Heschel at the Seder Table
As we enter this unique Passover season, we understand that though our Seders and Yom Tov services look and feel different, our focus remains on Pesach’s themes of freedom and redemption. Ahead of this Passover, I had the privilege of co-teaching a two-part class with my friend Rabbi David Bloom entitled “Freedom, Justice and Existence: The Ethics of Abraham Joshua Heschel”. I was honoured to be joined in learning by members of our community, as well as folks who were only able to participate as the sessions were held virtually. From Seattle to Louisville, and Toronto to Dallas, we gathered together from the four corners of North America to analyze the texts of Abraham Joshua Heschel, and to illuminate his teachings as they apply to our age. We began by looking at a speech Heschel delivered in 1963, published under the heading, “Religion and Race”.
In January 1963, the US convened the first National Conference on Religion and Race in Chicago, bringing together representatives of the United States Catholic, Jewish and Protestant leadership. Among the speakers were President John F. Kennedy, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. The importance of this little known conference cannot be overstated. In a press conference held after the historic gathering, Martin Luther King regarded it as “the most significant and historic [convention] ever held for attacking racial injustice” (Pieza, “Rev. King Urges Boycott”). It was at this conference where Rabbi Heschel delivered these powerful words:
At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.” While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.”
The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses. Let us dodge no issues. Let us yield no inch to bigotry, let us make no compromise with callousness.
In the words of William Lloyd Garrison, “I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject [slavery] I do not wish to think, to speak, or to write with moderation. I am in earnest–I will not equivocate -I will not excuse–I will not retreat a single inch–and I will be heard.”
Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity. Is this the way to honor a father: to torture his child? How can we hear the word “race” and feel no self reproach? 
We learn from Heschel that the Act of Redemption is not an event, but rather, an ongoing process. That it is incumbent upon each us to take action in the world as to bring about justice and freedom for all peoples. For Heschel understood that a defining feature in the existence of humanity is that people are confronted with problems. That the richness of a human being is defined by how many challenges they face. All the while, humanity is called upon to eliminate the suffering of their fellow beings. How does one connect with God? How does one live a religious and ethical life? According to Heschel, we must be aware of the challenges that face our society and we must actively work towards finding solutions to those problems.
In 1972, just a few weeks before his death, Heschel recorded a TV interview with NBC’s Carl Stern. During which he addresses his concepts of freedom, justice and the existence of humanity. I encourage you to watch his entire interview by clicking here, though I want to highlight a few gems:
- Minutes 3:10-10:00 (God in Search of Man & Importance of Humanity)
- Minutes 17:40-20:30 (Human Existence)
- Minutes 31:33-33:44 (Meaning and Suffering)
In this last clip, Heschel states, “There is an old idea in Judaism, found in the bible and strongly developed by the rabbis, very little know; that is that God suffers when man suffers….There is this great sympathy of God in part of man. God identifies himself with the misery of men. I can help him by reducing human suffering, human anguish, human misery.”
So during this strangely unique Passover festival, we too are called upon to identify with the suffering of our world. As we sit around our Seder tables, we ask questions about redemption and justice, about the nature of God and humanity, about our ability to help repair this world. When all of humanity faces an existential threat such as this virus, how will we come together to alleviate suffering? When we ourselves feel isolated and confronted with the new and frightening challenges of our day, how might we create meaning and build connections to our neighbours and to the divine? We may not have all of the answers to these questions today but can take comfort in each other tonight as we join together in remembrance of our shared history and to perpetuate our tradition into the future.
As the psalmist writes, יְהִֽי־חַסְדְּךָ֣ יְהוָ֣ה עָלֵ֑ינוּ כַּ֝אֲשֶׁ֗ר יִחַ֥לְנוּ לָֽךְ׃
May we enjoy, O LORD, Your faithful care, as we have put our hope in You. (Psalm 33:22)
 The Insecurity of Freedom: Essays in Applied Religion, “Religion and Race”, pg. 85-86. Farrar, Straus and Giroux (New York), 1966.
