Chag urim sameach
move past the solstice and
we rededicate our hearts.
Earlier this fall, three of Bayit’s co-founders traveled in Cuba with Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer of Cuba America Jewish Mission. We asked communities there what we could offer them after returning home, and they asked for video teachings. That’s the origin of this project: regular video “vorts” (words of Torah / teachings from Jewish tradition) offered in or translated into Spanish, designed for Cuban Jewish communities and available to Spanish-speaking Jews everywhere. This first video offering features a Chanukah teaching from Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer. We’re grateful to R’ Sunny, to the Cuban Jewish communities that welcomed us into their midst, and to Rabbi Juan Mejia for helping us bring this project to life. — The Builders at Bayit
Sigue leyendo para ver el texto del video en español e inglés. / Read on for the text of the video in Spanish and in English.
El famoso rabino Shlomo Carlebach cuenta una historia sobre un hombre que conoció en Moscú en la década de 1970, cuando las cosas todavía eran realmente malas para los judíos en la Unión Soviética.
Una noche, Shlomo estaba cantando en un salón de Moscú en Simjat Torá. Luego, este chico le cuenta a Shlomo su historia.
“Fui encarcelado porque soy judío. Sabía que los cargos eran falsos, pero no tenía defensa. Pasé casi diez años en un campo de trabajo siberiano. Durante la mayoría de esos años largos, fríos y amargos, no tuve contacto con ningún otro judío. Entonces, un día, escuché que otro judío había sido encarcelado en una celda al otro lado del campo. Decidí buscarlo, a pesar del peligro personal. Quería desesperadamente ver a otro judío, hablar con otro judío, decir “Shalom Aleijem” a otro judío antes de morir en ese desierto abandonado.”
Cuando lo encontré, susurré: “Shalom aleijem, landsman (paisano)”.
Volvió la cabeza ligeramente y susurró: “¡Ahora no! No se nos permite hablar. Saben que somos judíos. ¡No dudarán en disparar si rompemos las reglas!”
Ignoré su súplica y seguí susurrando; “¿Sabes que esta noche es la primera noche de januká?”
“¡¿Y qué?!”, exclamó, su susurro cada vez más fuerte y más agitado. “¿De qué nos sirve ser judíos? ¿A dónde nos ha llevado?”
Yo persistí. “Escucha, he estado en este campo de prisioneros por casi diez años. Todo este tiempo, he buscado otro judío. Cantemos juntos Maoz Tsur. ¿Recuerdas cómo va?”
Las lágrimas llenaron los ojos de mi amigo. Susurró: Yo solía cantar Maoz Tsur con mi padre cuando era un niño pequeño. No lo he escuchado desde entonces “.
Le rogué que se uniera a mí. Comenzó a tararear la melodía suavemente. Vaciló con las palabras.
Mientras cantaba, su voz se hizo más fuerte. No notamos la conmoción en la torre de vigilancia.
Parecía que los guardias tenían como objetivo dispararnos por perturbar la paz. Entonces oímos gritos. El capitán ordenaba a los guardias que se detuvieran.
Bajó de la torre de vigilancia y se acercó a nosotros.
Apuntó su arma hacia nosotros y preguntó: “¿Qué están haciendo ustedes dos judíos?”
Respondí tan educadamente como pude: “Estamos cantando una canción”.
“¡Entonces canta más!” ordenó el capitán.
“No nos deshonre haciéndonos cantar más. Sabemos que nos disparará. Hágalo ahora. ¡Termine con esto! “, supliqué.
La voz del capitán de repente se volvió más amigable.
“No voy a dispararte. Continúa cantando esa melodía. Quiero escucharla.”
Reanudamos el canto.
Mientras cantamos, vimos lágrimas llenar los ojos del capitán y rodar por sus mejillas.
Cuando terminamos, el capitán habló.
