Rabbi Vogel’s Blog

The Seder As a Jewish National Mall

Posted on February 28, 2018

I love walking around the National Mall in Washington, DC. When visiting the monuments and memorials of great leaders like Jefferson, Lincoln, F.D.R. and King, you can read their words that inspired a nation. Whether the Gettysburg Address or a quote from the “I Have a Dream” speech, we can experience the words that helped shape a nation. One cannot help but be inspired by the history coming alive to remind us. But these monuments are more than just tributes to the past. According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, they share our national narrative and remind us that we are a covenanted nation.

To understand the relevance of the quotes on the monuments in the National Mall, just look at the monuments found in London, and in particular in Parliament Square, as being quite different.  On the life-size monuments of David Lloyd George (Prime Minister during WWI), Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, the only words contained are their names. While this difference between the British and American monuments to our national heroes may not seem like much, Rabbi Sacks suggests that the differences reflect a fundamental difference between the “tradition-based society” of England and the “covenantal society” of America.   

Founded more than a millennium ago, as many people have experienced, England is a “this is how we have always done it” society and is a place where tradition holds great power.  Therefore, it is unnecessary to ask why. According to Sacks, “Those who belong know. Those who need to ask show thereby that they do not belong.” America, on the other hand, was founded as a covenantal nation. From the Pilgrims on, those who settled here did so by and large for purposes of religious freedom, personal autonomy from a monarchy and the rejection of a class system that benefited the elite. From its very beginnings, America was founded with a narrative of purpose and it is the sharing of that narrative that reminds us of our core values. Our earliest founders invoked the covenant of the Hebrew Bible as their mandate for creating a new order and such societies create narratives of purpose to tell the story of what they are about. When we walk the National Mall, we experience our national narrative and are reminded of the covenant that directs us toward a special purpose.

Approximately 3,500 years ago, the original inspiration for religious and personal freedom took place. It is the story of the Israelites who left the tyranny of Egypt to create a nation that was founded on principles quite different from anything else that existed at that time. While not the utopian society (slavery was still accepted and women’s rights still insufficient), it lived by a mandate that all people were made in the image of God. Other than a priesthood to lead the cultic life of the people, there was no distinction of classes; there was one law for all people. The Exodus is the foundational story of the Jewish narrative. It describes our struggle from slavery, the foundational structure of laws that reflect God’s will and the trials and tribulations that occurred on our journey to freedom.

While we invoke the Exodus in our daily prayers and it is a major theme of Shabbat, it is on Passover that we relive the experience. If the Jewish people were to have a National Mall, the Exodus would be the central feature. We spend time at the Passover seder not just reminding ourselves that we were slaves (this would be like the monuments in London), but rather we remember why freedom is important and what we should do with our freedom. Like the monuments on the National Mall, we tell our story. Passover is one of the key moments when we reflect on the Jewish covenantal relationship with God and with the world. It is no accident that we have so often carried the torch for religious and personal freedom. The Exodus has defined so much of what the Jewish people are about. Yes, it is a time for family, but more importantly, it is one of our covenantal ceremonies. The stories (and talking about the stories) are essential to the experience.

What does your seder look like?

Is it more like the monuments in London that remember the moment but not its significance? Or, is it like a stroll through the National Mall in Washington, DC that allows a reliving of a foundational experience? Without our covenantal narrative, we lose our sense of purpose, whether as Americans or as Jews.

In the coming weeks as you prepare for your Passover seder, may you reflect on ways to relive the covenantal experience at your meal. Tell the story of the Exodus in a way that will allow our national narrative to instill purpose into the Jewish people and to all those around your seder table. 

—Rabbi Stewart L. Vogel


Mordecai and joseph: Jewish leaders who save their countries

Posted on January 30, 2018

The question of what it means to “save” the Jewish people can have different implications.  For some it is about the observance of mitzvot as a way of preserving the Jewish message.  For others, it is providing financial support to Jewish causes that secure the future for the Jewish people.  For some, it is engaging in the world of politics to save the Jewish people.

The story of Esther has much to teach us about Jews in the world of politics and what it means to be Jewish.  While we tend to focus on the role of Esther in saving the Jewish people, we tend to diminish Mordecai’s role in the story (I encourage you to read the Book of Esther through this lens).   More than just the cousin of Esther who pushes her into a competition to become queen and later forces her to “out” herself to the king as a Jew in order to save the Jews of the kingdom.  At a first reading of the Book of Esther, we might ascribe the entire conflict to Mordecai.   After all, it is his clashes with Haman sets the stage for the entire plot and the motivation for Haman to want to destroy the Jews. 

But what about the episode in which Mordecai saves the live of King Ahashverosh against the plot of the Bigtan and Teresh, two of the castle guards?   What was Mordecai’s motivation?  Was it to get into the good graces of Ahashverosh?  Or perhaps, this is what it means to be Jewish.  Namely, to care about your country and your leaders.  While many people know about the part of the story in which Haman is forced to parade Mordecai through the streets of Shushan with Mordecai sitting on the King’s horse and dressed in royal robes, many don’t know about the fate of Mordecai at the end of the book.  Not only is he saved from the gallows that Haman had built for him (Haman is hanged on them himself), but he is eventually made Viceroy of Shushan.  The final verses of the Book of Esther provide a possible picture of where the kingdom of Persia is better off because Mordecai now is in a position of leadership.

Does this plot sound familiar?

Does it sound a bit like the story of Joseph in Egypt?   In the Book of Esther, it is the lives of Mordecai and Esther who parallel that of Joseph.

Like Joseph, Mordecai comes from a position of nothing, to become second in command of a great nation.  Similar to Esther’s identity hidden from the king, Joseph’s identity is hidden (although here it is hidden from his brothers).   Most significantly to the stories, it is Joseph’s rise to power that saves his family from the famine in Canaan and it is Esther’s rise to power that saves the Jews from the fate sealed by Haman.  But unnoticed by many is the important role that Joseph and Mordecai play in the lives of their adopted countries Egypt and Shushan.  In Egypt, Joseph is responsible for saving the lives of the Egyptians through his program of storing up food during the years of plenty before the years of famine hit.  Without him, the implication is that much of the country would have starved to death.  Likewise, at the conclusion of the Book of Esther we are told that new greatness came to Shushan because of Mordecai.

What is the great message about the stories of Joseph and Mordecai?

More than just viewing the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people, our ultimate goal is that we contribute to the betterment of the world; that is what it means to be “a light unto the nations.”  In this context, the question is not what it means to save the Jewish people, but what does it mean for the Jewish people to “save” the world.  In this context, the answer is not a theological one, but rather an existential one.  In the stories of Joseph and Esther, everyone is better off when the Jewish people are safe and secure.  In addition, it is through Jewish leadership that this utopian world is created.  Unlike the propogandist document of the Protocols of Zion, that imagined a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world for our self-interests, the stories of Joseph and Esther, share an acknowledgment that the fate of Jews is tied to the fate of humanity.  In the words of Supreme Court Justice Brandeis, “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews.” 

I aspire for a messianic image of the world in which all Jews are safe and secure in a world that knows only goodness and it is Jewish leaders who contribute to this betterment of humanity. 

  • Calendar of Events

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    Tuesday, September 18, 2018

    • Kol Nidre (see your tickets for service time)

    Wednesday, September 19, 2018

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    Friday, September 21, 2018

    • 8:00 PM - Every Third Shabbat Service; Reggae

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