excerpted and slightly adapted from a recent sermon on change
A poem by Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai:
My father was a god and did not know it. He gave me
The ten commandments neither in thunder nor in fury;
neither in fire nor in cloud, But rather in gentleness and love.
And he added caresses and kind words And he added “I beg you,” and “please.”
And he sang “keep” and “remember” In a single melody and he pleaded and cried quietly between one utterance and the next,
Do not take the name of God in vain, do not take it, not in vain,
I beg you, do not bear false witness against your neighbor.
And he hugged me tightly And whispered in my ear
Do not steal. Do not commit adultery. Do not murder.
And he put the palms of his Open hands On my head with the Yom Kippur blessing.
Honor, love, in order that your days might Be long On the earth.
And my father’s voice was white like the hair on his head.
Later on he turned his face to me one last time, Like on the day when he died in my arms and said, “I want to add Two to the ten commandments:
The eleventh commandment—“Thou shalt not change.”
And the twelfth commandment—“Thou must surely change.”
So said my father and then he turned from me and walked off
Disappearing into his strange distances.
Indeed, this is the challenge we all live with—to balance the need to change with the need to stay the same. And I believe that the message here is not only about the changes we make in ourselves and the change that we effect in the world, but also about the changes that we make to Judaism. How do we both form and Re-Form our own Jewish life that is, on the one hand true to ourselves and on the other hand true to our heritage…a Judaism that is both unique and authentic?
This week, we will celebrate Passover. And the seder is the perfect example of this balance. Each seder is unique, while at the same time has a core that remains. My own family’s seder may include some drums and egg shakers, beating each other with scallions, and dipping strawberries in chocolate—yours may include something unique to your family—but at both, we will all taste the bitterness of slavery and the saltwater tears. If truly, the essence of the seder is that in every generation, each of us must see ourselves as if we ourselves came out of Egypt, then surely the experience of the holiday must be one that is both evocative of the past as it is relevant to our present. Even as we look to the symbols—the call us to remember our collective past—our slavery, our freedom—and also to look ahead to our sacred future—our rebirth, our renewal. The traditions of the seder are full of this balance of changing and not changing—of being true to our elders as we celebrate the voices of our children.
One newer tradition which especially speaks of this balance between the old and the new is the orange on the seder plate. This tradition has come to symbolize for some feminism and the equality of women in Judaism. The original story, though, from Susannah Heschel, comes from an experience she had at Oberlin College in the 80’s, where she was shown an early feminist haggadah which suggested including a crust of bread on the seder plate, as a sign of solidarity with Jewish lesbians. She changed the tradition to an orange—symbolizing the fruitfulness of Jewish life when all are included and contribute to the community—and also the pits of hate that should be spit out. She broadened the definition to include all who are marginalized in Jewish life. To her, the crust of bread implied that those who were other were somehow hametz—that they violated the spirit of Judaism like bread is forbidden on Pesach. Over time, the story itself transformed into the legend of a women speaking in Florida, at which a man heckled from the audience, saying, “A woman belongs on the bimah as much as an orange on the seder plate.” For me, the orange symbolizes equality and inclusiveness of all within Jewish life…and also the idea of how stories change over time…a symbol, perhaps, of this very idea of the balance of our sacred obligation not to change and that which demands change.
May our Passover celebrations help us to call upon the voices of the past, even as we shout towards the future.
May we honor the eleventh commandment: Thou Must Not Change
As much as we honor the twelfth: Thou Must Surely Change.