Seder for the seventh day

NANTUCKET_NECTARS_GRAPEADE_JUICE_COCKTAIL_8The seventh day of Pesach is considered to be the day when our ancestors passed through the Sea of Reeds. Each of us is called to experience the Exodus from Egypt in our own lives, and this is the day when we too experience the sea parting and our arrival on the other side. Some have the custom of celebrating a special seder on the seventh day of Pesach, commemorating the journey.

A seventh day seder isn't a chovah, a religious obligation. The whole idea of a seventh-day seder falls into the category of hiddur mitzvah, "beautifying the mitzvah" -- in this case, the mitzvah of retelling and reliving the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Unlike the seder for the first and second nights of Pesach, this ritual retelling does not come with an inherited form.

On the seventh day of Pesach, after leading festival morning services, I sit down at my computer with my lunch, some grape juice, and some matzah. I have a date for a seventh day seder! David and I have decided to celebrate together remotely via videoconferencing. It is the first time I've ever celebrated the seventh day of Pesach in this way, and I've been excited about it all week.

We have an abbreviation and adaptation of Rabbi Evan Krame's seder for the seventh day of Pesach. We move through its seven steps, from kol / voice (beginning) to n'tilat yadayim (washing) to raglayim / feet (leaping) to eynayim / eyes (receiving) to oznayim / ears (believing) to peh / mouth (satisfying) to lev / heart (loving). I love that R' Evan has chosen gerunds. Everything is continuing.

We drink four swigs of the fruit of the vine, one for each of the four elements, one for each step of our ancestors' journey "which spanned treading the earth, passing through the water, reaching the rarefied air at Sinai, and receiving Torah from the fire." We read one of my favorite Hasidic texts about elemental trust, and a teaching from R' Evan about the brickwork of the song at the Sea.

We preface each swig of juice with the kabbalistic intention of unifying the Holy Blessed One and Shekhinah, divine immanence and divine transcendence, God far above and God deep within. We sing the psalms of Hallel, read Reb Zalman's translation of psalm 100 ("This is how you sing to God a thank-You song..."), and count the Omer. We close with a bissel of Yiddish and some laughter.

A few of our preparations didn't yield exactly the fruits we intended. Half of the lunch I meant to eat didn't make it with me to shul today. David couldn't find grape juice, and had to settle for Nantucket Nectars "grape-ade." In lieu of a pitcher of water for hand-washing, we each have hand sanitizer. In lieu of gluten-free matzah, he has a gluten-free kosher-for-Pesach black-and-white cookie.

But we find holiness even in the mishaps. The Nantucket Nectars bottle's label depicts the sea -- it could be the very sea which we experience ourselves crossing on this auspicious day! The black-and-white cookie hints at the Torah -- as midrash has it, the Torah is "black fire on white fire," and both of them holy! It reminds me of our undergraduate days, sanctifying whatever we had on hand.

We manage to drash (make or find meaning in) even the items on our lunch plates. David's eating sushi, which is obviously a representation of the Sea. I'm eating eggplant, which is purple, the color of royalty, hinting at the Sovereign Who redeemed us from slavery. When it comes time for the R'Evan sandwich -- a slice of onion atop a piece of fruit, reminding us that even bitterness or pain can be a catalyst for growth and enhancement -- we have no onion, so we make do with wasabi.

We're laughing as we make these substitutions on the fly, but we're also feeling something real. All of this is performative midrash happening in realtime. It's part of the never-ending work of adding to tradition's story that is in some ways the core mission of Jewish Renewal -- as the Haggadah says, whoever enlarges the retelling of the Exodus is praiseworthy. Jewish tradition isn't something fixed, unchangeable. Our task is always bringing it to life in a way that speaks to who we are here and now.

This is the work of spiritual life: working with what we have, instead of what we thought we might have. Sanctifying what is, even if it isn't exactly what we expected. Resisting the impulse which says "I'm not ready for transformation because I don't have all the items on my list" -- if we wait until we feel fully ready, we might never leap at all. The seventh day of Pesach is about leaping even when we don't feel ready, trusting that loving arms will catch us; that the sea will part for us.

Look up from the muddy sea floor. Notice the miracle. It's the seventh day of Pesach. What song of rejoicing will you sing now that we have come through these narrow straits, these walls of water, and emerged on the other side?


