What About the “Collateral Damage?”

Quick Comment: Parashat Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16)

In this week’s Torah portion God’s war against Egypt reaches its dreadful climax with the death of every firstborn Egyptian son. (Exodus 12:29).

The story compels us to ask: What about “collateral damage, the innocent who suffer?

Each year more Jews celebrate our liberation from Egypt than participate in any other religious event during the year. One of the most important moments in the Passover ritual is when we dip our finger ten times into our wine cups and stain our plates with the ten drops.

Wine in Judaism represents joy (NEVER blood).

By taking these drops out of our cup we consciously diminish our joy to acknowledge and lament the horrible suffering of the Egyptians.

When Israel repelled the terrorist uprisings in Gaza in 2008, 2012 and 2014, strong voices questioned her actions. It was not only the anti-Semites who wish to see Israel wiped off the map. There were and are thoughtful voices—both in Israel and the world outside—who love and support the Jewish state that decry the huge number of innocent people–particularly children–who suffer and die by her hand.

We cannot turn a deaf ear to the cries of our enemy!

For a civilized people self-defense and the pursuit of peace must always be inseparable. May this truth impel us to relentlessly work for the day when, “Violence shall no more be heard in your land (Isaiah 60:18)!”

When we celebrate our liberation from Egypt in ancient days and our survival as a people in a tiny land of our own today, may we never forget:

The tears of our enemies stain our souls, and God holds us accountable for them.

May the tears of all God’s children soon become the solvent that dissolves hatred and war wherever it exists!


Health Care: A Privilege or a Right?

         On Passover, we free ourselves — and seek to free others — from slavery.  Today, many are enslaved by inadequate health care. Passover calls on us to struggle for their freedom!

       I had finally gotten into the endotontist’s chair after a night and half a day of intense pain. The staff prepped me, and the doctor made a cursory examination. “I’ll look further to confirm my diagnosis,” he said” but I think the tooth is cracked and will have to come out.” Then he gave me a most welcome injection of Novocain to numb the area, and ease the pain. The doctor said he would return in a few minutes after the Novocain took effect to examine the tooth thoroughly to see if it could be saved. During the “Novocain intermission” the dental assistant came in with a consent form. It indicated that if the tooth could be salvaged, the root canal procedure would cost $1300 and invited me to sign a treatment consent form acknowledging that fact.

         What choice did I really have? With the pain that I had experienced during the previous 36 hours, I would have signed any form that offered a reasonable chance of relief.

         Now, because I am the husband of a former Hartford City Public School teacher, my coverage includes “full dental” which made the $1300 charge moot. But even if I did not have coverage — even though I would feel a pinch — I could manage the $1300 without lasting damage to my family’s financial situation or lifestyle. Far too many others across our land, though, are not so blessed.

         Was it my privilege to be relieved of my acute dental pain because I am financially solvent? Or should such relief be a basic right?There can be no doubt about the answer in this land of the free and home of the brave! Adequate health care should be the right of every man, woman and child!

           Now we must find the way to make it happen. We must make  the freedom of adequate health care available to all.  From the standpoint of Jewish tradition, failure to do so because some lack the means is a sin (DT 15:9). But if we find a way to provide all of God’s children with this and other basic necessities of life then the Torah promises: “The Eternal One our God will bless us in all in all of our deeds and all our undertakings.” (Deuteronomy 15:10)

It is a wonderful blessing! It is a blessing we should strive unstintingly to achieve at Passover and throughout the year!



One More Look at Elijah Before Passover


Do you ever wonder why we open the door for Elijah at our Passover Seder, rather than Moses, King David or the prophet Isaiah?

Without question, Elijah would have taken a place of honor in Jewish folklore for the righteousness and courage he displayed in the 9th century BCE.  But he never would have become the most storied biblical figure in all rabbinic literature, let alone the one for whom we open the door each year, were it not for the last of the biblical prophets who lived nearly 500 years later named Malachi.

It is not clear how he came up with the idea, but Malachi concludes his brief book with a prediction that one day, Elijah – who, the Bible records, ascended to heaven in a chariot of fire – would return, “before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Eternal One.  He will turn the hearts of parents toward their children and children toward their parents.” (Malachi 3:23-24)

With these words Elijah planted hope for the ultimate redemption of our people and the salvation of the world.  With the last verses of his book, Malachi anointed Elijah to be the one to announce the coming of the Messiah.

Through the ages – especially in our darkest years of oppression and exile – Malachi’s vision and the stories it spawned sustained us.  One day God would send an anointed messenger, a messiah, to set all that was wrong with the world, aright!

By the time Jesus lived and died, the Jewish messianic hope consisted of four specific expectations:

  1. The end of the oppression of the Jews
  2. A miraculous ingathering to Jerusalem of Jews exiled over the years
  3. The restoration of a descendant of David on the throne of a united (the country divided shortly after the death of King Solomon into two smaller, weaker countries) Israel
  4. The inauguration of an endless era of peace and harmony for all humanity

People ask why we Jews do not accept Jesus as our messiah.  The answer is that Jesus fulfilled none of the Jewish messianic expectations.

As Reform Judaism emerged at the end of the 19th century, the idea of an individual messiah who would miraculously transform the world gave way to the notion of a messianic era toward which we all should work.  Today, the ideal of an eternal era of peace and harmony remains the only significant messianic goal of those that our people envisioned long ago.  Day by day, act of compassion by act of compassion, each one of us has the opportunity to help make that ideal a reality.

