A ritual for the end of Pesach

34107028195_cc5fa30544_z"Is there something like havdalah for the end of Pesach?"

That question was brought to me a few days ago by my friend and colleague Reverend Rick Spalding.

Reverend Rick has, in the past, expressed to me his "holy envy" of havdalah. (In Krister Stendahl's terms, one feels holy envy for that thing in another tradition which one wishes existed in one's own tradition.) I love that he thought to ask about whether we have a unique separation ritual for the end of Pesach... and I'm kind of sad that the answer is no.

(This is additionally complicated by the fact that as a people, we don't agree on when the end of Pesach is! Jews in the land of Israel observe seven days. Reform Jews everywhere do likewise. Conservative and Orthodox Jews outside of Israel observe eight days. To the best of my knowledge, the Reconstructionist movement doesn't set official policy on this matter. And Renewal Jews exist everywhere -- in communities of every denominational affiliation and no denominational affiliation -- so it's impossible to generalize.)

But regardless of whether the end of Pesach comes after the seventh day or the eighth day, we don't have a formal ritual unique to ending this festival. Those of us who remove leaven from our homes during the festival have probably evolved informal rituals for moving the Pesachdik dishes back into storage and the regular dishes back into rotation, or for buying or baking the first loaf of bread after the festival has come to its close. But there's no Pesach-specific form of havdalah to mark the end of festival time. 

What we do have is the tradition of counting the Omer, the 49 days between Pesach and Shavuot. In a sense, counting the Omer blurs the boundary at the festival's end. Long after Pesach is over, we're still counting the days until the revelation of Torah at Sinai -- a journey we began at the second seder. The counting stitches the two festivals together, making the end of Pesach less stark. Passover ends, but the Omer continues as each day we turn the internal kaleidoscope to see ourselves through new lenses.

When weather permits, at this time of year, I like to sit outside on my mirpesset and watch the evening sky change. As darkness takes over the sky I make the blessing and count the new day of the Omer. Watching the sky slowly shift from one shade of blue to the next, it's clear to me that the end of a day isn't a binary. We don't go from day to night in a single moment of transition. As our prayer for oncoming evening makes clear, "evening" is a mixture of day and night, constantly shifting.

There's some of that same fuzziness in the end of Pesach. Even once we've moved the regular dishes back into the kitchen, or gone out for that first celebratory pizza after a week of matzah, the festival lingers. It lingers in the counting of the Omer. It lingers in the matzah crumbs we'll be sweeping up for weeks. It lingers in our consciousness, in our hearts and minds, in whatever in us was changed this year by re-encountering our people's core narrative of taking the leap into freedom.

Still, Reverend Rick's question continues to reverberate in me. Havdalah has four elements: wine, fragrant spices, fire, and a blessing for separation. If we were to dream a ritual to make havdalah specific to the end of Pesach, how would we re-imagine havdalah for this purpose? The one thing that's clear to me is that the ritual would need to be simple and accessible, not requiring additional preparation -- Pesach is so full of extra work that I don't think I could bear to add additional strictures or obligations or ritual items!

Blessing a glass of wine, symbol of joy, is easy. For the fragrant spices, this year, I want a scent of the outdoors -- from my mirpesset I can breathe the sharp scent of new cedar mulch -- to spark my soul's embrace of what is growing and unfolding and new. Instead of the light of a braided havdalah candle, I might hold my hands up to the ever-changing light of the sky. And as a blessing of separation, the new night's Omer count, separating and bridging between what was and what is yet to be. 

 

Edited to add: I realized after this post had been published that I wasn't altogether clear. Here's an addendum: 

It is traditional to make a modified form of havdalah at the end of festivals (and I should have been clearer about that -- oops.) The conversation that sparked this post wasn't about that per se, but about a Pesach-specific ritual for the end of Pesach -- and while Mimouna is a Pesach-specific custom for post-Pesach, it also doesn't exactly answer the question I raise at the end of the post, about how we might repurpose havdalah itself to incorporate scents and sights of this moment in time.


Ready to be changed

Img_9134-e1332770936209This week we're taking a break from the regular cycle of Torah readings. Our special Torah reading for Shabbat Chol Ha-Moed Pesach, the Shabbat that comes in the midst of this festival, returns us to the book of Exodus.

In this Torah portion, Moshe pleads with God, "Let me behold Your presence!" And God says "Yes! -- and no." God says, "I will make My goodness pass before you, but no one can look upon Me and live." God says, "Let Me protect you in this cleft of a rock, and after I pass by, you can see my afterimage."

