.   We do not live in an absurd, meaningless universe, but a universe where we can see the hand of God.  Events today include this great drama between a virus seeking to multiply itself and humans seeking to survive.  It is a cosmic battle.  And I have to believe that, like every other plague in history, in the end humans will win this one.

But, what if Camus is correct?  What if we really live in an absurd, unfeeling universe?  Camus’ novel teaches that in a universe that does not care, we can create ourselves into heroes.  To quote one conversation of a major character in the novel, “’What interests me is learning to become a saint?’  ‘But you don’t believe in God.’  ‘Exactly!  Can one be a saint without believing in God?  That’s the problem, the only problem, I am up against today.’”  Camus raises a great point, whether we believe in a God created universe or an absurd universe, how can we become saints?

“In the evening of the fourteenth day, we search the house for hamez (leavened bread) by the light of a candle.” (Mishnah Pesachim 1.1)
(This message is based on a wonderful d’var Torah from last week’s portion metzora by Rabbi Joel Levy, the head of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem.) On the night before Passover we do a search by candlelight for any leavened bread that might still be in the home. Customarily ten pieces of bread are hidden around the house so that the search is not in vain. When my children were young, they hid the pieces and it became a family game of hide-and-seek. It was better than an Eastern egg hunt. Now that my kids are grown and gone, my wife and I hide them for each other.
The fascinating question is why the search is done by candle light. In fact, we turn off all the lights, making the search by a small Hanukkah candle. If we were really interested in removing every possible piece of hametz, we should open all the windows and do the search by sunlight. But tradition deliberately teaches that we search by a dim light. If we have done the search, we have fulfilled our duty. There is a limit how intensely we need to look. As I have told my congregation many times, although we are required to remove all leavened products from our home, there is a limit. We do not need to drive ourselves crazy.
Rabbi Levy compares this search for hametz with the search for signs of a fungus, usually mistranslated as leprosy, on the walls of a home. The home owner goes to the priest and says, “Something like a plague has appeared to me in my house (Leviticus 14:35). The Midrash known as the Sifra interprets this to mean, “appeared to me and not to my light” (Sifra Metzora 5:11). The owner and the priest cannot use a light when searching for signs of this disease. The Sifra continues that one may not open the windows when doing the search for this disease. The rabbis were aware that if they find this disease and it spreads, they have to tear down the house. The wanted to make it as difficult as possible to find this disease. The law against opening windows is mentioned explicitly in the Mishnah (Negaim 2,3).
Rabbi Levy goes on to say, “a person should not expose all their workings to public scrutiny.” There are times when it is best not to search too hard, to use a dim candlelight rather than a high wattage flashlight. Not everything needs to be exposed to the public. This is particularly important in the current political climate, when we feel we must expose every dark skeleton in everyone’s closet. People need and deserve a realm of privacy. Sometimes it is better not to know everything.
Let me give an example from a television show I really enjoy. Shtisel on Netflix is an Israeli program in Hebrew with English subtitles. It tells the story of a Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jewish family living in Jerusalem. They have all the foibles and troubles of any secular family. That is what makes the show so popular.
[Spoiler alert]. In one episode Giti, the daughter of the family, married with five children sends her husband overseas to work and send back money. She learns that her husband has shaved his beard, taken off his yarmulke, and became involved with a non-Jewish woman. He has abandoned his family. After a period of time, he decides he wants to return to his family and to Jewish tradition. Should Giti take him back? She goes to the rabbi for advice. The rabbi asks if she has proof that he has abandoned his Jewish ways and gone with a non-Jewish woman. Rumors are rumors. All she knows for sure is that he went abroad, he sent her money, and now he wants to return home. She should not investigate any further. Based on what she knows for a fact, the rabbi convinces her to take him back. When he returns, he wants to confess his sins to her, but she will not listen. She does not want to know.
There are times when we need to know all the facts and all the details, particularly when it comes to criminal behavior. But there are other times when we need to search with a dim light, in the evening or with the windows closed. That is the lesson of the search for hametz.

“Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth; for your love is better than wine.” (Song of Songs 1:2)
In the third part of the Hebrew Bible (the Tanach), the part known as the Writings, are five short books. In the Christian Bible they appear in a different order, but in the Tanach they follow the order of five Jewish festivals. They are known as the five megillot, or five scrolls. Traditionally they were written on scrolls, and the last one, the book of Esther, is still read from a scroll.
The first book Shir HaShirim (Song of Songs) is read this coming Shabbat. It is the perfect book for the festival of Spring. For as the weather turns warmer and the flowers bloom, one’s heart turns to love. Tradition teaches that Song of Songs was written by King Solomon as a young man extolling the beauty of love, and yes, sex. It is the most erotic book of the Bible. It describes a young woman, darkened by the sun, who is taken into the king’s harem. She dreams how her young lover will come skipping over the hills to rescue her.
What is a book of erotic love poems doing in the Bible? Rabbi Akiba said that all the books are holy, but this is the holiest book of all. It describes the love between the people Israel and their God. It is an allegory about God’s love for his suffering people. So we read it at Passover, when God rescued His people from slavery in Egypt.
The days grow warmer and on Shavuot, the giving of the Torah, we read a very different kind of love story. We read the book of Rut (Ruth), the story of a Moabite woman who loved her mother-in-law, and so cast her lot with the Jewish people. Ruth would glean in the fields of Boaz, and eventually marry him. She would give birth to the man who would become the grandfather of King David. It is about the acceptance of God’s Torah, Ruth reliving what happened at Mt. Sinai.
In the heat of summer, the mood changes. Tisha B’Av is the saddest day of the Jewish year. It recalls the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem and other tragedies that have occurred to the Jewish people. We sit on the ground and to a special mournful cantillation, we read the book of Aicha (Lamentations). Tradition teaches that it was written by Jeremiah who witnessed the horrors of Jerusalem destroyed. But one cannot end on a sad note, the words at the end of Lamentation have become part of our liturgy. “Return us O God and we will return, renew our days as of old” (Lamentations 5:21). Tradition teaches that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av.
It is fall and the days are getting shorter. The leaves are turning. On the beautiful festival of Sukkot we read the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes). Tradition teaches that the book was written by King Solomon in his old age, finding life purposeless and vain. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:2,9). As the days turn cold, life appears hopeless. Personally, I find Ecclesiastes with its deep philosophical search for meaning the most appealing of the five megillot. Solomon eventually finds meaning in the simple joys of life. “Live joyfully with the wife whom you love all the days of the life of your vanity” (Ecclesiastes 9:9). When the days turn dark, we realize that life is the search for meaning.
Winter passes and spring is coming. Passover is one month away. We Jews get together to celebrate the Jewish equivalent of Carnival. Purim is chance to dress in costume, wear masks, drink too much, and act silly. We read the book of Esther, the story of a Jewish queen married to a foolish king, who in a key moment risks her life to save her people. We read the book of Esther in Hebrew evening and morning, and whenever the villain Haman is mentioned, we drown out his name with noisemakers. The book begins with a threat and ends with a joyous if violent redemption. Esther also is read to its own special melody.
Five books are read on five festivals. They mark the ups and downs of the Jewish year, and the ups and downs of Jewish life.