“Cuando comenzaste a cantar, tuve un vago recuerdo de escuchar esa melodía antes. De repente, los recuerdos de ir a la sinagoga con mi padre me invadieron. Cuando tenía doce años, fui reclutado por la fuerza en el ejército. Llegué al rango de capitán. No tuve conexión con mi familia durante años. Ahora me doy cuenta de que todavía soy judío, aunque han pasado al menos cuarenta y cinco años desde que tuve algo que ver con mi gente. Esta noche entiendo que todavía soy parte del pueblo judío.”
Espontáneamente, los tres comenzamos a cantar Maoz Tsur nuevamente. Nuestros ojos se llenaron de lágrimas. No sé si alguna vez volveré a experimentar un momento tan santo.
Después de que terminamos, el capitán prometió que haría todo lo que estuviera en su poder para acelerar nuestra liberación. Esperamos la mayor parte del año hasta que estuvimos libres. Vine a Moscú para celebrar Simjat Torah con mi gente. Bendíceme que el próximo año seré libre como tú. Bendíceme que el año que viene podré bailar en las calles de Jerusalén en Simjat Torá.”
Mis amigos, nuestra gente sabe lo que es ser cautivo.
Todos recordamos a Alan Gross. Fue un momento difícil para las comunidades judías cubana y estadounidense. Durante su cautiverio, los líderes de la comunidad judía cubana visitaron a Alan en cada festividad judía. Nunca se olvidaron de él. Cuando Alan habló con los medios, pocas horas después de su liberación en 2014, las primeras palabras que salieron de su boca fueron “Jag Sameaj”.
Alan Gross no fue encarcelado porque era judío. Sobrevivió porque era judío. La lección aquí para nosotros es que siempre debemos recordar el poder de nuestra gente y nuestra fe.
Januká Sameaj, mis amigos.
Reb Shlomo Carlebach tells a story about a man he met in Moscow in the 1970’s when things were still really bad for the Jews in the Soviet Union.
One night Shlomo was singing in a hall in Moscow on Simchat Torah. This guy comes up to him to tell Shlomo his story.
“I was incarcerated because I am a Jew. I knew the charges were false, but I had no defense. I spent almost ten years in a Siberian labor camp. For most of those long, cold bitter years, I had no contact with any other Jews. Then, one day, I heard that another Jew had been incarcerated in a cell on the other side of the same prison camp. I decided to seek him out, despite personal danger. I desperately wanted to see another Jew, to talk to another Jew, to say “Shalom Aleichem” to another Jew before I died in that forsaken wasteland.
When I found him, I tiptoed over to him.
I whispered: ‘Shalom Aleichem, landsman (my friend and neighbor).’
He turned his head slightly and whispered: ‘Not now! We are not permitted to talk. The soldiers on the ramparts can shoot us at any minute. They know we are Jews. They will not hesitate to shoot if we break the rules!’
I ignored my fellow Jew’s plea and continued to whisper to him. ‘Do you know what tonight is?’
‘How am I supposed to know what tonight is?’ he demanded.
‘Tonight is the First Night of Chanukah.’
‘So what!’ he exclaimed, his whisper growing louder and more agitated. ‘What good does being Jewish do for us? Where has it gotten us?
I persisted. ‘Listen, I’ve been in this prison camp for almost ten years. All this time, I’ve searched for another Jew. Let’s Maoz Tsur together. Do you remember how it goes?’
Tears filled my friend’s eyes. He whispered, ‘I used to sing Maoz Tsur with my father when I was a little boy. I haven’t heard it since then.’
I begged him to join me in singing. He began to hum the melody softly. He hesitated with the words. Finally, he recalled them.
As he sang, his voice grew louder and more distinct. We did not notice the commotion in the watchtower, for we were so absorbed in what we were doing.
It seemed that the guards were aiming to shoot us for disturbing the peace. Then we heard shouting. The captain was ordering the guards to halt.
He descended from the watchtower and walked over to us.
We trembled when we saw him standing beside us. He aimed his gun but held it steady. Then he demanded gruffly: ‘What are you two Jews doing?’
I answered as politely as I could. ‘We are singing a song.’