This is among the most intense and profound moments in Torah. We could spend hours exploring this text... and instead I have two minutes.

I was talking about that this week with my learning partner -- after all, rabbis keep learning too -- and the question arose: so how long did it take for God to pass by? Probably none of us believe that God has a physical body, so this question is about Moshe's awareness. In Moses-time, maybe it took two minutes. Probably it happened in a flash. An experience -- even a life-changing one -- can unfold in two minutes. But understanding that experience, integrating it into the fullness of our lives, can take a lifetime.

The teacher of my teachers, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z"l, said that "theology is the afterthought of the believer. You never have someone coming up with a good theology if he or she didn’t first have an experience." Experience comes first. Our attempts to understand that experience come after.

Understanding can happen in the body, when we feel something viscerally. Or in the mind, or the heart, or the spirit. Often it's one but not the other -- you know how sometimes you know something in your head, but your heart hasn't yet gotten the memo? Experience is easy. Understanding is harder.

Your years at Williams are like that too, filled with experiences that might take you weeks, or months, or a lifetime to fully explore. The thing is, we never know which moment will be the moment when an experience knocks us off our feet and changes us. We have to be open to it whenever it comes.

And that takes me back to Pesach. When it was time to leave slavery, the children of Israel had to go right then. No time to let their bread dough rise, just -- time to go, now, ready or not. One minute they were hemmed-in and trapped, and the next minute they were faced with wide-open possibility.

The haggadah says each of us should see ourselves as though we ourselves had experienced that transformation. Every life is filled with Exodus moments: when everything you thought you understood turns upside-down, when you realize your world is more expansive than you ever knew, when you have to take a leap into the unfamiliar and unknown.

A life-changing experience could happen anytime. Going from constriction to freedom could happen anytime. Liberation from life's narrow places, or God's presence passing before us in such a way that we feel the presence of goodness, could happen right now. Our job is to be ready for the experience of being changed. 

That kind of mindful living takes practice. College is busy. Life is busy. The life-changing experience of a moment may be a gift of grace, or a total accident. But good practice makes us accident-prone. 

So here's a blessing for being prone to the best kind of accidents, the serendipity that can change a life in the blink of an eye, the two minutes that can last a lifetime, two minutes that can change a life.

 

This is the d'varling I offered tonight at the end of Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Williams College Jewish Association.  (Cross-posted to Under the Kippah: Thoughts from the Jewish Chaplain.)

Image by Jack Baumgartner. [Source.]

 


Layers of Hallel, layers of time

33588459020_8bf5713c2d_zOn the first morning of Pesach I took my pocket siddur onto my mirpesset (balcony) and davened the psalms of Hallel. I sang them quietly enough not to disturb my neighbors, but loud enough to hear myself singing.

I hadn't really spent time on the mirpesset since Sukkot ended. The weather got cold, I folded up the chairs and table, and I didn't go onto the balcony for months.

This was my first time back out there, and just like at Sukkot, I was singing Hallel. But unlike at Sukkot, this time I was sustained by memories of last time. When I sang these psalms at Sukkot I put down a first layer of spiritual experience in this place, and when I returned to them at Pesach, that first layer gleamed beneath the layer of the now and the new.

Sitting on my mirpesset now, I remember how it felt to have my little sukkah over me, spangled with autumn garlands. The location -- both physical (the mirpesset) and spiritual (the festival, the singing of Hallel) layers the now over the then, links what is and what was. 

The festivals serve in this way regardless of physical location. Their melodic motifs in particular work this way for me, hyperlinking Pesach with Shavuot with Sukkot, one year with the last and with the next. But because my move last year was such a big deal for me (after seventeen years in that house, and eighteen years in that marriage), the shift from my old life to my new one was seismic in ways I'm only now beginning to recognize.

That, in turn, means there is extra comfort in beginning to put down roots here -- both in this physical place, and in this new chapter in which I am a single person rather than a partnered person, a divorcée rather than a wife. Singing hallel on my mirpesset from festival to festival helps to ground me in this new normal. And it's a piece of the life I had hoped to build for myself, and for that I am grateful.

מן המצר כראתי יה, ענני במרחב יה –– from the narrow place I called to You; You answered me with expansiveness.

 Amen, amen, selah.


Thanks, JWI!