“Pour out your wrath upon those who do not know You and upon the nations which do not call upon your name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his dwelling place.” (Psalms 79:6 – 7)
I am writing these words on an airplane flying back from New York City. I visited the city that never sleeps with a group of teens from our synagogue. Today we visited the 9/11 Museum and Memorial, touring the Museum and seeing artifacts of those tragic events. It is hard to believe that these teens were not even born when those terrorist attacks took place. To them, it is a relic of the past, not unlike how I view World War II. And yet, as we dealt with strict security everywhere we visited, these teens live with the realities of those days.
9/11 also affects how I view religion. To explain my feelings, let me look at one part of the traditional Passover Seder. After dinner, after we drink the third cup of wine, we pour an extra cup for Elijah. Custom teaches that Elijah visits every Passover Seder, and so we open the door for him. Most of us sing Eliyahu HaNavi – “Elijah the Prophet.” But those words are not found in the traditional Haggadah. Instead, we call out a series of verses from the Bible, verses filled with anger.
We open the door and say, “Pour out your wrath upon those who do not know You and upon the nations which do not call upon your name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his dwelling place” (Psalms 79:6 – 7). “Pour out Your fury upon them, let the fierceness of your anger overtake them” (Psalms 69:25). “Pursue them in indignation and destroy them from under Your heavens” (Lamentations 3:66). How out of place these verses seem, particularly in a ritual which begins with opening the door and saying, “All who are hungry come and eat.”
My own attitude towards these verses reflects my own religious development. When I was a young rabbi, I opened the door and after singing to Elijah, I said these verses. It was part of the traditional Haggadah and I was a traditionalist. I was not interested in skipping anything, even verses that troubled me. But as the years went on I began to change my mind. For many years, I avoided those verses. The Haggadah teaches that I should remove ten drops of wine from my cup for each of the ten plagues, lessening my joy because of the suffering of our Egyptian enemies. How could I feel for our enemies and then tell God to pour out His wrath on the nations that know him not? My Seder became more liberal.
They say that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. Perhaps that is what happened to me. When 9/11 occurred in 2001, I reintroduced these verses to my Seder. I was angry. And I am still angry today. That is how I felt walking through that museum and seeing the list of thousands of names of innocents killed on that day. I felt a sadness and an anger. And I realized that there is a place in this world for anger. It is anger that motivates us to fight evil. And so, since Passover 2002 until the present day I recite those verses.
There is room for anger in our ritual. I think about how Jews have handled this anger over the centuries, thinking about those who have sought to destroy us. We open the door and cry out some verses in Hebrew, expressing our feelings. We do not seek revenge. We do not hate. We remember that even our enemies are God’s children. But we express our anger. Psychologists say it is not healthy to hold anger in; we need to express it. But we express it in a way that is not destructive. That is the reason I have included these words in my Seder.
Last Shabbat I watched young people in Washington D.C., in my own community next to Parkland, and all over the country, participate in the March for our Lives. I was impressed with the passion of so many of these young people. If I were not traveling to New York the following day, I would have considered traveling to Washington. United Synagogue sponsored a program allowing young people to keep Shabbat while participating in the demonstration. These young people are angry. But anger has a place in our society. Often real change begins with anger.

“The wolf shall lie down with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid.” (Isaiah 11:6)
There is an old story about the Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem. Tourists are amazed to see a cage where the lion lies down with the lamb. One of them asks the zookeeper, how do you manage that? The zookeeper replies, “It is simple. Every day we bring in another lamb.”
On the last day of Passover we chant a portion from the book of Isaiah. It speaks about the miraculous time of peace in the future, when even animals will not kill one another. Actually, it says nothing about the lion and the lamb. It speaks of a wolf lying with a lamb, a leopard with a baby goat, a cow and a bear grazing together, and a baby playing in a viper’s hole. In this perfect future, the animals will all become vegetarians, and harmony will reign. Nature itself will be transformed into something harmonious. I imagine it to be a time where the destructive forces in nature cease, a time with no hurricanes, earthquakes, or tsunamis. Unfortunately, I do not think this will ever happen.
In my mind, I cannot imagine the animals becoming vegetarian. If fact, when the Messiah comes I cannot even imagine humans becoming vegetarian, at least most humans. We were vegetarians in the Garden of Eden, but I do not think we humans “want to get ourselves back to the garden.” (Sorry Joni Mitchell.) We long for meat. There is a debate between rabbis as to the Messianic age. Some say that when the Messiah comes nature itself will be transformed. The world as we know it will be unrecognizable. But others such as Maimonides teach that the Messianic Age will be no different than today, except that nations will not be subject to other nations. It will be a time of peace.
How do I picture the time of the coming of the Messiah? A few weeks ago I wrote that it is like an asymptote in mathematics. We come closer and closer, even if we never quite reach it. The Messianic Age is a time we are approaching, getting closer and closer to that perfect time. No, I do not believe that nature will change. Lions will still eat lambs. But I do believe that human nature will change. When the Messiah comes, every human on earth will recognize the humanity and dignity of every other human on earth.
There was a time in human history when people cared only for their own immediate clan, their own community. Everybody else was the “other,” a stranger, not to be protected. Children were taught not to trust people who were other. As Rodgers and Hammerstein famously wrote in South Pacific, “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a different shade, you’ve got to be carefully taught.” The stranger was not to be trusted.
The Torah came along with a powerful message. “Love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). Some Rabbis taught that the entire purpose of our slavery in Egypt was to teach us the importance of loving the stranger. The circle of moral respect went beyond one’s own community to the other. Nonetheless, it has taken centuries for that lesson to sink in. People with a different ethnicity, different race, different religion, different gender, and different sexual orientation were the “other.” They were not to be trusted. Slowly, we are opening to the other.
Why is recognizing the humanity of the other so important. Perhaps the late Martin Luther King Jr., who was murdered fifty years ago today, put it best. “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.” King’s words still read true fifty years later. It is the prophetic vision we read on the last day of Passover.

“Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death.”
(Song of Songs 8:6)
“In the Spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” So wrote Alfred Lord Tennyson in his poem Locksley Hall. But the Rabbis had the same thought millennia before. They taught that Song of Songs, the Biblical book of love poems attributed to a young King Solomon, be read on the intermediate Sabbath of Passover. The book is filled with illusions to nature, to spring, and most important, to the passionate love between a young shepherd girl and her suiter.
The shepherd girl has dark skin burnt by the sun. Her brothers had tried to keep her locked away. But then she is spotted by King Solomon’s retinue and taken into his harem. The young ladies try to tell her how lucky she is to be in the palace of the king. But she longs to be rescued by her lover, who will come skipping over the mountains to free her. She escapes from the palace to wonder through the city where the watchmen see her and mock her. But her love is towards her shepherd lover.
Much of the book is quite erotic. Both the shepherd girl and her lover sing praises to one another, comparing their bodies to various works of nature. The book starts out with her words, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for your love is better than wine” (Song of Songs 1:2). When Evelyn and I were married, we had an artist design our ketubah. It contains pictures of roses and apples, and the quote, “Like a rose among the thorns, so is my love among the maidens. Like an apple tree among the trees of the wood, so is my beloved among the young men” (Song of Songs 2:2-3). In the last chapter are the beautiful words, “many waters cannot quench love” (Song of Songs 8:7).
What is such an erotic book doing in the Bible? The ancient Rabbis argued whether such a book belonged. Rabbi Akiba said that many books are holy, but this one is the holiest of all. To the joy of poets, ketubah designers, and Israeli song writers, this beautiful erotic book of love poetry made it into the canon. Akiba explained why the book was so holy. It is not simply about the love between a man and a woman, but about the love between God and his people Israel. The mystics also saw it as a love song between the masculine and feminine aspects of God, longing to be reunited. According to these mystics, when a man and a woman truly love each other, they help bring God back together again.
Love is about longing. The young shepherd girl longs for her shepherd boy to rescue her, and her shepherd boy longs to be reunited with her lover. Love is deeply emotional. But as a rabbi, I have often taught that love is more than simply longing. Love is more than simply emotions. True love is about action. We not only long for our beloved, we act to meet the needs of our beloved. Love is about acting on behalf of the other.
The Hasidic Rebbe Moshe of Sasov famously taught that he learned what true love is from some peasants in a tavern. One peasant put his arm around another and said, “Ivan, do you love me?” The other peasant answered, “Of course I love you.” Then the first peasant said, “Ivan, do you know what gives me pain.” He answered, “How can I know what gives you pain.” “If you do not know what gives me pain, how can you say you love me?” Rebbe Moshe of Sasov says to love someone is to know what gives them pain, and to act to alleviate that pain. To love someone is to know what gives them joy, and to act to enhance that joy. Real love is to act on behalf of the other, to meet their needs.
Song of Songs speaks of love as longing and emotions. But the shepherd boy does come forth to try to rescue his shepherd girl. He takes action. Love is not simply what we feel but what we do. It is spring and the hearts of both young and older men and women turn to love. Let us show that love by the way we act towards our beloved.

