On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah -- Passover: Our Obligations When in Power and When Powerless

This week is Passover and Rabbi Rick Jacobs, with special guest Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, discuss the Torah portion read on Passover, focusing especially on the themes of power and powerlessness. What are we obligated to do when we are in a position of powerlessness? And on the flip side, what are we obligated to do in an unjust system when we aren't those who are oppressed? What are our obligations when we are free? How do we build a liberated society?

Three ways to listen:


[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah,” a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the weekly Torah portion. Some weeks he is joined by guest, and this is in fact one of those weeks. And making it even more special, they're not going to talk about the Torah portion specifically.

Rabbi Jacobs and Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, the rabbi in residence at Avodah and an author and writer and thinker extraordinaire, are going to share their thoughts about Passover and the question at its core, whether you ultimately follow Pharaoh or freedom and justice.

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on the holiday of Passover. And if you've been sequestered in some alternative universe, you may not know that this is the week: this coming Friday and Saturday are the first two nights of the holiday. And it is, of course, the holiday that we think is the most observed in the Jewish community.

And people will be gathering in all different types of settings and homes and sometimes in larger spaces and beginning this holiday with a ritual of discovery and exploration and debate that we call [the] seder. And we are so privileged today to have on the podcast Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, who is the Rabbi in Residence at Avodah and a prolific author and commentator and just wonderful spiritual guide to all of us. So, Rabbi Ruttenberg, welcome.

[Rabbi Danya:] Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

[Rabbi Rick:] OK, so no pressure. But we're going to put it on your shoulders. Let's say the listeners of the podcast are either going to be hosting seder or attending seder. Could you give some of your frames this year for how you would like it to come alive in particular ways for this moment in Jewish history, this moment in the life of the universe? What are some of the things that would really be foremost for all of us inspired by your take on Pesach this particular year?

[Rabbi Danya:] My frame this year I think-- I mean, maybe I'll have another frame another year. But I think this is the frame is that one of the central themes of Pesach for sure, and the Bible as a whole, is that of power and powerlessness and our obligations around that. What is on us when we are in a space where we don't have power?

And how do we look for freedom, ask for freedom, hold onto hope when we don't have any? What is on us when there is oppression happening, and we're not those who are the most vulnerable? And what do we do when a system is unjust? And what are our possibilities when we're able to engage with the system? I think about the midwives refusing to murder Israeli babies, even though Pharaoh commanded them to. I think about Jochebed and Miriam, who made strategic decisions to hide their brother, their son, Moses.

I think about Pharaoh's daughter using her privilege to try to save the baby, right? So, there are ways that we can all be part of trying to create a more just world, even when it's hard. And I think about the question about what happens on the other side of the Red Sea. Once we get to freedom, what are our obligations? What are the possibilities? What does it look like when we have the power, and how do we create a society in a world that is reflective really of liberation for everybody?

[Rabbi Rick:] Fantastic. So, if people didn't feel the urgency and opportunity to delve into the big questions that we are experiencing as a world, your frame is right there. You know, power and powerlessness. How is it unfolding in the actual biblical narrative, in the Haggadah narrative, in our own contemporary narrative?

So, help us be specific. You're a conservative rabbi. You've worked on college campuses. You've written about spirituality of home and family. You have all these great frames. Where would you put these kinds of discussions? Would you put them in the maggid when we're trying to tell the larger story? Does it grow out of some of the symbols on the table? How to kind of anchor those kinds of themes and questions then in the unfolding of the ritual evening. Give us some pointers as an extremely creative rabbi.

[Rabbi Danya:] I mean, the answer is yeah. Is it here? Yeah. Is it there? Yeah. Is it there? Yeah. I think we can go through. And I would really invite those who are hosting Seders to spend a little time with the Haggadah before people show up to make some decisions about where you want to ask certain kinds of questions, and where you would imagine that a discussion might unfold, and to know that when people show up, it might be totally different. Things should be organic.

They're going to unfold of their own accord any which way, but that there are ways that you can be intentional about facilitating some space, and to talk about it. Everybody's going to find the thing that resonates for them, so maybe it's in the maggid.

[Rabbi Rick:] Right.

[Rabbi Danya:] And maybe it's in the story of what-- since we're talking about the 10 plagues, and we can talk about where punishment is punitive, and where punishment is just, and what's appropriate. And there's a midrash, a Jewish legend, that when the Israelites were crossing the Red Sea, God said to the angel, “Don't sing in celebration, right? This is actually not a great thing that the Egyptians are drowning.” And we take out wine for the plagues. And so how do we talk about the complexity there, right? I mean, that's one place you could go.

