Check, Please

I’ve had several doses of talk about “privilege” thrown at me recently.  I’ve spent a little time thinking about this, and I’ve come to the conclusion that the folks who toss this stuff about and treat it with great importance are as clever, and as wrong, as the phlogiston chemists.  Now, what do I mean by that?

“Privilege” as described in the relevant circles, is effectively an unearned advantage due to one’s nature – there can be white privilege, Jewish privilege, etc etc etc, and that intersectionality (sic) is effectively the idea that various portions of one’s identity as they interact with other portions create something wholly different which is qualitatively greater than the sum of the parts.

Duh.

A lot of words are spent slicing and dicing groups using particular jargon, to no practical effect whatsoever.  Why is this?  Because at the root of the issue is the fact that we are not members of a group first and individuals second – rather, we are individuals first, who have some characteristics we share in groups.  The whole privilege conversation completely falls apart when considering that the variation between individuals who share certain characteristics will necessarily be greater than the differences between the average of the characteristics.

That is, all cats are NOT gray after midnight.  So in our real world, the one with the messiness in it, what does it mean to say “you have privilege” about someone’s membership in a particular group?

Absolutely nothing.

In the original sense of pragmatism, there is no information which is gained as a result of these descriptions, and actions don’t change as a result, and therefore these are at best distinctions without a difference.  Yep, that’s the real problem here – the actual predictive power of this language is right up there with blaming weather on water sprites, and all the jargon serves to do is alienate the person being “othered” in that context.  That is, it changes the person being described from “thou” to “it”.  It serves as a way to immediately discredit the opinion of the person described as “privileged,” and find a discrete place for them in a postmodern hierarchy of victims, where to be oppressed is necessarily equivalent to being virtuous.

I’ve had this sort of language tossed at me by several people, who range from the saintly to the less-so.  I’ll speak to the saint: this language has the opposite effect of your intention, and the line of reasoning is sterile, not fertile.

How about this for a suggestion: treat people as individuals, as all being made in the image of God, and approach groupings as a way to search for what we have in common rather than what divides us.

The best thing I’ll do this week

I have the ability, like all employed people, to grumble about how frustrating my customers are: they occasionally find ways to get under my skin and leave me all itchy with complaints.  It isn’t breaking rocks in the sun, but the frustrations are real.

And my synagogue has done well, all things considered, but like any other organization, it’s got it’s ups and downs, and it is not without its share of frustrations.  

But today, I’m all sorts of sore, mostly from carrying Roya around and playing with her all day.  At Westminster Park, she crawled and climbed her way up that large twisty slide, and threw herself headfirst down it.  What followed was a look of terror followed by squeals of excitement – and the inevitable “again!”

So I’ll go forward this week, and encounter lots of daily nuisances, but am fortified by the reminder of what actually matters.

  

Dayeinu (“It Would Have Been Enough for Us”)

This is the drasha (sermon) I delivered on the eighth day of Passover this year.

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Shabbat Shalom and Ḥag Sameaḥ,

If you asked what the main theme of Passover is, an obvious answer would be “freedom.”  After all, that’s what we’ve been mentioning in every amidah – z’man ḥeruteinu is the time of our freedom.  Another obvious answer would be “matzah” – it is ḥag ha-matzot, right?  Other choices could  be “love” – between individuals as we read in shir hashirim today, including the allegorical love between God and Israel as per some commentators; or perhaps the might of God – that for the sake of redeeming Israel He was willing to wholly upend natural law in such a dramatic manner.  Those are all great topics, but what I’d like to explore a bit is something else which finds its way into a few places: gratitude.

First, the most obvious example, from the seder, we read dayeinu – it would have been enough.  After each of a list of remarkable things God has done for us, we say that that itself is sufficient.  But in truth, if God had split the sea but not brought us through it dry, we would have ceased to exist as a people.  If He had brought us to the desert and not fed us, we would have starved and ceased to exist as a people.  And so on for most of the elements in the song.  So a literal reading doesn’t make a whole lot of sense here – it has to be getting at something a bit deeper.  I’ll get back to what that is after we go to another part of the service.