‘Then sing more,’ the captain commanded.
‘Please don’t disgrace us by making us sing more. We know you will shoot us. Do it now. Get it over with!’ I pleaded.
The captain’s voice suddenly became more amicable.
‘I am not going to shoot you,’ he said. ‘Please continue to sing that melody. I want to hear it.’
We resumed singing.
As we sang, we saw tears fill the captain’s eyes and roll down his cheeks.
When we finished, the captain spoke.
‘As you began to sing,’ he said, ‘I had a vague recollection of hearing that melody before. Suddenly, memories of going to the synagogue with my father swept over me. When I was twelve years old, I was forcibly conscripted into the army. I rose to the rank of captain. I had no connection with my family for years. Now I realize that I am still a Jew, although it has been at least forty five years since I had anything to do with my people. Tonight I understand that I am still part of the Jewish people.’
Spontaneously, the three of us began singing Maoz Tsur again. Our eyes overflowed with tears. I do not know if I will ever experience such a holy moment again.
After we finished, the captain promised that he would do everything in his power to hasten our release. We waited the better part of a year. Then, a few weeks ago, orders for our release were received. I came here to Moscow to celebrate Simchat Torah with my people. Bless me that next year I will be free like you. Bless me that next year I will be able to dance in the streets of Jerusalem on Simchat Torah.”
My friends, our people know what it is to be captive.
We all remember Alan Gross. It was a difficult time for the Cuban and American Jewish communities. During their captivity, the leaders of the Cuban Jewish community visited Alan at each Jewish holiday. They never forgot him. When Alan spoke with the media, a few hours after his release in 2014, the first words that came out of his mouth were Chag Sameach.
Alan Gross was not jailed because he was Jewish. He survived because he was Jewish. The lesson here for us is that we must always remember the power of our people and our faith.
Chanukah Sameach my friends.
By Rabbi Sunny Schnitzer.
What qualities do you want to bring into your sukkah this year?
Here’s a download that features a classical set of Jewish values: lovingkindness, boundaries, balance, perseverance, humility, rootedness, nobility. (You might recognize those seven qualities as the “seven lower sefirot,” the qualities we share with our Creator that we cultivate each year during the Counting of the Omer.)
Print this on cardstock — hang the whole poster — cut it into cards and hang them around your sukkah — cut it into cards and have them on your table to spark discussion… the schach‘s the limit! Include these seven qualities among the ushpizin (holy guests) you invite into your sukkah this year.
We’re sharing this file as part of #MenschUp, a project aimed at promoting healthy (non-toxic) masculinity. As we build our sukkot, let’s build with Jewish values in mind. Download the file here on google drive:
There’s also a “Love Shack” downloadable flyer in that folder as well, and we’ll be adding more downloadable Sukkot resources to that google drive folder, so check back often!
May our building be for the sake of heaven, and may the blessings of Sukkot flow into and through us all!
To stay up-to-date on happenings at Bayit, join our mailing list.
Holding a seder at Pesach is a familiar tradition. But why not also hold a seder at Sukkot — surrounded by the beauty of the sukkah, exploring the holiday’s symbols and themes? This haggadah for Sukkot, co-created with Beth Kaufman Miller, is designed for use at home or in a synagogue setting. Using familiar tools from the Pesach seder (a seder plate, four ceremonial cups, four questions) this haggadah opens up the meaning of Sukkot in new ways. May our appreciation of nature in the sukkah this year inspire us to care for our planetary home, the fragile sukkah we all share. And may the temporary sukkot we build during this festival inspire us to make meaning in all of the structures we build in the new year to come. — Rabbi Shoshana Leis
A sketchnote arising out of Red thread: a ritual for Yom Kippur by Rabbi Evan Krame.
