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Happy Easter to those who celebrate!

To my Christian friends and loved ones, I wish a Happy Easter! May your day be filled with alleluias.

In honor of the season, I'll link back to something I wrote and shared here in 2009, a post about two Easter services (one in 2003, one in 2009) at a local Episcopal church. Here's a taste:

What I remember of that Easter service: one of the acolytes had bright yellow streamers on a tall bendy rod, which he waved over the community as he processed down the aisle. Everyone wore their Easter best, including pastel hats on some of the ladies and frilly dresses on some of the little girls. The rector's sermon included verses from Rumi, and at the end, when he concluded with the words "will you rise?" we were all so moved that we took his question as a rhetorical/spiritual one, not a literal invitation to stand.

Many Jews have inchoate feelings of apprehension about Easter. The liturgy of Holy Week (with its story of Jesus' death, blamed on the Jews until the late 20th century) has historically sparked anti-Jewish violence at this season. Accusations that Jews tortured Christian children and/or used their blood for making our Passover matzot resulted in Eastertide violence against Jews in England in the twelfth century (see The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich), Lisbon in the sixteenth century (the Easter Massacre) and the twentieth century (the First Kishinev Pogrom.) (For more on this history, read Why Some Jews Fear the Passion at Christianity Today.) It can be hard to shed the collective memory of these stories.

But whatever of that was dormant in me, six years ago, was washed away that Easter morning and replaced with a renewed awareness of how sweet it can be to be (in Reb Zalman's terms) a "spiritual peeping Tom," looking to see how other people "get it on with God."

You can read the whole post here: A field trip into Easter.

A Sestina for Counting the Omer

We mark the Omer day
by day, spring unfolding light
as snowflakes in the breeze. One
follows another; we measure each week
of this dusty journey through
wild unknowing. Come and count.

Time to make our qualities count.
The kaleidoscope shifts every day,
each dawn a lens that God shines through.
What in me will be revealed as light
streams into me each week?
Seven colors of the rainbow make one

beam of white. God is One
and God's in everything we count.
Lovingkindness permeates the first week,
then boundaries, harmony, each day
a different lens for light
to warm our hearts as it glows through.

And when the Omer count is through?
We'll stand at Sinai, every one
-- every soul that's ever been -- light
as Chagall's floating angels. Count
with me, and treasure each day.
A holy pause caps every week.

Endurance comes into play: week
four. We wonder, will we make it through?
Humility and splendor in a single day,
two opposites folded into one.
Roots strengthen us as we count.
Every day, more work to do and stronger light.

Torah is black fire on white, light
of our lives. In the seventh week
time warps and ripples as we count.
Kingship and presence come through,
transcendence and immanence bundled as one,
wholly revealed on the forty-ninth day...

Feel the light now pouring through.
Each week the seven sefirot become one.
It's time to count the Omer, now, today.

Marc+Chagall+Floating+Flying+loversThe Counting of the Omer -- as regular readers no doubt know by now! -- is the holy process of marking and counting each of the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation.

In the kabbalistic system, each week represents one of the seven lower sefirot, and so does each day within each week. So the first week is the week of chesed, lovingkindness; week two is gevurah, boundaries; week three is tiferet, harmony; week four is netzach, endurance; week five is hod, humility and splendor; week six is yesod, roots or foundation; and week seven is malchut, kingship / sovereignty / Shekhinah. Within each week, also, the seven qualities play out day by day.

Chagall2"Every day there is more work to do / and stronger light" is a couplet from Marge Piercy's glorious poem "Season of the Egg," which I read every year during my Pesach seder. I abbreviated it slightly to make it work here as a single line. (You can find her poem online in this blog post -- just scroll down a bit.) And as for the reference to Chagall's floating angels, here are thumbnails of two beautiful Marc Chagall paintings which feature people floating. I like to think of them as people whose spirits can't help but soar.

On children, and suffering, and this day of the Omer

Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work. So taught the poet Jason Shinder, may his memory be a blessing, and that sentence has become one of my mantras. It works for me on both a poetic level (whatever is obscuring the poem I think I need to write, that very thing is probably what I really ought to be writing about) and a spiritual one (whatever life "stuff" is getting in the way of my spiritual practice needs to itself become the spiritual practice.) The work -- of creativity, of spiritual life, of living -- is made of whatever I experience in the moment, not whatever I imagine I ought to be experiencing, or whatever I had planned to experience.

Lately what's getting in the way of (at least some of) the work is latent anxiety about the certainty that our son will experience pain. This has arisen for me because we've had a few medical adventures recently, and as a result I've been newly-confronted with reminders that just as everyone who lives in a body sometimes experiences pain, so will our little boy. Intellectually I can tell you that nothing he's experiencing is a big deal. (Really, really not a big deal.) But emotionally, the prospect of our son suffering stops me in my tracks. I would do anything to forestall or prevent that, if I could. As would any (healthy) parent; the sentiment is so obvious that it's banal. Of course I wish I could protect him from pain. And I can't.

I know that his minor bumps and bruises and routine procedures are vanishingly insignificant, and that not all children are so fortunate. Take those two little boys who are sick, about whom I wrote back in the fall -- a six-year-old with leukemia; a four-year-old with a brain tumor -- just to name two examples from within my online circle of friends. (Sam appears, thankfully, to be doing great. ETA: As of the next day, Sam's leukemia has relapsed. Gus is finishing chemo; please read his mom's latest update, which talks about their journey and the other kids they've met along the way.) There are so many sick kids in the world. I ministered to a few of them when I was a student chaplain. I know that I would have a much harder time with that part of hospital chaplaincy now that I'm someone's mom. I know in my head that children suffer, but I can't bear to know it in my heart. Or: I know it in brief flickers, and then I put at least a partial lid on that knowing, because I can't inhabit that knowledge and also function in the world. My heart feels too tender.

