#blogExodus 7: Blessing

12242603645_269a76785f_nThis past Shabbat was my first Shabbat home from my trip to Israel and the West Bank, and I settled back into our usual Friday evening traditions.

Step one is a trip to the A-Frame bakery for a challah and a cookie. We go there on our way home from preschool. I have known Sharon, the baker, for many years. (She catered the party after our son's brit milah.) Every week she marvels at how big he's getting, how tall, how chatty, how sweet.

Step two is Shabbat dinner with special guests who join us via videoconference. At the hour when our son habitually eats dinner, we sit around our small kitchen table with Shabbat candles, silver kiddush cups, and an open laptop.

Skyping with my parents for Shabbat has turned out to be a gift for me as much as it is for him and for them. I'm not sure I've ever lit candles with my parents on a weekly basis. Certainly not in the twenty-odd years since I left home. And now it's something I look forward to every week. Our son does, too.

The previous week when I was in Jerusalem, I experienced some really amazing Friday night kabbalat Shabbat prayer. It was a wonderful service, with great music, great kavanah (intention/heart), and terrific company. I adored it. And I also missed my son, and this Skyping-with-my-parents tradition, keenly. I was aware, in that moment, of what a blessing it is that I was able to miss him so. What a blessing to have him in my life. What a blessing to be in Jerusalem seeking a bit of sustenance for my spirit -- and  to have this reason to feel as though a part of my heart were somewhere else. My heart was in the west while I was in the east, as it were.

All of that was in my mind on Friday night as we sat at the table to Skype with my parents. Things started more or less as usual: he excitedly showed them a seascape he had made in preschool this week, they chatted a bit, and then we got down to making Shabbat. We blessed candles. We blessed juice. We blessed challah. And then, I reminded him, my last blessing would be for him. He knows this already; he sings along with the blessings now, and he knows that after candles and juice and challah I bless him.

But this time he surprised me. "And my last blessing is for you!" he told me in return. He used to respond to my blessing of peace with a blessing of "a piece" of challah, but it's been almost a year since the last time that happened.

"Do you want to go first?" I asked, and he said yes. So I sat back and waited, curious to see what would come out of his mouth.

He said, "Baruch atah Adonai -- " and then paused for a second, and finished, "love -- Mommy." He's got the beginning of the standard blessing formula down! After that the syntax admittedly got a little bit confused. Was he thanking God for love and for me? Was he equating Mommy with love? Was he asking God to give love to me? Honestly, I have no idea, and I couldn't care less. I was so tickled that he wanted to give me a blessing, that he's learned how our standard blessings begin, and that the blessing brought me together with God and with love. What could be sweeter?

It was the best blessing ever, and I told him so. He gave me a hug, and we cuddled for a while, and then I offered the priestly blessing, as I do every week, this time with him half-in my lap. And then we returned to chatting with my parents, who were delighted to have witnessed this spontaneous outpouring of Shabbat joy. A blessing for everyone.

 

The photo accompanying this post is a few months old (you can tell because he's wearing a wool sweater, and also it's dark outside at his dinner hour, which is thankfully no longer true), but it gives you the basic idea.

This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.

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#blogExodus and Metzora: plagues, cleansing, and Pesach house-cleaning

Here's the d'var Torah I offered at my shul yesterday morning for parashat Metzora. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) I'm also posting this as a contribution to #blogExodus, for today's prompt "Clean."


In this week's Torah portion we read instructions for what to do if an eruptive plague arises on someone's house. What does it mean to say that a house is afflicted by a plague, or something like a plague?

The description in the Torah text suggests that the plague is akin to mold, described like a disease in the walls. It is as though the house itself were alive and susceptible to infection. We could imagine that this Torah portion speaks merely of this kind of problem: when your house has termites, call the exterminator -- when your house has leaks, call the roofer -- when your house sprouts mold, call the priest.

But I think there's something deeper here. What did William Shakespeare mean when his character Mercutio cursed, "a plague on both your houses"? For Shakespeare, a house meant a household, a family. If we read the Torah portion through this lens, the stakes are higher.

Sometimes, Torah says, a house needs to be scraped clean and then plastered again. And sometimes, even that isn't enough -- it's a kind of mere whitewashing, and given opportunity, the problem will erupt again.

As we prepare to gather with our families and friends around the seder table, what are the places where our "house" needs to be scraped clean and then replastered? What's the old emotional stuff we want to scrub away? Are we willing to do the work of removing what's encrusted on the surface of our family relationships, and to expose what lies beneath?

In our broader community, what are the places where a plague has grown too deep -- where merely cutting out a few problematic pieces won't stem its spread, and we need to destroy the structure and build anew? Maybe it's the plague of racism, or the plague of militarism, or the plague of ignoring someone else's narrative or point of view. Are we willing to tear down what no longer serves us in order to build something different, something as-yet unknown?