“If God had parted the sea for us, and not caused us to cross on the dry land, dayenu – it would have been enough.” (Passover Hagaddah)
There is a line in the Passover Hagaddah, recited at the seder table, that I have never understood. One of the highlights of the seder is the singing of dayenu – each of God’s miracles would have been enough. If God had parted the sea but never led us across on dry land, it would have been enough. Yet what good is parting the sea if we could not cross it? We would still be on the same side of the sea as the Egyptians.
This year I had an insight in my personal life that helped this line make sense. For the past four years I have been working on my Ph.D. dissertation, a process that I believed was without end. I was one of those E.B.D. (everything but dissertation) graduate students. Then this week, shortly before Passover, I was finally allowed to defend the dissertation. This great feeling of hope and relief came over me. When the university announced the date of my defense, seeing the end was a great feeling, even if it was still in the future.
I am pleased to announce that I did successfully defend my dissertation and finished all the work for my doctorate. It was a joyous accomplishment. But I realize that even having that glimpse of the end was a time of celebration. So for the Israelites at the Red (or Reed) Sea, seeing the possibility of redemption was a time to say dayenu. Then when they actually crossed the sea, dayenu was once again celebrated. Each step of the way would have been enough. We can sing dayenu over and over again as we accomplish each step on the road to redemption.
A good example is someone who is struggling with an illness. Perhaps one day they take a medical test or have some medical procedure with a good result. There is a small, shining light of hope for a moment. The full cure is not there yet. But even that little step is a time to rejoice, to sing dayenu. Even seeing the possibility of a brighter future is a cause for celebration.
When we begin to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt in the Torah, we chant a haftarah from Isaiah. The haftarah uses the Hebrew phrase, tzav l’tzav kav l’kav (Isaiah 28:10) to speak of redemption. Etz Hayim, the haftarah book we use, translates it “mutter upon mutter, murmer upon murmer.” I have never quite liked that translation. I prefer the words of “Putting it Together” from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. “Bit by Bit, Piece by Piece.” Redemption does not come all at once but bit by bit, piece by piece. Each step is worthy of celebration, after each step we can sing dayenu.
I look back now on the past eleven years working towards this doctorate, more than four years spent researching and writing a dissertation. I am celebrating finishing. But I realize with hindsight that each step along the way, each chapter written and rewritten, is a chance to say dayenu. Every good that happens in this world takes place through a series of steps. Each takes place with a vision of the future. And for each step along the way, we ought to sing with enthusiasm dayenu, this would have been enough.
Let me take this time to thank God for the wonderful committee members who challenged me and helped me along the way. Let me take the time to thank my wife, my children, and my many friends who encouraged me when I said that I will never finish this. I was standing in the offices of Florida Atlantic University when I finished and one of my guests told me to say the shechiyanu prayer. Let me take the time to thank God for keeping me alive, sustaining me, and allowing me to reach this wonderful occasion.

“May God remember the souls of our loved ones.” (holiday Yizkor Prayers)
One of my favorite themes, particular around Passover, is the linear view of life. Life is a line moving from slavery to freedom, moving from our present situation towards redemption. On the last day of Passover we actually look in both directions on that line. We look backwards as we remember our past and say yizkor for loved ones who are no longer with us. We look forwards towards the perfect Messianic age, read in the haftarah on this day. In fact, Chabad celebrates the eighth day with Seudat HaMashiach – the festive meal of the Messiah.
Looking both backwards and forwards is a fundamental theme of Jewish tradition. We are constantly reminded to look at the past and remember. In the Friday night Sabbath Kiddush we remember God’s creation of the universe, and we also remember our exodus from Egypt. We are told to remember Amalek who rose against us and attacked us from the rear. Moses towards the end of his life tells us to “remember the days of old.” (Deuteronomy 32:7). If we want to move forward in the right direction, we need to first look backwards to remember where we came from. Or as George Santayana so beautiful put it, “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”
We need to look backwards. But we also need to look forward. Where are we going and what do we want to accomplish? Recall the wonderful scene of Alice meeting the Cheshire cat in Wonderland. She asks the cat which path she should take and he asks her where she wants to go. She says that she does not know and he replies, then it does not matter which path you take. We always need a vision of where we want to go. The haftarah describes the future, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard lie down with the kid.” (Isaiah 11:6) (Sorry, it does not mention the lion and the lamb.) We move forward towards a perfected world.
What is true for our national life is true for our individual lives. We need to look backwards to know from where we came. That is why we say yizkor for our parents and others who are no closer with us, but influenced us on our individual paths. In my book The Kabbalah of Love I speak of an old kabbalistic idea, although I have been unable to find the original source. Before we are born, we are able to choose the parents best able to prepare us for our task or tasks in life. We need to ask what values, skills, and insights we learned from our parents and others who are no longer with us, and how did they help us set forth on the path we need to take in life.
But Passover is also a time for looking forward. Where do we want to go? What is our particular role in bringing about the perfect age pictured in Isaiah? I love the Hasidic story of the great Rebbe Zusya. As Zusya lie dying, he began to cry. His students asked him why he was crying and he responded, “I see what will happen to me when I go to the next world. They will not ask me why I was not Moses; I was not meant to be Moses. They will not ask me why I was not Rabbi Akiba; I was not meant to be Rabbi Akiba. They will simply ask me why I was not Zusya. I am crying because I want to know why I was not Zusya.”
Each of us has a unique role to play in moving forward on the line towards the perfect time. Just as we look backwards, so we need to look forwards. Where ought we to go? And what is preventing us from getting there? If someone as great as Zusya can ask why he was not who God meant him to be, so we can each ask that same question.
On the last day of Passover we stand on a line looking backwards and looking forwards. We look backwards towards those who are no longer with us, who set us on the path that we are following. And we look forwards towards the day when we can perfect this world as a Kingdom of God, and ask what our role is in bringing about that kingdom. May our vision of the past inspire to move towards our vision of the future.