You can have a whole other conversation about the egg and spring and hope and what gives you hope in a time when things seem really scary. Right? We can talk about the salt water, and what are the tears that we're shedding now, and how do we honor that, and how do we name that?

There are all sorts of ways you can-- the symbol in it is so rich. It's meant to invite and prompt discussion, and so it's just a matter of the facilitator, really, whoever's leading the Seder, to really kind of be a little thoughtful about where they want to invite people to go.

[Rabbi Rick:] Great. So, let me ask. I'm sure you've been the facilitator of this ritual for many years. I don't know about your family, but you know, my family, there's always some people who are maybe politically on a different side of a lot of the issues. You know, there are little people there who are the next generation. Everybody's excited to be around them.

How do you figure out, like an orchestra conductor, how to bring kind of whoever's there into the ritual, make the thing flow, not get to the point where there's screaming in the not healthy way? What's the secret of the diversity of our families, let alone when we invite friends and other people in?

And you know, also that whole thing that sometimes happens is that they're two people under the age of four. So, all of a sudden, the seder becomes 11 seconds, and it's only at the level of three- and four-year-olds. How to orchestrate a ritual that's going to somehow be engaging for everyone and get into the hard issues that you mentioned before, which can really awaken lots of intense political discussion from today's newspaper. How do you make the thing kind of hold together and nourish everyone and also engage everyone? No pressure, but that feels like that that's the job, I think, today of being the seder leader, right?

[Rabbi Danya:] Yeah. I mean, you know, it's art. It's not science. There's not one magical formula.

[Rabbi Rick:] Right.

[Rabbi Danya:] And I say this as the parent of three small kids. We've had various levels of engagement from kids, my kids, as their ages are. And if there are other kids at the seder, and what do they need? I think we can certainly engage the symbolism, no matter who's at the table. I mean, the symbolism is there, and it's meant to be a discussion space. And it's the most explicitly child-friendly ritual in the whole tradition.

And so, kids are meant to be coming into this conversation, and we should invite them in. Sometimes, depending on who the kids are and where they are, I'll be a little fast and loose with the maggid section. The obligation is to tell the story of the exodus, and so maybe we don't read every word from the Haggadah. But I look around the table, and I say, OK, guys, tell me what happened.

And it becomes much more of a collaborative project than reading by rote words that I actually find fascinating and resonant and rich, but not everyone does. So that's one way. And it's a way of inviting people to tell the story at their level, and to really invite people to, when they notice something that's kind of interesting, they get to ask a question about it.

A little tip: you can have a pile of candies, if you're leading the seder, next to your plate. And whenever anybody asks a question, they get a candy. And then you engage the entire table, those kids and adults, in the process of asking questions and puzzling them out together.

[Rabbi Rick:] Nice.

[Rabbi Danya:] And I think in terms of bringing people together across age and across ideology, one of the things we can do is to go from what's happening in the text to what's happening in your life, and to try to mitigate the “here is the thing that is true in all times and places,” and a little more “what do you see right here that makes you say that this is how we should be thinking about this symbolism?’

And then, “when was the time when you”-- and invite people to speak from their own experience and to go into storytelling, rather than speechifying. What is heavy on your heart today? And where do you feel obligated? Where do you feel challenged? It’s a really different question than “how should the people running the government make decisions,” which I have strong opinions about. I imagine lots of people do. But if we can make a space where we're actually genuinely curious to hear one another and hear people talk about their own experiences, I think it cuts down a lot of the potential for tension.

[Rabbi Rick:] Great. Can I just ask the question a lot of us struggle with, which is how much ritual creativity? I remember looking last year at ours. We had a seder plate that looked like a vegetable stand. You know, we had besides all the traditional things, we had our-- of course, we had our orange. We had tomato. We had a pineapple. We had a banana, all for very symbolic and important reasons. You know, and there was a little narrative about all of them.

But I remember people coming in last year and just looking at my table and going, “Rick, oh my goodness.” You're like, “Within reason!” So, is there some guideline that you try to strike between the traditional words and all of the beauty that's built right into this very ancient and very ever-present, evolving ritual? What's your rule of thumb about how much ritual creativity and how much “just leave it the way it is”? It's got plenty of meaning just the way it was written.

[Rabbi Danya:] I mean, there are two ways I can answer this question. One is personally, and one is as a rabbi. Personally, I tend to be pretty traditional. I don't add a lot. You know, I stay pretty close to the thing. Maybe we'll do a Miriam's cup. Maybe not, because that's what works for me and my family.