At this season many of us are engaging in literal housecleaning. Maybe it's that impulse toward spring cleaning which arises when the temperatures start to hover well above freezing. Maybe it's the old pre-Pesach tradition of scouring every surface and getting ready to relinquish our hametz, our leaven, which the Hasidic tradition says can represent the puffery of ego.

As you clean for Pesach, consider this other kind of housecleaning, too. What behaviors or habits or patterns do you want to place in quarantine? What emotional dynamics in your household do you want to scrub away in order to meet the season of our liberation fresh and new?

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#blogExodus 5: Prepare

At this time of year a lot of energy goes toward preparations. BlogexodusAt my synagogue, emails are flying fast and furious about our second-night community seder: do we have enough flatware? How about coffee urns? Who's going to take care of the synagogue's movable walls, and of setting up tables for the seder?

Meanwhile, I'm thinking: do we have enough haggadot? Do I want to bring any new melodies this year? How can I best weave in the kids who are going to act out the Exodus story as part of our Maggid / Storytelling part of the service? Do I have a sitter who can take care of our son at the seder so I don't have to worry about what he's getting into while I'm leading?

One of my favorite teachings about the Exodus story comes from the Hasidic rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. (I wrote about it a few years ago: On leaping, without delay.) He's talking about the need, when one is leaving Mitzrayim / the Constricted Place, to leap quickly without delay. In my haggadah, one of the ways I frame that is "if we wait until we feel fully ready, we might never take the leap at all."

Preparations are important. I wouldn't want to lead a seder without spending some time with the haggadah; I wouldn't want to host a seder without doing the cooking first; I wouldn't want to approach Pesach without doing at least some of the cleaning work, both physical and spiritual, which is required! But at a certain point, no matter how prepared we do or don't feel, we have to take the leap into what's next. It's like preparing to be a parent: no matter how long you spend getting ready for that adventure, when the adventure begins, it's going to take you places you never imagined. One of the things I try to learn from parenthood is that it's good for me to prepare -- and it's even better for me to know when and how to relinquish my preparations for what I expected and savor what is, instead.

This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.


#blogExodus 4: Free

BlogexodusWe're one day closer to Pesach. One day closer to celebrating our freedom from slavery in Mitzrayim.

Usually that name is rendered as "Egypt," but it means "The Narrow Place."

What are the narrow places from which you need to be freed?

The narrow places of prejudice and preconception?

The narrow places of old habits which no longer serve?

The narrow places of not letting yourself change?

Tradition says we cried out to God from our constriction and God heard our cry.

This is what our tradition calls hit'oreruta dil'tata, "arousal from below."

Our outpouring of desperate yearning caused God to respond.

In that sense, we instigated our own Exodus. We cried out, and God heard us.

What do you need to cry out in order to begin the journey toward freedom?

What would it feel like to cry out, and to know that God has heard you?

What would it feel like to give yourself permission to break free from all of your narrow places: the ones you've imposed on yourself, the ones imposed by others' expectations -- to really and truly know that it is possible to be redeemed from those constrictions?

What would it feel like, this Pesach, to really become free?

 

This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.


#blogExodus day 3: Enslave

BlogexodusMy friends and colleagues at Romemu made the news recently for their publicly-announced decision to spend the days of Pesach free from the hametz of email. Hametz means leaven. In one popular Hasidic understanding the idea of cleansing one's home of literal leaven (which is to say: getting rid of the bread products and so forth) is transmuted into the idea of cleansing one's soul of metaphorical leaven. The hametz of ego, of puffery and pride. The leap from there to email is an intriguing one.

I find myself wondering whether email -- and the internet writ large -- is a thing to which we are sometimes enslaved. That's a strong word, I know. And usually it's not a term I would use. I rationalize that I come to the internet to communicate with friends and loved ones, and to read and write and converse about Judaism and the festival cycle and healing the world. These are lofty aspirations! On my best days, the internet is a tool which helps me connect.

But I know that sometimes the digital world gets its hooks into me in an unhealthy way. Who among us hasn't known the twitchy temptation to check email / Twitter / Facebook one more time, to make sure that we're not missing anything in anyone's life? Last summer during my week of vacation with my family, I had trouble staying away from high-holiday-related emails. "It's important," I rationalized. "The holidays are so early this year." But did any of those emails really require me to read them right that instant -- couldn't they have waited until I got home? When does the internet become a distraction from the life that's unfolding all around us, and from the holiness which we might find in that life?