Static1.squarespaceDeep thanks to the folks at Jewish Women International for the lovely write-up on the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach! Here's a taste:

“I know some people use my Haggadah whole cloth and some use excerpts with whatever Seder they are doing,” Barenblat told me when I spoke to her this week. “I am thrilled that it speaks to people. I hope it provides inspiration so people can relate to the story not as something that happened then, but as something happening now.” 

“Anyone can be changed by the themes of the Seder,” Barenblat added. “It can resonate if you are ready.”

You can read their article here: A Powerfully Relevant Haggadah to Download.

Please know that I've asked them to make one correction to the article: the reading "Long ago at this season," which Sue Tomchin cites in the article, isn't mine. As the footnotes in my haggadah indicate, it's from Chaim Stern's Gates of Freedom.

If you're interested, please download the haggadah from the haggadah page on my website, here: Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach.

(The page on my website also has the cover file available for download, which is not available on the JWI page; and if and when I revise the haggadah, the most up-to-date version will always be available on my website, whereas the link on the JWI page may not always be the most-current version.)

Wishing everyone a meaningful Pesach!


Cleaning (the internal) house before Pesach

33837431415_1c3d90d643_zIt's Shabbat HaGadol, "The Great Shabbat" -- the Shabbat that comes right before Pesach. Traditionally, this is the day when rabbis are supposed to give lengthy sermons on the importance of properly cleaning one's house for Pesach and getting rid of every crumb of leavenable grain.

So that's what I'm going to do, except that mine will be very short, and mine isn't actually about housecleaning.

I mean, it's great if you want to remove the chametz from your dorm room, and by all means show up on Sunday to help us turn over the kitchen for Pesach here at the JRC! But tonight I'm less interested in the details of how to kasher a kitchen, and more interested in what this practice can teach us spiritually.

The word chametz (חמץ) comes from l'chmotz, to sour or ferment. In the world of tangible practicality, chametz means leavened bread, or things made from the five officially (according to Talmud) leavenable grains. But in the realms of emotion and thought and spirit, chametz can mean the old stuff in our hearts. Old patterns, old baggage, old hurts that we hold on to. The puffery of ego and pride. The sourness of old angers and insults. That thing somebody said, or did -- or that thing that we ourselves said or did -- of which we've never been able to let go.

Monday night we'll enter into the Festival of Freedom. Tradition teaches that we thank God on Pesach for what God has done for us in bringing us out of Mitzrayim -- not some mythic "them" back "then," but us, in our own lives, right now. The name Mitzrayim, usually translated as "Egypt," comes from the root צר (tzr), which means narrowness or suffering. We all experience suffering and inhabit narrow places. Pesach comes to remind us that we can leave emotional and spiritual constriction behind.

And when it's time to embrace change and new beginnings, we have to leap at that chance -- even if we don't feel fully ready, even if our bread dough hasn't had the time to rise. That's why our mythic ancestors baked unleavened bread for their journey. Walking in their footsteps, we too are called to leave behind our chametz, our old habits and patterns, the wounds we've been unwilling to forget, the disappointments that color our relationships with others and with ourselves.

Traditionally we search for chametz on the night before the holiday by the light of a candle. This practice comes to remind us that we find our chametz, the old and maybe painful stuff we need to relinquish, in darkness -- in the dark night of the soul, the tough times in our lives when light and hope seem distant and hard to find.

Clearing out internal chametz isn't easy. Often we feel resistance: we don't want to let go of an old story, or to forgive someone who's hurt us, or to believe that we ourselves can be forgiven for our missed marks. It requires some scrubbing, metaphysically speaking. Our work is discerning which of our old stories still serve us, and which have become chametz that we need to shed in order to move toward liberation.

There's a Zen parable about two monks whose vows instructed them not to touch women. They came to a flooded river and found a woman in need of transport across. One of them picked her up and carried her. After they reached the other side, the other monk fumed for about an hour, and finally burst out with "Why did you do that? We made a vow not to touch women!" The first monk looked at his friend and said, "I put her down an hour ago. Why are you still carrying her?"

What's the chametz you're carrying that you need to release in order to approach Pesach with unburdened shoulders? What's the old stuff in you that you need to clear away so that you can enter Pesach with a heart that is open and whole?

 

This is the d'varling I offered tonight at the end of Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Williams College Jewish Association.  (Cross-posted to Under the Kippah: Thoughts from the Jewish Chaplain.)

There's a practice of ritually hiding, and then discovering and disposing of, some leaven on the night before Pesach. Here's a one-page handout containing the ritual, the blessing, and a poem: Bedikat Chametz [pdf]


Parsley dipped in tears

33109547490_120fdd0378_zA few weeks ago, on a Friday morning, I walked with a dear friend in the Atlanta Botanical Garden.