When the moment comes in our Passover Seder to send the children to open the door for Elijah, let it not just be a moment of mirth when we shake the table and say, “he drank the wine we set out for him.”  Rather, let it be a moment in which we teach our children that the Almighty hopes each of us will play a role in repairing our broken world.

Book Excerpt: The Meaning of Passover

To understand the Exodus narrative, we must view it as a war – a boxing match if you will –between gods. In one corner, we have the Egyptian god, Pharaoh. Pharaoh is like any pagan god. One worships him by glorifying him with monuments, pyramids, sphinxes, and garrison cities. If slaves are required in order to build these structures, so be it. If it is necessary to beat those slaves in order to keep them working, or even kill one or two occasionally to send a message, that is fine too. And if overpopulation becomes an issue (see the First Chapter of Exodus), simply throw their baby boys into the Nile.

In the other corner, though, we have the one true God of the Hebrew Bible, who created us in God’s image! God’s highest goal is that we create a just, caring, and compassionate society. God wants us to treat one another with respect and dignity! God wants us not to steal, cheat, or lie. God has particular concern for the powerlessness of society: the widow, the orphan, the outsider, the abused and the impoverished. The contrasting value systems represented by Pharaoh and God cannot coexist peacefully.

Imagine the scene from many a Western movie in which the sheriff says to the bad guy, “This town ain’t big enough for both of us,” and a showdown ensues. Well, Exodus is a showdown between God and Pharaoh. Because it is our story, our God wins by redeeming us from slavery and bringing us to Mount Sinai, where God renews and expands with an entire
people, the sacred covenant God once made with just Abraham and his family.

Because God intervenes in history so dramatically, we owe God a debt we can never fully repay. Imagine for a moment that you are watching your small toddler. Something distracts you, and in a split second, your child has wandered into the middle of the street. You look up, see a large truck bearing down on him, and realize with terror that there is no way you can save him! In the nick of time a woman dashes into the street, grabs the child, and pulls him to safety. There is no way, of course, that you can adequately repay that woman saving your child!

In the same way God saved us. Our lives were hopeless. We lived in drudgery and oppression. We never knew when we might be beaten or killed. Life had neither meaning nor purpose. Suddenly, God delivered us. Because of that, we freely choose how we will earn a living, how we will spend our leisure, and how or if we will worship. In short, we believe we owe God a debt that we can never repay.

Yet, we try. We try by performing acts of kindness, caring, and compassion. We attempt to establish justice and righteousness in society.

Thoughts on Elijah at Mount Horeb

With Passover approaching, my thoughts turn to Elijah for whom we open the door at our Seder in hopes that we can make the world better than it is.

Elijah is the most storied character in the Hebrew Bible.  If one counts Midrashim there are more Elijah stories than there are stories about Moses, and even Solomon. This is due in part to the prophet Malachi, who  transformed Elijah from a ninth pre-Christian C. figure to the one who would  announce the coming of the Messiah and the end of war and bloodshed.  With the coming of the Messiah, an era of everlasting peace and harmony would begin on earth.  Jews, of course, still await such a messiah or find inspiration for their efforts to create a world of peace and harmony in the hope that Elijah represents.  For Christians, Jesus is that Messiah, and they work to prepare the world for his return when the Jewish messianic hope will be fulfilled.

Ninth C. BCE Elijah was subject to the same emotional highs and lows that many of us experience. He had been the fearless champion of the Almighty, yet—like many who selflessly give of themselves—he has fallen into a funk of self-doubt.  Even after his greatest triumph – decisively defeating the prophets of Ba’al on Mount Carmel — he fears that his work has been for naught.

And worse, the wicked Jezebel has put a price on his head.

God tries to encourage Elijah, and by mystically transporting him to Mount Sinai (Horeb) where, like Moses,  Elijah stays on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights.  There, he is granted an extraordinary vision that offers those of us who believe today one of the most effective ways of explaining God’s presence in our lives.  Like Moses, and like many of us, Elijah seeks evidence that God is real!  God wants to help and sends a great wind, but God is not in the wind.   Then God sends an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake, nor is God in a fire.  But Elijah – like many of us – does perceive God’s reality in Kol D’mamah Daka, a still small voice.

Yes, if we listen very carefully we can perceive God’s will for us in a voice that speaks to us from the quiet stillness of our hearts.  It is that voice that encourages us to make the choice to use our talents in whatever ways we can for the benefit of others.  But the Voice only encourages; it does not compel. The choice as to how we use our talents is ours, alone.

As profound and wonderful as it was, not even God’s voice could lift the cloud of despair from Elijah. Thus, the time has come for him  relinquish his role as God’s prophetic representative.  The Eternal One tells Elijah to anoint Elisha to serve as prophet in his place.

This should not be perceived as punishment.  At the waters of Meribah (Numbers 20) God knew that Moses’ unparalleled career had to end and that he would not be the one to lead the Children of Israel —despite his desire to do so—into the Promised Land.  Like Moses and Elijah, we must all some day let go of the raison d’etre of our lives and trust others to carry on our work.

Those of us who aspire to be servants of the Almighty, like Moses and Elijah, can find valuable instruction here.  Our task is to do as much as we can for as long as we can. We must realize, though, that our prime years of productive service will not last forever.  That knowledge should give us urgency to make the most that we can out of every day that we have.  And, as the time approaches for us to let go, seek to empower others to carry forward the work that gives meaning and purpose to our lives.