Shabbat Morning Sermon by Rabbi Zachary Goodman, the Sermon can be found at: 1:13:23
Friday Evening Drash by Rabbi Yael Splanksy, Where is courage found?, the Drash can be found at: 43:53
Sharing the Life Wisdom of our congregant Helen Lyon, who recently celebrated her 90th birthday
QUESTION: You have lived through a Depression, a Recession, a World War, a Cold War, and just about the full range of worldwide challenges. Is Now the strangest and most anxiety-provoking time, and if not, what was?
My memory of World War 2 is a vivid one. In North America, we were spared the devastation in Britain and Europe and the Far East. But everyone knew someone who had enlisted in the armed forces and risked or gave their lives so that we would have our freedom. We listened to the radio for the latest news and watched the newsreels that were shown with every movie. Our everyday life was disturbed a bit by ration coupons. There was a shortage of sugar, butter, canned salmon, etc. My mother told me she met a woman waiting in line for a can of salmon – for her cat. There was no more aluminum foil so the same sheet was smoothed out and used over and over again. There was no rubber so synthetic rubber was invented. No silk stockings so nylons were invented. There was some mail in the first few months of the war, and then no contact, and of course my parents worried about family, and other families worried about soldiers hopefully coming back.
There was a lot of activity for “the war effort” – buying war bonds and saving certificates, in school, we would knit squares for afghans to send overseas, saved various metal items for using to make munitions, etc. It was a time of great tension and worry for everyone. If the troops didn’t hold back and defeat the enemy, their next goal would be to come across the Atlantic.
But this takes the cake. We were affected by world events on different levels, some a great deal, some not so much. The crisis we are in right now affects every person in the world, and we have been given something that every one of us must do. There has never been such a blanket deed asked of every person – stay at home – and no idea of how long this will last. I would say this is the strangest and most anxiety-provoking time of all.
Women’s Virtual Seder
I first became aware of women’s seders when, in my late 20s, I read Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s book Deborah, Golda and Me. At about the same time, my mother’s Rosh Chodesh group began hosting an annual women’s seder. At the first women’s seder I attended in San Francisco, we all sat on the floor on a large white sheet reclining comfortably on pillows. I knew immediately that I was not at a traditional Jewish event – as we all introduced ourselves by our own name and the name of our mother. I am Yocheved bat Sheina Leba.
For each Women’s Seder that I have hosted over the past 20+ years, I created a Haggadah with a theme that represented where I was in my personal life or where those close to me were in theirs. There were times of celebration and times of recovery from illness. There were times tied to beginning a family and others tied to the ongoing pleasures and challenges of raising a family. I have hosted women’s Seders at my homes, at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, and at Holy Blossom Temple. 2020 was supposed to be an off year as I generally host the Women’s Seder every other year. All it took was a gentle suggestion from my husband a couple of weeks ago as our world started to shift, and I was all in for this year. Usually, I work on the Haggadah for close to a month – this one came together in less than two days.
In creating the Haggadah, I keep all the basic elements of a traditional Seder. However, I strive to give each element a new and different perspective. I want to honour the women of the Passover story whose names are omitted from most Seders. I do not believe that the Women’s Haggadah should be a “replacement for” – but an important “addition to” – the traditional Haggadah.
I look forward to sharing the Women’s Seder on Sunday afternoon, 2:00 pm EST. This is a time to be virtually connected with others … a time to step back from the routines we have created in this new world … to look inwards and outwards … backwards and forwards.
How We Move “From Degradation to Exultation”
Fifteen hundred years ago, we were taught that if there is plague in the city, “gather your feet” – that is, limit the time you spend out of the house. As it is stated in the verse: “And none of you shall go out of the opening of his house until the morning.’ (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama, 60b).
Our Sages look to the night of the original Pesach in Egypt as the prooftext for how to behave during a pandemic. On that mysterious night when everyone was keenly aware that a historic event was unfolding before them, on that frightful night when every Egyptian household was grieving for its firstborn, on that night of anticipation when the dough was prepared for the journey and had no time to rise, our ancestors were commanded by God to stay home and eat their Pesach meal, their first taste of freedom.
This year we are recreating that original experience in ways we never have before. Each household must shelter-in-place. When we taste the maror, it won’t be so far a stretch of the imagination to understand the bitterness of fear. When we taste the saltwater tears, it will be easy to identify with the anxiety our ancestors must have felt when facing the unknown. And, it is also true that when we lean on a pillow, we are grateful for the creature comforts we still enjoy. When we sing Hallel, we praise God who is Eternal and will see that the Jewish People and all humanity survive yet another disaster of our own making. When we open the door for Eliyahu the prophet and declare, “Next year in Jerusalem!” we will put our hopeful eyes on the horizon, when all the world will be made whole and no one will be afraid.
