Blood, Fire, and Pillars of Smoke by Rabbi Zell

True, two weeks have passed, since Jews throughout the world sat down to the Pesach Seder, with Haggadah in hand. Nevertheless, I should like to recall an all too often overlooked biblical quote in the Haggadah, that immediately precedes our recounting of the Ten Plagues. I do so because taken out of context, this biblical quote may very well have foretold, our bringing to mind as well as to heart the travesty of the Holocaust, mere days after bidding farewell to the Festival of Matzah. Blood, Fire, and Pillars of Smoke exclaims the prophet, Joel. Close to three millennia later, that threefold vision would evolve into an unfathomable nightmare, that was to plague the world – in particular the Jewish world – arguably making for the darkest period in our people’s history.
“For most Gentiles, Jewish meat is cheap, cheaper than beef, even cheaper than herring,” said the fictitious Ari ben Canaan (played by Paul Newman) in the movie Exodus. Ari ben Canaan could just as easily have substituted Jewish blood for Jewish meat, in that Adolph Hitler was obsessed with purifying Germany of Jewish blood. Accordingly, Hitler spared no effort and expense when it came to tracing Jewish blood. Aryan blood was pure. Jewish blood was debased and would compromise the purity of Aryan blood. With the passage of the Nuremberg Laws in September 1935, German citizens with three or more grandparents born as Jews were considered Jews irrespective of belief, practice, or having abandoned their religious roots. By law, any individual with three or more grandparents born as Jews, was no longer regarded as a citizen but would henceforth be defined as a stain on the German people, as well as their much-coveted culture.
To be sure, one can find both positive as well as negative statements concerning fire espoused by our rabbinic sages. Among the latter, we find: “The fire known to us in this world is one-sixtieth of the fire of hell (Talmud: Pesachim 57b). On November 10th and 11th Jews living in  Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland understood this statement only too well. It began with the burning of objectionable books. It didn’t take long for the fires set on Kristallnacht to spread to synagogues. And when those Jewish houses of worship erupted in flames, firefighters quickly arrived on the scene… to make sure nobody attempted to put out the flames. People – at least in our culture – appear to be mesmerized by burning buildings. Once upon a time in America, people would chase firetrucks to the scene of the fire, only to stand and watch. Apparently, it served as a form of entertainment.  Did the same hold true for non-Jews watching the “Fires of the Fuhrer”? Were they also entertained as they watched deliberately set fires engulf Jewish buildings, especially Jewish houses of worship?
Irene Safran, a survivor of the Holocaust met Josef Mengele, the German physician known for his barbaric and torturous medical experiments performed on Jews in Birkenau (adjacent to Auschwitz) in mid-1944. “Good afternoon, ladies. How are you? Are you comfortable?” he asked us cordially. “When will I see my little girl?” one woman finally mustered the courage to ask. “In a few weeks, don’t worry,” Mengele answered politely and pleasantly.  Of course, the sadistic Mengele meant that we’d see our loved ones in a few weeks when we joined them as we went up in smoke in the chimney of the crematorium.
No doubt, I am in the minority. But when white smoke emanates from the special chimney placed atop the Sistine Chapel, signifying that a new pope has been chosen, I cannot help but contrast it with the smoke rising from the “special” chimneys at Auschwitz. For Catholics, smoke rising from the chimney at the Sistine Chapel represents godliness; for Jews and hopefully, for the rest of mankind, smoke rising from the chimneys at Auschwitz represented nihilism. It was the prophet Joel, who horrifically envisioned the pillars of smoke at Auschwitz, as he foresaw pillars of smoke together with blood and fire.
The prophet Joel’s three plagues proceeding the ten plagues in the Pesach Haggadah provide for a striking contrast. The ten plagues were just desserts visited upon the Egyptians. The three plagues visited upon the Jews should have made mankind sick to its stomach. The ten plagues came from G-d. The three plagues were an affront to G-d. The ten plagues restored human faith in G-d. The three plagues caused G-d to lose faith in mankind. Come Yom HaShoah, let us make an effort to remember as well as to memorialize and help G-d rebuild His faith.

