“Thank you for the simple egg”: An invocation at the Washington State Legislature

On April 20, 2017 I delivered the following invocation in the Washington State House of Representatives:

Source of All Life and Blessing, thank you for this season.

We as a human family are witnessing the awakening of our world, as nature comes alive once again in spring. We delight in the buds on the trees, the opening flowers and all the new growth that surrounds us.

Last week Christians in our state and around the world celebrated Holy Week, marking the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Last week Jews in our state and around the world celebrated Passover, marking the Exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery.

Both of these festivals, while theologically different, capture the spirit of renewal and rebirth of the season. And while different, both share a common symbol, that of the egg. The Easter egg, and the egg on the Seder plate.

The egg captures the spirit of the season. Contained within its shell is the potential for new life. And its shell is strong, able to protect what lay inside, yet fragile enough to break when necessary, when that which is contained within is ready to emerge.

Let us remember at this season that we too are like an egg: strong yet fragile and the vessels for new life.

May we remember our strength: our ability to hold by our convictions, to support those more vulnerable, to champion that what must be championed, to resist that which must be resisted, to advocate for and demand not just what is but what could be.

May we remember our fragility: our ability as humans to be broken, which must guide us in how we treat one another, but also our ability to crack willfully, to open up our hearts and minds to new thoughts and new ideas, to be willing to be humble and vulnerable and know that we do not have all the answers, to accept compromise in order to advance the common good.

And may we remember our potential for new life: the ability to develop and champion a vision of what may be, to envision a state and a world of justice and peace and lovingkindness, and the power, especially invested in this body, to create new laws and new realities for the benefit of all.

Source of All Life and Blessing, thank you for this season. Thank you for the ability to celebrate our traditions freely and openly. And thank you for the simple egg. Which reminds us of our need to be strong when we need to be strong, but also our need to break when we need to break, so that the potential contained within us can develop into something new, and different, and better.

May all those who serve this body, and all those who the common good, find blessing in their work, and renewal at this time. May all of us be the egg.



Be the Egg

When we sit around the Seder table next week we will have the opportunity to retell the story of the Exodus-of our spiritual ancestors’ oppression of slavery in Egypt and the liberation brought by Moses, culminating in the passing through the Red Sea and the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. But we are not just retelling the story, we are reliving it, though the eating of symbolic foods, in order, through the ceremony.

The Seder Plate is the repository of most of these symbolic foods. (The matza–unleavened bread–gets its own special place.) On the Seder plate are the greens to symbolize spring, the bitter herbs to symbolize the bitterness of oppression, the haroset to symbolize the mortar of hard labor, the roasted shankbone (or beets for vegetarians) to symbolize the Pesach sacrifice and the placement of blood on the lintels (to protect against the plague of the death of the first born). And the egg.

The egg is ostensibly there to represent the korban chagigah-the festival sacrifice which our ancestors would offer up in the Temple in Jerusalem. [Of the symbolic foods on the seder plate, the roasted bone and the egg are the two that are not eaten. Although many have the custom to begin the meal with a hard-boiled egg in salt water, it is not part of the order of symbolic foods eaten during the pre-meal ritual.]

This traditional explanation for the egg is interesting in that it sets the egg apart–the egg therefore is a symbol not of the story of the Exodus itself, but in how the Exodus was remembered by later generations. The egg does not represent a specific element of the Passover narrative, but represents the fact of retelling of the Passover narrative.  We remember the story but we also remember the remembering of the story.

When we tell the story at Passover, time compresses. Our present and our past merge, and the story of liberation of our ancestors becomes the paradigm for liberation for our own day. The egg represents this cyclical nature of time–the past is present is future. The egg, with its round shape, is symbolic of the cycle of life at other times in our tradition as well–a traditional mourner’s meal after a funeral begins with eggs.

But there is more to the egg than that. As I mentioned last week, the use of an egg at this time of year is not exclusive to Jewish practice–witness the many Easter egg hunts which will be happening next week. The egg is the source of new life, a symbol which has universal significance.

The egg on the Seder plate took on a new significance to me since I began raising chickens. I learned that chickens don’t naturally lay eggs in the winter–they need a certain amount of light during the day and there isn’t enough during the wintertime. It is possible to trick chickens into laying all year round by putting lights in their coop, which I tried last year, but after the light kept falling down and other obstacles, I just put it aside.

So it is about this time of year, when the days get longer, that chickens start laying eggs again. Indeed, our two birds just began laying last week. And I set aside the first egg of spring to put on our Seder plate. Eggs are a symbol of spring and a sign of new life because of the cycle of the chicken.

The first egg of the season, produced by my chickens
The first egg of the season, produced by my chickens

And as chickens come out of their dormancy, so do we. Spring is about the renewal of life; we see it happening physically all around us with not only the return of the egg but the budding of plants and trees. Passover–our Spring festival–is about the spiritual renewal of life. We mark the budding of a new consciousness, a new awakening in our hearts. Eggs return, so do we.

And we, like eggs, are fragile. New life emerges from breaking the shells which constrict us, and if not handled cautiously, the premature fracture of the shells can disrupt the process.

This Passover, as we mark our communal liberation, we assess our individual liberation as well. What is your dormancy that you wish to awaken this Passover? Where do you see yourself budding? And how are you, like the egg, the delicate keeper of the potential for new life, ready to break free from a hard, yet breakable, shell?

Chag sameach.

What Came First, the Harlem Shake or the Egg?

The Internet meme of the moment (or perhaps already past) is the Harlem Shake, a video meme in which a group of people dance crazily to a song by artist and producer Baauer. It has a bit of a “plot”-the videos open with the beginning clip of music with one person dancing while others around them act nonchalantly until the music switches, the lyrics “do the Harlem Shake” come on and then everyone is dancing crazily in various states of costume. There are some variations, but that is the general concept. The meme has taken off, with videos by the famous and not-yet-famous contributing to the canon. I find them quite funny–you can see a history and greatest hits here.

The meme, however, has its critics. For there is an original dance called the Harlem Shake, created in Harlem in the early 1980s and popularized 20 years later when it was used in a music video by the Harlem Hip Hop artist G. Dep. The critics claim this is cultural appropriation. For example, this clip from CNN commentator Melissa Harris-Perry.

Harris-Perry raises some important points, especially around the issue of race in this country. The question this raises is what is authentic? What is appropriation? There does exist conscious appropriation, in which one culture uses another for its own effect, oftentimes with the intent of destabilizing the appropriated culture. But many times this “appropriation” is done unconsciously-the result of different cultures, symbols, belief systems, ideas coexisting. It’s the natural evolution of systems of thought-nothing exists in a vacuum, we are always borrowing from each other.

[Within Judaism we wrestle about what is authentic, what is real. And Jews have been appropriated from. (For example, the rise of Jewish culture among non-Jewish Poles, in a land that was “cleansed” of Jews; and recently I had a conversation at a rabbinic conference about the idea of a “Christian Bar Mitzvah.”)]

The path from the streets of Harlem to Internet sensation is far from direct. What I can glean from Internet research (not my own knowledge of music history), is that the popular dance was referenced in a lyric (“do the Harlem shake”) in a song by the Philadelphia-based Hip Hop group Plastic Little in a 2001 song called “Miller Time.” In 2012, that lyric was sampled (a common practice of using small clips of music, sound or words from one song to create an effect in a different song) in a song by the artist Baauer, which was called (presumably after the lyric) “Harlem Shake.” Then, almost 9 months later was the first dance video released (by a bunch of people in Australia!).

Got that? Dance invented, popularized in Hip Hop video by someone other than the inventor, referenced in song lyric by still another group, song lyric sampled by yet another artist, dance to that latest song popularized by a whole other set of folks. There are several steps from one dance to the other. And it is even unclear that the people who created the original video meme were trying to make a dance called the Harlem Shake. The name-because of the use in the lyric, not the original dance-stuck. And, by watching the videos, you can tell that the new “Harlem Shake” isn’t even a specific dance. It is a theme, or action, or sketch. It is, as the good folks at Wikipedia point out, a meme and not a dance. And the original Harlem Shake still exists, still accessible, still able to be performed with its own integrity.

Maybe the times we live in just make it that much faster to borrow, change and reproduce. Maybe because of the much greater accessibility of information we are able to track changes in culture in a way that in the past may have been much more subtle. If the Internet was around when the original dance was invented it would have become a meme. And it might not even have stuck around if G. Dep had not used it for his own purposes.

By looking at our own tradition we see these forces as work. We are drawing close to Passover and to Easter. We Jews will sit around the Seder table eating matzo (unleavened bread) and maror (bitter herbs), “reliving” the story of the Exodus and reflecting on the themes of redemption. Christians will celebrate Easter mindful of the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians, “For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” Appropriation? Or a shared symbol structure used for radically different ends?

Plus, both traditions share and incorporate the symbol of the egg, representing spring and fertility and new life. This is not found in the Torah, nor the New Testament. It is probably something that even predates Judaism and Christianity. How it got to Passover and Easter, who can tell? But before YouTube and the Internet, cultures evolved, incorporated, assimilated and revalued–and stayed authentic.

Maybe the egg is the original meme.