Recently, I had the privilege, along with a small delegation of Ottawans, to meet with Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks in Toronto and discuss our Jewish community.
For those not familiar with Rabbi Sacks’ work and teachings, he is the former Orthodox chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and is, perhaps, the most influential Jewish thinker and teacher of the 21st century.
This is not hyperbole – if I were given a choice of two tickets to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final or an opportunity to talk about Jewish life with Rabbi Sacks, I would choose Rabbi Sacks each and every time (even if the Habs were playing for the Cup).
Rabbi Sacks has a unique ability to make Jewish learning relevant and accessible. Faced with the reality that we may not all aspire to be Torah scholars, he makes Jewish learning meaningful and purposeful. For example, rather than preach about the imperative of Shabbat observance, he points out that, without periodic recharging, our iPhones become useless – and human beings are the same. Point taken.
He emphasized the importance of ritual by citing Beethoven’s highly prescribed need for coffee containing exactly 60 coffee beans and how Immanuel Kant went for a walk at precisely the same time each and every day. In other words, Rabbi Sacks drew a direct and easy to understand parallel between success and adherence to ritual. With a multi-billion dollar industry dedicated to teaching people how to be successful (think of Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People” – oh, wait, a few years later, he added an eighth, “newly” discovered habit), how fortunate it is that Judaism provides us with all the necessary, required rituals.
According to Rabbi Sacks, “Religious ritual is a way of structuring time so that we, not employers, the market or the media, are in control. Life needs its pauses, its chapter breaks, if the soul is to have space to breathe.” And, who amongst us doesn’t clamour for more control over our lives and an opportunity to decompress from life’s daily rigours?
During our meeting, Rabbi Sacks emphasized the need to seize moments of opportunity for Jewish learning and explained that short-term engagement, if done properly, can translate into long-term engagement. He specifically cited Limmud (grassroots, daylong marketplace of Jewish learning) and the Shabbat Project (worldwide celebration and observance of Shabbat in the fall) as two such moments of opportunity.
Happily, our Jewish community in Ottawa participates in both Limmud and the Shabbat Project each year.
As I sat down to write this article, I began comparing my notes from our meeting with Rabbi Sacks with some of the writing he has done over the years about Passover. A few years ago, he wrote: “Freedom begins with what we teach our children … Nowhere is this more evident than on Passover, when the entire ritual of handing down our story to the next generation is set in motion by the questions asked by a child.”
According to the 2013 Pew study on American Jews, 70 per cent of American Jews participate in a seder. Given general trends and previous studies, in all likelihood, that number is higher in Canada. Therefore, the seder provides a perfect moment for Jewish learning and engagement. The Haggadah, with its central theme of slavery and redemption, is a most relevant and compelling story. It is a powerful story of transformation and one in which we all play an active role by telling and retelling the story.
I encourage you to use the ritual of the Passover seder to further personalize the experience. I remember, when I was a teenager, reflecting on the plight of Soviet Jews at our seder table. In more recent years, we have become more “kid friendly” and have plague masks for the kids to wear at the appropriate moment. For some, inspired by Susannah Heschel, the daughter of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, an orange is added to the seder plate to represent all who were not explicitly present in the Passover story (e.g. women). As the very definition of seder means order, let’s use our freedom as a Jewish people to add more Jewish rituals into our lives. The results will surely be meaningful.
Last year, in a piece that was inserted into the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin, Rabbi Sacks made the point that “Judaism is hard work because freedom is hard work.” If we put in the effort, we will see results.