Counting the Omer in the Modern Day
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Photo by Kwan C./Flickr, cc by-nc-nd 2.0
"From the day after the day of rest — that is, from the day you bring the sheaf for waving — you are to count seven full weeks, until the day after the seventh week; you are to count fifty days; and then you are to present a new grain offering to Adonai." —Leviticus 23:15-16
The same evening that 40,000 Orthodox Jews gathered for a rally to consider the dangers of the Internet (and its responsible use), an email from a local conservative synagogue arrived in my inbox to remind me of a ritual for observant Jews to count the Omer. The email message notes which day of the Omer should be counted after sundown, and comes with a prayer written both in English and in Hebrew. You can also get an app for it, follow reminders from Twitter @CountTheHomer, or read the daily prayers via your RSS feed.
The counting of the Omer, also known as the mitzvah of Sefirat Ha’Omer, is a period of spiritual renewal starting from the second night of Passover and ending with Shavuot — the anniversary of the day God gave the Torah to the Israelites. For each night of these seven weeks, Jews are commanded to count from the day on which the Omer (a unit measure of barley) is offered at the Temple. The ritual begins after sundown by reciting a blessing and then saying the appropriate day of the count.
This tradition has been described as a mindfulness practice, and there is a philosophical debate about whether one should count down the days, or count up. A cancer patient proposes that counting toward the Omer can provide you with a hopeful future orientation.
The Gratitude of a Firstborn Before Passover (Pesach)
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Seder plate (photo: Dana Skolnick/Flickr)
Today is ta’anit (“fast”) bekhorim (“of the firstborn”), the day before Passover begins, when only the first-born males of Jewish families abstain from eating. In our show on Exodus, Avivah Zornberg describes the tragedy of the tenth plague, the plague of the firstborn, and how the tradition of eating unleavened bread during Passover came about from that story:
"And that God passes over the Israelite houses as the firstborn in the Egyptian houses are dying. It’s actually rather a terrible. One can just imagine the sounds, the crying. And I think there is really a feeling of pressure at that moment. This is not an ecstatic moment. The word that’s used in the Hebrew text, here and in later retellings of the story in Deuteronomy, is chipazon. Chipazon means “panic haste.” And you should eat the paschal offering, the sacrifice that the Israelites were supposed to eat on that night, you shall eat it in haste, which is always a strange commandment. Ahead of time, you should prepare to eat it in haste.”
It’s not the tempo. It’s the — the people are being told ahead of time that the way in which you will experience this will be pressured, there’ll be a sense of pressure. The Egyptians will be rushing you out of Egypt. But most of all, what’s called the haste of God himself, a sense of history, a sense of the redemption as something that God is making happen rather faster than people can really assimilate it. Things are happening very fast at that moment, and people are almost not capable of registering what is really going on, as one often is not at critical moments of experience, cataclysmic moments.
Unleavened matzo bread (photo: paurian/Flickr)
The uninviting, dry, brittle matzo bread is meant to remind Jews of what nourished them in the midst of that “panic haste” created out of great trauma.
The religious symbolism of fasting is an act of gratitude for the life you have and the time when you can eat again.
The Exodus Story and the Necessity of Desire for Liberation
by Krista Tippett, host
In this week’s show, we hold the Exodus story up to the light and turn it — like a jewel, the ancient rabbis would say. And Avivah Zornberg tells us what she sees: astonishing detail, hues of meaning, and a cargo of hidden stories. We follow Zornberg and find ourselves addressed, whoever we are. This story, among all the narratives of the Hebrew Bible, has proven itself a bearer across time of near-universal themes.
Scholars locate it in history. But Exodus also qualifies lavishly for my favorite definition of “myth” — a word we’ve diminished, equated with things that are not “true.” Myth, said the Greek statesman Solon, “is not about something that never happened. It is about something that happens over and over again.” In a paraphrase I also love, Rabbi Sandy Sasso once said to me about the Exodus story, with its irresistible dramatic potential: “What happened once upon a time happens all the time.”
