The rhythm of the Jewish calendar allows us to sense a deeper level of experience beyond the seasons. Soon we will be leaving the month of Av, which required us to face our national tragedies and mourn for what we lost. Entering Elul, we turn a period of the Jewish people mourning as a nation into a personal accounting for change. We are given the tools to remake ourselves.
Elul is a time expressly for soulful thinking about our true selves and who we want to be. Our tradition says that God is closest to us in this month. After the void of despair from the prior month and wondering where God was in all of our horrible losses, we find that we are in a different space entirely. God is with us, and we are hopeful. We can be renewed…. Read more about the secrets embedded in the Jewish calendarhere….
For those of us hosting a Passover seder, there are often so many preparations we need to do in advance: buying, organizing, cleaning and cooking are just a few things we’re involved with. Yet sometimes, planning for the seder itself gets lost in the mix. How do we encourage ourselves and our guests to feel what we need to at the seder? How can we enhance the retelling of the Exodus story as if we too, are in the midst of leaving a narrow place and entering an expansive place of freedom?
Why not spend some time now, before the activity rush hits, of planning what will occur at your seder? This might seem like a ridiculous notion, since the word “seder” already implies that there is an order to what will occur during the experience. The Haggadah pretty much spells that all out for us. Yet, often we settle for the time-honored (and boring) tradition of taking turns around the table, reading from the Haggadah. Think about this for a minute——did you ever enjoy this practice or find it meaningful? For some, reading the entire Haggadah is the only way to fulfill the obligation to retell the story, which alone takes a lot of time, so this post will not be relevant for you.
Passover is the consummate educational event in many households, and there are so many opportunities to infuse the meal with intentionality. If we approach the seder with the attitude of a Jewish educator, we might think of it the way we would plan a lesson, and the best lessons offer these components:
A set induction, or commonly called a trigger to set the stage for the lesson. It can be thought of as a commercial for what’s to come. An example: Which of the symbolic items on the Seder plate do you most relate to and why? A deeper question: Like Pharoah, has your heart ever been ‘hardened’? . Another option: make a ‘Haggadah gallery‘ by displaying all the different Haggadot you own on a table, vote for favorites and explain why. Alternatively, you can ask guests to bring their favorites from home.
Essential questions to frame the lesson (also called Questions of Meaning). Examples might be: What is your Egypt (what ‘narrow’ place do you need to leave behind that is ‘enslaving’ you)? “Let My People Go” is a powerful statement in the Torah, yet it is not recounted in the Haggadah. Why do you think this is so? OR “Let My People Go” is only a partial part of what Pharoah is asked to do. What is the second part of that phrase? Why is that often left out? (you can find this phrase here and here. You can also discuss the differences in the text.
Learning Outcomes: what will people be walking away with? What deep learning will occur? An example is: How did thenotionof obtaining a people’s freedom spur on different revolutions for self-determination, which have ripple effects even today? For some background on this idea see “What’s Your Exodus Story? Powerful statements have often rallied people behind a cause. Think also of: “If you will it, it is no dream”, ‘I Have a Dream”, or “Give me Liberty or Give me Death” . Is there a call-to-action today that resonates with you? Why or why not? What other sayings can you think of that would inspire others? What theme resonates with you: Being a small minority among the majority? Holding on to your traditions despite any danger this might hold? Enjoying the predictability of life versus the freedom of self-determination? The idea of freedom with or without responsibility?
Learning Activities: what will your guests be doing to get them to the end point? Examples might be new sensations of taste, or a twist on traditional customs (after the dipping of the Karpas —parsley or potato—why not offer other dips?). What simulations can spur on discussion? Who can act out the best scenarios of the each of the plagues? What debate can you engage in?
Our opportunity at the seder is to tell stories and pass them on through the generations. It is part of the reason why the tradition is so compelling, year after year….and why Passover is the most celebrated holiday by American Jews (according to this source, 70%). This is what brings us together as a people.
We live in a selfish age. I know, no kidding—so I needn’t bother you with listing all the reasons why this is true. Believe me, it would be cathartic for me to do so. Are you sure you don’t want some examples? Okay, just one. In 2014, over 93 million selfies were taken daily. Ninety-three million. This narcissistic attitude permeates our entire culture and is not only limited to individuals, it is also the way companies do business.
Headlines depict company after company’s egregious behavior toward consumers: airbag negligence in cars, airline seats subject to fine print agreements, bogus real estate deals, industry price-fixing, and the numerous recalls of tainted food. There’s even a television show created a decade ago, with enough content to offer viewers a glimpse of dirty dealings called “American Greed”.
This culture of self-hood even extends to appeals by organizations to continually ask you to do things for them, even though you’re the consumer and should be the recipient of any largesse. They want you to like them, follow them, and also post and tweet about them. The goal is to enhance their image by connecting with you via the currency of your social media identity. Doesn’t this also seem like very self-centered behavior? However, why blame amorphous companies, when the leadership sets the tone.