Several of my friends have been reading and discussing Sonali Deraniyagala's book Wave (see, e.g., Lorianne DiSabato's post after Wave at Hoarded Ordinaries, or Teju Cole's review A Better Quality of Agony in the New Yorker.) Deraniyagala lost her entire family in a tsunami: husband, children, parents, everyone she loved. Wave is her memoir and her remembrance of them and of what she lost. I believe that the book is powerful and well-written and important, bit I don't know if I can bear to read it. There, too, I'm operating out of heart rather than head. I'm inhabiting the realm of yetzirah, emotions, rather than briyah, intellect. Intellectually I believe that Deraniyagala's book is tremendous. Emotionally, I don't think I can face it. At least not right now.

"Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." I've seen that quote floating around in various forms for years. (It's attributed to Elizabeth Stone, author of A Boy I Once Knew.) Granted, it's a cliché to say that I didn't wholly understand it until I had a child, but I suppose there's a reason why some clichés endure. Yes: some part of my heart is walking around in the world, learning and trying and striving and falling and laughing and wailing and doing all of the things that children do. A part of my heart is out there, independent, living on his own. And I can't spare him suffering, even though I wish I could. It's a kind of emotional and spiritual exposure, as though some part of my own heart and spirit which had been safely tucked-away were now open to the world, to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, to the physical suffering which every body comes to know.

In the Counting of the Omer, today is the day of tiferet she'b'chesed, harmony and balance within lovingkindness. The quality of chesed, of overflowing love, is one that (the kabbalists teach) we and God share. "Parent" is one of our foremost metaphors for God. God is the Parent Who births all of creation, who feels our joys and our sorrows, who suffers when we suffer. And God also manifests through the quality of tiferet, harmony and balance. Today is the day when, as the kaleidoscope of the Omer turns, the two qualities reflect and refract one another. The day of balance within the week of lovingkindness. Lovingkindness filtered and framed through the kind of harmoniousness which arises when everything is in balance.

Maybe my work today is to (re)learn how to imbue chesed with today's quality of tiferet, to temper my overflowing openheartedness with the harmony which arises when good love has good boundaries and balance is reached. Suffering is real, and children experience suffering, and I wouldn't want to be the kind of person who doesn't feel tenderhearted dismay at remembering that reality anew. But today is a day for finding balance within that space of tender heart. Maybe I can find it through celebrating the caregivers, parents and grandparents and nurses and doctors and friends, whose loving hands manifest the presence of God in caring for all of the children in need.

Meeting our children where they are

On Pesach, the child asks the parent: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" The Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev sees in this a deep teaching about how to parent and how to be like God.

He begins this teaching in a slightly odd place: by wondering aloud why we have the tradition of ritually asking this question at Pesach and not, for instance, at Sukkot, when we're dwelling in little huts with permeable roofs. He notes that there's a teaching (in the Gemara) that some people say the world was created in Tishri, and others say it was created in Nisan. Some say the new year is in the fall, and others say the new year is in the spring.

Ultimately, his answer to this question ("is the new year in the fall or in the spring?") is "yes." Which is to say: they're both meaningful, though in different ways. In Tishri (the Days of Awe), we celebrate the creation of the universe which happened, he says, through chesed, divine lovingkindness. This is the birthday of creation, the new year for all beings and all things. Creation arose because of God's overflowing compassion and lovingkindness, and that lovingkindness extends to everything.

In Nisan (during Pesach), we celebrate the miracles and wonders which God performed in liberating us from slavery. Both of these are important beginnings: the creation of the world, and the creation of our people as a people. (Indeed -- we mention both in the kiddush, the blessing over wine, every Shabbat.) But they're different in tone. The Tishri new year is a universal new year, a moment of celebration for all existence. The Nisan new year is a particularistic new year, commemorating our community's origins.

And the question "why is this night different from all other nights" isn't asked at that other end of the year, at the universalistic new year of all creation. We ask it at Pesach, our festival of liberation. Here's R' Levi Yitzchak:

The Holy Blessed One constricts God's-self for the sake of God's people Israel, and takes great pleasure in this, and in this God's will is fulfilled. An example of this is the question of the son to the father ["Why is this night different" etc]. For the wisdom of the father is greater than that of the son, and only through his love for his son does the father constrict himself in order to offer a response to the son's question. And this is the example, as is known: the Holy Blessed One constricts God's self in the qualities of Israel and takes pride in them and their doing of God's will.

Or -- phrased in a more contemporary idiom --

On Pesach, it's the child's job to ask, "Why is this night different?" And it's the parent's job to constrict her/himself, and to channel love and knowledge into an answer which the child can process -- and also to take joy and pride in the child's growth and desire to know.

God's wisdom is greater than ours, as a parent's wisdom is greater than their child's. In love, God contracts himself/herself in order to make room for us and to answer us where we are. Just so, we too can pull back  in order to make space for our children, and to answer their questions in a way which will reach them where they are. When we pull back to make space for our children to grow, we follow in God's footsteps.

Kedushat Levi teaches us that God takes great pleasure in this tzimtzum, this process of self-constriction which makes space for us in the world. And God takes pleasure in us and in our questioning and in our growth. Like a loving parent, God holds back some of God's greatness in order to make room for us and to respond in a way that we can hear. And like God, it's our job as parents to gauge where our children are at, and to relate to them where they authentically are.


(You can find this teaching in ספר קדשת–לוי השלם; it's the second teaching in his דרוש לפשח / "Pesach teachings" section.)

Today is the First Day of the Omer!

ColorfulOmerChartToday is the first day of the Omer -- the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and revelation!

I'm not going to manage daily Omer posts this year (as I did last year on my congregational blog), but here's my post for Day 1 of the Omer last year -- just ignore the Gregorian date, since the first day of the Omer this year began at sundown on Monday March 25, which is to say, last night.

The kabbalists of Jewish tradition developed the idea that these seven weeks are a special time for focusing on a set of seven sefirot, seven divine qualities which we share with God: lovingkindness, boundaried strength, harmony and balance, endurance, humility, roots / foundation, and nobility / sovereignty.

