Friday, March 30, 2012

Shabbat Sermon: Wine from Seder Cups

Why do we take out wine from the cups at Seder

When Mentioning the Plagues?

[Adapted from the Bulletin column 'From the Heart' April, 2012]

March 30, 2012

Rabbi Gary S. Creditor


Since I never drank grape juice I thought it was a waste of good wine to take it out of my cup and put in on my plate when we read the ten plagues. And then three times more for the acrostic of the names of the plagues! I would rather have drunk the wine! And yet, the reason for this custom is more important every day; perhaps especially today, in the aftermath of the tragedy in Florida.


If ever there were a people whom we should have hated, at least before the Holocaust, it was the Egyptians.

If ever there were a people who perpetrated genocide upon us, it was the Egyptians.

If ever there were a people who dismissed our God, who denied His reality, it was Pharaoh and the Egyptians.

If there ever were a people who relished in the second chance to annihilate us, at the 'Red' Sea (really Yam Suf, Sea of Reeds), it was Pharaoh and the Egyptians.

If ever there were a people whom we should have hated, at least before the Holocaust, it was the Egyptians.


And yet, there is no echo of hatred of the Egyptians in all of our sacred literature. That is incredible. It is unbelievable. Contrary to even everything else in the world, even the political venom in the current presidential primary campaigns, the Torah, Tankah, Talmud, Midrashim, never espouse hating the Egyptians.


The reverse is true.

There is a Midrash connected to the episode at Yam Suf when the Israelites witness the drowning of the Egyptians (we never say that the bad guys should win), that the Israelites want to sing and God says: "My children are drowning and you want to rejoice!" What a statement! The Egyptians are God's children, too? After what they did to us? After their denial of our God? And God says that they are His children! Where does that leave us?


The Rabbis answered: We, too, are certainly God's children. But our message to the world, is that everyone is God's child, unqualified, unrestricted, unlimited. That means that everyone is created in God's image, which means that everyone is holy. When someone dies, of any faith, of any color, of any ethnicity, of any creed, something Godly has been damaged, diminished, lessened. Even the Egyptians at Yam Suf.


And so the Rabbis created a custom that when we read the plagues and their acronym, we diminish the cup of wine, symbol of our joy, happiness and celebration, not to waste the wine but rather to elevate the demand for our humanity, our respect of the "God part" in every person. By honoring others, we honor, show love and respect God. We recognize that in order for us to be free God had to bring the plagues and through them, because of Pharaoh's stubbornness, Egyptians, men, women and children suffered, were in pain. We understand that. We sympathize for them. We do not relish in their agony. They are human, thus they are God's children. So we lessen our joy and learn this lesson.


What was going through the mind and heart of both tragic participants in the terrible event in Florida? Especially that of George Zimmerman: Did he see another human being? I don't know. Did he see an "Egyptian" whom he should hate, or an "Egyptian" that also suffered and also is a child of God? Will we ever know?


Maybe both needed to have made a Seder, read the Haggadah and took out wine from their cups. Then strangers would have known each other and this catastrophe would have been avoided.


I also return to theme which I wrote about extensively in January: what was he doing with a gun? Why not just have a radio with which to summon the police? Guns coupled with hatred spell death. Even if there is justification for a neighborhood watch, even when there are fears, rational or not, Guns are not necessary. Guns do not solve problems. Guns kill. Hatred is multiplied. Pain increases exponentially!


The most important cup of wine on the table is that of Elijah.

We use the number four because the Rabbis identified four specific languages of redemption. Therefore there are four children and four cups of wine. Yet there is a potential fifth word of redemption – "v'hay'vayti" – "And I will bring you (to the land of Israel)." The Rabbis could not decide what to do, so they utilized their Rabbinic tradition to say that when Elijah comes – he returns to announce the coming of the Messiah – Elijah will answer this question. Until then, we put the fifth cup on the table and don't recite a blessing over it, and if and when Elijah comes, he will drink from it and recite its blessing. Elijah's cup is the Passover symbol of our belief in the ultimate coming of the Messiah, which will usher in a time of peace, a time without killing.


May Elijah come soon.


Shabbat Shalom





Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Temple Beth-El

3330 Grove Avenue

Richmond, VA 23221

Phone 804-355-3564

Fax 804-257-7152


Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Rabbi Gary Creditor: "Purim: The truth behind the mask"

Purim: The truth behind the mask

By: RABBI GARY S. CREDITOR | Times-Dispatch
Published: March 07, 2012 Updated: March 07, 2012 - 12:00 AM

Purim is an intriguing holiday. Purim is a holiday that transcends its biblically appointed time and place. Its story is totally contained in the scroll of Esther in the section of the Bible named "The Writings," yet its messages concerning hatred, personal responsibility and the hidden hand of God speak with contemporary urgency and immediacy.