This ritual seeks to connect us with atonement and make us aware of our interconnectedness. The only required element is red thread, cut into discrete lengths (a foot long, all the same length) handed out at the start of the ritual. The ritual begins with a short teaching about the red thread, followed by an activity involving the thread directly. This could be used as a prelude to the Musaf repetition of “Al Chet” (in communities that do Musaf) or as a component in the Avodah service on Yom Kippur afternoon. At the close, there’s an opportunity for people to talk with each other about what the ritual was like and how it impacted them. — Rabbi Evan J. Krame
The red thread is Jewish folk talisman, said to ward off the evil eye. Red thread also appears in the story of Tamar (Genesis 38:28-30), in the story of Rahav (Joshua 2:18), and in association with the Mishkan / Temple rituals and clothing. Red thread can represent the boundary between the sacred and profane; it can also be a symbol of protection and promise. Proverbs (31:21) also mentions the virtuous woman who creates protection for her family with red wool.
Mishnah (Yoma 4:2, 6:8) and Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah also describe how red string was used in the Yom Kippur scapegoat ritual. The high priest would place his hands on the scapegoat, confessing the sins of Israel and asking for atonement. He would tie a red string between the horns of the scapegoat, and another strip around the neck of the second goat to indicate where it should be slaughtered.
Today we incorporate the red thread into a ritual of acknowledging and atoning for errant behavior.
[Hand out red threads.]
What are some modern sins that might not have been given expression in the classical Al Chet prayer? Let’s name a few of them:
[Harvest responses from the room. Solicit interpersonal / communal answers — damage to the environment, poverty and homelessness, etc.]
Take your red thread and turn to the person next to you. Stand close to one another, each holding an end of the thread, with the thread hanging slack between you. As we acknowledge our failings, each person moves your body in the way I am about to describe. With each expression, take a very short step with your left foot, moving it slightly forward and in front of the right. The second step should bring your left foot fully in front of the right, which will make the red thread more taut. The third step will move the left foot past the right and the string will be stretched.
[Mention three sins]
Now let’s come up with three ways to repair the world and unravel the dynamic that created these broken places. As each possibility for repair is listed, move your foot back, so that we end the exercise in the same posture in which we began:
[With each repair, people will move back to their original places.]
Turn now to your partner and speak quietly for a few moments. How did this ritual feel for you? What role did the red thread play in connecting you? What meaning did you find in the position of your bodies relative to one another? Take turns speaking about your experience. We’ll bring everyone back together again with a niggun when it’s time to move on.
See also: this beautiful red thread sketchnote by Steve Silbert arising out of this ritual!
This ritual seeks to connect the Yizkor prayers, recited four times a year, with an embodied experience of memory and connection. The only required element is a basket of stones — smooth river-washed stones are available at landscaping supply stores — which are handed out during the service. The central act is placing the stones together on a central location (often the amud or Torah reading table), in silence, while allowing music and memory to open our hearts. — Rabbi Evan J. Krame
In our tradition, we bring not flowers but stones to a gravesite. That’s what Jacob did for Rachel when he created a matzevah (monument), as we read in Torah:
Over her grave Jacob set up a pillar; it is the pillar at Rachel’s grave to this day. (Gen. 35:22. )
וַיַּצֵּ֧ב יַעֲקֹ֛ב מַצֵּבָ֖ה עַל־קְבֻרָתָ֑הּ הִ֛וא מַצֶּ֥בֶת קְבֻֽרַת־רָחֵ֖ל עַד־הַיּֽוֹם׃
Many of us no longer live near the cemeteries where our parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents are buried. We may not have the opportunity to place a stone in remembrance of those who brought us into the world or nurtured us.
Some of us have siblings or children who have preceded us in death, whose absence is hard to bear. Being far from those graves can be especially painful.
And even when we live near the graves of those whom we’ve lost, we’re not at those graves now, today, as we recite these Yizkor prayers in memory. But we can still take a stone, and use it as a focus for our remembrance.
Take a stone now. Hold it, and think of the person or people you are remembering today.
[Invite people to go row by row to select a stone, or pass stones out row by row. While stones are being handed out, the following instruction may be offered:]
We’ll take silent time for the Yizkor memorial prayers.