Tefilat Tal / Prayer for Dew

On the first day of Pesach we change one line in our daily prayers: instead of asking God for rain, we ask God for dew. It's also traditional to recite a prayer specifically for dew. A few years ago I wrote a d'var tefilah ("word about prayer") on the prayer for dew; in this post you'll find an English-language variation on that prayer, intended for community use as a responsive reading.

 

Give us dew to favor Your earth;
sweeten the land in which we live with dew.

Strengthen us with plenty, with grain and wine:
sheaves and vines sustained by dew.

Bring wholeness to the Holy City and to all who love her
as flowers are renewed by dew.

You have said "I will be like dew to Israel;"1
may Your mercy well up in us like the dew.

Let the proud and beautiful fruits of our harvest
be sustained and graced with dew.

Open our hearts; make us into open vessels
to receive the spiritual gifts of dew.

May a light shine forth from darkness to draw us to You,
as a root finds water from dew.

We are the people who followed You through the desert
as sheep follow a trusted shepherd; favor us with dew.

You are our God, Who causes the wind to blow and the dew to fall.2

For blessing and not for curse. Amen.
For life and not for death. Amen.
For plenty and not for lack. Amen.

 

1. Hosea 14:5

2. From the daily amidah.


#blogExodus 6: Tell

Blogexodus5775At the center of the seder experience is the step in the seder known as Maggid -- "telling the story." (The word maggid shares a root with haggadah; the Haggadah is the book which tells the tale.)

We are helped, in our storytelling, by the materials we have at hand -- both our printed haggadot, and the stirrings of our hearts. Not surprisingly, my family uses the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach to guide us along the way. But although it's the haggadah I've assembled, it's not the only one I love.

I love all kinds of haggadot. I love the classical text, and I love the many variations thereupon, and I love that a haggadah can still recognizably be a haggadah even when things change. Hebrew or vernacular (or both), prose or poetry (or both), minimalist or maximalist -- I love them all.

Right now I am enamored of the latest addition to my haggadah collection: The Asufa Haggadah, 2015 edition. Here's how the publisher describes it:

Hagaddah_Mockup-510x361It’s become a tradition: every year, a group of more than 40 Israeli artists comes together and creates a new haggadah. They follow only two rules:

  1. Each artist creates only a single page
  2. The artists must use the standard Haggadah text

Now, for the first time, that haggadah is available in North America, exclusively through Print-O-Craft.

The haggadah is stunning. Every page is different and every page is beautiful. The art brings the story to life. I'm a wordsmith; words have long been my trade. But this haggadah is as much about the visual storytelling as it is about the text, and I find myself lingering on every page. This is transformative work: the art changes my experience of the existing, and familiar, Hebrew text.

I love that this is how we both celebrate, and continue to create, our peoplehood: by telling a story. Once upon a time we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Holy One of Blessing brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.

There are so many ways to tell this central tale.

 Asufa_2015_6-e1423771013935-157x157 Asufa_2015_4-157x157 Asufa_2015_3-157x157




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 2: Bless

Blogexodus5775The seder unfolds over the course of fifteen steps. The Hebrew word סדר / seder means "order," and this is a ritual with a distinct order. In our house, we sing the fifteen steps in the order of the seder every time we come to a new step, a new stop, a new pause along the journey.

The first step is kadesh, which means "make holy" or "sanctify." We sanctify the sacred space of the seder meal by lighting candles and blessing juice or wine -- just as we do every Shabbat. (This year the first seder falls on a Friday night, so we'll bless candles for Shabbat and yom tov / holiday, and bless matzah a bit later in the meal.)

Creating sacred space is something we do together with God. The evening of the seder may have some intrinsic holiness, because for so many centuries we have observed the full moon of Nisan as the night when we commemorate the Exodus from Egypt, but most of its holiness (I think) arises in our partnership with God. We work with God to make it holy, using the tools of candles and wine and haggadah, scents and stories and song.

When we speak our ancient words of blessing, we usually begin ברוך אתה / baruch atah, "Blessed are You..." (Or, in Rabbi Marcia Prager's beautiful translation, "A fountain of blessings are You...") We assert that God is blessed. This may seem a chutzpahdik assertion, but we bless God. The power of that blessing lies in our hearts. And as we reach out to God and offer our blessing, God reaches back to us with shefa, divine abundance, streaming into creation. We bless God, and in return God blesses us.

Several years ago at the old Elat Chayyim I took a week-long workshop in the art of offering spontaneous blessings. I remember finding it strange at first. Turning to someone and saying, "May I offer you a blessing?" and then, at their nod, continuing with words customized to their situation -- that was difficult for me. (I think it became smoother, or at least more familiar, during my nine months of Clinical Pastoral Education. My Christian colleagues taught me a lot that year.)