“Why is this night different from all other nights?” (Passover Haggadah)
One of my fondest memories of my mother-in-law, (may her memory be for a blessing), was that she could never simply answer a question. Every question brought another question in response. I would ask, “Are you joining us for dinner?” She would answer, “Why shouldn’t I join you for dinner?” She had old European roots that saw the world in terms of questions.
There is something authentically Jewish about always asking questions. The Talmud is filled with rabbis questioning one another. The rabbis of the Talmud would never agree with one another, but would constantly argue and raise questions. Sometimes when I speak to people who choose to convert to Judaism, they tell me, “In my former religion you were not allowed to question. In Judaism everything can be questioned.”
Judaism is a religion of questions. And nowhere is that idea of questions more obvious than at the Passover seder. Of course a key moment in the seder is the four questions, traditionally asked by the youngest child present. “Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights we eat bread or matza, on this night only matza. Etc.” Most people do not realize that these particular four questions are simply sample questions. The Talmud has a slightly different version of the four questions.
I try to make my seder a kind of quiz game, a ritual meal built on the mindset of Jeopardy. Do we eat matza with bitter herbs or do we eat them separately? (Answer – we do both.) Why do we pour a cup of wine for Elijah? (Answer – there are actually five terms in the Bible for redemption, but we are not certain if the fifth step has taken place yet. So we drink four cups of wine and leave the fifth cup without drinking it. Elijah comes to answer unanswered questions.) Why do we no longer eat a roasted lamb on Passover but simply put a shank bone on our seder plate? (Answer – we must be in a state of ritual purity to eat the Passover offering, and nobody today is in such a state of ritual purity. For more details, google “Red Heiffer”.) Why do we not say that the Wise son excludes himself from the community? After all, he also says, what do these mean “to you”? (Answer – I have no idea. Even rabbis have unanswered questions.)
I love being a teacher in a religion where everything is open to questioning. People sometimes tell me, “Rabbi, I have a dumb question.” I always answer, “There are no dumb questions, only dumb answers.” Part of my job is to answer questions to the best of my ability. But there is a good chance that the rabbi up the street may give a different answer. Someday according to tradition, when Elijah comes back, he will answer all the questions. But until he comes, keep asking questions.
“Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.” (Song of Songs 8:7)
On the Intermediate Shabbat of Passover we read one of the Megillot from the Bible known as Shir HaShirim, Song of Songs. This Biblical book consists of love poetry, often erotic, between a young shepherd girl and her shepherd boy. She has been stolen into the harem of the king, and cries out for her lover to rescue her. The language is so explicit that the Rabbis questioned why this book deserves to be in the Bible. Rabbi Akiba gave the answer; Song of Songs is not about the love of a man and a woman. Rather it is about the love between God and His people Israel. Therefore we read it on Passover, when God rescues the people Israel and takes them to be his own.
In truth, if one reads the book, it is about love between a man and a woman, often expressed in explicitly sexual terms. It is wonderful love poetry, written from the point of view of two young people. We read it on Passover reflecting a line from the English poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, “In the spring a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.” As the flowers bloom and the earth warms up, love is in the air, particularly among young people.
As a rabbi I do a lot of thinking and talking about love. There is a Greek term for the kind of erotic or romantic love described above – eros. It is the call of young lovers who cannot be apart. It is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s beautiful description from The King and I, “You walk down the street on the chance that you’ll meet, and you meet, not merely by chance.” Eros is wonderful. But as experience has taught us, sustaining a marriage on the basis of eros alone does not work.
I once met with a couple who shared their thoughts with me about their divorce after just a few years of marriage. When they courted one another, it was all magic, romance, and as they admitted, sex. Their world was not quite real. He lived out of town and she could not wait for his visits. Then they married, he moved into town, and they began living together. The day to day reality of life together lacked the magic of their courtship. The marriage was not to last.
I speak about love with every bride and groom before I perform their wedding. I share with them that there are three kinds of love, reflected by three different Greek words. The first is eros described about – love as romance and magic. A couple needs to work hard to keep the romance in their marriage, whether through date nights or vacations away together. Like any other system, marriage takes energy is a couple wants to sustain it. But eros alone is not enough.
A second Greek word for love is philos. Philos means love as friendship. One’s spouse must also be one’s best friend. There must be trust and intimacy. A couple needs to talk about everything and nothing. I often tell a couple that, to quote the Bible, they must be able to stand before one another “naked and not ashamed.” I do not mean physically naked. I mean vulnerable, knowing their partner can hurt them, but still opening up to their partner. In many ways, for a marriage to work, trust becomes more important than love.
Even philos is not enough. There is a third word for love in Greek, a word that Christians tend to use more often than Jews. The word is agape, which means love as service. It means putting one’s own needs and desires aside to focus on what one’s partner needs or desires. Often agape means self-sacrifice. We do things we do not wish to do to make our partner happy. A husband will go with his wife to the ballet; a wife will go with her husband to a wrestling match. (Or perhaps vice versa.)
Love means eros – romantic love, philos – love as friendship, and agape – love as service. With these three, one can build a marriage that can last forever.

“He said to me, prophecy over these bones and say to them , O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones, I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again.” (Ezekiel 37:4 – 5)
This week’s haftarah (reading from the Prophets) presents one of the most powerful images of the Bible. Ezekiel, the great prophet of the first Babylonian exile is brought to a valley of dry bones. He is told to prophesize to the bones so that they shall live again. And as he speaks, he sees flesh cover the bones and they are brought back to life. This vision is a parable of the rebirth of the nation of Israel in its own soil.
Is this vision true? At my family seder some of our participants took off on a wonderful discussion about the truth of the Torah (although after ten minutes I had to interrupt to get back to the haggadah.) One of my guests argued that if the Torah says it, then that is exactly how it happened. If Moses turned a staff into a snake, God was able to cause a real miracle. And if God says he brought dead bones back to life, that is exactly how it happened. Another guest argued that the Torah is nonsense. Most of the stories never happened. If God literally brought plagues and parted the Sea of Reeds, why does He not do it now? And I tried to interrupt both of them, saying that the Torah often speaks in allegories and metaphors. A story does not need to be literally true to be true. Perhaps this story is the best example.
This is a story about resurrection of the dead. But one does not need to believe in a literal resurrection to believe that dead bones can come to life again. In Jewish tradition, if someone runs into a friend they have not seen in a very long period of time, it is customary to say a blessing. “Praised are You Lord our God King of the universe, Who brings the dead back to life.” Someone who has disappeared out of our lives and now come back is like someone dead brought back to life.
The metaphor of coming back to life is a deep part of our Western culture. We speak of rising like a Phoenix from the ashes. The roots of this vision are Greek mythology where the Phoenix was a mythical bird. Each generation arose from the ashes of its predecessor. Phoenix AZ actually got its name when one of the pioneers envisioned a new city rising on the ashes of an old Indian city. And of course, we Jews have lived with this miracle in the lifetimes of many of us. The state of Israel rose Phoenix-like on the land of our ancestors. Ezekiel has given us a powerful allegory that can resonate with us today.
However, I am willing to move beyond the story of the dry bones as mere allegory. I believe in a literal sense it is true. The story tells of dead objects coming to life. When I study the scientific account of the development of life on this earth, I see that this is precisely what happened. The earth originally began as a cloud of swirling chemicals. When the earth first formed there was no life. There was mere stuff, carbon, hydrogen, and other chemicals. Then over the course of millions of years, these chemicals formed long chains of acids that could reproduce. One-celled creatures became multi-celled creatures. Brains developed and consciousness entered the world. And eventually we humans evolved. Out of dead matter came living, sentient beings.
Many scientists see the earth’s history as mere happenstance. They see the development of life as a blind process based on the laws of physics and biology. I see it as something more. This is the hand of God. This is an actual enactment of Ezekiel’s allegory of the dry bones. God brought these bones to life. Perhaps we need to look at the way life and consciousness developed in the world and say the words which we will read on the Seventh Day of Passover, following the crossing of the Sea of Reeds. “This is my God and I will enshrine Him, the God of my father and I will exalt Him.” (Exodus 15:2)