I like to think of these qualities as facets of a gem, and during each week of the Omer, a different facet is held up to the light. Or perhaps, lenses / facets of a prism. Shine white light through a prism, and the seven colors of the rainbow emerge. Shine divinity through the prism of these seven weeks, and these seven qualities come into new focus.

And because there are seven days in each week, we rotate through the seven qualities each week, too.

Today is the day of chesed she'b'chesed, lovingkindness within lovingkindness. Abiding love, abounding love, lovingkindness and compassion which overflows our hearts and spills into the world around us. May we embody this quality as we move through the world today, on this first step toward the wonder of the revelation at Sinai.

If you're looking for Omer-counting resources, here are four wonderful books for counting the Omer: one by Shifrah Tobacman, one by Rabbi Min Kantrowitz, one by Rabbi Jill Hammer, and one by Rabbi Yael Levy. Rabbi Levy is at Mishkan Shalom, and each year she sends out daily Omer teachings via email and Facebook -- you can learn more, and sign up, here: Count the Omer with Us from Passover to Shavuot. And the spiraling map of the Omer count which illustrates this post was adapted from the one I found here: Counting of the Omer | Temple B'nai Abraham -- but I added the color-coding and the indications of which qualities are ascendant on each day. Here's a printable pdf if you want it: ColorfulOmerChart [pdf]

First night of Pesach: I don't want to forget


The experience of reading my poem "Order" at the start of the seder, and managing for once not to break into tears at reaching the mention of my grandfather, of blessed memory, who taught me how to make matzah balls.



My son excitedly explaining to his friend that they were going to look for the hidden matzah and then get presents! And then the three kids running around the house looking for the afikoman. Hearing them talking to each other about how they had to just -- keep -- looking.



Reading R' Lynn Gottlieb's poem about removing the hametz in the month of Nisan, which I've read at my seders for probably 15 years now. Going around the table, stanza by stanza, the familiar words connecting this year with all the years before.



My son singing the "a-a-men" at the end of each borei pri hagafen blessing, after each of the four traditional cups of wine. No matter where he was when we blessed the wine -- whether at the table, or playing in the living room -- he piped up and sang the amen for us, with obvious pride.



Beginning the Maggid / Storytelling section of our seder with the "story about stories" -- which ends with "'All I can do is tell the story, and this must be sufficient.' And it was sufficient." Ethan reading the Martín Espada poem during Motzi/Matzah. My mother-in-law reading the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem during Hallel.



I knew that a few thousand miles away, my extended clan was together at my brother's house, singing all of the prayers which were part of my childhood seder soundtrack. I love those old melodies and those old words, and I'm sorry I didn't get to sing them with my parents and my siblings and my cousins.

But I also love the poems and readings and songs which have become part of our own idiosyncratic household tradition. And I'm so grateful to be able to celebrate Pesach, this year and every year, with family and beloved friends.

Chag sameach to all! I hope your Passover is sweet.

14 Nisan: Being

BlogExodusI always get caught up in the details of Pesach. The recipes, the matzah balls, the groceries, the cooking, the haggadah, the psalms, the songs. I always want to create a perfectly meaningful seder: for myself, for my family, for my guests. I love this holiday so fiercely that I want to share that love with everyone. I want everyone to come away from the table feeling nourished in all four worlds of body, heart, mind, and soul. I want to experience the spiritual peak of being magically swept up to the top of the mountain with God at Pesach -- so that as I begin the long climb back up to the spiritual heights of Shavuot, I'm inspired and enlivened by knowing just what joys await me once I get there again.

In my haggadah there is a poem by Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, who is now a friend and colleague but who was known to me only by reputation when I first discovered her work many years ago. That poem speaks of the process of bedikat chametz, removing the leaven from our homes on the eve of Pesach. (Here's a short ritual for bedikat chametz, which also includes that poem: BedikatChametz.pdf) After we read that poem, at my seder, we sometimes go around the table and share an emotional or internal hametz which we want to relinquish as Pesach begins. Often, what I need to relinquish is my fantasy of the perfect seder -- my fantasy that I can create an experience which will sweep everyone up into ecstasy, which will wholly connect all who are present with our ancestors and our community and our God.

This yearning for seder perfection, bumping up against the inevitable realities of the world's natural imperfection, is something I've wrestled with for years. And it is, if anything, even more true now that we are parents. I want to create the perfect seder -- and I know the odds are good that at some point during the evening, our three-year-old will have an entirely age-appropriate tantrum because his usual routines are disrupted, or because we won't let him watch cartoons during the seder, or because he's overstimulated and up too late. I want to create the perfect seder -- and I know that there is no such thing; that the childhood seders I've enshrined in memory weren't perfect; that even if I could fill my table with scholars and sages who love the tradition even more than I do, the seder wouldn't achieve perfection.

Far better to learn to find the perfection in what is, instead of wishing for a kind of perfection we can never attain. The seder isn't just about doing, although there are certainly a lot of things to do in order for the evening to be complete. (The fifteen steps from kadesh to nirtzah, the songs and prayers and psalms, the food rituals of hardboiled egg and matzah ball soup...) The seder is also about being. It's a chance to experience being free. To be in the moment, to be with friends and family, to be blessed by the light of the full moon of Nisan in 5773 which will never shine again after this night. It's a chance to be joyful even when the glass breaks, or the kugel burns, or the children don't pay attention. After all the flurry of work and preparations -- cleaning, cooking, studying, readying -- it's a chance to just be.

Chag Pesach sameach to one and all. May this holiday be whatever you need it to be.

This post is part of #blogExodus. Follow other posts on the path to Pesach via the #blogExodus and #Exodusgram hashtags!

13 Nisan: Changing

This is a story about change.
Look: the seas are parting.
It's happening now. Open your eyes.

We were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt
but God brought us out of there.
This is a story about change.

The womb which had kept us alive
became constricting.
It's happening now. Open your eyes.

It's time to forget our anxieties
and leap off the precipice.
This is a story about change.

Even God is all about change --
I Am Becoming Who I Am Becoming.
It's happening now. Open your eyes.

The moon is almost full
to light our wanderings.
This is a story about change.
It's happening now. Open your eyes.

