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New resource for the holiday

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Few scholars have been able to communicate with equal efficacy in both the beit midrash and the pulpit. Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm has long excelled at both.

A “rabbi’s rabbi,” he enjoys renown both as a talmudic luminary and a masterful darshan. When I received semicha from him 25 years ago — and in subsequent conversations over the years — he has always left me with the same charge and challenge: “Go be ‘me-chadeish.’” Bring novel dimensions to your deliberations.

Lamm has remained steadfast and insistent in this simple statement, yet difficult assignment. Certainly over this last quarter of a century, I have heard the rosh yeshiva in this rabbi exhort his students to toil in the fields of new and novel interpretations. In an address to Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary rabbinic alumni, for example, he lamented the rise of a generation of scholars who distinguish themselves more by what they gather and relate in the names of others and less by their own new insights and inspirations.

“Sadly, we have become a generation of ‘me-laktim’ and not ‘me-chadshim,’” he said. In his new haggadah, he is clearly taking a stand against this tendency of “hunter gatherers in learning.” Absent from its liner notes are the commonly used pithy points that one can easily peruse and pick off the page as easy droplets to sprinkle onto the ongoing seder ritual.

While handsome in its layout and still easy to read, this is very much the thinking person’s haggadah. It is not set up for an easy appropriation of text and texture. Instead, it invites the reader into carefully considered discussions of the weighty subject matter that rightfully defines and distinguishes the haggadah as Jewish life’s signature pedagogy, and the seder context as the ultimate classroom and teachable moment.

Understanding the seder ritual as such, he uses his homiletical talents and intellect to provide the reader and would-be seder participant with brief but strategically composed essay-like presentations on many of the seder’s generative themes. He takes on the big questions of theodicy and human suffering, as seen in his comments on Jacob’s suffering and King David’s despair. The rabbi lends his own social commentary to diverse themes and ills in society, an example being his treatment of the dual nature of the plague of darkness. Humanism, history, and halacha are woven together in an integrated whole that brings the timely to the timeless.

One noteworthy example of his penchant for chiddush, of his ability to lend a novel approach and new voice to a text well-traveled in time, emerges from his commentary on Chad Gadya, perhaps the most quixotic of the seder songs.

Borrowing from the recurring thematic and typological associations we make throughout the Pesach rituals by our use of the number 4, he introduces the typology of the Four Fathers and with it a new level of profundity, for this highly favored but otherwise hardly understood seder ditty.

Throughout this haggadah commentary, while dutifully citing numerous sacred sources, Lamm expands upon each to better illustrate the lessons for life and the effective construction of community that — of necessity — must emerge from this annual exercise.

This is not the haggadah to simply go through for easy comments, but rather one that will pass through and rest on its readers, leaving a new claim to a serious consideration of our contemporary Jewish condition.

The author is religious leader of the Jewish Center of Teaneck.

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On Shavuot, remembering the day I almost dropped the Torah

LOS ANGELES— On Shavuot, we are reminded that the Torah is a tree of life to which we are to hold fast.

But what happens when that hold slips from your grasp?

It’s a question I found myself asking six weeks before Shavuot, late in the Torah service on the last day of Passover.

My wife, Brenda, and I had gone to Temple Beth Emet, in Anaheim, Calif., where I grew up. We both had come for the Yizkor service there, and to see her family, who continues to pray there. Not far from Disneyland, it’s a shrinking kingdom of Jewish memories, where, as I walked down the aisle to my seat, I could see my Hebrew school teacher, and the familiar faces of those who had been friends of my parents.

A little while after we were seated, the gabbai came down the aisle, blue card in hand, and asked me if I wanted to be “hagbah” — that is, to raise the Torah after it was read. “Thank you,” I said, accepting the honor.


Purim poser

What is our fascination with villains?

LOS ANGELES — Who is the Haman in your life?

The person, who like the bad guy in the Megillah Esther that we read on Purim, schemes to bring you down.

When we get to the place in the Megillah where Haman is forced to lead Mordechai though the streets of Shushan, saying, “This is what is done for the man whom the king desires to honor,” might we insert ourselves into an updated version of the story, the way we do in a video game? Imagining that a seriously negative person in our life is pushing our car down the street while we sit behind the wheel and wave?

Not that your neighbor is Lord Voldemort or Dr. Moriarty, but what about that boss who is omitting your name from the organization chart? The relative who always leaves you off the guest list? That student spray-painting swastikas on your son’s fraternity house? Or just the forever-interrupting “Rachel” from cardholder services?


Shalakhmones — a Purim story

Wearing a silk kerchief and a plain apron — a combination of holiday and weekday attire — Mama stood by the table, practically at her wit’s end.

It was no trifle, you know, receiving almost a hundred shalakhmones, the traditional Purim platter of sweets, and sending out a like number. Mama had to be careful not to omit anyone or make any mistakes, God forbid; she also had to remember what sort of platter to send to whom. For instance, if someone favored you with a fruit-cut, two jam-filled pastries, a poppy-seed square, two tarts, a honey bun, and two sugar cookies, it was customary to send in return two fruit-cuts, one jam-filled pastry, two poppy-seed squares, one tart, two honey buns, and three sugar cookies.

You had to have the brains of a prime minister not to create the sort of first-class muddle that once took place, alas, in our shtetl. What happened was that a woman named Rivke-Beyle mistakenly shipped back to one of the rich matrons the very same platter of Purim goodies that the rich matron had sent her. You should have seen the scandal this caused. The squabble that broke out between the husbands blossomed into a full-blown feud — smacks, denunciations, and unending strife.

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