That was part of what I was thinking about when I wrote Tele/Presence a few years ago:

I want your presence
twined around my forearm
when I snap open the Times

when I fret over trending topics
when I dream in status updates
scrolling endlessly...

(That poem, lightly revised, will be in my forthcoming collection Open My Lips, due later this year from Ben Yehuda Press.) Maybe when I'm online with awareness of divine presence, that awareness helps me transmute the possibility of enslavement into something redemptive instead. Enslavement is closed, constricted, possibilities shut-off. But the story of this season is the story of moving from slavery to freedom: from closed to open, from channels blocked to open conduits through which blessing can flow.

I think a lot at this time of year about the distinction between slavery and service. At Pesach we commemorate leaving slavery; fifty days later, at Shavuot, we celebrate entering into service. We didn't leave slavery in order to be purely on our own, devoid of obligations and responsibilities. We traded slavery to Pharaoh for service to God. In both cases, we acknowledge that there's a force greater than ourselves. But Pharaoh is the force of power-over; God is the source of power-from-within.

Enslavement means not having a choice. It means being owned. Service, in contrast, means choosing to place ourselves in covenantal relationship. I serve my congregation. I serve my community. I (aspire to) serve God.

When I allow my need for one more metaphorical pellet, one more email check-in, one more glance at the computer, to control me -- then I'm enslaved. When I allow myself the delusion that people need me to answer every single email that comes in, instantly, no matter what time of day or night, no matter whether weekday or Shabbat -- then I'm enslaved. That's when the internet becomes hametz, food for my ego, for the part of me which wants to persist in believing that my response is so critical that no one can get by without me. But when I choose to connect with intentionality and prayerful consciousness, with compassion, and with the good boundaries and good sense to unplug from time to time, then the internet becomes another way I can serve.

 

This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.


Tell - for #blogExodus day 2

BlogexodusEvery year at the seder we retell our central story: once we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, and now we are free. Once we were trapped in the constriction of terrible circumstance, and now we can breathe and stretch and shape our own choices. Once we were forced to live in servitude to an earthly power; now we are free to choose to live in service to the love and the hope and the power which are beyond all earthly imagining.

In the traditional haggadah we read:

In every generation a person must see himself as though he himself had been brought forth from Egypt, as it is said: 'And you shall speak to your child on that day, saying, it is because of what God did for me when God brought me out of Egypt. Not for our ancestors alone did the Holy Blessed One wreak this redemption, but we too were redeemed along with them.'

We tell the story as though it had happened to us, because it does happen to us. It is always happening to us.

In every life there are times of constriction and tightness. The name Mitzrayim, "the narrow place," contains the root tzar, narrow. This is the root of the word tzuris, suffering. In every life there is suffering. We all know this, though sometimes we don't want to acknowledge it. (I certainly don't want to acknowledge it most of the time. As though by ignoring it I could make it less true.) But here's the radical part of what our tradition teaches: in every life there is also redemption.

That's the central story we tell, the story which makes us the Jewish people. We tell it each year during the Pesach seder. We tell it each Friday when we remember the Exodus  in the kiddush blessing over wine. We tell it every day when we remember the Exodus in the ge'ulah blessing of daily prayer. We were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, we have been in the narrow place of constriction and suffering, and the Holy One of Blessing brings us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. We are the people who tell the story which leads from slavery to redemption, from constriction to openness, from sorrow to joy.

 We each have personal stories which we habitually tell. Stories about our childhoods, stories about our families, stories about our choices and our circumstances. What are the stories you tell about your life? What would it take for you to tell a story of wholeness and redemption, like the story our people tells every day, every week, every year -- the story we tell which makes us who we are?

 

This post is part of #blogExodus, a carnival of posts on themes relating to the Exodus and to Passover, instigated by the ever-wonderful ImaBima. Follow it by searching for the #blogExodus hashtag on Twitter or wherever you habitually look for things.


Daily April poem for #NaPoWriMo, and #blogExodus 1 - Believe

HEBRON


    How much is us? Why shall we not
    in such burning place live out our allotments?

    nothing looks good on paper

    if you can tame it, you can have it

    -- from "Not This Mouth" by Jasper Bernes



the heart hot with shrapnel
where a man shot a baby in her carriage
where a man shot a child who held a stone

the belly twisting sour
where those people hung their hateful flag
its colors like a stick in my eye

the mind which insists
there is only one story and it is ours,
lists our traumas, every one their fault

the spirit lofted toward God
by the air of this holy place
which only we should breathe

can we tame our animal hatreds
and escape this constriction
I want to believe


BlogexodusThis year, National Poetry Writing Month and #blogExodus start at the same time. This is something of a brain-bender for those of us who are active both in the poetry-writing world and the preparing-for-Pesach world. (It's not like I have anything going on this month or anything.)

