Thursday, March 28, 2013

Go Down Moses . . .

This article I authored was published in the Jewish Voice and Herald on Friday, March 15, 2013.  I thought it worth reproducing here. 
Last year, President Barack Obama concluded his Passover Seder with an interesting addition.  After the singing of Had Gadya (traditionally the final song in the Seder service),  participants in the White House Seder took turns reciting sections of the Emancipation Proclamation, thus creating a bridge between the core message of Passover, a distant and remote cultic festival of an ancient people, the Israelites, and the powerful modern outgrowth of the same concept of racial equality. President Obama’s serving as the Seder leader further reinforced this message.
While many staffers joked that gefilte fish wasn’t usually on many White House menus, the conclusion of the White House Seder affords us the opportunity to reflect on the true meaning of Passover.
As United States citizens, western Jews tend to speak of Passover in western terms.  Clearly, the holiday is about the benefits of freedom and the evils of slavery.  It also celebrates the triumph of the oppressed, and refutes the notion that “might makes right.” Egypt was the most powerful nation in the ancient world, while the Israelites were just a petty tribal family, oppressed and enslaved because of their minority status, unique identity and strange customs.
All of these notions speak to the heart of core liberal democratic values, so it is easy to simply assume that this is what Passover is about. However, that offers only a partial – and misleading – picture of the meaning of the holiday, and it behooves us to consider the holiday’s full meaning and its implications for our lives.
God’s language when he first commands Moses is instructive:
“Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD: Israel is my first born-son.’  I have said to you, ‘Let My son go that he may worship Me,’ yet you refuse to let him go.  Now I will slay your first-born son.’” (Exodus 4:22-23)

In this statement, all of the emphasis is, surprisingly, on worshipping God, with no reference to the immorality of forced physical labor or the unconscionable notion that humans can own other humans as physical property.
Further, throughout the story, as the Egyptians are being afflicted with plagues, Moses’ request to Pharaoh is simply to allow the Israelites a holiday to worship their God: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews: Let My people go to worship Me.’’” (Exodus 9:1)
In the well-known Civil War-era slave spiritual, though, Moses is alleged to have said merely, “Let my people go”; the song omits the conclusion of his request: “to worship [God].”
According to the biblical text, Moses’ complaints are not centered on the immorality of slavery but rather on the affirmative notion that God must be worshipped; slavery merely obstructs the path.
Generally speaking, the civic culture of the United States is one of personal autonomy rather than responsibility to others.  The U.S. Constitution carefully and deliberately grants each of us specific rights to which we are entitled.  It does not demand that we vote, serve in the military or do much service to our fellow citizens, other than leaving them alone.
The Passover story compels us to build on our beloved freedoms by asking ourselves the simple question, “to what end?”
Freedom from the constraints of physical and emotional oppression is a necessary first step; this point is easy to emphasize and relate to, especially in our society.  That freedom fundamentally requires us to worship God through the pursuit of a moral and ethical life is too often overlooked and too easy to forget in our society.
“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”(Exodus 29:20)
The goal of freedom is the exercise of responsibility.
Time, which has a way of turning things on their heads, allows for the creation of circumstances previously unimaginable.  During the Seder, symbols such as the maror (bitter herbs), haroset and the broken middle matzah compel us to imagine the life of a slave devoid of hope, and require us to confront those elements in our lives to which we are still enslaved.
At the same time, the four cups of wine, festive meal, presence of family and friends and yes, the matzah again, confirm our current freedoms and markedly changed circumstances.  In ancient times we were at the bottom, but today we are on top.
Perhaps the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation at the Passover Seder represents more than a superficial connection to modern notions of freedom.  Once, we were slaves, freed by the proclamation of God through his prophet Moses.  Today, we are empowered, free to liberate others and issue proclamations of our own.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Guest Post: Celebrating the Sigd Holiday in Jerusalem


Today, it is my pleasure to share a guest post from my esteemed friend Shai Afsai, who has done excellent work covering the Ethiopian Jews and their unique heritage.  As Passover rapidly approaches (did anyone really need to be reminded?), redemption is a theme on the minds of many.  What follows is an article about the Ethopian Sigd holiday, commemorating a different redemption, the return to Zion from the Babylonian captivity.  Shai Afsai and Matan Graff will be presenting photos of the Sigd by Gidon Agaza (mentioned in the article) at the Providence JCC Gallery, with the opening on Monday, March 18th, from 7:00 - 9:00 pm. 

Celebrating the Sigd Holiday

Shai Afsai

“I arrived at the end,” 21-year-old Orly Sahalo said of attending the Sigd holiday in Jerusalem for the first time last year, “and I missed out.”

