The Most Important Story to LIVE

We all have stories to tell.  Some are more important than others. Some of the stories that we tell our children reflect our loftiest understandings of our mission on this Earth.  Like fairy tales, these stories encounter fear and point the way to “happily ever after” way beyond the time we know that life is never so “happily ever after.”   Passover celebrates the importance of story telling.

 The Passover story is the holiest story we Jews have to tell. It is not just any story, it isour story – the story that “birthed” our people from slavery to freedom.  The tale of Passover aligns with the initial vision of Abraham that his descendants would be slaves for 400 years. We remember (and celebratee) the physical and spiritual hardships of slavery, where we were strangers in a strange land at the foundation for fostering radical empathy.  Remembering that “we were slaves in Egypt” leads to an understanding of true justice and into a relationship with all that is holy in this world.  It anticipates movement and change at the underpinnings of creating a moral compass for living. It makes our treatment of strangers the test for a just society (because WE were strangers).  Our modern day world demands, "Give me the essentials." Passover is our most important story, not only to tell, but to live.

Why?  Because in remembering the journey from slavery to freedom, we are addressing the fundamental spiritual aspect of this world: the challenge and opportunity of change. 

True justice is not only defined at Sinai,  It is re-lived in every generation.  It is shaped in our own time and image, defined in our own terms, facing our own journey, for we are told: "We should tell the story, as if we ourselves were slaves leaving Egypt.”  

It follows the adage: “I’d rather see a lesson, than hear one any day.  I rather you would walk with me than merely show the way.”  

“As if we were slaves”?  Is it make believe?  Is it theater? Then it has to be the best theater: that which suspends disbelief and tells the story in a manner that renders total belief that this journey to freedom and to empathy is our holiest journey.  Ultimately, this holy journey leads to a better world, a holier world, a world without oppression, a world in which the stranger is ALWAYS welcome, the hungry are ALWAYS fed, and homes celebrate the miracles that allow generations born to slavery to be free.

Each of us has stories to tell.  Take some time at the Passover seder to tell yours.  What was your family's experience?  Were you shaped by the Holocaust?  Were you made to feel afraid of celebrating being Jewish in public?  Were you shaped by the experience in America that cut so many souls off from Jewish resources through forces of adapting and fitting into America?  How did your family make it to America?  Were you raised by parents or grandparents who grew up in the Depression? Were they confronted with world war and the fight for freedom?  Were you raised by parents who wrestled with the war in Vietnam?   Was your family devastated by the recent recession?  Has your family experienced losses of loved ones?  Tell the story, modeled on this epiphany: that the Holy One heard our cryand cried out, "Let my people go."   Live it!  

Invite special guests: a homeless person (and let them share their story), a stranger, a family that is Christian or Muslim or an unknowledgable or disaffected Jew (and share your pride of your tradition), a Jew who has no means to make a seder, a rebellious Jew (and talk about the meaning of our story to you).

At this year’s seder, hold up the matzah and cry out, "This is the bread of affliction!" Because that piece of matzah is the most powerful pedagogical device in the history of lesson planning (lesson-living) from one generation to the next.  It is strange, alluring, demanding explanation, hidden, searched for, found: and through the search, the find, and the telling, matzah moves from being a symbol of oppression to being the bread that has sustained us as a people throughout the journey of four millennia.

Ultimately, living this story is to live to hear our children (and grandchildren) tell this story in their own terms.  For that implies that this powerful story lives on. 

Also make your own family stories live.

With photos, memorabilia, reenactments.  Tell your kids how you “were enslaved and were set free from your own Egypt.

Use your ingenuity.  This will be our twenty-fourth seder in Portland at Gesher.  Each year, we tell this story with theater in view. We offer our guests slave outfits.  We flee to an encampment, a tent, decorated as the inside of the Red Sea, where we partake in the experience of remembering and living this most essential story.  We use green onions to whip slaves.  We build a pyramid as we tell the story (out of painted cardboard boxes) and we break it down.  It's chaotic fun.  It's a feast, because we are living this wonderful memory.  The Passover seder is a deep exploration of our deepest questions whose answers are quests really.  

If you don’t yet have plans for Passover, come to Gesher.  Together, we will live the story, and prepare you for doing this in your own home.  Gesher will host five seders during the week of Passover.  For more information: see

Happy Passover!  Celebrate the most important story there is to tell.  This year: live it.