Given that these two things are overlapping this year, I don't know that I can promise that I'll manage both on a daily basis. (I don't know that I'll manage either on a daily basis!) But we'll see where things go.

The first NaPoWriMo prompt invited us to click through to the Bibliomancy Oracle and see what quote we got, and then to write a poem sparked by that quotation. The first blogExodus theme is "believe." I just went on a very intense Dual Narrative Trip to Hebron (about which I wrote a rather lengthy post, but which is still on my mind).

Today's poem came out of all of these.

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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!

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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!


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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.


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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.

 

 


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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.


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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

ODE TO 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

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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.

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3 Nisan: Slavery

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T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights notes that "t]o be a Jew is to know both slavery and liberation" and that "[b]ecause of the Jewish experience of the Exodus, the Torah commands us to protect the stranger in our midst 36 times — according to the Talmud, more often than the laws of the Sabbath or of keeping kosher." T'ruah continues:

And yet, 3000 years after the Jewish people are said to have been liberated from slavery, and 150 years after the Civil War, more people are enslaved today than at any other point in history. According to the most conservative estimates of the International Labor Organization, nearly 21 million people are held in situations of forced labor today: 3 out of every 1,000 people in the world.

(That's from T'ruah's index page on slavery and human trafficking.)

It's easy to imagine that the story of our Exodus from slavery is ancient history. (Or perhaps that it's not history at all -- for some of us it's a kind of deep literary or spiritual story which doesn't need to be rooted in verifiable historical experience.) It's easy to think about the Pesach story as a metaphor for our relatively comfortable lives: to what -- our jobs, our expectations -- do we enslave ourselves? And how can we know ourselves to be liberated from those places of constriction? Those are great questions. I ask them every year at my seders, and every year the conversations which ensue are meaningful.

But slavery is still real. Slavery happens today. There are people enslaved in actual debt bondage around the world -- and human trafficking, which is a pernicious form of slavery, still happens. (See Slavery, trafficking, and people of faith, 2008.) That's the most extreme example -- but there are also people who work in unthinkably poor conditions for unthinkably small amounts of money, and that's a kind of slavery too. (Are the tomatoes you buy at the grocery store slavery-free?) There are people for whom credit card debts mount so high that they feel as constricting as slavery. (See Credit Card Debt Explained With a Glass of Water.)

When you sit down for your beautiful Pesach meal, be conscious that slavery wasn't just what (might have) happened to the Israelites in ancient Egypt. It isn't just a shameful American legacy. It's something that still happens, in a variety of ways. Our people's central story holds that we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt but our God brought us out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. It's our job to be the mighty hands and outstretched arms which will free those who are enslaved today.

 


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


2 Nisan: Retelling (Pesach Sestina for #blogExodus)

The story's always ours to tell:
how Moses demanded that Pharaoh free
the Hebrews. We'd forgotten how to ask
for open air, for rest, for the taste
of all the possibilities of spring.
So God ordered: let My people go.

Pharaoh said: who exactly intends to go?
Maybe the men, sure, but don't tell
me you intend to try to spring
the women and children free.
Moses stammered. He knew the taste
of words locked tight, unable to ask.

This time the words were God's own task.
We know how the narrative will go:
Nile turned to blood, the taste
of locusts, darkness too thick to tell
one hand from the next. We made free
with lamb's blood on the lintels that spring

and Pharaoh relented. We got to spring
through the parted waters of the sea. We didn't ask
what it would mean to be set free.
All our leaders said was, it was time to go.
Bring your children on your back, tell
the women to bake in haste. Taste

and see that God is good! Now the taste
of that flatbread hyperlinks us with spring.
The full moon of Nisan, when we tell
our tale, when our children ask
why, on this night, do we all go
to seder? We recline, free

to take our time, to learn, to eat, free
to savor matzah and maror, the taste
of liberation in our mouths. I yearn to go
and sing all night until the sun springs
over the horizon and the sages ask
if it's time for the morning shema. Tell

me: what's it like to be free in spring?
Taste the sweetness of being able to ask.
Go and sit down. We've a story to tell.


BlogExodusFor my second contribution to blogExodus, I wrote a sestina. (If you dig sestinas, you might enjoy browsing the new sestina category here, which will bring you to all of the sestinas I've posted here over the years.)

Today's theme is retelling, which is pretty much what Passover's about. In a certain way this retelling is central to Judaism all year round: we remember the Exodus daily (in our liturgy), weekly (in the Shabbat kiddush), and of course at Passover-time.

I enjoyed this chance to do some retelling in a new form.

For other people's contributions to these two weeks of Nisan pre-Pesach-blogging, keep an eye on the #blogExodus hashtag. Enjoy!