Going Against the Grain by Rabbi Zell

Anglophones have an edge, come the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Thanks to the English Language with its plethora of aphorisms, Anglophones are able to describe Pesach as a Festival that goes against the grain. An integral part of the human race is the need to see that justice has been served. As such, our ancestors in Egypt would have every right to protest slaughtering a sheep or goat, daubing the doorposts and lintels with blood, and roasting that sheep or goat. What about the Egyptian taskmasters as well as those who engineered the entire system of subjugating and enslaving the Children of Israel? What about their just desserts? The slaying of the Egyptian firstborns was hardly comeuppance for a grave injustice committed against G-d’s chosen. Why are the taskmasters not receiving what is due them? Oddly enough,  never is heard a questioning word from the Children of Israel, as they carried out one of the first commandments handed down to them as a nation. Instead of harboring hatred, they were handling hyssop! Doesn’t such behavior defy human nature? Doesn’t such behavior go against the grain? But perhaps going against the grain was the primary requirement of meriting being delivered from enslavement. Perhaps true freedom is recusing oneself from retribution.
Although most of us are unaware or oblivious to the fact that once we became a nation, we were given a phrase word that was intended to mold our behavior as a people.  Nary a day goes past without “Zecher L’Tziat Mitzrayim” being brought to mind. “Zecher L’Tziat Mitzrayim” is translated as “in remembrance of exiting Egypt”. Those three Hebrew words go against the grain. We are neither enjoined to remember the slavery nor adjured to recall the suffering. Other than reading about the suffering of the Children of Israel in the Haggadah at the seder, rarely, if ever, do we give thought to the pain and suffering our people were forced to endure as an enslaved people. Human nature would have us dwell on man’s inhumanity against man. But because we are a people encouraged to rise above human nature and go against the grain, we do not dwell on suffering in Egypt, but rather exiting from Egypt. As G-d’s chosen, we are directed to dwell on liberation rather than subjugation. Perhaps this helps us to understand why in recent history, the government of Israel chose to accept the offer of reparations from Germany. Rather than become ingrained with bitterness and vindication, the government of the then nascent State of Israel knew that it had to go against the grain. Unlike individuals, we as a people, guard against being drawn into feuds.
Perhaps one of the most misunderstood teachings found in the Tanach is the phrase “Vengeance is mine”. Over the centuries, that phrase provided much fodder to anti-Semites who were only too happy to contrast Judaism with Christianity, particularly when it came to divine behavior. While anti-Semitwas touted the benevolent behavior of their savior, they denounce the vindictiveness of the G-d of Israel. Little did those anti-Semites realize, that “vengeance is mine” is divine reassurance that we, the Children of Israel did not let injustices consume us. Ultimately, injustices against us will be addressed. G-d will choose the time, place, and method. And so it was, as far as punishing our Egyptian enslavers. G-d chose the time. It took seven days, the exact same amount of time G-d devoted to creating this world. It took place at a body of water. Just as redemption began at a body of water with an Israelite infant floating in a wicker basket, so too would redemption come to fruition at a (albeit different) body of water. As far as the method?
G-d repays in kind; G-d rewards in kind. The Children of Israel were able to go against the grain when they gained freedom, by occupying themselves with fulfilling G-d requests instead of settling all accounts with their enslavers. The Children of Israel were encouraged to go against the grain by focusing on the leaving from Egypt rather than the suffering in Egypt. G-d chose to repay and reward in kind by having the waters of the Sea of Reeds go against the grain and divide and save the fleeing Israelites only to come together again to drown the Egyptians. In doing so, the Egyptians were served their just desserts while the Children of Israel experienced a phenomenon that would last for all ages.