This year, encouraged by her boyfriend, photographer Gidon Agaza, she turned up early at the Armon Hanatziv Promenade, where thousands of Ethiopian Jews gathered to celebrate the Sigd on November 14th.

“I had chills.  I came and saw all of the women dressed in white, lifting their hands, and saw the qessotch [i.e., priests, who are the traditional religious leaders of the Jews of Ethiopia] using musical instruments, just as written in the Bible,” Sahalo said, referring to the drums and trumpets that accompanied certain prayers.

Sahalo also prepared herself for the occasion this time.  “I did my homework and attended events so that I could understand the holiday.  I wanted to be able to answer questions about the Sigd if people happened to ask me, and to know for myself what was practiced in Ethiopia and what the source of the holiday is.”
One of the many educational and cultural events leading up to the holiday in Israel took place at Ramat Gan’s Bar-Ilan University, on the eve of the Sigd.  There, Mula Zerihoon, a 40-year-old qes ordained in Israel, explained the origins of the holiday to the students and soldiers in the audience.

“The Sigd holiday is based on the times of Ezra and Nehemiah, when after 70 years in exile, the Jews returned from Babylon to the Land of Israel,” Qes Mula said.  “In Jerusalem, they held a day of fasting, repentance, Torah teaching, and prayer.  This is the source of the Sigd holiday of the Jews of Ethiopia.”

Chapter 9 of the Book of Nehemiah records that on the 24th of Tishre “the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Torah of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God.”  That 6th century BCE assembly culminated with the Jews publicly recommitting themselves to their covenant with God.

The annual Sigd celebration now normally takes place 50 days after Yom Kippur, on the 29th of Cheshvan.  It begins with fasting and repentance, but concludes with a festive meal following the Sigd’s annual renewal of the covenant.

Among the Sigd’s central themes is the Jewish longing to return from the exile to Jerusalem.  In Ethiopia, the Sigd was celebrated atop mountains, which were ascended by foot.  “When we climbed the mountain, we felt Jerusalem in our heart of hearts,” said Qes Mula.  “This deeply impacted our Judaism.  Jews came from afar, two or three days on foot, on horses, and on mules, in order to have the chance to hear Torah from the qessotch.  The people learned and were strengthened.”  Often, worshipers took home some soil from the mountain on which the holiday was celebrated.

Jerusalem’s Armon Hanatziv Promenade, currently the primary pilgrimage site of the holiday, offers an unobstructed view of Jerusalem’s Old City.  On the day of the Sigd, dozens of qessotch from across Israel assembled there beneath colorful umbrellas, on a platform draped by the flags of Israel and Jerusalem.  Chanting in Ge’ez, the qessotch praised God, and asked for forgiveness and blessings for the Jewish people.  Biblical passages telling of the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai and the return of the Jews to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile were read to the congregation in Ge’ez, and then translated into Amharic.

Throughout the morning and afternoon, 28-year-old Gidon Agaza snapped pictures of the qessotch and worshipers.  “I have been attending for 13 years,” Agaza said.  “Each and every year that I come, I am moved anew to see the mothers praying from their hearts.  I have a large archive of Sigd celebrations.  I need these photographs in order to explain to people about the Ethiopian community and its traditions.”

At a nearby educational tent, Shoshana Ben-Dor and Ziva Mekonen-Degu taught the Sigd’s Ge’ez prayers, with transliterations and translations into Hebrew, to some 80 visitors, most of whom were young adults.  In collaboration with the qessotch, the two women have been preparing a Sigd siddur (prayer book) — the first of its kind — which is slated to be published by next year’s festival.  The prayers will be written in four columns, in Ge’ez, Ge’ez transliterated into Hebrew, Amharic, and Hebrew.  They hope this will make the holiday accessible to more Jews.

Ben-Dor, the director of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry (NACOEJ), believes that all Jews would benefit from the Sigd’s celebration.  “The Sigd brings together elements that exist in several Jewish holidays in a way that no other Jewish holiday does,” she says.

“It has the aspects of repentance, asking for mercy, and hoping that God has forgiven us that are found in the High Holidays.  It has the mourning for Jerusalem found in Tisha Be’av.  It has the returning to Zion found in Yom Ha’atzmaut.  It has the covenant and giving of the Torah found in Shavuot. The Sigd is the only day in the entire calendar that brings these all together — and also includes an annual renewal of the covenant,” Ben-Dor explains.  “There is an importance in the Sigd for all Jews.”

Orly Sahalo was especially impressed by the activities for children and young adults at the Armon Hanatziv Promenade.  “They will learn, and this holiday will have a continuation,” she said.  “I was also moved to see the qessotch distributing handfuls of Jerusalem soil to the worshipers.  People are able to take a piece of Jerusalem home with them, just as in Ethiopia they were able to take home soil from the mountain on which the Sigd was held.”