Today I think of offering a spontaneous blessing in much the same way that I think about using the classical blessing formula (or its gender-switched or gender-neutral variations, which I also employ.) Making a blessing, whether traditional or ad hoc, is an act of reaching with my heart toward God and imploring God to open a channel so that shefa can flow through my words. As the moon waxes toward Pesach, what blessings do you most need to receive? What blessings are you most able to give?

 

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.


The seder as time machine

Haggadot

The Passover Haggadah -- with which I have spent a fair amount of time, in its variety of forms -- teaches us that the Exodus from Egypt is not something which happened "once upon a time" to "them" back "then," but something which continues to happen right now for us.

עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְריִם -- "We were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt," the Haggadah teaches. Not "Our ancestors were slaves." Not "maybe our ancestors might have been slaves, though we're not sure, because the historical record doesn't entirely support the claim..." We were slaves. We ourselves.

In the text which describes the Four Children (one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, and one who does not know enough to ask), we are instructed to tell our children that we do this because of what God did for us when God brought us out of Egypt. Not for our ancestors. For us.

The seder is a time machine. It moves us through time and space (both of which, intriguingly, can be described with the Hebrew word עולם.) As we enter into the ritual of the seder, we re-experience that journey from constriction to liberation which is core to our sense of ourselves as the Jewish people.

As the traditional text teaches:

בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ, כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרָיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר: בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְיָ לִי, בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם. לֹא אֶת־אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בִּלְבָד, גָּאַל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אֶלָּא אַף אוֹתָנוּ גָּאַל עִמָּהֶם...

In every generation one must see oneself as if one had personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt. As it is written: "You shall speak to your children on that day, saying, this is how the Holy Blessed One redeemed me from Egypt. It wasn't merely my ancestors who were redeemed, but the Holy Blessed One also redeemed us with them..."

It was not merely my ancestors who were redeemed, but the Holy One of Blessing also redeemed us. The Exodus isn't something that happened (or didn't happen) there-and-then: it's something which we can experience now in our own spiritual lives as we move from constriction toward freedom.

In Rabbi Dan Fink's words, "Pesach is not about remembering the distant past; it is about re-experiencing that past in the present time. It is not the story of our ancestors long ago; it is our story." We don't just retell; we re-experience. We make the experience present for ourselves again.

When we celebrate the seder together, we're connecting ourselves with everyone who has ever celebrated seder and everyone who will ever celebrate seder. Our ancestors and our descendants, and our fellow-travelers around the globe at this holy moment of interconnection. Seder links us all.

Sitting down at the seder table is a little bit like stepping into the TARDIS. (Keen eyes will have spotted the familiar blue box among the haggadot depicted at the top of this page.) If we throw ourselves into the experience, it will whisk us away into mythic time. It places us right in the story.

Liberation is still happening. Our hearts are still crying out from our narrow places, and God still hears those cries and answers them with expansiveness. We are always setting forth on a journey with an unknown destination. We are always being called to trust; to step into the waters before they part.

Where will the TARDIS take you this year? How will it feel to re-live the Exodus now, as the person you are becoming, with the experiences the last year have brought you? The haggadah may look like a plain bound book, but it's bigger on the inside -- and if you let it, it will carry you somewhere amazing.

 

Step into the TARDIS three weeks from tonight -- the first seder this year falls on the evening of Friday, April 3.


Shmita and interconnection at Purim to Pesach

My short meditation for the Shalom Center's Purim to Pesach project is now on their website. It's called Shmita and interconnection. (Shmita is the Hebrew word usually rendered in English as "Sabbatical" -- it means the year of rest which Torah mandates we provide the earth after every six years of working the land, and on the Jewish calendar this year is a shmita year.)

Here's how my piece begins:

Our sages took some pains to ensure a Jewish calendar in which Pesach would always fall in the spring. (They were operating in a northern hemisphere context; I don’t think the challenges of antipodean Judaism ever occurred to them.) In the northern hemisphere, Pesach is inextricably connected with spring.

As the earth shakes off the constrictions of winter, her frozen places thawing, so we remember our shaking-off the yoke of slavery to Pharaoh. As plant life and trees are “reborn” into the warming air, we tell the story of our renewal and rebirth out of the constriction of slavery and into freedom...

Read the whole thing at Purim to Pesach: Shmita and interconnection. (And to receive further daily teachings on how we can connect Passover with caring for the earth, you can sign up for the Shalom Center's email list.)


