Passover means matzah, and this week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, talks about how, love it or hate it, eating the “bread of affliction” might actually teach us about empathy. He also pushes us to think about how having tough conversations at our Passover seder might be a new kind of liberation.
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Welcome to episode 13 of "On The Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah," a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. It's like we're becoming bar mitzvah. Each week, we reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just ten minutes, with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah and we want to hear what you think. Talk to us on Twitter, our handle is @URJ, and like us at facebook.com/reformjudaism, and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. Love it or hate it, this week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, asks how eating matzah might really teach us about empathy. And then he pushes us to think about how having tough, agitational conversations at our Passover Seder might really be a new kind of liberation.
This Friday and Saturday, if you haven't been paying close attention, it's not just a regular old Friday night and Saturday. It's the first night and the first day of Passover. And so it is for us, time to really focus in on the deepest meaning and the deepest practices of Passover. Obviously, many of us will be gathering with our family and friends, and I wanted to just take a few really key elements and see if we can't extract some of that meaning for us to have an even more meaningful and a more inspiring Passover.
So a lot of times, people are really crazed right now, getting all the recipes ready and making the charoses, and what are you doing to make your seder special. But I just want to zero in on that very modest, plain, dry bread that we eat: matzah. I know a lot of people say, you know, I love matzah, or I really hate to eat matzah. But can I just say that the point isn't whether you love it or you hate it, the point of eating matzah is that it awakens us, and that it teaches us.
And sometimes, the more dry, the more authentic matzah that we eat, it reminds us of lechem oni, the bread of our affliction. And reminds us, especially today, of a much more humble time in our people's existence. When we didn't need to be reminded of what it was like to be poor desert wanderers. We didn't need to be ritually awakened to the pain of being homeless and to being on a journey just to find elements of a life.
And so for us, what is the eating of that matzah? It is actually an act that reminds us of the most important teaching in the Jewish tradition. It's a teaching about empathy, that somehow in the consuming of matzah and maror, bitter herbs, and the salt water of the tears, that we could be prompted ritually to feel deeply the needs of those that we may have forgotten how to relate to their situation.
So for us to think about homeless people, we taste that matzah, it reminds us how painful it could be. It reminds us to get inside, to walk in the shoes of others. Think this year especially about racial justice and injustice in our society. We think about the plague of a society allowing there to be such rampant hunger. And many of us have forgotten what that feels like to be hungry, not between lunch and dinner, but for days at a time. And so the ritual foods and the ritual practices and liturgy are meant to teach us, to remind us what we have forgotten.
Another crucial piece of the Haggadah, the special liturgy that we use on Passover, is the story of the rabbis sitting together in B’nei B’rak. And I know in lots of sedarim the person who has to read that section always has to pronounce these very hard-to-pronounce names of rabbis. But in that little section of the Haggadah is an incredible teaching about diversity and about living with not just various views on ritual and theology and politics, but sitting together with people with whom you disagree about core things, but finding something incredibly important in those arguments for the sake of heaven.
So we think about the rabbis who sat together. Rabbi Eliezer is a brilliant elder who held views that other sages just couldn't abide. And Rabbi Joshua is sitting in that group and he is a poor person who has an understanding of the importance of non-Jews in our midst. Eliazer Ben Azariah is a young sage who challenged all of the elitism of the ancient academies.
Rabbi Akiva is the late-blooming scholar who called for the revolt against Rome, the Bar Kokhba revolt. He was a militant. And Rabbi Tarfon, who was Rabbi Akiva's friend, but they sparred over everything.
Now friends, I don't know who's coming to your seder. If you have that uncle that you really have an aversion to talking politics with, or the more traditional or the less traditional one, but these rabbis who sat in B’nai B’rak, they represent one of the most diverse groups of people to have ever sat at a seder table. And you know what, it didn't end badly. It ended well, because they taught one another, and there was a deep underpinning of respect, so they could talk about the most difficult issues.
I bet you they could have talked about the presidential election and understood some new points of view, some new ways to really see the heart of the issues. And from that diversity, they found strength. So I know all of us sit around the table and we look and we say, we should avoid all these hard subjects. We shouldn't talk about whether it's Israel or how we might handle immigration reform or income inequality.
But the Haggadah says talk about the most important things. And if you must, you can argue, but argue with respect. Argue with humility too, because you may not have the whole answer. You may really need that opposing view to clarify your own. Do you think it's possible at seder this year, we could create such a sense of openness that we could talk about these really difficult contentious issues?
Sometimes, those contentious issues are family secrets, and family dynamics that are really tricky. But we have within the Haggadah an example of what it would mean to really be a diverse community that understood how to have hard conversations, but to do so in the most constructive ways possible. That could be a liberation for us. That could be a new kind of freedom, a new kind of religiosity that wasn't self-righteous or self-important, that didn't exclude the views of those who disagree, but included and sought out that deep and wonderful and challenging machloket l'shem shamayim, arguments for the sake of heaven.
Whether Eliyahu HaNavi will come at the end, or whether Miriam HaNeviah, Miriam the Prophetess will be present. If we are able to hold that diversity, to hold that respect in the midst of that diversity, I have a thought that maybe redemption will already have begun.
So have an amazing seder, don't shy away from what's hard or difficult. Go deeply, go respectfully, and in so doing, point the way to a future that we can only imagine, but that is one of the tasks, that's one of the sacred tasks of seder. Chag sameach, may it be joyful, may it be rich, may it be honest, may it be serious, may it be redeeming.
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 iTunes, 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.