The evening of March 30 begins the Jewish holiday of Passover, commemorating the Israelite Exodus from Egyptian Slavery 3,330 years ago. It is also referred to as the “Time of Our Liberation.”
The holiday will be observed by the Jewish community, with friends and families gathering together for the traditional Seder dinners, the main components of which are first mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Exodus. Most well known is the refraining from eating leavened bread and instead, only eating matzah, a simple cracker made of just flour and water, reminiscent of the simple bread our ancestors ate as they fled Egypt.
But today, we are blessed to live in a free and open society, in the most benevolent country to have ever existed. We have never been trapped in Egypt, nor have we experienced actual slavery. So other than continuing tradition, does this holiday have any real relevance to us in 2018?
It does and it is profound.
Although the slavery and Exodus took place many millennia ago, in a distant land and foreign culture, its meaning is as pertinent today as it ever was.
Every person encounters boundaries and limitations they do not wish to face. Whether it be financial stress, strained relationships, or personal insecurities not allowing us to reach our full potential. Far too often we feel trapped and despondent. But the Passover Exodus teaches us there is always a way out.
Obviously, if we have wronged someone and that is the cause of our anxiety, we must personally seek that person and make amends. But more often than not, when we feel trapped, a little soul searching will have us realize that we are the builders of our own barriers. And when that is so, it is up to us alone to liberate ourselves of our limitations and self-imposed boundaries.
Perhaps we are too wrapped with ourselves and with our own feelings and aspirations. The solution then is that we must stop being concerned with just ourselves. By looking outwards, rather than just inwards we can get away from ourselves and think of others. We should play a more active role in society; we should give and give generously. The opportunities are many and the need is great. And in South Dakota, we have so many options to choose from, whether it be social work, charitable or scientific.
What’s more, once we have managed to free ourselves, we will become bastions of hope and be empowered to liberate others as well, with a ripple effect on the entire world.
This universal message of Passover reverberates today more than ever. We are blessed to live in a country and era of unprecedented freedoms and educational success, yet so many feel a lack of direction and purpose. Far too many people, especially young people, feel trapped.
Recognizing these challenges, the great Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, taught that education, in general, should not be limited to the acquisition of knowledge and preparation for a career, rather the educational system must pay more attention, indeed the main attention, to the building of character, with emphasis on moral and ethical values. To live life with the awareness that the creator made us, so every positive action can have a profound impact on our universe.
On March 27, millions of Americans, once again, marked Education & Sharing Day, USA. This day was established by the United States Congress in 1978 and signed by the president each year on the Rebbe’s birth date, in tribute to his commitment to teaching the next generation of Americans the values that make our country strong.
This day serves as a call to all of us to pause and recognize our responsibility in ensuring that our young people have the foundation necessary to lead lives rich in purpose and fulfilment. I am proud that Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a proclamation designating March 27 as Education and Sharing Day, South Dakota.
As we celebrate Passover this year, I wish our elected leaders and all my fellow citizens in South Dakota, merit the true meaning and celebration of “a time of freedom” – free from all worries, concerns and personal limitations.
Chanukah is an eight day celebration commemorating an ancient miracle.
There are many traditions attributed to Chanukah: Potato Latkes (pancake) or jelly donuts fried in oil, games of Dreidel (top), gifts of Chanukah Gelt (money) to the children and a plethora of stories to retell every year. Nevertheless, lighting the menorah candles is the core of the Chanukah observance.
Over 2,000 years ago, the Jewish Kingdom of Judea was conquered by the tyrannical Assyrian Greek Empire (138 BCE). As their military campaign was more ideological than territorial, they immediately endeavored to assimilate the local Jews to their culture.
When the Jews rejected this alternative approach to life, the Greek occupiers resorted to oppression. They outlawed traditional Jewish education, the observance of many rituals and seized control of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, suspending the daily service indefinitely.