Why is this night different from all other nights? (Passover Haggadah)
I am going to take a week off from my series “A Rabbi’s Guide to Being Human” in order to share some thoughts about Passover, which begins this Friday night. I want to speak about questions, not just the four in the Haggadah but the ones we ask daily.
My mother-in-law who we called Bubbe Dora was an old fashioned Jewish woman. Born in Poland, raised in Cuba, married in Brooklyn, and retired in Miami Beach, she epitomized a whole generation of Jewish women. If I asked Bubbe Dora, “Would you like a piece of chicken?” she would answer, “Why would I not want a piece of chicken?” If I asked her, “Can you sew this button for me” she would answer, “Why not?” Every question was answered with a question. In fact, this is the old Jewish way. We Jews love questions.
Of course the Passover seder is built on four questions, traditionally asked by the youngest one capable. I often say that these four questions are simply sample questions. In fact, the Talmud gives a slightly different version of the four questions. For example, it says “On all other nights we eat meat roasted, cooked, or boiled, why on this night do we eat meat only roasted? (Note – a good question for your seder. Why did they eat only roasted meat on Passover? And why do we not eat it today? What do we eat instead? If you are interested I will email the answers.)
We are a religion built on questions. In fact, when someone says to me, “Rabbi I have a dumb question,” I always respond, “There are no dumb questions; only dumb answers.” Questions are at the heart of our tradition. In fact, I deal with a number of converts to Judaism each year. They often tell me what they love about our tradition is that we have the right to question. Many come from authoritarian traditions where you accepted what your clergy told you. Questions were not allowed. In Judaism, on the contrary, there are constant questions. The whole Talmud is basically a running argument, with rabbis questioning the rulings of other rabbis.
Questions sharpen the thinking of individuals, not just the one asking the question but the one answering. When people ask me, “Rabbi, where did the Torah come from?”, “Rabbi, did the exodus really happen?”, “Rabbi, why do good people suffer?”, I must struggle with my faith to answer. I grow by answering questions. When people say on the other hand, “that is the way it is. Accept it,” they are stifling questions. It is like the parent who says to the child, “Because I said so!” It cuts off any further discussion.
We come from a tradition that is based on questions. The very name Israel means “wrestles with God.” We wrestle with God by asking God questions. Sometimes we do not know the answers. That is the reason we invite Elijah the Prophet into our seder and pour him a special cup of wine. According to tradition, Elijah will answer all the unanswered questions.
If you are leading a seder, come up with questions for your participants, both the children and the adults. Make it more than four. Only through questions and answers will each of us grow as Jews and as human beings. And remember, perhaps there are some dumb answers. But there is no such thing as a dumb question.


“Then came the Holy One, Blessed be He, and slew the angel of death.”
(Had Gadya, Passover song)
One of the most enjoyable moments of the Passover Seder is the final song – Chad Gadya “One Little Kid.” It tells of the baby goat that father bought for two zuzim. Then come a series of events – the cat eats the goat, the dog bites the cat, the stick beats the dog, the fire burns the stick, the water quenches the fire, the ox drinks the water, the shochet (ritual slaughterer) slaughters the ox, the angel of death kills the shochet, and with final justice, the Holy One slays the angel of death. What goes around comes around and in the end, justice prevails.
One of my fondest memories of my Passovers seders growing up in Los Angeles, are my Uncle Max belting out at the top of his lungs – chad gadya. He may not know a lot of Hebrew, but he certainly enjoyed singing those two Aramaic words. I have not been to a seder in Los Angeles for many years, but I believe my uncle, now ninety-seven, still belts out those words. I have been to seders where the song is sung in Yiddish, and occasionally in other languages. I have seen people act out each of the characters in the song. In my seder I always see if someone can sing the entire song in one breath – either in English translation or for the truly talented, in the original Aramaic. The song is a piece of great fun, put at the end of the seder so that the children will stay interested.
However, taking the song more seriously, there is a difficult message. God in the end will slay the angel of death. God will overcome death. As John Donne wrote in his famous sonnet Death be not Proud, “And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.” This strikes me as a strange ending. If the all powerful God wanted to slay the angel of death, why has God not done so already? In the Passover story, isn’t the angel of death God’s messenger? God uses the angel of death against the hapless Egyptians?
I have been considering this question for a long time. And an answer is beginning to formulate in my mind. Death is entropy. It is the tendency in nature for all things to fall apart. Death is the drive in all matter to return to primordial chaos. All physical things must eventually die. It is the nature of items to fall apart over time – whether a new car, a human body, or the sun itself. Death is what came first. It is chaos – what the Torah calls tohu v’vohu “void and unformed.” It is built into the universe that all things must die.
But there is another force at work in the universe, a force that goes from chaos to order. It is the force that begins with the primordial chaos and turns it into living things. It is the force that Ezekiel first envisioned when he spoke of a valley of bones coming to life. In fact, this is the haftarah (prophetic portion) we will read this coming Shabbat for Hol HaMoed Pesach. There is a force at work in the universe that turned random hydrogen atoms into carbon, carbon atoms into organic molecules, organic molecules into living beings, and living beings into you and me. There is force for life. And we Jews call that force for life God.
Once may say that there are two forces at work in the universe (although we must be careful. Judaism rejects a Gnostic dualism.) One force is entropy, leading from order to chaos. The other is God, leading from chaos to order, from the simple to the complex, from mere matter to life. The song teaches that the God will overcome the forces of chaos in the universe. Order will triumph in the end. God will slay the angel of death.
We often make choices in life. Are we following the forces of chaos in our lives? Or are we following the forces that bring out order? If we do, we are joining God in the sacred task of slaying the angel of death. Let us use this Passover to move from chaos to order.



“According to his knowledge his father teaches him.”
(traditional haggadah)

There is a wonderful story about a traditional rabbi and his students. A woman comes to him with a chicken. “Rabbi, look, is this chicken kosher?” The rabbi looks carefully and replies, “I am sorry, the chicken is not kosher. You will have to get another one.” Shortly afterwards a second woman comes with a chicken. “Is this chicken kosher?” The rabbi looks carefully and replies, “Yes, this chicken is kosher. Feel free to use it.”
The students challenge their rabbi. “There was absolutely no difference between those two chickens.” The rabbi says, “I know that. The difference was between the two women. The first is a wealthy woman; she can afford another chicken. The second woman is poor. If I tell her the chicken is not kosher, she will have nothing to eat.”
The new age Jewish Renewal Movement has made the claim that whether or not something is kosher is dependent on who is asking the question. I would not go this far. But there is a touch of truth to this idea. Before we can answer any question, we have to see who is asking. The answer for the scholar of Jewish law may be different from the answer for someone unschooled. The answer for the rich may be slightly different than the answer for the poor. We must meet people “where they are at.” (Genesis 21:17 )
Nowhere is this more true than the Passover seder. Four times the Torah teaches us that we must tell the story to our children. In fact, the word haggadah, the booklet we use around the seder table, literally means “telling.” Why does the Torah repeat the exact same law four times?
The answer given by our sages and built into the haggadah, is that there are four different types of children. There is the wise, the one who is full of questions and really wants to know. There is the rebellious, the one who does not even want to be there. There is the simple, who can only ask the most basic questions. And finally, there is the child who cannot ask at all. For this one, the parent must open up and take the initiative. Sometimes they are four different children, and sometimes they can be one child at four stages of life.
The key idea follows the description of these four children. Using male language the haggadah teaches, “According to his knowledge his father teaches him.” The way we run the Passover seder depends on the kind of children who are there. And if there are no children, it depends on the adults that are there. For as the haggadah also teaches, even if every one is a great scholar of Judaism, we still need to tell the story. In fact, five rabbis stayed up all night teaching it. (A problem in Jewish law, since you must eat the afikoman by midnight.)
We learn that there is no generic way to run a Passover seder. We run it in accordance with the people there, and more important, we run it in accordance with the children who are there. To broaden this idea, there is no generic way to teach children. Every child is unique, with his or her own soul and own mission in life. Any attempt to fit children, even siblings, into a single mold is a mistake. The Bible tells us we should, “teach a son according to his way, even when he grows he will not depart from it.” (Proverbs 22:6) It does not say “the way” but “his way;” parents must carefully look at each child to understand the way they are to parent that child.
I have learned this lesson as a rabbi. When I was newly ordained, I believed that “the law is the law and I need to teach it.” Now with a few years of experience, I have come to realize I cannot teach the law until I know to whom I am teaching. When someone comes to me with a question, I must first see where they are coming from. Only then do I have the ability to answer.