A Matter of Taste by Rabbi Zell

Rabban Gamliel deserves far more credit than he deserves. When he remarked: Whoever fails to mention these three items on Pesach, has not fulfilled his obligation: Pesach (the pascal sacrifice)
Matzah and Maror, he was on to something big. Aside from the fact that these three food items are commanded as “exodus foods” in the Torah (Exodus 12:8), Rabban Gamliel undoubtedly was aware that Pesach, Matzah, and Maror share yet one other feature in common. Having lived in an age of epicureanism, how could he have not. Just as contemporary society has introduced us to the notion of “comfort food”, it might very well have been that society in the days of Rabban Gamliel had the notion of “taste food”. Aside from sage, rosemary, and thyme – or onions and garlic if one is of Eastern European ancestry – there are far more basic tastes known to society. And it is specifically the Pesach seder that serves as a reminder of these basic tastes.
Maror serves as an excellent reminder of the excruciating back-breaking labor, forced upon our enslaved ancestors. Maror also serves as an excellent reminder of what it means to leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth. And leaving a bitter taste in one’s mouth is totally independent of physical enslavement. Leaving a bitter taste in one’s mouth is all about behavior and relationships. One can live in the freest society known to mankind and still experience being left with a bitter taste in one’s mouth. Disillusionment causes a bitter taste in one’s mouth. So too does lack of respect and appreciation. When you give someone the shirt off your back, only to receive a kick in the pants in return, you are left with a bitter taste in your mouth. If maror is the ultimate symbol of bitter taste, then maror is in no way limited to our ancestor’s Egyptian experience.
It should come as no surprise to learn that I do not watch Cooking Shows either on television or any other medium. Yet even I can tell you that it does not take seasoning or spice for one to ask: “What’s in the kitchen? It smells so good!”. Meat roasted over an open flame creates a flavor to savor. Just as the Torah commanded our ancestors to partake of a kid or a lamb at our farewell dinner upon departing from Egypt, so too did the Torah specify that our ancestors prepare that kid or lamb roasted over an open flame. Kid or lamb, whether boiled or stewed kid was unacceptable. Why was G-d so adamant that the entrée at the farewell dinner had to be prepared over an open flame? Perhaps to indicate that rather than see the repast solely as a dinner bidding farewell to slavery, the repast should also be regarded as a dinner welcoming freedom. If the maror left our ancestors with the bitter taste of enslavement, then the Korban Pesach or Passover sacrifice was designed to whet their appetite for the freedom that awaited them.
A good many of us in our society tend to be judgmental when it comes to the judgment of others. “He has absolutely no taste in women” we proclaim after female after female one befriends fails to meet our standards of acceptability. “She goes out in public, dressed like that! Where is her sense of taste?”, we ask incredulously. However accurate we may be in our assessment; our remarks are likely to achieve nothing more than tongue wagging. Tongue wagging was not on the list of reasons our ancestors were redeemed from Egyptian enslavement. Ideally, G-d wished to create a people who had no taste for bearing false witness, found gossip to be in the poorest of taste, and looked upon idolaters as tasteless worshippers when it came to deities. Few would argue that matzah qualifies as a tasty dish to set before the king. Eaten alone, Matzah has little or no taste. Symbolically, matzah with its bland flavor is a desired and necessary taste for participants of a divinely inspired society.
Pesach, Matzah, and Maror were more the menu of a Farewell Dinner of our liberated ancestors. Pesach, Matzah, and Maror are more than the three staples to be discussed at the Pesach seder. Pesach, Matzah, and Maror tastefully remind us of a society liberated from shackles unknown to any tyrant in our people’s history.