A small group of Jews known as the Maccabees raised the battle cry and valiantly battled the enemy. They miraculously won the battle, decimated the occupying forces and an era of relative peace prevailed for close to a century.
The miraculous military victory is seemingly sufficiently meritorious to establish an annual celebration, but this is not the reason for the eight day festival of Chanukah.
Upon regaining control of the Temple, the Maccabees wanted to restore the daily service by kindling the Menorah (candelabra). However, no appropriate oil could be found in the immediate vicinity and procuring new oil would take eight days.
Mysteriously, they found one jug of oil that was usable for the Menorah, but there was enough for only one night. Despite the uncertainty of how they would light the Menorah for the next seven days until more oil arrived, the Maccabees filled the Menorah with the oil they had and kindled the flames in the proper fashion.
Lo and behold, this minimal amount of oil burned for eight days and nights. A clear sign that God was pleased with their self-sacrifice. It was the miracle of the long lasting oil that motivated the establishment of the eight day festival.
We celebrate by kindling flames for eight nights. On the anniversary of the discovery of the oil and the initial lighting of the Menorah we light one flame. The next night we light two and progressively add until we reach a total of eight flames on the final night that the miracle occurred.
While this Jewish festival is eight days, its message is universal and relevant year round.
Everyone has the power to introduce more goodness to our universe. There are diverse needs and various methods of addressing them, but the fact is that each individual has a unique opportunity to give to others and generate light and happiness. But when faced with a world of pervasive darkness, transforming it into brightness seems like a daunting and impossible task.
The sequence of lighting the Chanukah lights provides us the strategy for bringing light to every dark space. Start with one flame. Even a tiny bit of light can make a big difference and will grow exponentially.
Dealing with overwhelming challenges can be discouraging since the first step seems so inconsequential. The ancient miracle of Chanukah becomes our modern day miracle when we manage to take the first difficult step in the right direction.
This coming week, Jews in South Dakota, Israel and around the world will be celebrating the Jewish New Year known as “Rosh Hashanah.” The holiday begins at sundown on Sept. 20 and ends after nightfall on Friday, Sept. 22.
We observe this day by hearing the sounding of the Shofar (a special ram’s horn crafted for this purpose), praying in Synagogue, dipping an apple in honey and other rituals.
The Jewish Holidays commemorate significant occurrences in Jewish history. Passover, the Exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Shavuot, the revelation at Mt. Sinai. Sukkot, G-ds protection of the Israelites during their forty year journey through the desert. Yom Kippur, the day of atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf.
Rosh Hashana is different.
The great Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, noted that Rosh Hashanah is in fact relevant and meaningful for all of humanity. It commemorates creation. More specifically, it is the anniversary of the creation of Adam and Eve – the first human beings – as recorded in the Bible.
Like Adam and Eve, who were formed and created by God himself, every human being, of all races and creeds, is created in his image, with a unique purpose that only he or she can fulfill. The shared goal of humanity is to transform this world into a place of goodness and kindness, thereby revealing the inherent divinity within it.
Humans are granted free choice and doing the right thing is not a given. Bringing the world to perfection depends on the choices we each make every day.
Imagine waking in the morning and recognizing that today is a new miracle. We were once again granted the gift of life and as our thanks to God, we chose to make this world even better than it was yesterday. A new day brings new opportunities for good.
By unleashing our potential, we have the power to transform the world. Affix a charity box at your home or office and give a few coins each day for those in need. Add an extra dollar to your employees’ paychecks and encourage them to get involved in charitable acts. Treat others with respect. Show more consideration for your family, friends and neighbors.
One person at a time. One good deed at a time. One good choice at a time.
Rosh Hashanah is the day God judges not only the Jewish people, but all mankind, and indeed all of his creations. As I pray this year and blow the Shofar, all my fellow citizens across the great state of South Dakota will be in my thoughts, to be inscribed and sealed in the book of life for a year of health, happiness, peace and prosperity.