From Purim to Pesach

 

Today is Purim -- the full moon of the lunar month of Adar. Pesach (Passover) begins in one month, at the full moon of Nissan. There's a traditional teaching (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 429:1) which holds that "One must begin studying the laws of Passover thirty days before the holiday." In the Mishnah Berurah (note 2, Biur HaGra) we are told to begin studying Pesach specifically on Purim itself. That's the impetus behind "Purim to Pesach," a new project of the Shalom Center.

 

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The Shalom Center is sending out a new series of daily emails between now and Passover. The goal, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow explained it to me, is "to make broadly available powerful short kavanot (intentions) that reawaken and revitalize the meaning of Pesach, especially in a Shmita (sabbatical) year devoted to healing Earth and renewing social justice." Each day's post is by someone different who was solicited to share their words as part of this project: rabbis, activists, poets, writers & more.

This is a new twist on the idea of studying the halakhot (laws/ways-of-walking) of Pesach for a month before the holiday begins. Instead of focusing us on matters of ritual and praxis, these emails aim to focus our attention on what Pesach might come to teach us about our relationship with the earth, especially during this Shmita year when many of us are paying renewed attention to our relationship with consumption and with the planet. And they link Purim with Pesach, which I think is really neat.

I'm honored to be one of the writers whose words will be going out as part of this series, and I'll let y'all know when my post goes out. That said, I'm only one of 30 voices taking part in this project, and I'm excited about reading what the other participants have to say, too. If you want to receive these writings in your inbox, sign up for The Shalom Center's email list; alternatively, you can visit the Purim to Pesach website daily and see what new earth-oriented Passover wisdom has been shared.

Chag sameach -- happy Purim! And here's to Pesach, only one month away.


Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach, Version 8

The full moon of the month of Shvat was last night. (Happy Tu BiShvat!) A month from now, at the next full moon, we'll celebrate Purim. And a month after that, at the next full moon, we'll celebrate Pesach!

Okay, so most of you probably aren't thinking about Passover yet. But just in case you are...

If you're looking for a free downloadable haggadah which tells the story of the Exodus with traditional texts alongside creative interpretations; offers classical material alongside contemporary poetry; honors new traditions as well as old ones; and interweaves song, story, prayer, and opportunity for community participation; you might dig the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach.

VRHaggadah8

The Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach, Version 8 (2015)

available on the haggadah page at my website

(also on that page: many kind things which others have said about the haggadah over the years!)

or download here: VRHaggadah [pdf, 4.1 MB]

and here's the cover: VRHaggadahCover. [pdf]

 

It's four years since the last full version (7.1) came out, so I figured it was time for an update. New in this version:

  • a better Hebrew font, in which all of the vowels are clear (now matching the font in Days of Awe)
  • clearer page design (now matching the look and feel of Days of Awe), as well as more transliteration
  • many new poems, including (but not limited to) poetry by Linda Pastan, Primo Levi, Lisa Greene, Yehuda Amichai, Luisa A. Igloria
  • a rendering of the prayer "This is the bread of our affliction" not only in Aramaic (and English) but also in Ladino, courtesy of Rabba Emily Aviva Kapor, along with a teaching of hers
  • a new teaching from Rabbi Jill Hammer, from Pirkei Imahot / the Sayings of the Mothers
  • another alternative to the traditional Four Sons text by Tamara Cohen, Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, and Ronnie Horn (of course the classical text also still appears, as does Reb Zalman z"l's creative reinterpretation, as does Ben Aronin's singable English ballad along with Howard Cruse's fabulous illustration)
  • some poems about Miriam to balance the material about Moses
  • three different options for the classical prayer "Pour out Your wrath"
  • before Had Gadya, a poem ("Poem for the Kansas Shootings") by Rabbi Michael Rothbaum
  • ...and much more!

As always, the haggadah is available to all -- download it, use it, share it. Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are needy have the resources they need to celebrate the Passover!

 

 


Daily April poem: about Elijah the prophet

ELIJAH WAITS


Elijah walks the streets
with Moshiach's phone number
programmed into his cellphone.

In his messenger bag
gift cards and cigarettes
he hands out to the homeless.

He always buys roses and gum
from the kids who peddle
at busy intersections.