It has been long-established, that the four cups of wine correspond to four promises G-d gave to Moses at the Burning Bush. Because of this, they are referred to as the Four Cups of Redemption.
As meaningful and poignant as this is, one must admit that nowhere is there any mention of cups. Rather, the four cups are based on the following four terms: remove, rescue, redeem, and reserve. Earlier on in the Torah however, cups are mentioned four times in close proximity. It serves as a seminal event for our ancestors coming down to Egypt.
Joseph, a young Hebrew found himself in an Egyptian prison on trumped-up charges. Joseph’s cellmates were none other than the Pharaoh’s baker and Pharaoh’s butler. It was Pharaoh’s butler who told Joseph about dreaming that he was standing in the royal palace with Pharaoh’s cup in his hand. While Joseph processed such information in much greater perspective, I cannot help but feel that the butler’s dream has any number of times turned into our nightmare as a people. More than once, have we been deluded by a false sense of security, living in a foreign country. In the dream, the butler had Pharaoh’s cup in his hand. Just as the butler thought he was secure in his position, so too did we as Jews think that we were secure in our position. We let Jewish leaders of the community convince us that we had the leader of the country or the local governor eating out of our hands. What we failed to learn time and time again, was that as Jews, we dare not equate royalty with loyalty.
Pharoah’s cup is mentioned again in the same verse, a mere six words later. Only this time, the cup is not described as being in the hand of the butler. This time, the cup is described as being in the hand of Pharaoh. If history has taught us anything, we must be aware that it doesn’t take long for the political or even sociological climate to change against Jews, as the comfortable zone we thought were in as a people, slips from our hands. Before we realize it, the proverbial cup of wine we were holding is transformed into a cup of poison (Isaiah 51:22). Timewise, the distance between assurance and apprehension is often little more than a blink of the eye. Not long after Joseph was in control over Egypt, things got out of control for his descendants. No different than the dream of the butler, our history is one where the cup of wine, we were so certain was safe in our hand, suddenly finds itself in the hand of our foe, by sleight of hand.
Although we are Pesach mode, permit me to borrow a term that finds its origins in Yom Kippur. The Yiddish term “kapporeh hindle” (chicken that is used for the kapporeh ritual prior to Yom Kippur, where the fowl takes the hit instead of us) can best be translated as “whipping boy”. Throughout history, all economic woes and social ills have been palmed off on the Jews. When recounting the Ten Plagues, there ought to be little doubt, that regardless of the plague – lice, boils, darkness, etc. – Pharoah, in speaking with his people saw to it that blame was placed squarely on the Israelites. The third mention of the word cup in the butler’s dream, found in the very same verse as the other two, describes the cup as being in Pharaoh’s palm, rather than in Pharaoh’s hand. Among the reasons, that as a people, we ought never to let ourselves feel too comfortable, is that we have always been selected as the “kapporeh hindle” where we receive the proverbial “patch in ponim” (slap in the face)  where countries’ leaders palm off crises after crises, on Jews.
Possessive pronouns can prove to be problematic. Possessive pronouns are fertile soil for discussion and even argument. In the fourth and final mention of cup in the dream episode, it is Joseph and not the butler who makes use of the word. “You will soon place Pharaoh’s cup in his hand.” (Genesis 40:13). True, most if not all, understand “his hand” to refer to Pharaoh’s hand. The “rabbi” in me craves to interpret “his hand” as placing Pharaoh’s cup in the hand of the Divine. Ultimately, our people’s exodus would be G-d’s call, not Pharaoh’s.
Come the Pesach seder, let us, by all means, bear in mind the four terms of redemption found in Exodus 6:6 ff. Let us also reflect on the four cups pertaining to the dream of the butler of a previous Pharaoh. Let us never equate royalty with loyalty, let us never forget that we are an eternal people, subject to temporal havens, let us commit the Yiddish term “kapporeh hindle” to our collective memory, and let us await the day, when the Holy One, holds cup in His heavenly hand as He expresses gratitude for His people, liberated in body as well as in spirit.