Where we live the world was covered with a winter coat of snow, but in Georgia the first stirrings of spring were underway. There were daffodils blooming, and leaves preparing to pop free.

But the thing that most drew my attention was one of the beds in the herb garden, filled with different varieties of parsley. The moment I saw the parsley plants growing, I tasted Passover.

The third step of the seder journey is karpas. We bless and eat something green, dipped in salt water. The green represents the new life of springtime, while the salt water represents the bitter tears of slavery. 

There's a deep truth hidden in that bite of green. New beginnings may not come easy. Often they require hard work, and willingness to name and to take responsibility for what's been bitter.

We've all had moments when we feel as though whatever constraints we habitually inhabit are permanent. Maybe we've had moments of losing hope that whatever narrow place we're in -- depression, or tough life circumstances, or grief -- will ever be different. 

But spring does come, even when winter feels most entrenched and unmovable. And Jewish tradition teaches that when we cry out from the depths of our lives' narrow places, there is One Who hears us and helps us to break free. And every year we retell the story: not as something that happened to them back then, but as something that is happening to us right now. 

It's okay if the green of new life is bathed in salt tears, if our new growth is tender, if change sometimes hurts. That's exactly the flavor of the parsley dipped in salt water. Sharp, and intense, and a little bit salty: sadness for what was, mingled with hope for what's coming. Remembrance of the old, and embrace of the new.


Stop hiding: let yourself go free

_91021013_thinkstockphotos-517519673The festival of Purim (coming up this Saturday) is a holiday of concealment. At Purim we read the Scroll of Esther, a delightfully bawdy Persian court soap opera which doesn't appear, at first glance, to have much to do with spiritual life or with God. Jewish tradition doesn't shy away from this oddity -- we embrace it and find meaning in it.

The quintessential act of Purim is להתחפש, a reflexive verb which means to dress oneself up or to conceal oneself. We do this when we dress up in costumes on Purim. Esther does this when she hides her Jewishness (until the moment comes for her to reveal herself and in so doing save the day). God does this in concealing God's-self entirely; God is never even mentioned in the megillah (though to the discerning eye God's presence may be subtly manifest even so.)

Purim is about the self-reflexive act of hiding. But what happens when we shift that verb and make it no longer reflexive? We get the verb לחפש - to search. And searching is one of the quintessential moves we make before Pesach. On the night before Passover begins, there's a tradition of lighting a candle and searching our homes for "hidden" hametz (leaven), a physical hide-and-seek game that represents a deeper inner searching. We read in the book of Proverbs (20:27) that our own souls are God's candle -- just as we search for hidden leaven by the light of a physical candle, God uses our souls as candles to illuminate all that's hidden in the world.

When we search for hametz, we're not just looking for bread crusts. We're also seeking spiritual leaven, the puffery of pride and ego, the sour old stuff within us which needs to be discarded in order for us to move toward freedom.

The shift from להתחפש to לחפש, from concealment to searching, is the fundamental move we're called to make as spring unfolds, as we move from Purim (festival of masks and concealment) to Passover (festival of searching and liberation). At Purim, we may be hiding -- from others, and even from ourselves. Maybe it feels dangerous to let ourselves be known. Maybe there are truths we don't want to admit. Maybe we think there are parts of ourselves we have to hide in order to move freely in the world. Maybe we think we are better off if we conceal the parts of ourselves of which we are ashamed, or the parts of ourselves which don't meet others' expectations.

But in order to move toward freedom, we have to turn the reflexive verb outward: we have to move from hiding (from) ourselves to searching for what's been hidden. If God hides in order that we might seek, then it stands to reason that so do we. We have to unearth precisely our own stuff which we have hidden from the world. We have to unearth precisely our own stuff which we have hidden even from ourselves. The hopes and yearnings that we've tried to keep under wraps, the sorrows and fears that we've tried to hide, from others and from ourselves.

May we do that unearthing through therapy, or hashpa'ah (spiritual direction), or a writing practice, or a prayer practice. Maybe we do that unearthing through conversations with a trusted friend who can help us see ourselves more clearly than we could see on our own. Maybe we do that unearthing through studying texts and delving into the passages that resonate with us. There are many ways to do the work of searching for who we really are. What's important is that we light the candle and we do the searching. Passover will come in the fullness of time no matter what, but the journey of the Exodus will mean more if we're willing to do this inner work.