This morning, Jim Cramer, a commentator on a business show said “we live in an arrogant society”. After reading the first published earnings report from Snapchat he flatly stated that CEO Evan Spiegel is “so arrogant” and needs to find some humility. He said this because Spiegel did not own up to the facts (a 20% loss) and laughed (Snapchat is a public company). Arrogance is the enemy of humility, because you become so wrapped up in yourself that you are unaware of your obligations towards others. You lose a sense of being connected with others. It is arrogance that has de-humanized the workplace so much so that employees rarely feel a sense of company loyalty, and when they do, it makes headlines. Not surprisingly, the CEO of oGOLead.com says that we’re in a leadership crisis.
Jewish non-profits can create a different model of leadership, one that has Biblical origins in our patriarchs and matriarchs. The desire to serve people (and a Higher Being) is a mark of humility. Being ‘other-oriented’ requires the ability to recognize that your place is not above another’s and arrogance occurs when someone forgets that. Recently espoused by Max Depree in The Art of Leadership, a leader is one who serves. Being a ‘servant’ leader today seems counter-cultural although it is where our roots lie.
Servant leadership means flipping the ‘what can you do for me’ equation to ‘what can I do for you’? This is not as simple as it seems. First, let’s take a fundraising example. I recently saw a huge billboard sign posted in front of a non-profit (bearing the ubiquitous thermometer) that said “Give so we can make our goal”. See? You might think, ‘what’s so bad about that? It’s honest isn’t it?’ But that approach comes off as just a little arrogant and demanding. How much more effective might it be to take the place of the other, the one who you’re trying to reach and think about their point of view. Why should people give to your campaign? How will their help contribute to making the world a better place? How can your organization serve others better by receiving a donation?
Next, let’s use membership as an example. I receive direct mail requests so often, and find most are highly ineffective, because they haven’t figured out the obvious. It’s not about them, it’s about the cause. Why should someone join? Believe it or not, the reason someone joins is not to become a member. There might be hundreds of reasons why your constituents might be motivated to be a part of your mission, and you need to discover at least some of them. In order to serve, you need to have information.
At the very least, it comes from a place of humility and a desire to learn, and not in any way like posting a selfie.
What if we took our New Year Celebration to the streets?
What are we, as Jews, missing?
Clearly something, since others, especially Asians, find that there is an immense value in our Jewish culture and traditions. Aspects of our heritage that we either take for granted or deride as old-fashioned provide them with ample areas of study.
Perhaps by reading this (non-definitive) list of specifically Jewish phenomena that they find interesting and worthy of study, we will be inspired to reclaim our own connections. Here is what has been the subject of examination:
Our method of Talmud study, which engages the mind in different ways than other types of learning. I’ve written about this curiosity of the South Koreans several years ago here. About 50,000,000 Koreans have studied the Talmud (in a country where most people are Christian or Buddhist). If that wasn’t impressive enough, a recent article in the New Yorker called “How the Talmud Became a Best-Seller in Korea” states that every South Korean home has at least one copy of the Talmud. (Reality check–if you’re Jewish and reading this: can you say the same?).
The way in which the bonds of connection is reinforced between the generations through home-based rituals. Our many holidays and celebrations reinforce and strengthen family values…all of which are of interest to a nation that wants to advance, yet hold on to family traditions.
Our penchant for beating the Nobel odds. They are exploring the reasons why at least twenty percent of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish, while Jews represent less than 0.2% of the world’s population. They want to know the ‘secret sauce’ that outdoes statistical expectations. (Much has already been written of the “Tiger Mom” syndrome and how it relates to Jewish mothers’ approach to success, so I won’t go into that here).
Our entrepreneurial success (particularly in Israel, where there are a disproportionate number of profitable tech start-ups relative to the population) and ability to think of ever newer technologies that answer today’s problems successfully. Even though for example, founders may not identify primarily as “Jewish” the fact is evident (an obvious example would be Mark Zuckerberg….who, um, married Priscilla Chan).
The ability to keep languages alive that many thought were doomed to extinction. Hebrew was not a spoken, modern language until the 1940’s and for years the use of Yiddish has been in decline. Chinese state radio now broadcasts in Hebrew. Jewish experts who China brings as guests for news and business shows are able to speak Hebrew with their Chinese interviewers. A Ph.D. student recently wrote and performed history’s first Chinese-Yiddish song (you can watch it here) after studying Yiddish and Hebrew in Israel. She stated that “Nowadays, more and more Chinese are curious about Jewish history and culture.” An online news item reported that people living in Russia’s Far East (a territory along the Russian-Chinese border) are studying Yiddish. There, “all schoolchildren learn Yiddish as part of the curriculum, even though students of Chinese and Korean descent often outnumber Jewish ones.“
The appeal of Shabbat. A company in Israel, called Shabbat of a Lifetime, arranges a Sabbath meal experience with non-Jewish tourists who want to experience its allure first-hand in homes of traditionally observant Jews. Recently, those who are requesting the program are predominantly from Asian countries.