Rabbis Laurie Rutenberg and Gary Schoenberg

Adam and Adamah

One of the most mistranslated words ever: Adam. It is NOT "man." It is earthling. The rabbis said it was a hermaphrodite: male and female. Adam from Adamah meaning earth. We took a walk today, our first hunting for mushrooms. The light in the trees, our eyes glazed the earth searching for the first signs of fungus. There weren't any. But what we found were the rushing stream, the somber evergreens, the earth covered with liken.

Would it were that we honored the "earthling" in us more often. Our relationship to earth is, at best, distracted. What if we took one day a week to get in touch with our earthling? One day without cell phones, computers, city lights...imagine it: one day. Impossible? We met up with six hikers in their late twenties. A tall, statuesque woman from North Carolina, who had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico and was headed for Canada. Wild. Perhaps, this Rosh Hashanah, which celebrates the birth of this original earthling, we could do some thinking about our relationship to the Earth. It sure could use it.

The Journey We Take On High Holy Days

The central message of High Holy Days is renewal, beginning again.  To really begin again, we need to ask questions, sometimes hard ones, to examine our lives from the light of eternity and to ask about what really counts.  The thing is, if we initiate this process on Erev Rosh Hashahah, the night before Rosh Hashanah, we most likely won’t be prepared.  It’s like getting into a pool of cold water.  If we’re prepared, if we get in one toe at a time, the water, however painful, can leave us tingling, refreshed, feeling newly born into the world.  But if we jump in all at once, not knowing what to expect, the shock will send a chill down to our lungs, leaving us unable to breathe.  We’ll most likely scramble out before getting a chance to consider what the water can do for us. 

Turning inward begins in the summer.  The world, filled with light, has some darkness in it.  Is it not interesting that as we get to beyond the height of the summer, the darkness comes sooner. 

It is now the month of Elul—the month leading to Rosh Hashana.  Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote that the month of Elul is so holy that the fish tremble in the streams.

In Hebrew, the High Holy Days are referred to as the “yamim noraim,”  or“the days of awe.”  Think of these days as aspiring to fill you with awe, the way birth, the miracle of creation, a beautiful sunset, or a breathtaking view from a mountain can affect you.  This awe is tinged with gratitude, with a longing for understanding what God really wants, with a desire for forgiveness.  Think of High Holy Days as a time to pause in the stream that is your life and reflect, a time to pause and tremble with awe.

Rosh Hashanah, the “beginning of change,” celebrates the Jewish new year, and the birthday of the world, but is marked by an intensive period of looking inward as individuals.  Rosh Hashanah invites us each to examine the world in a different light.  Sure, if we look at the world in dark times, we know the world is filled with darkness, with pain, with emptiness, with cynicism and doubt.  Rosh Hashanah invites us each to examine the darkness and see it for what it is, but also to remember that according to our wonderful tradition, before the world was created, there was nothing but darkness.  So, if you look at it from that perspective, the light entering the universe through compassion, creativity, empathy, goodness, healing and winning.  On that basis, we are invited to let go of cynicism that things will never change and dream again.

Ten days after Rosh Hashanah comes Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, a day of making amends.  Yom Kippur is a day of offering up confession, of fasting, of praying to God for forgiveness.  Like mourners, we traditionally don’t wear leather.  Like a dead body, we are traditionally dressed in white.  Yom Kippur is a day of facing our own mortality. 

Most of all, Yom Kippur is a day of forgiveness and cleansing.  In the beautiful glimmer of a new day, celebrated with the replenishment of a break-the-fast meal, there is a wonderful sense of renewal.  We have felt the “high” of emerging from deep personal and collective scrutiny, and the celebration of truly beginning again, followed four days later by the joy of Sukkot.

At every service, Jews say the Kaddish, the mourners’ prayer, in memory of their loved ones.  During High Holy Days, the loss is brought closer. On Yom Kippur evening, yahrzeit (memorial) candles are lit, and on Yom Kippur day, yizkor (a memorial service) is said. For many secular Jews coming from an experience that is laden with death denial, Kaddish can feel foreign, a little disorienting.  Secular America has a hard, hard time addressing mourning as an ongoing process.  Americans are more inclined to say a death was a blessing than they are to share the burden of ongoing grief.  This creates a distorted effect for Jews who are not used to engaging the memory of the loss of a loved one.  It makes Judaism seem like an address of death, not a celebration of life.  But take a moment to consider what Kaddish can offer.  For some, the desire to say Kaddish is tied to personal loss, and therein the power.  For others, after so many millennia of collective losses, after the Holocaust, there is a desire to reflect on more than personal losses.  The whole goal of Kaddish is to evoke a yearning in the mourner that all of life be a growing container for the holy and that the experience ofGod be expanded on this Earth.   How?  Through acts of lovingkindness and through righteous action.   Even at a time of loss, when death disrupts one’s sense of wholeness?  Yes. The underlying premise is that if you are in mourning, you are more deeply aware that time is limited and that life has value.  Awareness of limited time can put us in greater touch with life’s sanctity. 