The hametz we need to root out is not our imperfections (because everyone is imperfect) but the way we try to hide our imperfections, the way we shame ourselves for our imperfections. The internal narrative which says that we are only lovable, or only worthwhile, if we keep parts of ourselves -- our quirks, our mistakes, our tenderest places -- hidden. The need to conceal oneself can become a kind of Mitzrayim, a place of constriction. In order to emerge from the tight places in our lives, we need to stop hiding. We need to move from concealing ourselves to searching for ourselves in order to let ourselves go free.

And the journey takes us one step further. We move from concealment (Purim) to searching (Pesach) to revelation (Shavuot.) Purim's reflexivity primes that pump: first we own (and prepare to relinquish) our own hiding. Then we search for our deepest truths and begin to experience the freedom of wholly being who we truly are. Only then can we be ready to receive revelation anew. The journey to revelation begins right now. The places where we've hidden our hearts from others or from ourselves aren't impediments to the journey: they are the spark that will ignite the inner spiritual journey of our transformation.

 

 Dedicated to Rabbi David Evan Markus, from whom I learned this teaching.

Image: hide-and-seek, from the BBC.


A piece of my own history

30988704700_689c182dfb_zMostly what I did during my first Williams College Jewish Association board meeting a few weeks ago was listen. I asked a couple of questions, but my purpose there was to begin learning: about who the students are, and what matters to them, and what they're working on.

At the end of the hour, as they gathered their coats to leave, Evan -- the co-president of WCJA -- said to me, "Wait a second, I have something for you."  What he handed me was a piece of my own history: an original copy of the haggadah from the Williams College Feminist Seder from 1996.

1996 was my senior year at Williams, and I was an active participant in creating that haggadah and that seder. (The cover is my own handwriting -- I remember sitting at my desk, pencilling and then inking that intertwined woman symbol and Star of David.) It was wild to stand in the very room where our feminist seders took place, holding that staple-bound booklet.

I have some Williams feminist haggadot in my archives. Ten years ago, WCJA invited me to come and speak at the Jewish Religious Center about my experiences with the Williams College feminist seder, which inspired me to find those old haggadot and reread them. (I wrote about that at the time: Six years of Williams College feminist haggadot.)

But there's something extra-special to me now about this one, because someone saved it. Someone saved it, and passed it down, and handed it on, until it came into the hands of the current leadership of the Jewish Association, twenty years after it was assembled and printed and used. 

Leafing through it now, I'm moved by several things. One is how I can see glimmers of this haggadah in my Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach, the haggadah that I have for years shared online as a free download. Another is the poetry we chose -- and the fact that many of the poets there who were simply revered names to me twenty years ago are now colleagues and friends. (That feels to me like a sign that I am doing something right with my life.)

I'm moved, also, by the awareness that this haggadah represents a particular moment in the evolution of Jewish feminism. Today's students express their Jewishness in an intersectional framework for which we didn't have the language twenty years ago -- or at least I didn't. I know that there haven't been feminist seders at Williams in many years. I wonder whether the spiritual yearnings that used to be expressed through the vehicle of that experience are now bubbling up in some other way. 

This physical object teleports me temporarily through time. I'm grateful to have this tangible reminder of what was important to me in college, and I'm gratified at the reminder that the work I'm doing now has its roots in who I was then. 


Seder for the seventh day: a celebration of taking the leap

Red-sea-partedIt was on the seventh day after the Exodus that our forebears made it to the shore of the Sea of Reeds. Behind them, the Egyptian army. Ahead of them, the sea. (At least, so teaches our tradition.)

Midrash teaches that not until a man named Nachshon ben Aminadav walked in up to his neck did the waters part. The seventh day of Pesach is the anniversary of that leap of faith. 

The custom of holding a seder on the first night or two of Passover is one of the practices most widely observed across the Jewish world. (In the Pew study that came out a few years ago, seven in ten Jews reported participating in Passover seders.) 

The custom of holding a seder on the seventh day is less well-known, and less formalized -- and as a result, there's more room for ritual and liturgical creativity. This year's seventh-day seder (unlike last year's) took place without a haggadah. We had no foreordained plan for the journey. Instead we traveled with our mental map of the steps of seder, from sanctification to conclusion, and explored the internal territory revealed to us along the way.

The only ritual items we had on hand were wine to bless, and matzah: the bread of affliction and of freedom all in one. We gave matzah yet another meaning, declaring it to be the bread of choosing. One can always remain in familiar constriction, instead of taking the risk of stepping into the unknown. But authentic spiritual life calls us to choose becoming, instead. It calls us to take the leap into the sea.