He doesn't visit
every seder in the world
anymore. He still loves

the old melodies, the way
the story rewrites you
from the inside out if you let it

he finagles invitations
to the houses with great singing
and eager children, but

he's learned that our words
only matter so much.
When we box Pesach away

he holds his breath:
will we really emerge different
this time? Will we admit

we choose comfort over conscience
we cling to the neverending hametz
of our painful history --

or will we whistle Had Gadya
and recreate Mitzrayim?
Elijah sits back down

on the crumbling stoop
in the overcrowded hospital
at the enemy's table and waits.


Today's poem arose all on its own, without a prompt. It draws on some classical midrash about Elijah.

Had Gadya is a Passover song. Mitzrayim means Egypt, though it relates to the word root meaning narrow, so it can be rendered as "The Narrow Place."

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Daily April poem: ten lies


TEN SEDER LIES


We didn't open the door for Elijah last night.
Miriam's Cup wasn't full of living waters.

The hidden matzah languished, unlooked-for.
Costumes for the pageant never left their box.

No one asked about the seder plate stowaways.
We decided to skip all of the poetry.

I didn't wake to the melody of imagined trumpets
summoning me to join the pilgrimage.

When I close my eyes, I don't see my ancestors.
No glimpse of my great-grandchildren up ahead.

 


Today's NaPoWriMo prompt invited us to write a ten-line poem in which each line is a lie.

The couplet about the imagined trumpets is a reference to the melodic motifs of festival nusach, the melodic mode used for chanting prayer on the Three Pilgrimage Festivals.

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Daily April poem: terza rima

 

GIFT


You stand beside and sing the words with me.
I did the same in Texas years ago.
How is this night different? Come and see.

My childhood seders aren't for you to know.
You draw an orange on your seder plate.
What will you remember as you grow?

You're bleary-eyed: we kept you up too late.
I can't regret allowing you your glee
at finding hidden treasure. Now I wait

to see what sticks. What matters most to me
is that you come to love the telling too.
Once we were slaves to Pharaoh; now we're free.

The songs, the story -- they're my gift to you.

 


Today's prompt at NaPoWriMo asks us to try terza rima, a form featuring three-line stanzas with a specific rhyme scheme.

My poem arises out of last night's seder, which was wonderful in so many ways. Chag sameach / happy holiday to all who celebrate!

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Burning the old, preparing for the new

Dsc00643This morning my co-teacher and I hid scraps of chametz -- leaven -- around the synagogue. Not because we wanted to give our cleaning crew an extra challenge tomorrow, but because we wanted to teach some of our youngest members -- and their families -- about a strange and beautiful ritual done right before Passover begins.

Once our Hand in Hand families had arrived, we sang a song together. We told the Pesach story, which the kids acted out with gusto (if not always with total comprehension.) Then we handed out wooden spoons and feathers to our littlest kids. We made a blessing together. And they went on a scavenger hunt, searching the building, calling out in excitement when they found what we'd hidden.

The chametz all went into brown paper bags, which in turn went onto the synagogue's barbecue grill along with our lulavim from last fall -- the bundles of myrtle, willow, and palm fronds which we ritually shook in the sukkah every day. And then we lit them afire.

This is a ritual called bedikat chametz. It originates in the Mishna, in tractate Pesachim. I've been reading about it for years at my first-night seder, when it is our family custom to read Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb's poem "Spring Cleaning Ritual on the Eve of the Full Moon Nisan."

On the eve of the full moon
we search our houses
by the light of a candle
for the last trace of winter
for the last crumbs grown stale inside us
for the last darkness still in our hearts...

Literally, of course, chametz means leaven. It comes from the root l'chimutz, to sour or ferment, and we cleanse our homes of it at this season because during the week of Passover we eat matzah instead, the humble waybread of the journey. But metaphorically chametz can mean the puffery of ego and vanity; it can mean the old sourness we've been fermenting in our hearts and spirits over the last year; it can mean whatever we need to let go of, in order to move through the birthing waters of the Sea of Reeds and into freedom.

As we burned the lulav fronds and the crumbs, I was thinking:

All that rises up bitter
All that rises up prideful
All that rises up in old ways no longer fruitful
All Hametz still in my possession
but unknown to me
which I have not seen
nor disposed of
may it find common grave
with the dust of the earth
amen amen
selah...

"All chametz still in my possession but unknown to me..." -- that's the traditional close to the ritual of bedikat chametz. Whatever we haven't found and rooted-out -- in our households, in our hearts -- we declare it to be ownerless, no longer ours, one with the dust of the earth. At a certain point we have to accept that we've done the best we can. The festival is coming tomorrow night, and however clean we've managed to make our houses -- however we've managed to refine our souls in preparation for the holiday -- has to be enough.