“In every generation a man must see himself as if he came out from Egypt.”
(Haggada, originally from Mishna Pesachim 10:5)

Perhaps this brief quote is the most important line from the Passover Seder. It is not enough to simply retell the story. We must actually relive the exodus from Egypt in our own lives. We must see ourselves as slaves going from slavery to freedom.
How is this possible? Most of us were born free. We are not building pyramids, nor are we working against our will in a plantation. How can we relive the exodus? How can we see ourselves as going from slavery to freedom?
There is a brilliant Hassidic interpretation of the Passover experience relevant to each of us. The word for Egypt Mitzraim really means “a narrow place.” Going out from Egypt means going out from a narrow place to a wider place. The redemption, the move from slavery to freedom, is really a movement from a place where we are stuck to a place where we are free. It is universal human experience.
The ancient pagans believed that as you were born, so you will die. Slaves were meant to be slaves, just as the poor were meant to be poor. Nothing ever changes, or as King Solomon wrote during a cynical moment in Song of Songs, “There is nothing new under the sun.” It was the great insight of the Jewish faith that our situation can change. Slaves can go forth from slavery to freedom. And we can move out of that narrow place that confines us.
We all have some narrow place in our lives. Some of us are the victims of bad habits and addictions we are unable to break. There is some area in our lives where we cannot control our appetites. Change is difficult but do-able. This is the lesson of the various twelve step programs. And this is the lesson of the exodus story.
Some of us are in bad relationships that we are unable to escape. We are victims of those we claim to love and we hope will love us. But relationships that are destructive do not have to be permanent. We can move out of such relationships, or we can transform them. This is the lesson of the exodus story.
Today, many of us are in difficult financial trouble. We have lost our jobs or perhaps we feel lucky just to have a job. Our homes are threatened with foreclosure. Our retirement income is way down. And we feel a deep sense of insecurity. Once again we feel stuck in a narrow place. But our situation will change. This is the lesson of the exodus story.
As we enter the Passover Seder, I recommend that everybody seek some area of their lives where they are in a narrow place. Think about how to move from slavery to freedom, from the narrow place to somewhere wider. Let us pray that God help guide us from that narrow to that wider place. But let us also remember that we are partners with God; we need to do our own share of liberating ourselves. This way we will participate with all our soul in the exodus story.
May you have a happy, joyous Passover.


“I am my beloved’s, and my beloved is mine, that feedeth among the lilies.” (Song of Songs 6:3)
While in New York City with our ninth grade students, we went to see the Broadway musical Legally Blonde. It was very enjoyable and I highly recommend it. For those who saw the original movie with Reese Witherspoon, you know the story. A rather ditzy blonde from Malibu, CA goes to Harvard Law School in pursuit of her boyfriend. In the play there was one wonderful scene where Elle, the main character, tries to convince the stuffy professors at Harvard to admit her. They are not quite convinced. Then she sings, “Love, it’s about love, have you ever been in love?” And the professors are won over. “Welcome to Harvard.”
We live in a culture where “it’s about love.” We believe that “love conquers all.” We know that “love will keep us together.” Those of us who grew up with the Beatles know “all you need is love.” Those a little older, from my father’s generation know that “love is a many splendored thing.” We live in a world that worships love. But what is love?
Passover occurs in the spring, and “in spring a young man’s heart turns to love.” According to Jewish tradition, King Solomon wrote the book of Song of Songs as a young man in love. It is filled with erotic poetry about a young shepherd woman and her lover who comes to rescue her from the king’s harem. Traditionally Jews read this during the intermediate days of Passover. (This year we read it on Saturday, the Seventh Day of Pesach.) It is surprising that this highly erotic book made it into the Holy Scripture. Rabbi Akiba convinced the other rabbis to include Song of Songs in the canon, because he considered the poems a metaphor for the deep love between God and the people Israel.
Passover is the perfect time to think about love. What is love? Ask someone to define love, and they stumble. They will probably say something like love is a strong feeling of emotion, connection, or need towards another person. That definition is partially true. There are people I love towards whom I feel a strong emotional connection. But there may be people I love for whom the emotions are less strong. And of course, the Torah teaches “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Does that mean I must feel a strong emotion al connection towards my neighbor? The Torah teaches, “Love the stranger.” How can I feel a strong emotional connection towards a total stranger?
Love is far more complex than these pithy little sayings. Love is about connection with other human beings. Love is a reaction to the first thing God calls “not good” in the Bible. “It is not good for man to be alone.” Humans need to connect with other humans on a number of different levels. Or to quote another line from a Broadway Show, Funny Girl, “People who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” People need other people and love is the connection that brings people together.
Defining and understanding love has been a deep part of my study and thought as a rabbi. I will be presenting my ideas in a six part “Rap with the Rabbi” series starting the middle of May, called “A Rabbi’s Search for Love.” (I am recording the sessions for a future podcast.) I will also soon be publishing my long delayed book The Kabbalah of Love. (It was originally published on the web over three years ago.) In the lectures and in the book I will try to pin down what love really means.
To share a little taste of my thoughts, we love with various levels of our soul. The kabbalah teaches that we live in four different worlds. We live in the Olam HaAsiyah, the World of Action. Here love is about doing. This is the level where we must love our neighbor as ourself. We live in the Olam HaYitzirah, the World of Formation or Passion. This is the emotional level of love, the love as we usually define it. As I tell every bride and groom, love as emotional feelings is not enough.
As humans we are called to live in Olam HaBeriyah, the World of Creation or Reflection. This is where we actually see our beloved and set aside our needs to meet their needs. This is the love every human being must strive for. It starts with knowing our beloved. And finally, at moments we reach Olam HaAtzilut, the World of Emanation or the Spiritual world. These are moments of true at-one-ness with our beloved, when time seems to pass away, what Martin Buber called It-Thou.
The challenge on Passover when we see God’s love for us acted out in history, is to learn to love others with all four levels of our soul.