After we hear the words of Psalm 23, come place the stone on the bimah, and return to your seats in silent dedication.
[Volunteers direct the community in coming up, row by row, to place their stones while “Turn, Turn, Turn” is sung.]
Remembering and honoring those we have lost, we come together again as a community. Though each of us is remembering someone different, we’re connected in the shared experience of mourning and memory.
We move now into Mourner’s Kaddish and El Maleh Rachamim…
This responsive reading is intended for congregational use during Tisha b’Av. Most of these words come directly from refugee testimonies (citations below). They have been shaped into the form of a prayer, but have not otherwise been edited in any way. The indented lines are from the book of Eicha / Lamentations.
In reciting this prayer together, we bring the words of today’s refugees into our own mouths. May speaking these words galvanize us to build a world of justice, so that we can make manifest Tisha b’Av’s promise of redemption.1
Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Hear, all you peoples,
And behold my agony:
My girls and my boys
Have gone into captivity! (1:18)
They told me, ‘you don’t have any rights here,
and you don’t have any rights to stay with your son.’
I died at that moment. They ripped my heart out of me.
For me, it would have been better if I had dropped dead.
For me, the world ended at that point.
How can a mother not have the right to be with her son? 2
I raised my grandchild since she was little…
They didn’t tell me why they were taking her.
They just told me they were going to separate her from me…
My granddaughter calls me mommy.
And she told me [by phone], ‘mommy, I want to be with you
on mother’s day.’ She just wants to be with me. 3
The way they treat us, I cannot survive for long.
The officers don’t respect us for who we are – because of our skin…
The way we are exposed to sickness,
not being able to go outside.
We need the wind. And the water we are using
is not good enough to shower or drink. 4
At Ursula, we are kept in a cage. It is very crowded.
There is no room to move without stepping over the others.
We have to sleep on the cold, concrete floor.
The lights are on all the time.
My sisters keep asking me, ‘when will mommy come get us?’
I don’t know what to tell them. 5
I have not been told how long I have to stay here.
I am frightened, scared, and sad.
I have a cold and cough. I have not seen a doctor or been given any medicine.
It is cold at night when we sleep.
We have not been able to shower.
The toilet is out in the open in the cage, there is no privacy.
There is no soap to wash our hands.
We have not been given a toothbrush or toothpaste to brush our teeth.
They keep asking their mothers,
“Where is bread and wine?”
As they languish like battle-wounded…
As their life runs out
In their mothers’ bosoms. (2:12)
When we arrived they took the clothes my baby was wearing.
We were not given any food or water or anything to drink.
We were put into a cage filled with loads of people. Too many to count.
There was nowhere to sit there were so many people.
One of the other boys got into trouble
and he was taken to the freezer box as a punishment.
I am in a room with dozens of other boys. Some are 3 or 4 years old.
Right now there is a 12-year-old who cries a lot. Others try to comfort him.
One of the officers makes fun of those who cry.
It is cold at night in our room. We spend the entire day in our room.
The tongue of the suckling cleaves
To its palate for thirst.
Little children beg for bread;
None gives them a morsel. (4:4)
The meals are the same every day and there is not enough.
I am often hungry. One time the food was so bad, it made me sick.
There are very young children who are here all by themselves.
They do not have anyone to care for them.
Every night, the guards wake us at 3am and take away our blankets.
The water in the jugs tastes awful, like it’s from a dirty well.
Most of the children are all alone. One was only two years old.
She had to sleep on the floor. It is concrete. It is very cold.
We are locked in a room for most of the day.
The room has no windows.
I need comfort, too.
I am bigger than [other children] are, but I am a child, too.
Return us to You, O God
And let us return;
Renew our days as of old!
For if you were to reject us,
Bitterly rage against us —
Return us to You, O God
And let us return;
Renew our days like the dawn! (5:22)
Quotations assembled / curated by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.
1. Tradition teaches that the messiah will be born on Tisha b’Av. The seeds of hope are planted even in — or especially in — our darkest time of despair.↩
3. Clara, grandmother whose granddaughter was separated from her (ibid.)↩
4. Bokole, a refugee from the DRC (ibid.)↩
Photo credit: The Washington Post.