This is not-quite-a-villanelle. (A traditional villanelle rhymes, whereas this does not.) It's inspired by villanelles, anyway, and by their use of repeated lines.

Every year we read the same seder story, and every year we experience it differently -- not because it has changed, but because we have. (The same is true of Torah which we read week by week.) In this poem, the same lines appear, but hopefully mean something slightly different each time they recur.

This post is part of #blogExodus. Follow other posts on the path to Pesach via the #blogExodus and #Exodusgram hashtags!


12 Nisan: Redeeming

BlogExodusIn our daily liturgy, in one of the blessings surrounding the Shema, we praise God Who redeems us from Egypt, Who makes our transformation possible. That redemption from Egypt is a (arguably the) major theme of the Pesach seder.

For many of us, redemption is a difficult concept to wrap our heads around. We know what it means to redeem a coupon. But what do we mean when we say that God redeems us?

The Pesach story tells us that we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt and that God redeemed us from slavery. That's one kind of redemption: being rescued from dire straits, from the constriction of Mitzrayim.

The name Mitzrayim stems from the root צר, which means constricted or narrow. Slavery is a form of physical and spiritual constriction. God busted us out of there, bringing us to the sometimes-terrifying wide-open-spaces of freedom, the open spaces of wilderness in which we could actively choose to enter into relationship with something greater than ourselves.

And, of course, the Pesach seder is filled with invocations of a future redemption, the redemption which will mark our entry into the messianic age when the work of perfecting creation is complete. Or the redemption which will arise when Moshiach, the messiah, walks among us bringing transformation. (Depends on how you understand "messiah," among other things. I wrote a somewhat clumsy discursus on that in 2004; really, for a better sense of my understanding of messianic time, read my 2011 poem On that day.)

The symbol of that future redemption is Elijah's Cup, the cup of juice or wine on every seder table from which, tradition says, Elijah invisibly sips at every seder in the world. Elijah is the harbinger of messianic redemption, the prophet who announces the coming of a world transformed and healed.

The seder meal bridges the redemption that happened back then, at the moment of the Exodus, and the redemption which awaits us in days to come. When we call God our Redeemer, we are affirming that God is that force which lifts us out of difficult circumstances, which helps us to become better than we were before, with Whom we partner in trying to heal the broken world.

Each of us is commanded to experience the story of the Exodus as though it had happened to us, ourselves, not to some ancient and possibly imaginary ancestors eons ago. God lifts us out of slavery and constriction every day, if we are willing and able to reach out of ourselves and yearn for more. Redemption isn't just in our distant past and in the unimaginable future. Redemption can be now.


For more on this: try Kolel's Reb on the Web article Redemption.

This post is part of #blogExodus. Follow other posts on the path to Pesach via the #blogExodus and #Exodusgram hashtags!

11 Nisan: Counting

BlogExodusCounting the days. Pesach is coming soon, sooner, sooner.

Counting how many people are coming to seder. How many on first night? How many on second night? Do we have enough silverware, enough wineglasses?

Counting ingredients. How many eggs do I need for the matzah balls? How many to hardboil? How many for the potato kugel? I wrote in a poem years ago that "no matter how many you buy / there are never quite enough eggs at Pesach," and every year it turns out to be true.

How many napkin rings do I have? (Not enough. Time to order a dozen, quickly.) How many vinyl Pesach placemats do I have, to protect the tablecloth where the three-year-olds will be? (Better buy three, to be on the safe side.)

Counting haggadot. Of those, this year, I have enough already. Spiral-bound, fronted with brilliant orange paper and a clear plastic cover. Some of the pages are lightly stained with wine or horseradish from last year or the year before. The sign of a haggadah well-used, well-loved.

This year, two seder plates: the beautiful ceramic one my mother's sister gave us as a wedding gift, and a plastic one from Target so there's one that the kids can explore without fear. This year, ten felt plague puppets in a glass basket which used to belong to my father's mother and which came to me as a gift from my "other mother" years ago. The first Rachel Barenblat had given it to her, and she passed it on to me. 

And in the flurry of all of these preparations, I know that as soon as we reach the second night of Pesach, we begin a new kind of counting. The Counting of the Omer, measuring the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot, between liberation and redemption. I'm so caught-up in seder preparations, both physical and spiritual, that it's hard to believe that seder will launch us into seven weeks of intensive spiritual work, opportunities for all kinds of revelation. It's a bit like being pregnant, focusing energy on labor and delivery, but knowing that after birth there's a whole new journey ahead. New time to measure, new days and weeks to count.

For now, the clock ticks down until Monday evening, until the fifteen steps of the seder which we'll count one by one as landmarks on our journey. Time, now, to make our preparations count.

This post is part of #blogExodus. Follow other posts on the path to Pesach via the #blogExodus and #Exodusgram hashtags!

10 Nisan: Leaving

Why do we eat matzah? Because during the Exodus, our ancestors had no time to wait for dough to rise. So they improvised flat cakes without yeast, which could be baked and consumed in haste. The matzah reminds us that when the chance for liberation comes, we must seize it even if we do not feel ready—indeed, if we wait until we feel fully ready, we may never act at all.

That's in The Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach (version 7.1, 2011). The same sentiment appears in The VR Haggadah for Pesach (Abridged & Expanded) (version 7.2, 2012) in the poem "Ready" -- "But if you wait until you feel fully ready / you may never take the leap at all." (That's one of the three poems I shared during my smicha ceremony a few years ago.)

It's one of my favorite ideas in the seder and in the Exodus story. It's a deep spiritual truth. Sometimes we have to leap before we feel entirely ready to do so. Reaching freedom means stretching ourselves beyond our comfort zone. I always get a little shiver when we reach this line in the haggadah, because it feels so real and so true to me.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav has a beautiful teaching on this theme (sometimes jointly attributed to his amanuensis, Reb Nosson.) I posted it here some years ago: On leaping, without delay. The gist is this: Mitzrayim, the Narrow Place, exists in every era and in every human experience. And each of us is called to take the leap of leaving Mitzrayim in our own lives.