AAccording to a child=s knowledge does the father teach him.@
(Passover Haggada)

There are so many powerful messages in the Passover Seder. One with particular contemporary relevance is the tradition of four kinds of children – the wise, the rebellious, the simple, and the one who is too young to ask questions. (I happen to believe all four are sometimes the same child at different stages of life.)
The Haggada (used to tell the story of Passover) teaches lefi dato aviv melamdo according to a child=s knowledge, the parent teaches him or her. Every child is different and comes to the Seder with a different set of expectations, attitudes, level of rebellion, religious faith, and ability to sit still. Telling the story of the exodus from Egypt ought to reflect the particular children who are sitting there. Now that my wife and I have young adults and older teenagers, our Seders are distinctively different from when we had young children.
The word parents horim comes from the Hebrew root hrh to teach. If parents are to be effective teachers, they first must embrace the individuality of their children. Garrison Keillor spoke of the fictional community of Lake Wobegon, where Aall the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.@ Sometimes I feel like I live in this town – everybody has gifted children. And if they are not gifted. they must be learning disabled. No one has an average child, let alone a stubborn or rebellious child. Not every child is gifted, not every child embraces Judaism, not every child loves family moments. But every child is unique. If we cannot embrace that uniqueness, we cannot effectively teach our children the values they need to function in life.
There is no generic teaching. That is the problem I have with such government mandated programs as FCAT (Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test). Every student must pass the same test to be promoted or to graduate. What of the student who is a unique learner, unable to take such a test but able to assimilate material in other ways? When we insist that every child be the same, we lose our effectiveness as teachers.
The same problem is right here in our synagogue, where we expect the same performance and the same amount of training for every bar and bat mitzvah. There are youngsters who are capable of doing more and those not as capable. There are those with stronger Hebrew skills and those with less skill. There are youngsters who need more tutoring and those who can get along with less. There are youngsters who embrace the bar/bat mitzvah experience and those who are indifferent to it. But the one thing that is true, every youngster is unique. Only by seeing and embracing each child=s uniqueness can we run a truly meaningful bar/bat mitzvah program.
The lessons from the Passover Seder can be carried into life. We must see the uniqueness of every child, and every adult for that matter. We must listen and seek to understand. If each of our children were exactly the same, then they would be redundant. I urge parents, at Passover and throughout the year, to look carefully at each of their children. What makes each one unique and special in the eyes of God? How can we tell the story of our people to each particular child?
The key question every parent of every faith needs to ask is – how can I embrace the uniqueness of each child God has sent me to raise?



“We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt.”
(Passover Haggada)

Five plagues had passed, with five more still to come. Moses was winning the great battle between God and pharaoh. Not only the Israelites but even the Egyptians were becoming fans of Moses. He was winning over the hearts and minds of the people. Soon they would not only tell the Israelites to leave their country, they would send them out with gifts of gold and silver and precious clothes.
All would be lost, unless Pharaoh took action. And Pharaoh knew precisely what to do. He hired the leading Public Relations Consultant in the entire Cairo area. He would turn public opinion around, proclaim Pharaoh’s side to the world. Budget was no object; Pharaoh could afford the best publicity money could buy.
So Abdul, the founder of the Nile Public Relations Consultants met with Pharaoh. He came with a whole list of ideas, and was ushered quickly into the throne room for his meeting with the king of Egypt. So began a great public relations campaign.
Abdul began, “First, we have to make it clear that Egyptians were here first. It’s the Israelites who are intruders on our land. Who told them to come here? And who told them to be fruitful and multiply like rabbits, becoming a threat to the native born people of the land. This is our land, and if they want to be here they must live by our rules.
“In spite of their alien presence here, we Egyptians allowed them to participate in the greatest building project in the history of the world – the pyramids. Some day these buildings will be one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the only one still standing thousands of years from now. These Israelites ought to be proud of their work, not bringing blood and frogs and insects onto us.
“The Israelites were given every opportunity to assimilate and become part of our people. What do they do? They hold onto their Hebrew names. They hold unto their Hebrew language. They are shepherds, knowing that we Egyptians hate shepherds. They insist that they are part of some ancient covenant with some god. They do not recognize that in Egypt you Pharaoh are god. Why do they have to keep themselves separate, instead of being like everybody else.
“Pharaoh, I know that some people are upset because you threw the male children into the river. But in all honesty, what choice did you have? When a political leader has no choice, sometimes desperate measures are called for. History will judge that you did the right thing. Those Israelite baby boys may seem innocent now, but they will grow up and be a direct threat to you and your kingdom. We must portray you as a decisive leader, willing to make the tough decisions necessary for the welfare of your people.”
So the public relations campaign began. Ads appeared in the major newspapers on behalf of Pharaoh. Demonstrations began on college campuses. Leading celebrities, actors and actresses, spoke out in favor of Pharaoh and against the Israelites and their plagues. And in the end Pharaoh might have won the battle for the hearts and minds of the people. Except one final plague hit, the slaying of the first born. Every Egyptian home was bereaved. But the plague passed over the Israelite homes, homes with blood on the door. And the people realized in their sadness, right and wrong, good and evil, are not based on who has the greatest public relations budget. When one human being is a slave master and the other is a slave, when one is the oppressor and the other is the oppressed, then one is the good guy and one is the bad guy. Wisdom is the ability to tell the difference.



“You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt; you shall observe this day throughout the ages as an institution for all time.” (Exodus 12:17)

Last year on Pesach a prominent Los Angeles Conservative Rabbi said in a sermon that the exodus did not really happen as the Bible portrays it. This created a storm of controversy both in the local and national press. Opponents wrote that the rabbi was undermining the faith of Judaism. Why celebrate Passover at all if the exodus did not happen as reported? Supporters wrote, on the other hand, that Judaism must stand on historical and scientific truth.
As I read both sides in this debate, I found it very difficult to become passionate about either side. I never thought the exodus story was literally true, anymore than I think the story of creation at the beginning of Genesis is literally true. The Bible is not a book of history, science, or archeology; it is a book of faith which offers profound insights about the relationship between humanity and God. And whatever the actual events of the exodus were, deep in my heart I believe the essential truth remains. Once upon a time we were slaves, today we are free. And God had a hand in that redemption that brought us from slavery to freedom.
Perhaps I need to explain this idea further. Scientists today speak about emergent properties. These are properties of an object that make it greater than the parts. For example, the brain is made up of hundreds of thousands of interconnected neurons. Each individual neuron can be studied and described. We cannot see the mind in any one or even any small set of neurons. Only when we put all these neurons together does the mind emerge. The mind is an emergent property of the brain. So it is throughout the universe that properties emerge, that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Emergent properties also occur if we study history. A number of individual events takes place. Water turns to blood; maybe it was real blood or maybe simply a red algae. (I grew up in Los Angeles, where we often had such red tides where the ocean turned red.) Frogs multiplied in the land. A plague struck and killed many prominent first born sons, including the son of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. An Israelite man who grew up in Pharaoh’s household had the clout to become the chief agitator for freedom. A number of individual events occurred, none of which seem to reflect the hand of God.
Put them all together, however, and suddenly a vision emerges. These are more than random events, just as the mind is more than a bunch of connected neurons. Put them together and suddenly we see the hand of God.
Our tradition teaches that miracles are not separate from nature. Rather, miracles are actually built into nature. This is the meaning of the passage in Avot (The Ethics of the Father) that “Ten things were created on the eve of the Sabbath (of Creation) at twilight.” (the passage continues with ten miracles mentioned in the Bible. (Avot 5:8) Miracles are not God changing nature, but rather are built into nature itself. We look at natural events, step back, and say “God did this with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”
This view of God’s role in the unfolding events fits into the modern scientific paradigm. Until Einstein, scientists were reductionists, attempting to understand the universe by breaking it down into its smallest parts. The whole was simply the sum of the parts. After Einstein, scientists realize that the whole is far more than the parts. Reductionism no longer works. We cannot understand the human soul by studying individual neurons. And we cannot understand God’s role in history by studying individual events. Only by taking the broader view can we see God’s role in history, that it was God who brought us out of Egypt. That is what we celebrate on Passover.