This weekend we celebrate, with pride, G-d’s “coming out” speech – the Divine Revelation at Mt. Sinai. Our need to be seen and understood for who we are draws from that very highest of the High Truths of sacred tradition.
The Jewish community and LGBTQ+ community share long experiences of being closeted, forced — in different ways — to choose between being unsafe or hiding the fullness of who we are. Walking in the world as someone recognizably Jewish or LGBTQ+ has often meant being subject to hate, discrimination and attack.
For centuries Jewish life and perhaps all spiritual life was built with closets. As we felt the need to hide the fullness of our truest selves, we built in society and religion closets out of fear.
But that’s not the Judaism (or the world) that we are called to build. We’re called to build a world that reflects and uplifts the many diversities of G-d’s splendor, the many colors of the rainbow refracting G-d’s infinite light.
To build that world, first we must stop fooling ourselves about how much work still lies ahead, or who must do it. Many who grew up in America over the last 50 years believed that anti-Semitism had become far more an historical relic than a modern reality. Many LGBTQ+ people and allies, especially over the last decade, believed that progress was flourishing: legal protections were expanding rapidly, and civic leaders increasingly took our safety and health seriously.
But Dr. Martin Luther King’s prophetic vision of an ever more just and inclusive world — while ultimately true on G-d’s time — isn’t automatically true on human time. The arc of the moral universe doesn’t necessarily bend toward justice unless we build it that way.
Today, societal forces are mounting to undo the progress of the last decades — targeting houses of worship, inciting fear and hate, shoving whole communities back into closets that we thought we were well on our way to dismantling.
The good news is that we’re not alone, we’re not building alone and, as always, we’re far stronger together than any of us ever could be on our own. Advancements against anti-Semitism and homophobia always have been incremental and cooperative: they happen slowly, and they require the collaboration of many hands on the “build team” of a futre worthy of everyone.
It’s easy to focus on building that better world “for us” — forgetting that the only way truly to build that better world is to build it for all. How many cisgender white gays and lesbians celebrated when marriage equality became a reality, but went absent from ongoing activism for their trans siblings? How many progressive Jews felt that anti-Semitism had vanished from their lives, not noticing that our visibly-Jewish Orthodox siblings faced continued attacks? How many white Jews were absent from activism on behalf of Jews of color? It goes on and on.
Real progress means expanding beyond our own communities and specific interests. The fact that we may not yet have experienced certain vulnerabilities and inequalities does not mean that we are protected from them. The privileges that shield us today can easily slip away in the future. But as history keeps teaching, if we don’t stand up for others, there won’t be anyone left to stand up for us.
This ongoing work is both external and internal. We need to build outward and advocate for others (for instance, straight and cisgender allies must advocate for the LGBTQ+ community, and non-Jewish allies must stand up for the Jewish community). At the same time, we must build inward and strengthen connections internal to our communities as well.
Now 50 years since Stonewall, this work is far from complete. To paraphrase the charge given at b’nei mitzvah celebrations: this must not be the end of our activism, but the beginning. In the words of our sages, even if it’s it not our job to “complete” this work (it’s never “complete”), neither are we free to refrain from it.
This year’s Pride Month coincides with Shavuot, the end of Judaism’s seven-week cycle of counting the Omer, moving from the story of Passover to the receiving of Torah. Over these 49 days, we followed the example of the Children of Israel in the desert, working to transform ourselves from a newly freed mixed multitude into a unified humanity able to stand together at Sinai and receive the highest Torah. During this time, we reaffirm our spiritual duty to ensure that all are protected and safe, so that we all can stand together.
The reason is core to Jewish spiritual life. Tradition teaches that we received the Torah only as a unified community, with each and every person equally invited, present and welcomed. The completeness of Torah depended on the wholeness of community. Just as a Torah with even one letter missing cannot ever be true Torah, so too a community with even one person excluded or dehumanized cannot ever be true holy community.