We read what the rabbis call the “Egyptian Hallel” – psalms 113-118 – at the Seder and every morning.  It acquired this name, in contrast with the other psalms featuring “Hallelujah”, due to the presence of psalm 114 – B’tzet Yisrael me-mitzrayim “When Israel came out of Egypt,” and the thematically-aligned section Min ha-meitzar – “In my distress,” but more literally “out of the narrow places”, and the word meitzar is closely related to mitzrayim – Egypt.

When I look at this collection of psalms, a few verses jump out at me, specifically some from psalm 116:

Mah ashiv LaH, kol tagmulohi alai – How can I repay the LORD for all His goodness to me?  A good question.  And then the end of that psalm we see the answer to the question: Lekha ezbaḥ zevaḥ todah, uv’shem H ekrah; nederai LaH ashaleim, negda na l’khol amo; b’ḥatzrot beit H, b’tokhaykhi Yerushalayim Hallelujah – to You I will bring a Thanksgiving offering and call on the LORD by name; I will fulfill my vows to the LORD in the presence of His people, in Your midst, in Jerusalem, praise God.

I would like to suggest that this phrasing is no mere poetic flourish – it’s instructional rather than metaphoric: the way we repay God for His goodness is (1) by bringing an offering, (2) calling on Him by His proper name, (3) fulfilling our vows (4) in public, (5) at the temple.  So of these five concepts, the first (bringing an offering) and the last (at the temple) are not doable today, in absence of a functioning beit hamikdash, but what about the other three?

We do call upon God by name: every time we say Shabbat Shalom at a minimum, we greet each other with God’s name “Shalom” – but is that what it means in this context?  I would suggest that in the context of thanking God for goodness, it would mean “properly attributing to God those things which are His blessings”.  And what might those blessings be?   From the prosaic rain in its season, to the memory of the deeds of the good people who have gone before us, to the small daily miracles evident in the created world, to our awareness of the created world itself.  God’s handiwork is quite clearly apparent the the warp and weft of existence.

How about fulfilling the vows?  Well, we’re instructed that our yes should be a yes, and our no should be a no – and we should endeavor not to vow at all.  So where is the instruction for gratitude in the verse?  The vow in question is that of bringing an offering, but we have to remember Shmuel’s admonition: Haḥafetz laH b’olot u’zevaḥim kish’moah b’kol H? Hinei: sh’moah mizevaḥ tov lehak’shiv mayḥaylev elim – Does the LORD desire offerings as much as He desires listening to the Word of the LORD?  Behold: to obey is better than a good offering, and attention is better than the fat of rams.  So perhaps today, where this leaves us is that consciously following God’s words is the the way to fulfill the vows undertaken by our ancestors.

The final element – “in public” is obvious: while much good can be done and should be done privately, each act of public thanks for blessings stands as a testimonial to God’s goodness and Hashgaḥa Pratit – the Devine guidance of human affairs.  We even name those acts kiddush Hashem – a sanctification of God’s name.

So with these three elements in hand – that we obey God, attribute our blessings to Him, and thank Him publicly, let’s return to Dayeinu.

This liturgical prayer serves a very specific purpose in its place in the Haggadah: by saying that these steps would individually have been enough, we’re saying that our cup of blessing has run over, and are embracing Ben Zoma’s dictum from Pirkei Avot: Mah Ashir? Hasameaḥ b’ḥelko – “who is rich?  One who rejoices in his portion”.

It’s a moment where we publicly count our blessings, and thank God for them individually and collectively.  But there is a challenge here – can we behave with gratitude and appropriate thanks for all of the individual blessings we have been given, or will we blind ourself to what we have and where we are in the glare of eventual promises?

I speak of the last line of the song, which captures where we are now: eilu hikhnisim l’eretz Yisrael v’lo-vanah lanu et beit habeḥirah, dayeinu– If He had brought us to Eretz Yisrael and not built for us the Temple…

(beat)

Tefillat Ḥagigit services will be on Wednesday, April 22.

May we merit to fulfill all the commandments of God in gratitude.

Shabbat Shalom and Ḥag Sameaḥ.