Judaism indulges this insight with its practice of midrash — a practice of seeking multiple meanings in sacred text, of treating gaps in the story as invitations. At one and the same time, midrash takes the text seriously and honors the personal, moral struggle of the reader in every generation to interpret and apply it.
Midrashic explications of Exodus take us far from the simple children’s book tale that would pit a heroic Moses against a villainous Pharaoh and end happily ever after. But it starts with the bare bones of the story. In the act of retelling, of walking attentively through the story, something magical happens with the basic contours of character and plot. Layer upon layer of meaning emerge — alternately whimsical and challenging. This is storytelling for adults.
I won’t try to recreate Avivah Zornberg’s guided walk through Exodus. I’ll just share some high points, the kind of revelation that is possible with the tools at her disposal. Most basic and important of all, perhaps, is her close knowledge of the original Hebrew. Hebrew is a visual language, full of allusive imagery and evocative word play, and that is invariably lost in translation. In the Exodus epic, Moses first encounters God in a burning bush. Avivah Zornberg translates the name that God gives from the burning bush, “I Will Be Who I Will Be.” This is no less inscrutable than the usual English translation, “I Am Who I Am.” But Zornberg’s translation suggests something others miss: the evasiveness and — one might say — defiance of a God who refuses to be captured, to be reduced to human limitation. “I will be who I will be” suggests infinite possibility.
Moses before the burning bush (photo: Edward Lim/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
From raw materials of word and narrative, Avivah Zornberg uncovers in Exodus a rich commentary on human nature at its best and at its worst, in the powerful and in the weak. She draws fascinating and resonant observations about the madness and self-defeat of the authoritarian personality, for example. She explores the personal vigor and vision that are required if victims are to cease being victims. She reads Exodus as a tale of passion — of God’s aroused attention to the enslaved people’s suffering, and a subsequent longing on the part of God that mirrors the more predictable longing of human beings in the other direction.
Avivah Zornberg calls her book about Exodus The Particulars of Rapture. She is interested in the rapture of the accomplishment of freedom, and of relationship between human beings and God. But she acknowledges, as does the sacred text, that rapture rarely comes unalloyed. Her passion, if you will, is for the details — the particularities — that render this narrative humanly accessible as much as divinely inspired, that keep it open and relevant to new generations. She draws on poetry, modern literature, and psychology as she makes sense of this text in our lifetime, and she takes her title itself from these lines of a poem by Wallace Stevens:
Two things of opposite natures seem to depend
On one another, as a man depends
On a woman, day on night, the imagined
On the real. This is the origin of change.
Winter and spring, cold copulars, embrace
And forth the particulars of rapture come.
Photo of Avivah Zornberg by Debbi Cooper
Matzah Makeover Turkish-Style
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Got a few extra sheets of matzah handy and looking for a Passover-friendly recipe? Deena Prichep has posted photos and recipes of various matzo pies, including a Turkish mina de carne that elevates this bread of affliction to a culinary delight!
Steve and Cokie Roberts Discuss the Importance of Ritual for Christian and Jewish Families
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
"Marrying a Catholic, in some ways, made me more Jewish."
"When I was pregnant for our first child, I understood the meaning of Passover and wanted to have that celebration in our home and didn’t know how to go about it."
Who knew that listening to two veteran power journalists discuss their “mixed” marriage, the meaning of Passover, and the importance of the Seder could be so delightful and entertaining? If you’re looking for apleasant 20 minutes to spend this weekend morning, listen to Sara Ivry’s interview with Cokie and Steve Roberts for Vox Tablet. Ivry’s style and demeanor are relaxed and comfortable, which makes you feel like you’re participating in a dinner table discussion rather than a question-and-answer session.
For me personally, I know that as my wife and I transition our boys from preschool at a Jewish community center to a Catholic elementary school (both foreign worlds to me), I don’t want to lose some of the gifts and rituals present in both of these faiths and people. This conversation is a refreshing, uplifting perspective that I found quite helpful in making the most of one’s own journey.