I remember first encountering the Megillah (scroll) of Esther in my youth. It read like sound history. Later I would learn that biblical scholars cannot make its details fit into the vast knowledge available about the Persian kingdom. I celebrated the holiday of Purim with the public reading of the Megillah, making noise to drown out the mention of the villain's name (Haman), and dressing up in costumes. Only later could I comprehend the exquisite dance of meaning in each.

The Megillah purports that after living tranquilly for some time in the Persian Empire, a recently appointed second-in-command to the king accuses the Jewish population of two crimes: being different, with their particular laws and unique customs; and not following the laws of the Persia. The former was true and did not threaten King Ahashverosh. The empire of 127 provinces contained many different peoples. But the latter was false. In the atmosphere of "hatred of the other" the distinction between the two was lost, and the groundless, baseless hatred of the Jewish people led to a decree for their extermination. What started this devolution into insanity? Mordechai would not bow down to Haman. We don't bow to humans. We bow only to God. Only God is the ultimate reality. For this, Haman hated Mordechai with great enmity, and from this he hated Mordechai's people.

The Megillah is a particular story inside the history of the Jewish people, a people charged by God to deliver His message of the sanctity of each human being, of the demand for a moral and ethical life, of the holiness of life itself, of animal as well as human, of every age, every color, and every creed. The bearers of that message are a hardy stock, and we have withstood attempts from Pharaoh to Haman to Hitler to Ahmadinejad to destroy us. We survive and flourish.

From this story the Megillah proclaims the rejection of hatred-of-the-other as a core religious value. That message is relevant today, applicable to those in our society, our community who look different from us, who speak a different language, whose sexual preference is different, who worship God by a different name and with a different theology. Hatred leads to murder. It is plain and simple. It doesn't matter if it is ancient Persia or modern Richmond. The hatred of Amalek in the book of Exodus carried down to their descendant Haman in the Megillah is found on our streets. With a gun in the hand, hatred leads to murder. It leads to the demonization of the other. Hatred only breeds hatred.

In the narrative, Esther, Mordechai's relative, becomes queen but must keep her identity secret. She wears a mask that hides her true self. Yet as the story unfolds, there ultimately comes that pivotal moment when only she can save her people. Mordechai informs her of the desperate situation. She can no longer wear the mask. She must risk her comfortable position in the palace; she must endanger her very life. Esther must strip off her mask and reveal herself, her true being, her inner self. Mordechai sends her a message: "Perhaps it is just for this moment you have risen to this position." And further: "If you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter."

The Megillah proclaims the potency of any individual to change the course of history if we but rise up to accept the challenge, if we dare strip off the mask of indifference, if we have the courage to confront hatred, if we have the faith to commit ourselves totally. Mordechai challenged Esther in no uncertain terms. Her inaction would doom her and her family, even if everyone else was saved. The Megillah dares us to remain silent in the face of poverty, of hatred of homosexuals, of the proliferation of murder by handguns, of unequal education. The Megillah challenges us in our comfortable hiddenness to speak up and speak out.

Yet Mordechai had an inner confidence that behind the visible scenes of human history there worked the divine hand that would not allow the Jewish people to be destroyed by Haman. This is the one biblical book in which God is not explicitly mentioned or named. Yet when Mordechai told Esther that help would come "from another quarter," the Hebrew text says "Makom Acher." In this context "Makon" means "Place," a synonym for God. The Megillah proclaims that while there is much we cannot see and know, we must live with the faith that there is a God, that God loves and cares for us, and in that ultimate hour of need, in ways we cannot fathom nor predict, God will help us, the hidden hand of God will somehow cause events to occur for our salvation. It is a faith for all people and for all time.

In various ways on Purim we drown out Haman's name while publicly reading the Scroll of the Megillah, for we denounce and renounce the evil of hatred for us and for all people, for all time. Hatred must end. From Genesis we learn the divine demand that we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers. We wear costumes to remind us about hiding and revealing our true selves. We give gifts of food to others as they are part of the community. We give charity to the poor because no one is saved while others are hungry.

Purim is a fascinating holiday, and the Scroll of Esther is a complex text. I learned long ago not to worry about its historicity. Surely it is grounded in a kernel of historical truth. Yet its message, of the disease of hatred, of the necessity to accept personal responsibility, of stripping off the mask of hiddenness and indifference and faith in the hidden hand of God are values that are the hallmarks of the Jewish observance of this holiday and are eternal values, needed ever more so here and now. Chag Sameach! A happy holiday!

Gary S. Creditor is rabbi at Temple Beth-El in Richmond.


Rabbi Gary S. Creditor

Temple Beth-El

3330 Grove Avenue

Richmond, VA 23221

Phone 804-355-3564

Fax 804-257-7152