As we were burning our palms from last autumn's sukkah, our Christian friends were celebrating Palm Sunday. As I understand it, some of their leftover palms will be saved and burned to ash next winter, to mark foreheads on Ash Wednesday. I don't have deep wisdom to offer about this calendrical connection, but I think it's neat the way we link our fall festival with our spring one this way -- and they in turn link their spring festival with the following winter.

 All that rises up bitter / All that rises up prideful / All that rises up in old ways no longer fruitful...

May I really be able to shed old bitterness, old pride, old habits which no longer serve. So that I can move into Pesach with a light soul and an open heart. So that I can lead my family, and my congregation, along that path with me. So that this can truly be the season of liberation -- including liberation from the husks of old attitudes and prejudices, old unkindnesses, old ways of being in the world.

 

If you want to do bedikat chametz, here's a short ritual: the aforementioned poem, plus the blessing before and after the leaven hunt: Bedikat Chametz [pdf] I made it a few years ago, so the date of the first seder is wrong, but otherwise everything about it still works.


Four eclipses; four worlds; four holidays; four holy perspective shifts

A Jewish Renewal perspective on the tetrad of lunar eclipses, by rabbinic student David Markus and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.

Lunar-Eclipse-on-April-15-Will-be-Visible-All-Across-America42-650x469
We in North America are about to experience four total lunar eclipses in a row which, incredibly, will coincide with Pesach (15 April in 2014, 4 April in 2015) and Sukkot (8 October in 2014 and 28 September in 2015). In 2014 and 2015, the full moon marking these festival times will be eclipsed at the moments of perhaps the greatest joy in the Jewish calendar – at Pesach, when we experience freedom from the Narrow Place, and at Sukkot, when we enter with thanksgiving into our fragile and impermanent harvest houses.

Jewish mystics link the moon with Shekhinah, immanent and indwelling Presence of God manifest in creation. Many Hasidic teachings depict hester panim, the hiding or withdrawal of God's presence from us. In every life, we experience alternating phases of God's presence and God's (apparent) absence -- but just as the moon remains present even during its eclipse, so God's presence remains even when S/He may seem veiled in shadow.

Beyond mere veiling, a lunar eclipse invites a shift in spiritual perspective.  If we were on the moon looking at Earth during these eclipses, we would see the Earth silhouetted in the sun's fire.  Standing on the moon's surface, we would look up at the Earth and witness sunrise and sunset happening simultaneously, everywhere, along the Earth's shadowed rim.  It is the red of the Earthly sunset that we Earthlings see projected onto the moon at the time of a total lunar eclipse.

Lunar eclipses thus invite us to lift grandly above habitual ways of seeing.  Reb Zalman taught that once humanity could see the Earth as a swirled green-blue marble suspended in space, a paradigm shift occurred.  A door opened for us to see ourselves as cells in the cosmic organism of our planet, without artificial borders and boundaries that appear to divide us.  Lunar eclipses call us toward that global vantage.  Lunar eclipses project onto the moon the timeless reality that sunrise and sunset – shifts of awareness between light and dark – are unfolding at every moment.  Usually this truth of nature (and spiritual life) escapes our day-to-day awareness.  A lunar eclipse, however, visibly projects this truth onto our cosmic symbol for Shekhinah, the indwelling divine presence. A lunar eclipse thus reminds us that with God is our power, and our calling, to lift our consciousness beyond the narrowness of place and boundary. 

That lunar eclipses coincide with our biannual festivals for two consecutive years invites especially profound opportunities.  At Passover, season of our liberation, we leave behind the constrictions of slavery and limited insight.  At the Passover eclipses, we can look up and see the ultimate natural image of liminality and change projected onto the springtime full moon.  So too at Sukkot, season of our joy and gratitude, we leave behind old calcified patterns and emerge into deep truths of impermanence. At the Sukkot eclipses, we can gaze at the fall harvest moon and see the ultimate natural image of global interconnectedness reflected on the face of Shekhinah.

At these festival times, traditional liturgy includes Hallel, songs of praise drawn from the Psalms. At the time of these festival lunar eclipses, how amazing to proclaim the Psalmist's joyous words of unity and higher perspective:

רָם עַל-כָּל-גּוֹיִם ה׳ עַל הַשָּׁמַיִם כְּבוֹדוֹ
מִי כַּה׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ הַמַּגְבִּיהִי לָשָׁבֶת
הַמַּשְׁפִּילִי לִרְאוֹת בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ

God is high above all nations: God's glory is above the heavens.
Who is like YHVH our God, enthroned on high,
Looking down low on heaven and earth?