But every generation receives the Torah anew. And if we are not engaging thoughtfully with the Judaism that we have been handed and saying, how do I make this alive so that it feels like it is touching me in a place that is deep and important, and that it is reaching out to the world outside and engaging with the world? And if you're not doing that, then you're not actively participating in Judaism. You're not actively owning it.

So, what that looks like for different people is going to feel very different. Some people may focus their seder on-- I know somebody who is working on a queer liberation Haggadah. That conversation and that look and what's happening ritually is going to be very different from somebody who is looking to HIAS, for example, and then really wants to have the frame of we were strangers in Egypt be the central frame of the conversation and orient everything and orient the symbolism. Or someone else, who's going to say this piece of this thing is important to me, and this piece of this other thing is important to me. And how I'm going to feel whole is if we have all of these things.

I think what's important is for people to educate themselves, that there's so many resources out there, and so many supplements, and so many new ways that people have thought to bring this ritual into now.

And to do some thinking about what experience feels like wholeness to you, and what experience is going to feel like wholeness to the other people at the table, because as you mentioned earlier, not everybody is coming from the same place necessarily at the seder. And so, what can you, if you are the one holding that ritual space, what can you craft that's going to invite everybody in and is going to make everyone feel like it's their seders, too?

[Rabbi Rick:] For sure. So, I want to just comment, because I don't know if everybody on the podcast who are listening, or actively on Twitter. But you had a tweet a couple of days ago that was just so, I thought, right on point and provocative in all the right ways about Pesach, which was about some Pesach chocolates and asking the question, were the chocolates created by some enslaved part of our world?

I mean, what's the ethical through line for what we both ritually reflect on at seder and the lives we're trying to live and the values we're trying to uphold in the everyday decisions that we make about what we eat and every other part of our lives? Can you just say something about the spirituality of taking Pesach seriously and taking values of respect for workers?

We're telling a story about slaves. It seems kind of obvious and necessary that we think of the ways that we might keep people enslaved in contemporary terms. How do you think about that?

[Rabbi Danya:] Yeah, I mean, I think you've hit the nail on the head, that this is a through line here. This is not just a historical story or a sacred myth that happened a long time ago that is ancient to our people and that has no relevance to now. If we are talking about slavery and oppression, we have to look at the ways in which our actions can be part of that.

And talking about fair trade chocolate is one place that this triggered. There are folks who have sold kosher for Pesach, Passover kosher chocolate that is fair trade. And so, we know that there is a better chance at least that the people who were doing the labor to get this chocolate to us, who were engaged in that labor, were not exploited, oppressed, or even enslaved.

Fair trade chocolate is very widespread now. It's very widespread now. There are relatively easy places to take a stand and say, I want to live my life now in line with God and not in line with Pharaoh.

[Rabbi Rick:] Beautiful.

[Rabbi Danya:] We always, every single day, we're faced with a lot of opportunities to make that choice, to be complicit in someone else's exploitation, or to fight for someone else's freedom. And in this kind of global economy, it is admittedly difficult to get 1,000% on this.

[Rabbi Rick:] Of course.

[Rabbi Danya:] It's complicated, and being able to do heavy research on the origins of every single product you buy in the store, I understand it's challenging. But we can be thoughtful and to try to learn about which major companies have better labor laws than others, and to try to make decisions where we're buying our clothes and where we're getting our coffee and that sort of thing, and to really try to live.

You know, you should be holy, because I got him holy. Right? That whole chunk of the Torah is really about labor laws and how we treat the vulnerable. And so those of us who are lucky enough to be in power today, we have the chance to act that.

[Rabbi Rick:] Amen. Well, listen, you've given us so many things to enliven the ritual, to make it not simply a wonderful ritual experience, but to inspire us to live differently and to take the commitments that are just there on the page, kind of crying out to us. And I know that it can also be joyful, and it can be filled with so much love and so much creativity.

And you've helped us to reawaken and reimagine. And I think also, very helpfully, you've shown us that tradition is not the barrier to that. The tradition very often is your best ally in making that kind of meaningful Seder. And the choices to be a follower of God or Pharaoh, that seems pretty obvious, anyone given that choice. But that choice is ours every day, and Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, you are a master teacher and one who inspires so many of us in the Jewish community.

Thank you not only for your time today in helping us get ready for Pesach, but for all the teaching and all the writing that you do that makes Jewish life a powerful, meaningful, and very much the way we live lives of holiness. Todah rabah, chag sameach!

[Rabbi Danya:] Chag Sameach!

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah.” If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on Apple Podcasts, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah” is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week - l’hitraot!