When the Israelites left Egypt, they did so in haste, without waiting for their bread to rise. We too must take leaps into the unknown, and in the moment of so doing, we need to resist the impulse to slow ourselves down by worrying about what's coming next. Reb Nachman frames it in terms of: when you realize that you're mired in Mitzrayim, take the leap to free yourself without worrying about how you're going to support yourself in your new life.

I hadn't yet studied that text when I first wrote "if we wait until we feel fully ready, we may never act at all" -- but I think we're on the same wavelength there, Reb Nachman and I. Worrying about parnassah (in his framing) can be a way of waiting until one feels fully ready: until one has a complete plan in place, a new job and new apartment, a new situation all mapped-out. And believe me, I'm one of those people who likes to have a plan in place. Maybe that's why I find this teaching so valuable. My temperament inclines me to take my time and wait until I have things all-planned-out, but the Pesach story reminds me that sometimes I have to take the leap and trust that God will provide.

This post is part of #blogExodus. Follow other posts on the path to Pesach via the #blogExodus and #Exodusgram hashtags!


You Don't Have To Be Wrong for Me To Be Right: R' Brad Hirschfield on faith without fanaticism

We need to see that everyone who is not just like us is not some kind of restoration project, just waiting for us to "fix" them and turn them into poor imitations of ourselves. Do we really want a world of people who look, think, and act just like we do? That's not spiritual depth or religious growth, but simply narcisissm with lots of footnotes.

You-dont-have-be-wrong-for-me-brad-hirschfield-paperback-cover-artThat's the kind of wisdom I've come to expect from Rabbi Brad Hirschfield.

Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is one of the co-presidents of Clal, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Along with the other co-president, Rabbi Irwin Kula, he teaches at our Rabbis Without Borders fellows retreats. On my way home from our most recent retreat, I started reading his book You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism.

I knew that R' Brad identifies as Orthodox, and I had a vague sense that his spiritual trajectory had been quite a journey. But I didn't realize quite how broad that journey was until I began reading this book. In the early chapters he describes his falling-in-love with Orthodoxy; his desire, as a senior in high school, to study for a year in Israel; and his immersion in the culture of the settlers of Hebron.

I visited Hebron back in 2008 (see A day in Bethlehem and Hebron), but I didn't go into the settlement, and I didn't meet anyone who lived in that part of the city. Early in this book, R' Brad offers a stark and unflinching description both of what drew him into the movement -- and what caused him to leave. This is the longest quote I'll offer, but I don't want to abridge it any further, because this is such a powerful recounting, and it's a voice I haven't seen in print elsewhere. R' Brad writes:

I was a pilgrim who had finally reached his destination. I felt whole. Complete. This was what God wanted. This was what God had commanded: Brad Hirschfield, nice Jewish boy from the North Shore, standing at a tomb in Hebron, surrounded by one hundred thousand Palestinians who hated my presence there, singing Hebrew prayers.

I know it may sound ridiculous now, but then I didn't question it for one moment. There was not an inkling of doubt.

[The settle underground] began advocating for an increasingly harsh response against violence directed at Jews....Most of this made sense to me. Jews were being killed for settling in what had once been Jewish homes. This was our land, given to us by God.

For two years I gave myself over to Levinger and his group and the militant arm of the settlers' movement. When settlers Menachem Livni, Shauli Nir, and Uzi Shabaraf (whom I knew, although I was not in Hebron that day) fired into the Hebron Islamic College and killed two Palestinian children, I really felt sick...

Most of my group felt it was a tragic mistake, but they also thought it a natural result of continuous violence against us...No one questioned the wisdom of building the Hebron community in light of what had happened.

I found myself outside the fold. I stopped going to Hebron. I had no idea how to discuss how I felt with anyone within the settlers' movement. And I had no desire to talk to anyone outside about it, either... I was no longer a pilgrim. I didn't quiet know what I was.

It's so easy for those of us outside of a particular fold to castigate those within, and vice versa. And that's true whether the fold is the settler movement, a religious denomination, a community, a subculture, a nation. This book opened up for me both some of what might draw a person into religious fanaticism -- and also the unique lessons such a person could bring with them upon, mercifully, exiting that world for one which is more expansive and pluralistic.

After 9/11, he writes, he realized that he needed to confront his own past, to begin writing and speaking about his experiences as an ardent young settler. "Religion had flown those planes into the Twin Towers, and I had practiced a form of that religion. It is the religion of pilgrims, of people who see no way but their own way, and treat people who do not support them as mistakes that need to be erased," writes R' Brad. Near as I can tell, he's dedicated his rabbinate to teaching that there is another way.

Continue reading "You Don't Have To Be Wrong for Me To Be Right: R' Brad Hirschfield on faith without fanaticism" »

9 Nisan: Asking

The oldest editions of the Mishnah record 3 questions asked at the Passover seder:

Look, how different this night is from all other nights!
On all other nights, we dip once, this night twice.
On all other nights, we eat chametz or matzah, this night – only matzah.
On all other nights, we eat meat roasted, fried or cooked, this night only roasted.

(Okay, the semanticists among you may argue that this really doesn't involve any questions at all -- it's an exclamation and three statements -- but roll with me here.) The Mishnah is the essential source text for rabbinic Judaism. It was originally oral tradition; it was written down around 200 C.E.  (Learn more: Mishnah - My Jewish Learning.) The oldest Mishnah manuscripts are handwritten. Once the questions entered print, though, they changed a little bit:

They fill a second cup for him. At this stage the son questions his father.
If the son is unintelligent, his father instructs him to ask, 'Why is this night different from all other nights?'
On all [other] nights, we eat chametz or matzah, [but] on this night, [we eat] only matzah.
On all [other] nights, we eat all kinds of vegetables, [but] on this night, [we eat only] bitter herbs.
On all [other] nights, we eat meat roasted, stewed or boiled, [but] on this night, [we eat] only roasted [meat].
On all [other] nights, we dip [vegetables] once, [but] on this night, we dip [vegetables] twice.
And according to the son's intelligence, his father instructs him.