In that spirit, there are real spiritual consequences if anyone feels pressured much less forced to conceal who they truly are out of fear of not being fully accepted. We learn that it is un-Jewish and un-holy, by definition, to exclude in those ways — as equally unacceptable as dropping letters from Torah itself.
In that same spirit, the Revelation at Sinai was a true divine “coming out” to the world. What little our enslaved ancestors knew of G-d was in their liberation from bondage, but now G-d would reveal G-d’s Self. G-d’s “I” narrative of introduction at Sinai (Exodus 20:1-2) reminds that there is but one G-d, in whose image we all are created. To discriminate against a person for just being is to discriminate against the source of all being.
On Shavuot, we remember the moment when G-d said, “This is who I Am.” G-d’s identity needs no affirmation, but G-d still gave humanity the opportunity to say, “Yes, we see You, and we will call You by the names You teach us.” G-d modeled coming out, and G-d modeled how we should treat everyone.
This Shavuot and this Pride Month, may we all continue the work and blessing of that ongoing Revelation – fully seeing each other, being completely present for each other, ensuring that no one ever is pressured to hide. That’s how we’ll build a future without closets of fear, a future truly for everyone.
By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz and Rabbi Marisa James.
Among Passover’s many customs, the fast of the firstborn (ta’anit bechorot) fell into disuse. This ritual fast, commemorating Egypt’s victims of the Tenth Plague’s death of the firstborn, finds little traction among modern liberal Jews. Even most traditionalists arrange a ritual joyous reason to avoid the pre-Passover fast.
The day before Passover, however, this particular firstborn of Israel will fast – not just from food but also from speech. I will go silent – I will observe a total fast from speech (ta’anit dibbur) – and I will decline any excuse that might absolve me.
The reason isn’t virtue signaling. Rather, it’s to remind myself, and invite others to consider, that words and privilege can be as enslaving as iron shackles. It’s to renew my commitment to make space for the voices of all who feel excluded or diminished, whose identities or experiences have denied them privileges I enjoy – including the very privilege to write these words.
A Pre-Passover Fast from Food (Ta’anit Bechorot)
There are many reasons to fast before Passover – and not just make room for matzah! One reason is to mourn the too-high price of freedom. Talmud famously teaches that when angels rejoiced during the Exodus drowning of Egyptian soldiers in the Sea of Reeds, God rebuked them saying, “My children are drowning and you sing Me praises?” (Megillah 10b, Pesachim 64b). If Egypt’s first-born and soldiers died for Israelite liberation, their deaths are not less tragic. If angels had to learn that lesson, then so might we. Just as we spill drops of wine for each plague during the Seder (we can’t drink a full cup of joy at another’s expense), we can fast in poignant memory of the tragically high cost of freedom.
Another reason is to connect with today’s captives of body, heart or spirit. Until all are free, all are unfree. So taught Dr. Martin Luther King from his Birmingham jail cell: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We can fast, as I wrote elsewhere, to spiritually purge for every time co-religionists ever sung praises for another’s degradation. We can fast to rededicate ourselves to bringing Passover’s global message of freedom to the whole globe.
A third reason is to honor this year’s calendrical confluence with Good Friday. Jews need not understand the Jesus of faith as Christians might, but we can understand suffering, grace and redemption in common cause with our Christian cousins as they commemorate their own ritual descent and ascent rooted in Passover.
The idea of a ta’anit dibbur (fast from speech) traces from the wisdom of Proverbs 18:21: “Life and death are in the hand of the tongue.” We fast from speech as a practice of purification. By ritually controlling the incessant drive to speak, we can refine the inner impulses they voice.
All the more so before Passover. Mystics re-read Passover (pesach) as the speaking mouth (peh sach), the spiritual liberation that could heal both Moses’ impaired speech and our own. Understood this way, the creative impulse that Jewish mysticism understood as speech – God’s speech, and our speech – can be healed and channeled to liberate the sacred in our world.