“In every generation a person must view themselves as if they were redeemed from Egypt.”
(The Passover Haggada)

Our local newspaper, the Fort Lauderdale (Florida) Sun Sentinel carried a large front page story the morning of Passover. It featured a picture of Rabbi David Steinhardt, a prominent local rabbi, and a series of examples on how various groups both Jewish and non Jewish, are reliving the Passover redemption. The ancient story of the Israelites exodus from Egypt became the paradigm for various modern exodus movements. The article quotes Rabbi Steinhardt as saying that the story of the Exodus – the misery of bondage and the glory of liberation – “is part of our root experience as Jews, and is the single most important event in our history. It has shaped who we are as a people.”
The article focused on three groups seeking liberation today, the efforts of the black community to overcome slavery and discrimination, the efforts of women to achieve equality, and the efforts of gays to be accepted by society. The article spoke of the prominent role of Jews in each of these great liberation movements, as well as other quests for social justice. The article implied that the Passover seder is not simply about an ancient family ritual, but is an invitation to modern political activism. The thrust of the article is that the leftest leanings of most Jews grows directly from the story of our Exodus.
There is certainly some truth to this. Yet, to apply the ancient story of our slavery and redemption from Egypt to modern liberation movements raises some troubling questions. Who plays the role of the Israelites and who are the Egyptians today? Who are the victims and who are the oppressors? If people of color are the Israelites, the victims, then whites are the Egyptians, the oppressors. If women are the victims, then men are the oppressors. If gays are the victims, then straights are the oppressors. As a white, male, heterosexual, it is easy to be labeled the oppressor. And I have heard the words “racist,” “sexist,” and “homophobic” thrown around too often. I have seen too many people claiming to be victims, saying that they could succeed if only we could overcome the oppressors.
Are blacks victims? Certainly there is a long history of using the Exodus story for inspiration in overcoming discrimination. From the early spirituals sung among slaves to Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhetoric about crossing the Jordan River to the Promised Land, the Bible gave hope to people who were victims of a society that refused them equal rights. Racism still exists. However, today there are prominent voices, both white and black, that are calling for an end to all racial preferences, set asides, and quotas. I have met many prominent black doctors, lawyers, business people, professors, clergy, and other professions who have made it on their merits and abilities. Sometimes the most pernicious racism is when people see themselves as victims, as oppressed, as unable to achieve without special set asides and preferences.
Judaism teaches a color blind view of society. The Talmud teaches “Every human is descended from the same man [and woman], so that no person can say my father is better than yours.” (Sanhedrin 4:5). A modern way of interpreting this Mishnah might be Dr. King’s famous words, that people should be judged “not by the color of their skin but the content of their character.”
Are women victims? Feminism has certainly changed how women have viewed their professional opportunities. Countless professions have opened up for women from medicine to the rabbinate. Today however, when more women than men attend college, it is hard to picture women as victims. Too often the rhetoric of feminists has become stridently anti-male. It is hard to forget Gloria Steinem’s famous quip, “A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle.” (Much to the dismay of some extreme feminists, Steinem was recently married.)
Judaism teaches a balance between the masculine and the feminine. “No man without a woman, no woman without a man, neither without God.” According to the Kabbalah, the Universe itself is sustained by this balance between the male and the female aspects of God.
Are gays victims? The issue of gay liberation is a complex one, and deserves a fuller treatment than I can give here. Certainly nothing should be done to take away the human dignity of individuals attracted to members of their own sex. Nonetheless, Judaism still sees heterosexual marriage as a norm for society.
The Kabbalah understood the exodus story as a redemption from self-imposed victimhood. The oppressor is not some malevolent outside force. It is our low expectations of ourselves. We can bring ourselves from slavery to freedom not by overthrowing the oppressor but by changing our own expectations of ourselves.

In the haggadah we all said Ele Shebekol Dor vaDor Omdim Aleynu Lecholoteynu In every generation a new enemy arises to destroy us. There are always a new group of Jew haters waiting in the wings:
-We finally escape from Egypt, Pharaoh is drowned, and there is Amalek waiting to destroy us.
-We throw out the Syrian Greeks at Hanukkah and rededicate our Temple, only to have it destroyed by the Romans.
-We defeat the Nazis and establish a Jewish state after two millennia, only to have Arabs dedicated to its destruction.
-Here in the United States, we finally live in a land relatively free of antisemitism, only to see Jew hatred rising in Argentina, Russia, and throughout the world.
We Jews seem destined to have enemies.
How ought we to relate to our enemies? The New Testament quotes Jesus as saying, “If your enemy come to smite you on the cheek, turn the other cheek.” In other words, don’t stand up for your rights when your enemy comes to destroy you. If we Jews followed Jesus advice, we would have disappeared off the face of the earth centuries ago.
The Torah says about our enemies, haba lehargecha takum lehargo, If someone comes to destroy you, rise up and destroy them first. The Torah allows self defense. The Torah recognizes that there is evil in the world, and that we do not need to tolerate it.
However, there is another message of the Torah, one that is particularly relevant for these last days of Passover. Yes we have to defend ourselves. But we also must recognize the humanity of our enemies. They too were created in the image of God.
On Tuesday morning we read in the Torah that if your find a lost object of your enemy you must return it. That’s right, if you find Saddam Hussein’s wallet you must return it with all the money intact. So too, if your enemies ox is burdened under a heavy load, you must lift the load. Basic ethical laws apply even regarding our enemies. These laws remind us of their humanity.
Usually on a holiday we chant the full Hallel, Psalms giving thanks to God for His kindness to us. Not so the last six days of Pesach. We shorten Hallel, recognizing that we may have escaped from Egypt, but they had to suffer ten plagues, they drowned in the sea. For the second of the four cups of wine on Passover, we remove a drop for each plague, diminishing our joy just a bit. And who can forget the famous passage in Megillot, when the Israelites crossed the sea and the angels on high began singing God’s praises. God rebuked them, “My children are drowning, how can you sing praises.”
Even the Egyptians were God’s children. We Jews do not celebrate our military victories. Even Hanukkah was changed by the rabbis from the celebration of a victory into the celebration of a miracle. The haftarah has a decidedly anti-military message, “Not by might and not by power, but rather by My spirit says the Lord.” Military is a necessary evil, but the enemy are still God’s creatures. Or, as the late Golda Meir so beautifully said, “I can forgive the Arabs for killing our sons, I cannot forgive the Arabs for making us into killers.”
How should we relate to our enemy? Judaism is clear. “Who is strong?” Avot de Rabbi Natan teaches, “Whoever turns an enemy into a friend.” The Talmud tells the story of Rabbi Meir and his wife Beruriah. Meir had a vicious enemy that used to stalk him as he walked to the Beit HaMidrash. Once he stood praying for his enemy’s demise. His wife stopped him, “Don’t pray for his death, pray that he change his ways.”
How can we recognize the humanity of our enemy, even when they have been so cruel? That is a key question. It is not easy. But we Jews have always done it. Take the Nazis, evil incarnate. They treated Jews as vermin in their quest to kill every one off the face of the earth. We Jews captured their mastermind, Adolph Eichmann, and placed him on trial. We would have been justified perhaps treating him as he treated us, gassing him or torturing him. But we did not. We protected his human rights as we put him on trial, he was allowed defense counsel and even regular clergy visits. Justice was done and he was hanged. But we never took away his humanity.
What a powerful message for our children and our children’s children. The worst enemy the Jewish people have ever known was treated like a human being. Just as we never forget that Pharaoh was a human being, even if a highly deluded one.
Passover is ending. Next week is Yom HaShoah, when we remember the destruction of six million Jews. A week later is Yom Atzmaut, the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel. These are major events that ought to be commemorated and celebrated.
As we celebrate Israel’s anniversary, we ought to remember that the Palestinians too are God’s creatures, created in His image. Certainly Israel ought to do what is necessary for her security. I will leave that in the hands of the generals and politicians. At the same time, any statements that dehumanize the Arabs has not place in Jewish life.
We Jews have a powerful message to give the world. It is not love your enemy. It is not turn the other cheek. It does allow for self-defense and the meeting of our security needs. But it says, even as you fight, even as your enemy drowns in the sea, never forget that he or she is also a creature of God, created in the image of the Eternal.