This year, we are emphasizing the need for a meal.  A sacred meal.  It represents a journey, an invitation to look at the world, our world, anew and celebrate.

The Real Miracle of Hanukkah

Hanukkah is coming. You can feel it in the air.  

Children sing, "I have a little dreidl," and Jews everywhere are polishing their menorahs, dusting off latke recipes, emerging from retail stores their arms laden with eight nights worth of gifts.  Yet, amidst the clamor of it all, did you ever stop to wonder just what we're celebrating?  What is the miracle of Hanukkah that our people have commemorated for eight nights each year, for generations beyond number?

According to the Book of Maccabees, Hanukkah marks the military victory of the Maccabees, a band of Jewish insurrectionists, who triumphed over mightier forces to reconsecrate the Ancient Temple in Jerusalem after the Assyrian enemy had polluted it and laid it to waste.  

The Talmud, edited hundreds of years later, tells us that Hanukkah is the story of a miracle.  When the Temple was reconsecrated, the Maccabees found only enough oil to keep the "Eternal Light" glowing for a single night.  Yet by a miracle, the light burned brightly for a full eight days!

Did you ever stop to wonder what happened to the Maccabees, or the Temple, or the priesthood?  And what happened after the eighth day?

The mighty Macabbees lasted only a few years in the priesthood.  The reconsecrted temple stood but a paltry two hundred years.  Since it was laid waste, over nineteen hundred years ago, most of our people has wandered the Earth.

Given the Jewish people's track record with miltary victories, maybe a single victory is a miracle.  But given our accomplishments as a people, elevating military victories to the center of our history does not make a whole lot of sense.  At least you have to admit, one victory every thousand years or so is not much to brag about.  And the way the oil lasted?  It's true that today we live in a time of deep appreciation for oil.  Getting eight times the mileage might well seem a miracle.  Don't get us wrong, we do not question the veracity of this legend, but we wonder, what is the real miracle of Hanukkah?

We do think that there is a miracle of Hanukkah to be celebrated.  The real miracle of Hanukkah is not that the oil lasted eight days.  The real miracle is that the celebration of the oil lasting eight days stands a good chance of lasting eight millennia.  The miracle is that we light candles.

The story of the Jewish people is a stroy of light flourishing in darkness, flourishing against considerable odds.  Four thousand years ago, if you looked at all the peoples -- the Hittites, the Perrizites, the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Canaanites -- all greater in numbers and military prowess, you might have questioned the sobriety of anyone who suggested that the one people who would survive (and flourish) would be this tiny band of nomads, these children of Israel, these Jews.

History tells us it's never been easy being Jewish.  The number of people -- powerful ones -- who have hated us has been prohibitively large.  The twentieth century saw the single most concerted effort to destroy any people, ever, and it was an effort perpetuated against the Jewish people.  It failed.  Today, a single generation removed from the Holocaust, our people has not only survived but flourished, celebrating a peoplehood that was born at Sinai.

Even today, it's still not easy being Jewish.  There are no Hanukkah specials on television, no Hanukkah music piped into department stores.  Come Bar/Bat mitzvah age, our children ask, "So what's the point, anyway?"  And ours can seem a lonely miracle, indeed.  Yet, we are a people that knows how to celebrate the light.  Today, as we struggle against the forces of marginality and assimilation, we must seek in our collective wisdom a way to welcome the strangers among us.  We must seek a way to make that welcome felt throughout the Jewish community.  We founded Gesher to build a bridge of welcome and caring -- the same welcome and caring that has been the lifeblood of the Jewish community for generations.

No, the miracle of Hanukkah is not that the oil lasted eight days.  The miracle - the real miracle of Hanukkah - is that from year to year we remember and extend the light of those original eight days to celebrate the miracle in our own time.