Consider the countless injustices and shacklings expressed as speech. Consider the enormous power of words to include or exclude, create or destroy, empower or enfeeble, uplift or suppress, liberate or enslave. Words can wound, or words can heal. Understood this way, any Passover worth its weight in matzah must focus intently on the power of words to help purify our words.
What does this have to do with the firstborn? In its day, primogeniture stood for privilege and societal power dynamics that locked privilege into the day’s reality map. By dint of gender and birth order, the firstborn male held special status legally, politically and ritually. Others were at best second best. And as for the individual, so too the collective: God told Moses to call Israel “God’s firstborn” before Pharaoh (Exodus 4:22). Later, liturgy attributed to Rav Kook, Israel’s first chief rabbi, transformed Israel into reishit tzmichat ge’ulateinu, “the first flowering of our collective redemption.”
We’ve come far since primogeniture’s days, but Passover becomes a mere tasty relic if we rest on past laurels. A living Passover means bringing freedom and equality to all in the flowering of collective redemption. A living Passover means pushing boundaries outward until they include everyone, and feeling deeply wherever boundaries or the call to expand them feels tight. Those tight spots are our meitzarim, our “narrow places” – literally our “Egypt,” the frontiers of today’s Passover ongoing call to liberation.
Understood this way, the “fast of the firstborn” is a radical and evolving call to name and invert today’s social structures that hold people back. The “fast of the firstborn” isn’t mainly about the “firstborn” but rather about the privilege that primogeniture wrongly symbolizes. It’s strikingly beautiful that Judaism can honor Passover – a defining experience of peoplehood and liberation – with this internal hedge against its own imperfect realization of this sacred calling.
Now let’s get personal. I seem like the personification of privilege. I’m the firstborn child – and a son at that. I’m straight and cis-gendered. I hold two graduate degrees, from Harvard, plus a rabbinic ordination. I’m honored with a judicial role and a pulpit. I teach in seminary and I’ve led spiritual nonprofits. I have seemingly unfettered opportunities to speak, write and teach. I’m not just a man; euphemistically I’m The Man! And most who know me know that I can have much to say.
That’s exactly why I and people like me should go silent before Passover – to remind ourselves of the marginalization and subjugation that others experience daily, to make space for them, and to recommit ourselves to that cause as a way of life for all time.
To be sure, I wasn’t born on third base thinking that I’d hit a triple. I’m the son of an immigrant. I did not grow up affluent. I’m the first in my family to graduate from college. I faced and overcame many obstacles both personal and familial along the way. But such is the American experience and, often, the Jewish experience. All the more reason for me to make space for tomorrow’s “me” – whoever and however they may come.
I think of my own mom and countless other moms denied a Jewish education or countless other opportunities on the basis of sex. I think of LGBTQI friends still fighting whether in or out of the closet, denied their rights at tragic costs to themselves and society. I think of people of color, of all backgrounds, whose lives as visible minorities still are fraught 50 years after Dr. King was assassinated. I think of talented people of all ages and stages blocked from leadership by crusty, recalcitrant power dynamics that cling to their own false solidity. I think of Jewish life’s virulent allergy to wise succession planning that shortsightedly robs institutions of healthy and vibrant futures. And I think of many leaders who undoubtedly think they’re doing leadership right but who wield emotional or spiritual authority in ways that are pervasively self-perpetuating.
That’s why I will go silent before this Passover. I will reclaim the ta’anit dibbur as a deliberate space-making practice both within and without. I hope all firstborns, whether literally first out of the womb or metaphorical firsts of privilege, will consider doing likewise. Let’s make space for others starting with one day, then one week, then for a lifetime, for all Jewish life and for all life. Let’s make space to heal speech, to heal power, to heal the world.
When we break our ta’anit dibbur at the start of the Seder, let our first word be Baruch: ”Blessed.” Let that flow of blessing be the purpose of our speech and all speech. And in that merit, may we, all of us, experience a truly liberating and sweet Pesach.
By Rabbi David Markus