The Gemara -- the commentary which, along with the Mishna, makes up the Talmud (learn more: Gemara - My Jewish Learning) -- expands on this idea. It tells us that if the son has the wisdom to ask, he asks. If not, then the wife (of the person leading the seder) asks. (Their assumptions that the seder-leader was inevitably male and married were reasonable at that moment in time.) And if not, the Gemara tells us, the seder-leader asks himself.

I absolutely love that. Asking questions in order to more deeply understand the seder, and in order to have the emotional and spiritual of asking, is so central to the seder that one can even ask oneself the questions if one has to.

Of course, neither of those sets of questions is exactly like the ones we know now. In the Geonic period (6th to 11th centuries), the questions were changed once again, to the version we still sing today.

מַה נִּשְׁתַּנָּה הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מִכָּל הַלֵּילוֹת?
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין חָמֵץ וּמַצָּה. הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלּוֹ מַצָּה:
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין שְׁאָר יְרָקוֹת הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה מָרוֹר:
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אֵין אָנוּ מַטְבִּילִין אֲפִילוּ פַּעַם אֶחָת.
   הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה שְׁתֵּי פְעָמִים:
שֶׁבְּכָל הַלֵּילוֹת אָנוּ אוֹכְלִין בֵּין יוֹשְׁבִין וּבֵין מְסֻבִּין. הַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה כֻּלָּנוּ מְסֻבִּין:

Why is this night different from all other nights?
On all other nights we may eat either hametz or matzah; tonight, only matzah.
On all other nights we may eat a variety of green vegetables; tonight, we eat maror.
On all other nights we don't dip our foods even once; tonight, we dip twice.
On all other nights we may eat either seated or reclining; tonight, we recline.

The Four Questions are one of the most familiar and iconic elements of today's seder, and they've had this shape for a long time, but this wasn't their original shape. This is at least the fourth iteration. I love being able to trace their evolution, to see when the bitter herbs entered the picture, and when the roasted meat left the page.

BlogExodusThe roasted-meat question arose out of the tradition of bringing a lamb to the Temple for sacrifice. Intriguingly, it didn't leave the liturgy as soon as the Temple fell. When the Mishnah first appeared in print, the Temple had been gone for more than 100 years, but the questions recorded then still preserved the memory of that practice. By the Geonic period, enough time had elapsed that it didn't make sense to feature a question about that roasted sacrificial meat. But -- perhaps to preserve the structure of four questions -- those sages added a question about reclining, instead.

Questions matter. The act of questioning is central to the experience of seder, and central to being a Jew. Some of us today ask ourselves a fifth question: from what do you hope to be liberated in the year to come?

I've come to think that a lot of the time, the questions are more important than their answers. Or: maybe what's important is the experience of questioning. Of caring enough to ask: how did this start? Why do we do it this way? What does it mean to say that our ancestors were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Holy Blessed One led us out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm? I don't necessarily need answers. (And I know that my answers change from year to year, as I grow and change.) I just need to always be able to ask.

This post is part of #blogExodus. Follow other posts on the path to Pesach via the #blogExodus and #Exodusgram hashtags!

Getting excited about the ALEPH Kallah

I just received my brochure for the ALEPH Kallah, and it's gorgeous -- I'm getting really excited about this amazing week of learning, davenen, and community. The brochure is also available for download as a pdf:


You can download the brochure at the Kallah website.

The class I'm teaching meets in the afternoon, and here's the description of that class:

Writing the Psalms of Our Hearts

The psalms are a deep repository of praise, thanksgiving, grief, and exaltation, one of our communal tools for connecting with God. In this class, each of us will become a psalmist. We'll awaken our spirits and hearts by praying select psalms together, warm up our intellectual muscles with writing exercises, and enter into a safe space for creativity as we each write our own psalms. After sharing our psalms aloud and sharing our responses to each others' work, we'll close by davening together once more. At week's end, we'll each take home a compilation of our collected psalms.

I'm trying to decide which of the morning classes I want to sign up for. R' Elliot Ginsburg's Sovev U'memalei: The Divine Within Us, Between Us, and Beyond All Our Namings? (I loved learning with Reb Elliot in rabbinic school, and I've missed his Hasidut classes.) Karen Barad and R' Fern Feldman's Infinity, Nothingness, and Being: Running and Returning, an Exploration in Quantum Physics and Kabbalah? R' Jeff Roth's Jewish Meditation Practices for an Awakened Heart? R' David Zaslow's Roots and Branches: the Jewish Roots of Christianity? So many good choices! (And there are many other morning offerings as well -- these are just the ones I personally find most tempting.)

I hope you'll join us in New Hampshire for an amazing week of learning, playing, praying, singing, connecting, and having your heart opened to the divine within and around us.

8 Nisan: Learning

עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְריִם. וַיּוֹצִיאֵנוּ יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מִשָּׁם, בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה, וְאִלּוּ לֹא הוֹצִיא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא אֶת־אֲבוֹתֵינוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, הֲרֵי אָנוּ וּבָנֵינוּ וּבְנֵי בָנֵינוּ, מְשֻׁעְבָּדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְרָיִם. וַאֲפִילוּ כֻּלָּנוּ חֲכָמִים, כֻּלָּנוּ נְבוֹנִים, כֻּלָּנוּ זְקֵנִים, כֻּלָּנוּ יוֹדְעִים אֶת־הַתּוֹרָה, מִצְוָה עָלֵינוּ לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרָיִם. וְכָל הַמַּרְבֶּה לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם, הֲרֵי זֶה מְשֻׁבָּח:

We were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Eternal led us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Had not the Holy Blessed One led our ancestors out of Egypt, we and our children and our children’s children would still be enslaved. Therefore, even if all of us were wise, all-discerning, scholars, sages and learned in Torah, it would still be our duty to tell the story of the Exodus.

(--from the traditional haggadah)


Even if all of us were wise, all-discerning, scholars, sages, and learned in Torah...