-- Ps. 113:4-6

These eclipses are ultimate expressions of natural liminality reflected onto our Jewish calendar.  At Pesach we stop saying the prayer for rain and begin saying the prayer for dew; at the end of Sukkot, we switch back the other way.  These festivals are liminal moments, as are sunrise and sunset. During these eclipses we'll see liminality projected onto Shekhinah at the very moments that we ourselves are liminal, sanctifying transitions from one state of being into another. 

And with four total lunar eclipses back to back, every six months, timed perfectly to our holiday calendar and seasonal shifts, we have four chances to experience this grandeur -- one lunar eclipse for each of the four worlds of action, emotion, thought, and spirit.  One lunar eclipse for each of the four letters in the Shem HaMeforash, the unpronounceable Name we denote as YHVH.  Four festival opportunities to deepen our amazement and wonder gazing into the night sky. Four festival moments of liberation and gratitude unlike any that we have known before.

Chag sameach / Happy Holidays.


Daily April poem: a Pesach sestina for #blogExodus

ALWAYS MORE TO LEARN



BlogexodusIt's time to unearth the haggadot again.
Scour the countertops before the night
we'll gather around the table, all
ears to hear the story our people tell:
once were slaves, now we're free -- that's why
the songs and foods and prayers: come and learn.

The sages say there's always more to learn
even if you're wise, discerning, have studied again
the details of the Exodus, even why
Akiva and his fellows stayed up all night.
Explain matzah, maror, paschal lamb. Tell
your children on that day, our ancestors all

were lifted up, and not them alone, but all
the generations to come, including ours. Learn
the lessons this tale comes to teach. Tell
yourself: if you're in that narrow place again
there's always hope for better. Tonight
we sing the story that makes us who we are, why

this night is different: why matzah, why
we recline, eat bitter, dip parsley in tears, all
the customs of the seder night.
The orange on the plate, to help us learn
all have a seat at the table. Now again
we make the tale our own, tell

old truths in new metaphors. It's a tell:
do you feel for the Wicked Son? (Why
does he get the bad rap for asking, again?)
Or the Good Son, memorizing all
the halakhot of Pesach: will you learn
with love as he did? Or maybe tonight

you feel like the Simple Son: "this night,
why is it special?" And you shall tell
your child on that night -- listen and learn,
the "you" is feminine, mama's job to explain why --
it's because of what God did for me, for all
of us, bringing us out of slavery again.

Seder night with One Who doesn't yet ask why:
tell that child what you cherish, all
the stories we learn, transform, repeat again.


Today's #blogExodus prompt is "learn." I thought it would be fun to write a sestina about the themes of learning, repetition, asking and telling which are so integral to Pesach.

The poem references a number of things which are in the traditional haggadah, among them the story of Akiva and his fellows staying up all night until the bedtime shema, the Four Sons, "we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt," "You shall tell your child on that day..." and "even if we were all wise, discerning, learned, scholars of Torah..." -- the passage which reminds us that no matter how much we think we know about Pesach and the story of the Exodus there's always more to learn.

Napo2014button1


Daily April poem - a love poem


TO MY HAGGADAH

Over the years your staples have slipped
and pages loosened. Here a faded purple crescent
of ancient wine, there a smudge
from bricks of date paste.
But when you speak I swoon. Tell me again
how we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt
but the Holy One brought us out from there
with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.
Sing to me of unleavened bread, of parsley
dipped in bitter tears. Remind me
if I wait until I feel fully ready
I might never leap at all. Waltz me giddy
through psalms of praise. Promise me
next year a world redeemed.

 


Today's prompt at NaPoWriMo invites the writing of a love poem to an inanimate object. I chose the object which is the primary focus of my attention this week as Pesach approaches: my haggadah.

The first draft naturally came to sixteen lines; when I printed it out and read it aloud, I realized that if I tightened it a little bit I could get it down to a sonnet's fourteen lines, so that's what I did. Though it doesn't rhyme and has no meter, it's loosely based around the Petrarchan sonnet form -- it breaks naturally into eight lines followed by six lines.

I do love the haggadah. All of them. Every version, every iteration, from the most traditional to the most avant-garde. Variations on a theme which never fails to stir my heart. My favorite holiday is almost here!

Napo2014button1

 


#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?