Time After Time

By Rabbi Shawn Zell

Although not intended as such, it is extremely timely that Shabbat HaChodesh, one of the four special Sabbaths that ultimately segue into Pesach, coincides with adjusting our timepieces to be in sync with a century-old governmental mandate that provides us with an hour of additional sunlight during the day for the greater part of the year. Shabbat HaChodesh is all about time. In addition to the Torah (Exodus 12:1- 20) telling our soon-to-be liberated ancestors that it is time for a new start, the Torah instructs us that it is time for us to reset our focus on life as well.
It is time to focus on goals, rather than quotas. Quotas are imposed by outside forces. Quotas are short-term only to be replaced by other quotas. Goals come from within. Goals are long-term. That is why it is quite common as well as acceptable to speak of and discuss one’s goal in life.
Existing as slaves under Pharaoh, our ancestors knew only of quotas. Each day they knew that they had to fulfill a designated number of bricks and mortar set by their taskmasters. Each day they knew that if they failed to meet that quota, there would be dire consequences. Consequently, they had little time, if any, to think of anything else. “The time has come!” announced Amram’s younger son, Moses. “I’m here to take you out of this place of pyramids. For me to be successful in my G-d given task, I need you to reset your thinking. I need you to put quotas out of your mind. The time has come to begin thinking about goals. The time has arrived to embark upon a spiritual journey; the time has arrived for us to embark upon a physical journey that will bring us to a promised land filled with promises”.
It is a time to focus on stones, rather than bricks. Bricks are fabricated and manufactured. Bricks are made either from clay or cement. Stones are products of the Creator of the Universe. Stones are heaven-sent. When it comes to being immutable, words are etched in stone, not brick. As an enslaved nation forced to produce bricks for the building of pyramids, stones got in the way. As a liberated nation led by Moses, stones were the way. The time had come for the Children of Israel to set their sights on stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments that Moses carried down from Mt. Sinai. These were followed by 12 stones designated to be worn on the garment of the Kohen Gadol. Last, but not least, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem was constructed on Even HaShtiyah or the Foundation Stone. And even though, no one can lay claim to having seen the Foundation Stone, innumerable worshippers, visitors, and tourist set their sites at the Kotel. As they take in those stones that transcend time, hopefully, they are able to realize, that just as there are people with hearts of stone, so too are their stones with hearts of flesh and blood.
It is a time to focus on the King of Kings rather than the King of Egypt. Pharoah was fallible and flawed. Pharaoh was imperfect and mortal. G-d, the King of Kings is infallible and flawless. G-d is perfect and immortal. Despite his self-perception, Pharaoh was no match for G-d. In time, Pharaoh realized this. He asked that Moses and Aaron take a select group to offer sacrifices to G-d and while doing so put in a good word for him as well. The Children of Israel did not have an easy time focusing on G-d. Time after time, they stumbled; time after time they found it so exceedingly difficult to set their sights on a G-d who sees all, but who cannot be seen. Seeing the great miracles both at the Sea of Reeds as well as in the wilderness could not convince them that it was now time to cultivate a most unique relationship between G-d and His chosen nation. It was time for the Children of Israel to recognize that even monarchs of empires have a specified time here on earth. G-d’s existence however is timeless.
Time after time, the government asks us to participate in a charade of adjusting our timepieces. Time after time, the Children of Israel were reminded how the time had come for our ancestors to concentrate on setting goals rather than meeting quotas, to focus on stone rather than brick, and to set their sights on the King of Kings rather than the King of Egypt. Unlike adjusting our timepieces, these three lessons will most assuredly remain with our people for all times. 