That's always been one of my favorite lines of the haggadah. Even if all of us were all of those things -- if gathered around the table were wholly enlightened beings, with immeasurable depth and breadth of knowledge; if we were scholars and sages, rabbis and mystics, versed in Torah and commentary from throughout the ages -- it would still be incumbent on us to tell the story of the Exodus. Telling that story would still be our sacred duty.

From this I discern that what matters is the telling. Not just our intellectual knowledge of the story, but the act of retelling the story each year: that's what constitutes us as a people. We are the people who every year pause to remember and re-enact the story of the Exodus. We tell ourselves into the story. We assert that the Holy Blessed One lifted us -- not (just) our ancestors, but us -- out of slavery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.

Every year we tell the same story, sing the same songs, read the same prayers. (Okay: some of us are more prone to change-ups and innovations than others. For some of us, the haggadah may shift and grow and change each year. But the central story is always the same.) And every year is different, because we are different. We bring ourselves to the table: our lives, our stories, our emotions, our experiences. This year's seder won't be exactly like the last.

The seder is a teaching tool, and each of us is a learner. No matter how wise we are, how discerning. No matter whether we are preschool children, or scholars with decades of Torah study under our belts. We come to the seder willing and ready to learn. Are there details of the story we hadn't noticed before? New interpretations we hadn't seen? Emotional resonances we hadn't considered? There is always something to be learned.



This post is part of #blogExodus. Follow other posts on the path to Pesach via the #blogExodus and #Exodusgram hashtags!


7 Nisan: Blessing

BlogExodusIn English the word blessing is a gerund, an ongoing-action word. I am blessing you; you are blessing me; I am blessing God; God is blessing us.

In Hebrew, ברכה / brakha is related to breikha (fountain) and berekh (knee). We bend ourselves in acknowledgement the fountain from Whom all blessings flow. (Those insights come from R' Marcia Prager in her book The Path of Blessing, which I reviewed back in 2004.)

The seder meal is full of blessings. We bless candles, bless wine, bless the greens we dip in salt water, bless matzah, bless hand-washing, bless our meal, bless the Holy Blessed One Who brought us out of Mitzrayim with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.

And then there are the blessings of our togetherness, of sitting around a table with loved ones, of entering into familiar stories and songs and poems and psalms, of retelling once again the story that makes us who we are. Experiencing seder is itself a blessing.

Several years ago I took a class at the old Elat Chayyim, taught by Rabbi Barry Barkan, on the practice of offering blessings. We studied a variety of texts relating to blessings. Barry also challenged us to give spontaneous / impromptu blessings to people over the course of the week. The first few times I turned to someone in the class and said, "May I give you a blessing?" I felt a little bit awkward, as though I were play-acting. But what I took away from that class is that each of us can be a conduit for the blessings that God pours into creation.

"Blessing is a state of being; it may not change the situation, but it changes our response to the situation," teaches Reb Barry. (Here's a transcript of one of his teachings on blessing, given over at the Aquarian Minyan in 2008.)

In Jewish tradition we don't simply speak blessings; our language speaks of making blessings . We can give blessings, or perhaps more accurately channel them (as R' Barry teaches), and we can make blessings (as when we bless the elements of the seder meal, blessing God Who creates all things.) And, as songwriter Debbie Friedman noted, drawing on Torah (may her memory be a blessing), we can make ourselves a blessing. Each of us can be a blessing in the world.

That's part of the gift of the Exodus. Once we were slaves, unable to bless, unable to access blessing in our own lives or to articulate it for others. The spiritual constriction of slavery precludes blessing. But now we understand ourselves to be freed from that constriction. We are free to enter into relationship with the Holy Blessed One -- to sanctify every moment of our lives -- and to channel divine blessing for those we meet.

This post is part of #blogExodus. Follow other posts on the path to Pesach via the #blogExodus and #Exodusgram hashtags!


A sweet scent: d'var Torah for Vayikra

Here's the d'var Torah I offered yesterday at my shul. (Crossposted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

This week as we begin the book of Vayikra, Leviticus, we enter into a mystical world of flour and oil, incense and entrails. We call these things sacrifices, though that English word misses the mark of what I think the Hebrew really means. The Hebrew word is קרבנות, which comes from the root which means to draw near. The korbanot are offerings intended to draw us near to God.

Again and again in this week's Torah portion we read that we are to make a ריח ניחח, a pleasing scent, to Adonai. I hear those words and I think of woodsmoke, fine incense, the mouthwatering aroma of good barbecue. Once upon a time we understood our korbanot as our way of putting something fragrant into the air for our invisible Deity to consume.

I like to think of the reiach nichoach created by our choices. Think about how we behave in the world, how we treat one another, whether or not we take the time for the spiritual practice of mitzvot.

Do our actions create a reiach nichoach, a sweet scent, for Adonai?

One of the offerings described in this parsha is an offering of unleavened wafers spread with fine oil -- what we might think of as fresh hot matzah with really good butter. Can we make our observance of Pesach, coming up in just a few short days, a korban, something which will draw us nearer to the Holy Blessed One? Can we set the intention of eating matzah that week with gratitude that we have this practice for remembering our story and celebrating our freedom?

Can we make choices which will create a spiritual fragrance to waft up to God on high?


I'll close with a Torah poem for this week's portion, which you can find in 70 faces, my collection of Torah poems, published by Phoenicia Publishing, 2011.



You'll need a smoker.
Get one from Home Depot
and tighten each screw and bolt
exactly as the directions teach.

Split birch logs, and maple
kindle knobs of charcoal
fan them with cardboard
layer the hardwoods to burn.

Place the bird with reverence
then close the lid. What rises
will perfume the neighborhood,
your clothes, your hair.

Two hours later it's blackened,
crisp and burnished, but
inside: so tender even
a butter knife cuts through...

What constitutes a drawing-near
two thousand years or so
after the last sacrifice, bull
or pigeon, went up in smoke?