Blogexodus

 


VR Haggadot

Pesach is approaching! If you're looking for a haggadah, allow me to humbly recommend the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach, which exists in two versions: one which is 48 pages long, one which is 84 pages long.

You can find both versions (downloadable PDF files), and can see some of what others have had to say about the haggadah, on the VR Haggadah page of my website.

VRHaggadah

Here's more information about version 7.1 (2011); here's more information about version 7.2 (2012.) Use it in good health! And, as always, I welcome feedback of all kinds.


Returning to leaven

Breads
Breads and doughs. Photos taken over the years.

We don't cleanse our house of hametz (leaven) as thoroughly as many of my friends do. (I wrote a poem about that last year -- Bedikat chametz in the toddler house.) Still, after a week of dining on matzah brei (matzah, soaked in hot water and wrung out, then scrambled with eggs and milk and salt and pepper) and matzah spread with cream cheese, that first leavened meal after Pesach is always a treat. As much as I love the first tastes of matzah at the seder, the familiar scents and textures of haroset and horseradish and matzah's crunch, I also love that first sandwich once I'm back in the land of the leaven-eating again.

Hametz and matzah are made of the same ingredients: flour and water. (I've written about this before -- hametz and matzah, 2006.) What makes matzah matzah is that it is baked speedily, so that the natural yeasts which abound don't have time to begin to ferment and inflate the dough. The two words have almost the same letters in Hebrew. Hametz is spelled חמץ, matzah is spelled מצה -- the only difference is between the ח and the ה, in that little open space in the letter ה. Hametz is spacious because the bread is risen; matzah is flat, so its spaciousness is spiritual rather than physical. Or, maybe the space in that ה is what lets God in...

The challenge, for me, is holding on to the spiritual spaciousness of Pesach once I'm no longer experiencing the reminder of matzah at every meal. That's one of the reasons I so love counting the Omer: it gives me a way to hold on to the sweetness, and the spiritual spaciousness, of Pesach long after the festival is past. For seven weeks, I have a built-in practice to help keep me mindful: of the passing of time, of the journey from freedom to revelation, of the lessons of Pesach which I want to carry with me into the year to come. Freedom all by itself is -- not meaningless, to be sure, but only a first step. The next step is getting ready to enter into covenant, into relationship.

Imagine what it might have been like for our ancestors, wandering during this time. They'd left the harsh labor of Pharaoh's brick-making camps, left a world in which a ruler could decree that all Hebrew boy-children be slaughtered at birth. They'd crossed the Sea of Reeds, walking miraculously on dry sand, maybe with walls of gleaming water suspended impossibly on each side. Signs and wonders, miracles like no one had ever imagined! And now they were camping in the desert, free and probably frightened. So they were free of Pharaoh: now what? To whom would they declare their allegiance? Whom would they serve?

The Jewish answer, of course, is God. Everybody serves someone or something. We choose to be avdei Adonai, servants of the Most High.

Did we ever truly wander in the wilderness? Who knows. I can't say that I care much, one way or the other. What I love is that this is the story we tell about ourselves. We left the dehumanizing servitude of a tyrant, and instead of finding another earthly power to yoke ourselves to, entered into relationship with the source of compassion and blessing in the world. That's what we serve: not Pharaoh, not a boss, but the One Who asks us to partner in the work of healing the brokenness in creation.

In the hamotzi blessing, we bless God Who brings forth bread from the earth. Of course, God doesn't bring forth bread, per se; what God brings forth from the earth is grain. We have to do our part: milling the grain into flour, mixing and kneading the flour into dough, letting the dough rise, shaping and baking it. In Genesis 3 this is framed as a response to the first humans' choice to pursue knowledge -- now we'll earn bread with the sweat of our brows, working to till the earth and tend it and to turn the grain into something we can consume. But that shift is also a kind of growing-up. In the Eden story, we were like children, and everything was provided for us. Post-Eden, we're more mature beings, and we're able to do some of the work to feed ourselves -- and to experience the satisfaction of making bread with our own hands.

It's a new kind of partnership. Just as we partner with God in making the world a better place, we also partner with God in turning the raw materials of our world into something sophisticated and new. God is still the One Who brings forth the grain from the earth, Who causes blessings to flow into creation, Who caused the grains to evolve in all of their beautiful and diverse forms. And we're the ones who get to turn those grains into a wealth of beautiful and diverse breads...which, after Pesach (whenever that is for you, depending on whether you celebrate for seven days or for eight), we once again get to eat.


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.)


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.