Wait Until the Cows Come Home

BY Rabbi Shawn Zell

Residents of Cowtown have every right to be sensitive to Shabbat Parah or the Sabbath of the Red Heifer, one of the four special Sabbaths on the Jewish calendar, that begin prior to Purim and conclude prior to Pesach. Our venerated sages were onto something when they opined that the Red Heifer ritual – one of purification – could be seen as setting matters straight. “Let the mother cow come and clean up its child’s filth” suggest our esteemed rabbis of the Midrash (Tanchuma chapter 8). Implied, was that the ordinance of the Red Heifer is read in close proximity to or even in tandem with the debacle of the Golden Calf, as is the case this year. Yet, the Red Heifer with its purification powers described in Numbers 19, deserves to be understood in a far greater light.
Cows are first mentioned by name by Pharaoh. Melodramatic comments aside, the  Emperor of Egypt “had a cow” after dreaming about emaciated kine dining on corpulent cattle. By all accounts, Joseph was most adept at interpreting this “nightmare of the Nile”. All the same, Joseph might very well have overlooked the fact, that cows restrict their diets to grass and grain. Differently stated, cows do not eat their own. As much as this nightmare presaged seven years of famine following seven years of feasting, it also delivered an ominous message: Never think that the unthinkable cannot happen. Just as the emaciated cattle suddenly developed a voracious appetite for its own, no less, so too would the time come when a world superpower be relegated to a pile of pyramids.
The very first act of hospitality in the Torah, was when Abraham invited his uninvited guests for lunch. Arguably, cows played a significant role in that episode as well. “And Abraham ran to the cattle and took an offspring of cattle viz. offspring of a cow, and had his butler transform that bovine creature from grazing in the grass to gracing the table. Noticing that butter and milk were also set before the wayfarers, any number of commentators took it upon themselves to explain the dilemma of dining on dairy and meat at the same repast. Here too, our sages appear to have overlooked a most salient point when it comes to cows. The very same animal that provides us meat also provides us with dairy. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch or Code of Jewish Law addresses how cow udders are to be prepared for kosher consumption, in that once upon the time, these udders served as a dainty dish to set before diners. In a culture that eschews drinking goat milk and sheep milk, it appears that the cow is the sole provider of foods that are both kosher but are prohibited from simultaneous consumption.
A paradox is typically defined as a contradictory statement or occurrence that nevertheless holds true. More than a few rabbis however have defined a paradox as the Red Heifer. The Torah (Numbers 19) commands that the ashes of an unblemished, red cow that has yet to be placed under a yoke, are to be sprinkled upon an individual who has come into contact with a corpse. The paradox is that the Kohen who administers this purifying potion to the compromised individual also becomes ritually impure – albeit a totally different type of ritual impurity – requiring self-imposed isolation until evening. So taken by this paradox, our sages of old devoted an entire Mishnaic tractate of 12 chapters dealing with the laws of the Red Heifer.    
At the risk of coming across as impudent, I  see no reason for such consternation on the part of the rabbis. Placing the episodes of Pharaoh’s dream. Abraham’s hospitality and the Red Heifer’s antidotal properties, one can deduce that the cow evokes a number of lessons. The cows of Pharaoh’s dreams remind us that before relegating any event to the unthinkable, think again. The cows of Abraham’s hospitality teach us that the cow, a most kosher of creatures, appears to be the sole provider for dairy and meat, a prohibition so serious, that the Torah finds it necessary to state it three times. The cow appearing in rare Red Heifer form reminds us that when it comes to Judaism and Jewish history, paradoxes are what we as a people are all about. The next time you come across the statement “wait until the cows come home”, you would do well to realize, that in Judaism, the cows have been home since biblical days. We simply hadn’t noticed.

Esther Hayehudiah

By Rabbi Shawn Zell

Living at a time when political correctness knows no bounds, it would be totally unacceptable for someone to say, “I decided to choose Davis the Jew, to serve as my accountant”. No one seems to utter a peep, much less whirl the gragger, however, upon coming across the phrase “Mordechai the Jew” while reading the Megillah. It is a phrase that appears time and time again, in the book of Esther. Far from being disparaging, Mordechai the Jew is an honorific appellative. Yet, if the Purim Megillah regards it as a badge of honor, to refer to the hero of the Purim Megillah as Mordechai HaYehudi or Mordechai the Jew, why doesn’t the Purim Megillah accord the same honor and respect to Esther, by referring to the heroine of the Purim Megillah as Esther HaYehudiah or Esther the Jewess? After pondering this question, I offer three suggestions, why Esther, like Mordechai, is most deserving to be viewed as a quintessential Jew.

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