Take it Easy
I promise you, on the fateful and faithful night of Pesach in Egypt, there was no crystal, no china, no chicken soup from scratch with floating mandlen, no seasonal asparagus, no flourless chocolate cake or raspberry sorbet. I can hear my mother-in-law saying, “It isn’t Pesach without those melon-shaped jelly candies.”
Yes, do your spring cleaning and do what you can to make Yom Tov special and to give you and your family a lift. But do not do what you ought not do. Only extend yourselves in ways that are healthy. Do not try to pretend it’s the same as it ever was. It isn’t.
I love the hustle and bustle which usually overtake the Bathurst Street corridor this time of year. However, this year I write to tell you, please keep it simple. Don’t sweat it. Improvise where you can. And forgive yourselves when you can’t. More than God wants you to have a shank bone on your table, God wants you to stay home instead of hitting one more store in a last-ditch effort to complete your seder plate. These symbols are powerful, but they are only symbols. They are there to trigger our memories, our values, our storytelling, our sparks of faith and commitment. We can get there even without the symbols to point us in those good directions. All we need this year is intension and the themes of the holy day can be ours in very real and meaningful ways.
All are welcome to join in Holy Blossom’s Virtual Seder. You are welcome to pass this invitation to family and friends, no matter where they are gathering. We only ask that everyone registers in advance, so we can provide you with the Zoom link to the link to the Hagaddah. I’ll look for you around our Virtual Seder table and again for our uplifting Live Streamed Yom Tov Services. This promises to be a meaningful and most memorable Pesach for us all.
Expressions of Gratitude even now
What verses would you write to this year’s rousing rendition of Dayeinu?
If only my loved ones and I were healthy,
If only my government were good and trustworthy and proactive,
If only the medical professionals were showing up to work every day, despite the risks,
If only the grocery stores and pharmacies were still open to provide for the essentials of life,
If only I had a phone line to hear the voices of those I love,
If only I had internet access to connect with my congregation for prayer and sacred learning,
If only I had books on my shelf to read,
If only I could listen to the music that I love,
If only I could go outside to open a window for fresh air,
If only the sun came up each morning and set each evening, come what may,
If only I had good neighbours who are there for me if I ever need help,
If only I had a tablecloth and candlesticks to make “this night different from all other nights.”
If only I had the Jewish story that transports me from the narrow places of Mitzrayim to the wide-open expanses of the wilderness, where God is near and the Promised Land is on the horizon,
I wish you all Shabbat Shalom. May Shabbat bring her rest and restoration to a weary world. I wish you a Chag Sameach. May Pesach bring us from “degradation to exultation,” from the low places of captivity to the higher ground of health and hope for the future.
I’ve just heard that the Canadian Jewish News is closing down. This would have been my column in next week’s issue.
Israel’s Arab Citizens
Fifteen of Israel’s 120 Members of Knesset represent the Joint List, a coalition of four Arab political parties – liberals, Islamists, progressives and ultra-nationalist – that came together to make sure that the law passed in 2014 raising the electoral threshold from 2% to 3.25% wouldn’t disenfranchise them.
A major impetus to passing the law was probably to exclude as many Arabs as possible from the Israeli legislature. The move misfired. Today, there’re more of them than ever before.
The Joint List had supported Benny Gantz, the leader of the now broken-up Blue and White Party when he hoped to become the next prime minister of Israel. After the election on March 2 he seemed to be able to muster 61 Members of Knesset and was, therefore, given the mandate by Israel’s president to form the next government. The Joint List wouldn’t be part of it, but it expected measures to benefit Israel’s Arab citizens whom previous governments are said to have neglected.
For a few days, I was among those who thought that Ron Kampeas’ observation in the Times of Israel was correct that “an Arab voice at the national table has taken a leap from unimaginable to inevitable.” Unfortunately, Gantz’s taking a section of Blue and White into the coalition with the right-wingers supporting Binyamin Netanyahu has rendered this assessment irrelevant.
