The blog of the Roaring Fork Valley (Reform) Jewish community
77 Meadowood Drive • Aspen, CO • 81611
Rabbi David Segal and Cantor Rollin Simmons

Friday, April 22, 2011

Two Thoughts for Shabbat of Passover

Two mini-sermons related to Passover and this time in American history.

On April 12, 1861 -- 150 years ago -- Confederate troops fired on a Union garrison stationed at Fort Sumter.  So began the Civil War.

Ostensibly about slavery and state’s rights, President Lincoln knew much more was at stake.  If secession were to be tolerated, nothing less than the very premise of democracy would be challenged.  Anarchy would be the result.  Hundreds of thousands paid with their lives to protect freedom -- to protect the institutions and founding documents that enshrine our freedoms.

Also in 1861, in Baltimore, Rabbi David Einhorn gave a famous -- to some, infamous -- sermon. Einhorn was a leader of Reform Judaism in the USA.  His prayer book, Olat Tamid, became basis for the Union Prayer Book, the predecessor by 100 years to the book you’re holding right now.

In Germany, before he immigrated, Einhorn had preached against opponents of Jewish emancipation, casting them as Egyptian taskmasters, cruelly oppressing the Israelites of the day.  Soon after he immigrated to the USA, he called slavery “the cancer of the Union.”

On this fateful evening in 1861, speaking to his congregation in Baltimore, MD, a border state, Einhorn invoked the story of Passover, the Exodus of Israelites from Egyptian slavery.  He argued that Jews should be more sensitive to the plight of slaves, and that slavery was inconsistent with Jewish values.

In part, Einhorn said:
"We are told that this crime [of slavery] rests upon a historical right! ... Slavery is an institution sanctioned by the Bible, hence war against it is war against, and not for, God! It has ever been a strategy of the advocate of a bad cause to take refuge from the spirit of the Bible to its letter."
It was just like a Reform Jew to draw a distinction between principles and laws.  The Bible’s laws may tolerate slavery; in fact, they do.  But the overarching principles of freedom, and of humanity being created in God’s image, militate forcefully against slavery.

This is not unlike President Lincoln’s view: he knew well and spoke often of how the laws of the land tolerated and protected slavery.  But the principle that “All men are created equal” -- the premise of the country’s founding documents -- militate against the enslavement of one race by another. 

Of course, Lincoln had to fight a war to defend this principle.  As for Einhorn, the night he gave his staunchly abolitionist sermon, a riot broke out. An angry mob tried to tar and feather him. He fled for his life, ending up in Philadelphia, in a free state, where he soon took over the pulpit at Congregation Keneseth Israel.

(As an aside... Being a congregational rabbi, you see, can be a dangerous endeavor! But seriously, it does lead to the questions:
How far out in front of his congregation 
can a rabbi be on issues?
If no one follows, then what kind of leader can he be said to be?
How strong a stand can his congregation tolerate?
Can he find a way to stand up for causes that is both passionate and inclusive of those who disagree?)
This week we celebrate Passover, known in our tradition as Chag Heiruteinu, the Festival of our Freedom.  And we also mark 150 years since the Civil War began.

This Shabbat let us celebrate:
  • our liberation from Egypt;
  • democracy’s victory over anarchy;
  • liberation from bonds ancient and more recent.
But let us also remember:
  • there are still places where Pharaoh reigns with a hard heart, and a cruel hand;
  • that we, the grandchildren of slaves, have a responsibility to champion the freedom of those still in bonds;
And finally, let us remember, as we stand up for causes, arguing passionately with each other along the way, that living in a democracy, and within a community, demands that we disagree without demonizing, or dehumanizing.

That the Israelites were redeemed from bondage was a miracle. But the greater miracle, the miracle in which we still participate today, is that they managed to survive the next day, as a free people, responsible for their own destiny, willing to bear the burdens that freedom entails.

May we, as Jews and as Americans, continue to be be worthy of that responsibility.

Broken Tablets

One of the themes of Passover, that I have shared a number of times, is REBIRTH.  The rabbis in the Mishneh identified four new years, including Rosh Hashanah, but they also, importantly, included Passover.

Pesach is the time of spring renewal, and the time of the rebirth of B’nei Ya’acov (Children of Jacob) as B’nei Yisrael and Kol Edat Yisrael (Children of Israel and whole assembly of Israel).

On Rosh Hashanah we celebrate a clean slate a starting over, a break with the past.  We call it teshuva, turning to a new path, reorienting ourselves on the right path; we speak of a Book of Judgment that is open and shut, and we’re either in or we’re out.

On Passover, it’s a different kind of new year, characterized by the special Pesach Torah reading we just heard.
‘The Eternal said to Moses: “Carve two tablets of stone like the first, and I will inscribe upon the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you shattered.”’ (Exod 34:1)
God doesn’t let Moses forget about that first set of tablets, shattered in anger, when Moses saw the Golden Calf.  The rabbis took it even further: In addition to the newly carved tablets, the broken tablets were also placed inside the ark, to be carried with the Israelites for eternity.

The new year of Passover is not like the clean break of Rosh Hashanah.  It does not mark the creation of the world from a void, but the re-creation of a people from slaves with crushed spirits.  It’s more like the rebirth of spring, when fresh buds break forth anew from familiar soil.  The spiritual challenge of Pesach is: How do we carry with us the broken tablets of our past mistakes while also forging a better future?

On Pesach we are called not to throw out the shattered pieces of our past, but to carry them with us, perhaps even proudly, along with the new ones we carve, each season of renewal, in the sight of God, our community, and our better selves.

Shabbat shalom, moadim l’simchah, may it be a Pesach of joy and renewal.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sermon in Song: Passover

Last Friday night, Cantor Rollin shared some teaching and music with the congregation in celebration of the upcoming festival of Passover.  She explains each of her selections in the three clips below.  Enjoy the music, and Happy Passover!

Intro, Zeh Dodi / This is My Beloved

Dodi Li / My Beloved is Mine

Tal / Dew