Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Birkhat Ha-Chamah 5769

Tomorrow, amidst the usual chaos of the day preceding the first Seder, we'll take a few moments to recite the blessing: Praised are You, Our God, King of the universe, who performs the acts of creation. Many of us will participate in longer services that might include Biblical readings, new age meditations, or reflections on Jewish environmental values as well.

The blessing, Birkhat Ha-Chamah, is recited once every 28 years and is supposed to happen at a vernal equinox at which the sun is in the position it occupied at the time of the biblical story of creation. Of course, the assumptions and beliefs upon which this occurrence is based are questionable if not outright faulty from a scientific point of view (http://www.jpost.com/servlet/Satellite?cid=1238562915665&pagename=JPost%2FJPArticle%2FPrinter:// )

Yet, large numbers of Jews from across the theological spectrum will take from 10 minutes to an hour to join in groups and solemnize this event together. What is the draw?

While there are probably several answers, for me the significance is not astronomical, spiritual or environmental. It is, as so many things in nature and in Judaism, a way of marking time. Just as Halley's comet is one of those once or twice in a lifetime events, and the biblical Jubilee year would have only been observed once or twice in a lifetime (if it indeed was ever observed at all), so the Birkhat Ha-Chamah serves to mark time and give us cause to reflect on where we've come over 28 years and what the next 28 years might hold in store.

I remember exactly where I was 28 years ago: on the front steps of the congregation in which I served as a rabbi/educator in Atlanta, GA. I was a young rabbi, a fairly creative educator. My wife and I had no kids yet and it seemed that this first full-time job might last for many years. We were pretty sure that we would live in Israel, but had no concrete plans for how that would work. Idealism and youth reigned. And I remember being very conscious of wanting to remember the moment so that in 28 years, I could reflect back on those years.

Tomorrow I will do so. I will have gone through the bitterness of being asked to leave the rabbinic position and of reinventing myself as a community-based Jewish educator. We indefinitely postponed the Israel part of our lives, while having the blessing of raising three wonderful children. The 28 years took us through adventures in St. Louis, Providence and New York. Along the way I had the good fortune to meet many wonderful people, to realize how little I really knew and to apply myself to learning and growing.

There are no guarantees for 28 years from now. Life expectancy charts work against my being alive at age 81, which adds a whole different dimension to this ritual for me on this round.

My suggestion (which I have made to my own kids): The sun is a blessing. Our lives are blessings. Take those few minutes tomorrow to look back at the last 28 years (or if you're younger, go as far back in memory as you can). Reflect on the journey so far. Think for a moment about where you are at the moment. Then meditate a bit on what you think the nest 28 years might look like. Perhaps even write a time capsule for yourself.

Then, get out there and start the next 28-year journey just as the sun, according to tradition, does.

Praised are You, Our God, King of the universe, who performs the acts of creation.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Pesach Greetings

Yachatz – The middle matzah is broken. The half matzah that remains is symbolic of the poor person, who has only a half a loaf of bread or matzah. We then recite:

This is the bread of poverty that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat; whoever is in need, let him come and partake of Passover.

Perhaps in no other year in our lifetime, the reading, early in our Passover seder, about the bread of poverty, speaks to us all. All of us have been touched, directly or indirectly, by the economic disaster which we are in the midst of.

This reading, contained in all haggadah texts, is a reminder of our obligation to address hunger and poverty, especially when we are in the midst of celebration.

The half of the broken matzah described above is often hidden in a game that captivates our children: holding the matzah for ransom, or in some households, giving gifts to children who find the hidden matzah.

Far be it from me to suggest doing away with these time-honored customs. Instead, you might modify it, by reducing the amount of the afikoman gifts and supplementing it with a card indicating that, in recognition of those who now eat “the bread of poverty” a part of each child’s gift is the knowledge that tzedakah is being given in their names to a local food bank, soup kitchen or similar organization.

Should you want to do so this year, below is a card that you might use.


We break the middle matzah to leave part of it as the bread of poverty, while the rest of the broken matzah becomes the afikomen.

Tonight, as so many in our country and our world face poverty and hunger, a part of your afikoman gift is the gift of giving tzedakah to those in need.

In your honor a donation has been made to:


to support its work in addressing poverty and hunger.

“May all who are hungry come and eat”