Netanyahu, who is likely to remain the prime minister in the foreseeable future, insists that the Joint List lacks legitimacy because its Knesset members oppose the Jewish state and some of them are accused of supporting terrorists.
Responsible and respected public figures in Israel were understandably outraged by the prime minister’s stance. Efraim Halevi, the former head of the Mossad, wrote in Ha’aretz that he who seeks to ignore the Joint List also invalidates those who voted for them, i.e., Israel’s Arab citizens, almost 21 % of the country’s population.
Arabs are productive and some are prominent members of Israeli society. Their role in the country’s health service is particularly notable. Professor Rafi Walden, the deputy director of Tel Aviv’s Sheba Hospital, has put it well: “It is hard to comprehend that a patient can put his life in the hands of a senior cardiac surgeon who is Arab, while the prime minister overwhelmingly defines the Arab citizens of Israel as terrorists.”
At this time of the coronavirus pandemic, Walden’s words are particularly poignant: “The system would collapse without the crucial contribution of the Arab citizens as medical staff.” Professor Bernard Avishai, writing in the New Yorker reported that “seventeen percent of Israel’s physicians, twenty-four percent of its nurses, and nearly half its pharmacists are Arabs.”
An item on Facebook put it succinctly: “I am an Arab doctor. I voted for the Joint List. I am not a terrorist. I keep working to save lives of Jews and Arabs equally. Shared fate, shared government.”
Wishing to share the fate of Israel’s Jewish citizens Arabs were, therefore, outraged by the proposal in President Trump’s so-called peace plan, an idea long advocated by reactionary Jews in Israel, that a region in the North of the country, largely populated by Arabs, should be made part of the Palestinian state. Israel’s Arabs justifiably see themselves as the country’s citizens and wish to remain so, even if many may oppose Zionism.
The coronavirus crisis has also brought to light the gap in available medical and other welfare services between the Arab and Jewish population in Israel. Had Benny Gantz formed a government with the support of the Joint List that gap would no doubt have been narrowed. As things are now, however, Arabs will continue to be marginalized and the Joint List will remain as its foremost advocate.
But it won’t be alone. Soon after the announcement that Gantz wouldn’t form the next government, a statement reflecting the views of many Israelis affirmed solidarity with their Arab fellow-citizens. Perhaps they’ll help to bring about what Gantz failed to do.
What is Kosher for Passover for me?
I know there is some anxiety in the congregation (and the greater Jewish community) about gathering the essential items for a joyous Passover.
I want to do what I can to allay those fears – for most of us, we have the ingredients we need right around us (and if you do not, please be in touch if you need emergency resources).
First, let’s talk about what is needed before we switch to avoiding chametz.
Most of the seder plate is still readily available:
Karpas: You may like the fresh taste of parsley, but some cooked potato or a piece of onion also works
Maror: though for many, horseradish is traditional, you can use bitter lettuce
Beitzah: Eggs, thankfully, are still readily available
Z’roah: Instead of a shank-bone from a lamb, you can roast a beet – or some families (including mine, in a tradition created to make it clear that we are not sacrificing a lamb) prefer a chicken bone.
Matzah: Preheat the oven to very hot – 500°F (260°C) or above. Start a timer. Take some flour. Mix in water until it is dough-like. Add some salt. roll very flat. Bake. And Matzah is only required for the seder night.
Now to what to avoid: Many of us are ‘ingredient kosher’ and search through the ingredients to make sure food is fit for our consumption on Passover. The Orthodox Beit Din in London England posted a guide, which lists products where people look for the hechsher, but they really don’t require a hechsher – including milk and washing-up liquid/dish soap: Pesach 5780-2020 / Covid 19: Product Guidelines “in-extremis”
A careful review of this list reinforced that most ingredients are Kosher for Passover, especially if you eat corn/rice/kitniyot, except for spirit vinegar and sodas (which use wheat glucose).
I know many of us have added anxiety at this time – and I hope that this list is helpful in making sure you have less anxiety around your Passover observance. As we move from captivity to freedom in our seder, I pray that we may also do so, soon, with our bodies, in a way that keeps everyone safe and healthy.
RSVP for our Livestreamed seder for the first seder! Next Year in a Rebuilt (in so many ways) Jerusalem.