Longing for Passovers and Memories Missed: Pesach 5770 (2010)
by Mary Moos, guest contributor
At Monday night’s Passover Seder we used hard-covered, bound copies of a Haggadah with a copyright date of 1923. The first user of the book — a relative or friend of our host family — had carefully inscribed his name on the inside cover.
In the many years since my conversion from Roman Catholicism to Judaism, I’ve used a variety of Haggadot but none like the one we used last night.
Some of them were faded blue, mimeographed copies, dog-eared and stained with wine and brisket gravy. Others were stapled and patched together with cracking glue and brittle cellophane that incorporated feminist interpretations. A few years ago, we enjoyed the company of a blind guest at our Seder. She used a Braille Haggadah in Hebrew. When it was her turn to read, she simultaneously translated the text into English. Amazing.
Reading from an almost 90 year-old Haggadah, with the name of the octogenarian sitting next to me written in childlike cursive on the inside cover, was an extraordinary experience. It struck me that he had been Jewish 60 years longer than I had been. It filled me with a deep longing for the Passovers and memories I’d missed. At the same time, I felt tremendous gratitude for the spiritual home I’d finally found.
Celebration of Passover is a biblical command for all Jews worldwide to come together as a community to singularly and collectively remember: What the Eternal One did for me when I came out from Egypt. At Passover, I am — along with the ancient Israelites enslaved in Egypt. I am with them redeemed from bondage, and I am promised the care and love the Eternal One blessed be He.
Growing up in a large observant Roman Catholic family, I often felt spiritually displaced. Praying and having a relationship with G-d was always important to me, but I struggled with how to do it within the structure of my birth-religion. The idea of Christ and His divinity got in the way of the personal relationship I wanted to have with G-d.
Holy Week was the only time I felt intimacy and safety with Christ. And then it was as a supremely saintly man who modeled how we are to have a relationship with G-d. Holy Week was the only time Christ became real. From His ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the Passover dinner with His disciples, the Stations, and His death on the Cross on Good Friday, I felt comfortable with Christ.
Now that I have found my spiritual home in Judaism, I no longer struggle with Christ. I understand Christ and His teachings from a Jewish perspective. I see Him as a wise and holy Rabbi falsely accused and killed by the Romans like another of our other Jewish saints, Rabbi Akiva.
I am grateful to have found Judaism and the community to which I can belong. I am no longer in Diaspora… I am home.
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Honoring Passover and Evolving Tradition
Shubha Bala, associate producer
"On April 1st, leaders from the Jewish and African American community will come together to remember and reenact the Exodus story through the ritual of the Passover Seder. This will be the 3rd African American-Jewish Seder held in Los Angeles and hearkens back to the ‘Freedom Seder’ organized in 1969 in Washington DC. What relevance does the narrative of liberation and freedom have today?”
Meanwhile, with Passover approaching, it was suggested that I listen to one of our shows from 2004: "A Program for Passover and Easter." One of the three guests in the show, Sandy Sasso, is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis. Here, she explains the relevance of the stories of Passover in today’s world and, more importantly, how changing and adapting traditions is actually an important way to honor them.
Coincidentally, she also shares the meaning of her experience conducting a Passover Seder with an African-American Episcopal priest bringing together black and Jewish women to discuss oppression and liberation within the context of the Exodus story.
If you enjoy this interview, you can also listen to our show on the spirituality of parenting, which also features Rabbi Sasso.
Image caption: participants read the Haggadah during the African American/Jewish Passover Seder at Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles (photo courtesy of the American Jewish Committee)
God Has a Sense of Humor, Too
Krista Tippett, Host
In our interview for next week’s show, the very thoughtful scientist/author Jon Kabat-Zinn has intriguing and provocative things to say about the pressures and possibilities of aligning our “Stone Age minds” with 21st-century digital realities. But he also says: “This is far too serious to take too seriously.”
