Thursday, March 28, 2013

Singing and Passover

At our communal seder, someone asked how all the songs that we sing at the end, like Chad Gadya, ended up there. How are they attached to Passover? The real answer is, that they really aren't so attached. Most of them were popular or based on popular tunes from throughout Jewish history, and people enjoyed singing them. Eventually they became part of the seder and to the extant that there are holiday specific reasons why we sing them on Passover, those were sort of "reverse-engineered" you might say. But it got me thinking, that Passover is a holiday of songs. We go out of our way to add all the concluding songs even though we don't exactly "need" them to tell the story. Of course the seder includes the Hallel service which involves a lot of singing. We chant Shir ha-Shirim, the Song of Songs, on Saturday in synagogue. We recall the events tradition tells us took place then when on the seventh day (Monday) we recite Shirat ha-Yam, the Song at the Sea, when the Red Sea parted. I think the reason why Passover has so much singing associated with it is suggested by the injunction in the seder to begin in a lowly state and in celebration. That essential to the experience of redemption from slavery, from the narrow straits of bondage in Egypt, is rising from a lowly place to one of joy, of freedom. Throughout the holiday, therefore, we sing, for song more than anything else can lift a person the way it lifted the Jewish nation at the far banks of the Red Sea. When we are in a low place in our lives, let us find the song that is there even without melody and without words, the song of gratitude to God for creation, that can lift up and inspire us at any time. Chag Sameach, Rabbi Benson

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Just a Thought about Passover

Most of you will have noticed by now that Passover is in less than a week. I am still somewhat in denial about this and/or hoping that magically someone else will get all the Passover dishes out of the garage for me. Once the holiday starts though, things get much better. I hope that those of you joining us for the second night seder are as excited to celebrate together as I am. But those of you not joining us the second night, and well, I guess everyone on the first night, what will you do to make your seder a special event? I was reading an article from JTS in which Arnie Eisen, the school's chancellor, spoke about a talk he'd had with high school students. He was impressed by all the various things the students' families did to make the seder experience their own. Eisen observed that the rabbis had set us on the right track centuries ago because the traditional haggadah is really just the rabbis' best version of their "do it yourself" celebration and retelling of the Passover story. And it is telling the story that is the key thing. I am not going to get into a discussion about just how much of the traditional seder text you should say or you can skip or how to make the whole thing last less than an hour. What I do want to suggest is that each of us thinks about the larger ideas of Passover - slavery, freedom, service to others, service to God, renewal, identity, and many more - and think of new and unique ways to weave these ideas into our sedarim this year. The night somehow flies by and service never seems too long when we are able to breathe real enthusiasm for what we are doing into the seder. So this year, truly work to make it a night different from all other nights. Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach, Rabbi Benson

Thursday, March 14, 2013

D'var Torah by Pope Francis

Like many other people, I have been following the election of the new pope these last few weeks. Catholics make up about a seventh of the world's population and beyond that, I have an affinity for or at least an interest in religiously motivated people of all faiths. Religiously-minded people share a great deal in common. And so the choice of a new leader for one of the world's most influential faiths catches my attention. Also, I like all the pomp and circumstance. And I was not disappointed. From the moment Pope Francis came onto the balcony and gave such a simple little wave and greeted the world with, "buona sera" I was impressed. And that he could make a little joke and most of all that he asked those assembled to pray for him - that's my kind of religious leader. Even more so when I learned of his simple way of living and special concern for those in need. Something not everyone might have been watching was his first mass, which took place today. In it he shared, speaking extemporaneously (something else I like in a religious leader!), a message that I also found moving. And in large part because of the very Jewish nature of the message. It certainly applies, in general anyway, to anyone concerned with the role that synagogue and congregational life should play in the life of any person. Basing himself on the line in the Torah in which God charges Abraham, hitalech lifanai v'heyeh tamim, "walk before me faithfully and be blameless," he outlined a three-part guide to living. That life is a journey, that life involves building, and that life must be guided by religious belief. Journeying, building, faith. Allow me to paraphrase as I also interpret: We must recognize that life is a journey and thus about movement and thus about change. You can't stand still. We must recognize that life involves building, but are we building the right things or the wrong things? Are the things we think are important really important or products of our own self-absorption? How do we manage the journey and the building? Through faith. Faith allows us to walk along the journey of life and teaches us what to build when life is joyful or sad, difficult or easy. The Pope also went on to connect this to his new job. More than building up a Church of buildings or even of a hierarchy of priests, it was about building up people - the people are the truly important thing. For us in synagogue, it is the very same thing taught the same way. As we journey through life and experience change, as we try to build, endure collapse and build anew, as we struggle to be guided by faith, we should remember that our community, the congregation, the synagogue, is not so much the building and not even really the rabbi, it is the people that truly count. In them is where the real spirit of religious life can be found. It was an inspiring message - journeying, building, faith, and how they apply to people, not institutions. And grounded in the Torah and phrased in a very Jewish way. I hope it is a message that resonates for you as it did for me. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson