The mitzvah of maror

“The most unfortunate thing that happens to a person who fears failure is that he limits himself by becoming afraid to try anything new.”

Last year, while attending a seder on the first night of Passover, three words in the haggadah caught my eye. Now we partake of the “mitzvah of maror.” The mitzvah of maror.

I had been connected to the world of mitzvahs for the past several years, and in fact was just finishing work on my book “1,000 Mitzvahs: How Small Acts of Kindness Can Heal, Inspire, and Change Your Life.”

But the mitzvah of maror didn’t quite fit into my idea of small acts of kindness — holding the door open for a stranger, for example, or dropping a few coins into a tzedakah box.

I started my “1,000 Mitzvahs” project after my father died in December 2006.

My father and I had struggled in our relationship for years and though I knew he loved me, we’d not been able to find a place where we were both happy. When he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, we both knew there was never going to be another chance to say what had to be said and move forward. I remember him asking me, “Why did we wait until I was dying to do this?” Neither of us knew why. Nonetheless, that last year of his life was a complete gift for both of us. When he passed away, my busy life as a mother, wife and entrepreneur came to a screeching halt. After his death, I took a “spiritual sabbatical” to work through the unexpected grief I suddenly felt and came out of it resolved to embark upon a project: perform 1,000 acts of kindness — mitzvahs — to honor my father’s memory.

I started a blog called 1,000 Mitzvahs to track the journey. I wrote the stories of my day, the simple everyday actions that I took — like thanking someone for a job well done, folding laundry for a friend on bed rest or giving my tickets to a lecture series away to a stranger — and the discoveries I made during these simple moments. The mitzvah stories became the tapestry of my days and weeks, and the project helped me move through the grief I’d felt. From the beginning, the mitzvahs were simple and duplicable. I didn’t set out to save the world. I don’t even profess that any of my 1,000 small actions stand out as particularly important. But cumulatively they did shift my thoughts and attitudes and did alter the course of my life. I discovered that by getting more conscious about the actions I took every day and noticing these daily opportunities, they began to show up more often in my life.

As the “1,000 Mitzvahs” project wrapped up, a rabbi suggested I write a book to share what I had learned after grief. His suggestion pushed me to step further out of my comfort zone with my personal project and pursue the idea of writing a book to share my story.

And now, on Passover night, I was confronted with this strange mitzvah of eating bitter herbs. I began thinking of the symbolism of maror, the bitterness of the herbs reminding us to think about the slaves in Egypt. As I ate my matzah and maror, I had an interesting realization and found that this mitzvah of maror had another symbolism for me.

When I was a child and we celebrated Passover, I remember getting to the part of the seder where we were supposed to eat the maror and feeling very unhappy. I was a picky eater and as a child didn’t eat anything spicy. I never willingly put the maror in my mouth. I would put the tiniest bit on the matzah, not even enough to actually taste anything bitter and would eat the matzah so quickly no one would notice that it didn’t even have a hint of bitter herbs on it. As children, we are told what to do and what not to do all the time. Oftentimes this creates a fear of trying new things. For many people, this can create lifelong limitations on our ability to step through fear and engage in new opportunities. Eating the maror was like that for me when I was a child. I was afraid of the experience and not able to see that the bitterness was something I could learn to tolerate, perhaps even enjoy someday.

In my 20s and 30s, I attended many seders. Some were held in relatives’ homes, some in the family homes of college friends. Each year, when we got to the part of the seder where we needed to taste the maror, I would reluctantly add a small dab of bitter herbs on my matzah, always ready to swig it down with a giant gulp of water as soon as the sharpness hit my throat. This, of course, defeats the purpose of actually experiencing and tasting that bitterness.

By my 30s, I was swept into unchartered territory in my life. I was newly married and we relocated to a different part of the country. I became a mother and began raising children and learning that parenting is one of the most unknown journeys we’ll take on in life. As I sat pondering the idea of the mitzvah of maror during the Passover seder, I finally realized it is not only a reminder of the bitterness that our ancestors felt but also the evolution that we each make as human beings during our lives.

This year when we make our seder, I look forward to putting a heaping teaspoon of maror on my matzah and thinking about how, in my 40s, I have done things I never dreamed I could do in my life — like writing a book, starting a new business, and sharing a personal story of grief and healing. Forty isn’t a time for fear; it’s a liberating, freeing time that seems to correlate with the idea that anything is possible. Facing our life full on, grappling with its joys and sorrows has become a daily part of my life. Bitterness has to be present in our lives to have joy.

This Passover season, I hope you will think of the mitzvah of maror as an opportunity — a reminder that while we do have bitterness in our lives, allowing ourselves to experience some of that bitterness or fear might actually have unexpected lessons as well.

Enjoy your matzah and maror!

Human Atonement or Animal Cruelty?

Early morning on the day before Yom Kippur, groups of Jews will be gathering to hold squawking chickens by the feet and twirl them over their head while chanting a prayer. After the twirling, the chickens will be ritually slaughtered and given to the poor.

Kaparos, literally atonements, which has been performed in Los Angeles at the Santa Monica Chabad House and at Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad, is one of the strangest-looking customs in Jewish liturgy. It is done to inspire repentance and to impress upon its adherents the seriousness of Yom Kippur. However, the practice has inspired the ire of animal rights groups, who consider it cruel to the chickens, and many are urging that Jews who practice this custom do so using money instead, which is an acceptable substitute.

Kaparos is not a mitzvah but a post-talmudic minhag (Jewish custom). It originated sometime during the middle ages. The idea was that since the Hebrew word for man (gever) and rooster were the same, a man’s sins — and his punishments — could be symbolically transferred to the rooster, in the same way that during the times of the Temple, people bought animal sacrifices as penance for their sins. Therefore, while slinging the chicken during kaparos, the person chants, "This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. This chicken shall go to its death, and I shall proceed to a good, long life and peace."

Today, some people perform kaparos by swinging a bag of money over their head and then donate that money to charity.

Yet, kaparos is not a substitute for repentance, and it should not be assumed that someone could achieve penance and absolution by having a chicken take the rap for all their transgressions.

"The chicken does not replace me," said Rabbi Shneur Zalman Schmukler, a shochet (ritual slaughterer) who arranges kaparos with chickens at Yeshivat Ohr Elchonon Chabad. "The chicken is an innocent chicken. The chicken will not take the sin away from me, but what the chicken does is impress upon me, that what is happening to the chicken [should be] happening to me and this will arouse in me feelings of teshuvah [repentance]. Watching the chicken get slaughtered awakens you to the physical gravity of Yom Kippur."

Schmukler said that using chickens for kaparos is a deep and mystical kabbalistic custom, that combines the maximizes the forces of chesed (lovingkindness) in the world.

"Early morning is a time when God’s middos hachesed [kind attributes] shine, and the reason we slaughter the chicken is to oppress the powers of gevurah [restrictions]," he said. "Blood is a symbol of anger, because when you are angry the blood goes to your face, and when we take the blood out a chicken, we make a tikkun [spiritual correction] and sweeten the energies of the world. This is what kaparos is on a spiritual level."

But animal rights activist feel that kaparos produces particularly sour physical energy. Los Angeles kaparos locales are often the site of protests and demonstrations against the way the chickens are handled. These activists say that the chickens are cooped up in cages that are too small, without enough air or water, and that chickens are often harmed before they are slaughtered in the general chaotic atmosphere of the kaparos ceremony.

"Typically, we get a whole lot of letters [protesting kaparos] from grass-roots animal-rights groups at this time of year," said Madeline Bernstein, president of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Los Angeles (SPCA), a law-enforcement organization. "The theory is if you swing the chickens around, then you can use the chickens to eat. But if the swinging around causes them injury and suffering, then they are no longer qualified for kosher slaughter…. People have found suffering chickens with their necks broken but still alive. We wish that it would stop. While we are constantly assured that they are swung gently, it doesn’t preclude accidents."

Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns (UPC), a Virginia- based organization that, according to their Web site, is "dedicated to the compassionate and respectful treatment of domestic fowl," said that her organization has been lobbying the SPCA and rabbis for years to intervene and require some basic humane treatment of kaparos birds.

"It is great if people choose a compassionate alternative, and instead of twirling a chicken they toss up a coin instead," said Matt Prescott, campaign coordinator for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

But Schmukler says that the really proper way to do kaparos is with chickens, and that the protesters are wasting their time.

"People slaughter and eat chickens all over the city," he said. "What is the difference [between us and them]? They should go to packing houses and demonstrate there."

Kaparos with chickens will take place at Yeshiva Ohr Elchonon Chabad, 7215 Waring Ave., Los Angeles, on Sunday, Oct. 5, 6 a.m.-noon. For more information, call (323) 937-3763.

Star Power

It all started with a void in the contemporary family.

"Our conversations with children are not deep enough," says psychiatrist Cece Feiler. "If you can’t talk to your children, they grow up into adults who don’t care.

"It forces you to slow down, to reflect and to interact in a meaningful way," Feiler says.

So together with actress Heidi Haddad, she created the Shabbat Box of Questions, whose Star of David-shaped question cards do inspire fun, even soul-searching moments.

Shabbat Box’s origin began on a ski trip during which, while enduring slow service at a restaurant, Haddad says her husband, David, started asking their children — Jackie, 10, Jamie, 8, and Jake, 6 — questions "to keep the kids from melting down. And it worked."

Haddad and Feiler consulted Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi Steven Leder before finalizing their gift idea. Ever since, the two have been selling their product at charity events.

One Shabbat, the Haddad family brought out the Shabbat Box, and David Haddad picked up a question that asked what his greatest fear was. He admitted it was public speaking, which surprised Jackie, who shared this phobia. And that’s when Jamie admitted her greatest fear: not being the center of attention.Feiler, who has tested Shabbat Box on her children — Jordan, 10, Matisse, 8, and Shana, 6 — adds, "We’re finding our non-Jewish friends are enjoying them, too." In fact, Haddad and Feiler are already planning sequels, including a Christmas edition.

The questions are not all strictly Jewish. In addition to cards such as "What is a mitzvah?" there are ones such as "If you could stand up and fight for one cause that would make a difference in the world, what would it be?" Shabbat Box is an excuse to strengthen family ties, its creators say.

Feiler says, "If more families were engaged in communication, there wouldn’t be more war, more divorces, more children in therapy with me."

For information on The Shabbat Box of Questions, visit