The most godly people I know have a sense of humor even about the most important things, and I’m convinced God does too. And that is my far too serious justification for posting two very funny Facebook takes on Passover and Easter, the holiest of holidays being observed simultaneously this week. Be blessed — and enjoy.
Asking the Questions, Developing the Answers
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Pesach (Passover) is upon us. In a recent entry by Rachel Barenblat (a rabbinical student who writes the Velveteen Rabbi blog), she recounts a seder in which three questions were asked and were answered with prescribed responses. A Sephardic custom (according to Barenblat, Iraqi or Afghani in origin), the seder opens with a person circling the table of participants asking:
Who are you? The answer: “I am Yisrael.”
Where are you coming from? The answer: ”I am coming from Mitzrayim.”
Where are you going? The answer: “I am going to Yerushalayim.”
As Barenblat sees it, these questions call us to think more deeply, to examine the nature of our true selves, and open ourselves up to the possibility of emergence from narrow, confined places and look ahead to a more generous future.
My two sons attend an early childcare facility run by a Jewish community center. Although our family’s not Jewish, we, by default, loosely observe shabbat on Friday and various holidays simply through scheduling and songs and rituals celebrated at school (I’ll be taking a vacation day tomorrow to be with my boys because the daycare center is closed).
So, when I read these questions, I was shaken to the core, especially after a tumultuous, stress-filled week of work and family hiccups. They cause me to pause and ask myself about how I define myself and not the outside world. I look to the being who exists in that thin crevasse between closed eyelids and the breaking rays of dawn, and the vestige that reflects in the cab of his truck on the freeway home.
It’s in this interstitial space that I remember Avivah Zornberg’s retelling and interpretation of a story from a fifth-century Midrash:
You find that when Israel were in harsh labor in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed against them that they should not sleep at home nor have relations with their wives. Said Rabbi Shimeon bar Chalafta, ‘What did the daughters of Israel do?’ They would go down to draw water from the river, and God would prepare for them little fish in their buckets. And they would sell some of them, and cook some of them, and buy wine with the proceeds, and go to the field and feed their husbands. And when they had eaten and drunk, the women would take the mirrors and look into them with their husbands, and she would say, ‘I am more comely than you,’ and he would say, ‘I am more comely than you.’ And as a result, they would accustom themselves to desire, and they were fruitful and multiplied, and God took note of them immediately. Some of our sages said they bore two children at a time, others said they bore 12 at a time, and still others said 600,000. … And all these numbers from the mirrors. … In the merit of those mirrors which they showed their husbands to accustom them to desire, from the midst of the harsh labor, they raised up all the hosts.
Dr. Zornberg: She says to him, ‘I’m more beautiful than you,’ and he answers her, ‘No, I’m more beautiful than you.’ So there is some kind of dare going on here. There’s some kind of game. As I understand it, it’s a game in which she is challenging him to see his own beauty. If there’s anything left in him at all of any kind of assertiveness, then how could he not somewhere swing back at her when she has said that to him? And the result is — and the Midrash is very unequivocal — the result is that they accustom themselves to desire, an extraordinary expression, as if desire is something that simply has disappeared from their repertoire.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Dr. Zornberg: And I think there’s a sense here that what she’s got going here makes it possible for each couple to feel that they are capable of giving birth to all the many various possibilities.
Ms. Tippett: And the possibility of freedom.
Dr. Zornberg: Of freedom, of infiniteness, of unpredictability, which such multiple births suggests, and that it’s all done with mirrors, the Midrash says, mischievously, it seems to me. And I have a whole theory about these mirrors. It seems to me that, when one looks in a mirror, one is basically always seeing a somewhat changed version of oneself, a distorted version of oneself. So it means that the mirror represents fantasy. But from the point of view of the Midrash and from the point of view of God, who supports the women’s activities, it takes an act of this kind, a performative act of whimsy and imagination, not looking at things quite straight, in order to open things up.
From this story, I’ve created my own meaning and retelling of the idea to apply to my circumstances. I won’t go into it here, but the mirror is held up to me every day — and in it I’m creating my own midrashic story.