It's not the roasting that matters,
that's just barbecue -- though
maybe it's a reminder
on some level too deep to name --

but anticipation, and gratitude.
So that what burns bright
on the altars of our hearts
sends a pleasing odor to Adonai.

6 Nisan: Cleaning

In my earliest seder memories, we went each year to Dallas to celebrate Pesach at my Aunt Sylvia and Uncle Bill's house. Usually we flew on Southwest; it took about an hour to get from San Antonio to Love Field. But somewhere in my childhood, we started alternating years: one year in Dallas, one year at our house in San Antonio.

On the years when we hosted the seder at our house, the preparation for Pesach always involved taking down the boxes of pesachdik -- kosher for Passover -- dishes from the storeroom. I didn't grow up in a kosher home; we didn't maintain separate sets of dishes for milk and meat. But we did have a separate set of dishes for Passover which were strictly kept in accordance with halakhic constraints.

We had special Pesach dishes because some of our family members kept to those standards of kashrut. In the interest of inclusivity, my mother kept a separate set of dishes for Pesach only, so that our family who kept that kind of kosher could join us for seder. I don't think I realized any of this at the time. The fact that we had special dishes we only used during these few days each year just added to the holiday's specialness.

So every other year, when it was our turn to host, my mom and her army of helpers would kasher the kitchen, scrubbing and scouring and covering surfaces with tinfoil, and bring down the pesachdik dishes from the high shelves where they lived the rest of the year. And once the kitchen was kashered, my grandfather Eppie, of blessed memory, would make the matzah balls. (One year I took lessons from him; I still use his method now.)

My own preparations for Pesach tend more toward the spiritual (reading Hasidic texts and poring over my haggadah) than the practical. But when I clean my house at this season, I think of generations of my ancestors who searched every cranny for hidden crumbs of hametz, and I'm grateful for the work they did to keep Pesach meaningful and alive.



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5 Nisan: Matzah



Hello matzah, my old friend:
You've come to dry my mouth again... -- Hazzan Jack Kessler

Evocative as
Proust's madeleines.
Every seder I've ever known
is encapsulated in your ridges.

I love the uneven rounds
the baker makes:
that thinnest flatbread,
a savory buñuelo.

But the version of you
that I know best
is square as a pizza box,
crenellated like cardboard.

You're the hardtack of slavery
and the waybread of freedom.
Liberation, dry and dusty
as a hamsin wind.

Sprinkled with salt
slathered with horseradish
scrambled with eggs and pepper
the taste of being Jewish in spring.

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4 Nisan: Chametz


Two of the central mitzvot of Pesach have to do with eating. Specifically, with bread, that foodstuff which, conventional wisdom has it, is the very staff of life. One mitzvah is to eat matzah, unleavened bread, in remembrance of the waybread we baked in haste for our journey out of Mitzrayim. Another mitzvah is to eschew chametz, leavened bread, during the week of Pesach.

Over time, our interpretations of these mitzvot have become elaborate and detailed. There are many places you can turn to find explanations of what, exactly, constitutes hametz in the traditional rabbinic understanding, and of how you would go about removing the hametz from your home according to traditional practice.

But every year, it seems, I hear from someone for whom these practices bring not spiritual satisfaction but anxiety and constriction. Maybe you already struggle with issues of control and consumption. Maybe you feel buried by the details and fear that you can't possibly live up to these ideals. Maybe the notion of inspecting food labels for a trace of a product made out of a leaven-able grain feels unhealthily compulsive to you.

I don't believe that Pesach is an all-or-nothing game. There's room for gradations of practice. For God's sake (and I mean that quite literally!) don't fall into the trap of figuring that if you can't observe the leaven-related mitzvot in a perfect and completely traditional way, you can't observe them at all.

6907361628_ea010a208c_mThe first mitzvah, that of eating matzah at seder, is a simple one and easy to fulfil. So nu, buy a box of matzah. Or bake your own. (If you're gluten-intolerant, there exist a variety of gluten-free matzot. Some would argue that gluten-free matzah isn't kosher for a seder, though I'm not in that camp; for me, what matters is that one eat matzah mindfully at seder. I would rather see you have a meaningful experience of the mitzvah than skip it because doing it would make you sick. But if you're going to be machmir about it, there's spelt matzah, which I'm reliably informed really is the bread of affliction.)

And as for eschewing hametz, try this on: just give up bread for the week. Give up leavened bread. No bread, no yeasted sweet rolls, no bagels. Just that. And every time you think, "hm, I should have a piece of toast for breakfast," or "I'd like a sandwich on a hard roll" or "I want baguette with this soup," you'll catch yourself, and remember that it's Pesach, and remember that this week we eat in a different and more mindful way.

This is markedly less stringent than the traditional practice of ridding one's home of, and avoiding, all foods made with leaven-able grains. (And I'm not even getting into the question of whether or how you kasher your kitchen or sell your hametz.) But it serves the purpose, it does the spiritual work, which I believe the thicket of traditional practices intends to do. When we take on mitzvot, we open ourselves to the possibility of spiritual transformation. What might be transformed in you if you went the week of Pesach without eating leaven? You won't know until you try it.

In one Hasidic interpretation, hametz represents ego: that which puffs us up. Ego is an important ingredient in the human psyche; in order to be healthy, one needs ego! But an overabundance of ego can be unhealthy. So we devise spiritual practices to help us keep ego in check. During this one week of the year, we give up leavened bread, and in so doing, we remind ourselves to relinquish the puffery of ego, of overexalted self-importance.

During this one week of the year, we eat matzah instead of leavened breadstuffs. We remember the Exodus from Egypt; we remember that in every generation, we see ourselves as though we had personally experienced that liberation. We eat the humble waybread of the traveler, reminding us that sometimes we need to leap toward a new future even if that means baking flatbread in haste so we can (physically and spiritually) get moving.

It's pretty cool that we can compress all of that spiritual teaching into simply going a week without eating leavened bread.


This post is part of #blogExodus. Follow other posts on the path to Pesach via the #blogExodus and #Exodusgram hashtags!

You might also dig this one from the VR archives: Passover, matzah, dialectics, 2006.