We began Maggid, the storytelling step of the seder, by asking Four Questions of our own. We took turns contributing questions and answers, without preparation. Perhaps it wasn't coincidence that the questions that came to us in that ritual moment were big questions that don't have simple answers. That's the valance of this moment in the year: crossing the sea, not knowing what's on the other side.

We told the story of our people through the prism of our own story: from who we were then to who we are now; from times of constriction to times of liberation, not once but again and again. We remembered davening at the edge of an ocean not so long ago, and we imagined ourselves standing at the edge of the sea, taking the leap of trusting that the waters would divide and let us safely through.

Like last year, we made meaning in the items that were within reach. We turned my can of Fresca (with the aid of some gematria, a.k.a. Hebrew letter-math) into a parable about God lifting us away from Pharaoh, and turned a small rainbow slinky into the coiled spring which helps us leap from slavery into freedom. We laughed, but the meaning we found (or made) in what was at hand felt true and real.

Many of us spend the month before Pesach preparing diligently for the first two seders. The seventh day seder is different. It felt good to me this year to approach the seventh day seder in a spirit of openness. The seventh day is when we take a deep breath and walk boldly into the waters, not knowing for certain that they will part. No amount of advance preparation can truly ready us for taking that leap.

There's something extra-sweet about doing something free-form in between ritual experiences that are more fixed and more liturgical -- like the sedarim that Rabbi David and I led last weekend, and the services we'll lead this Shabbat. Perhaps if we're lucky we'll be able to take into our services a bit of our seventh-day-seder whimsy, a bit of the Not Knowing that can fuel our awe and our joy.

 


And the day came...

And-The-Day-Came-When-The-Risk-To-Remain-TightI've been sitting with this Anaïs Nin quote for a while. "And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was greater than the risk it took to bloom." It feels especially resonant to me as Pesach draws near. The Pesach story is one of risk-taking. 

The Pesach story says: in every life there are familiar constrictions. Sometimes we suffer them. Sometimes we accept them grudgingly. Sometimes we embrace them. Sometimes we grow so accustomed to them that we forget they're there.

And in every life there are awakenings. We realize that we don't need to stay where we are. We realize that we could choose to risk the unknown, even though it's scary, even though we don't know what lies ahead. The Pesach story says: take the leap. Step into the sea and trust that it will part for you.

The Pesach story says, if we wait until we feel fully ready we might never act at all. The Pesach story says, we can stay where we are indefinitely, but at what cost to our hearts and our souls? We are made to change and grow, and sometimes that means setting out into the wilderness of not-knowing. Sometimes that means taking the risk of trusting that good things lie ahead, even if we can't see them from here. Sometimes it means leaping before we feel ready, because the whole idea of "ready" becomes something that's holding us back.

Can you imagine what it's like to be a tulip curled into a bulb, waiting patiently through the long and perhaps snow-covered winter for the indescribable call to unfold, to stretch toward the light, to shatter and expand and become something glorious and new? The Pesach story is like that. It's the beginning of our unfolding into the nation we continue to become. As a people we were curled into a tight place until we were brought forth from there -- maybe by the same ineffable force that whispers to tulip bulbs when it's time to burst free and emerge from underground.

Tradition teaches that each of us must relate to the Pesach story as though it had happened not then to them but also to us. The movement from constriction to freedom is recapitulated in every life, in the trajectory of every soul. But it's not just an individual story; the Pesach story is also a collective one. After the Exodus our mixed multitude became a people. We went forth together, and together we grew into something new, something greater than the sum of its parts. We went from being slaves of Pharaoh to being servants of the One. This is the core story of Jewish peoplehood.

The Pesach story doesn't offer easy answers. Torah reminds us that once the children of Israel leave Egypt they kvetch bitterly, missing the familiar comforts of the life they used to know even though that life contained grief and silencing and hard labor. That's human nature. It's hard to leave what we've known, even if we believe that God is bringing us forth from where we've been in order that we might be made new. In order that we might serve from that place of having been made new. Each of us has to choose, time and again, to become. To be open to changing. To learn to bloom.

Blooming is a risk. There could be a late frost, or not enough rain, or not enough sun. Anything could go wrong! There are always reasons not to bloom, or not to bloom yet. Pesach comes to call us out of those reasons. The One Who spoke to Moshe from the burning bush claimed the name "I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming." Our God is always becoming, and so are we. The day comes when the risk of remaining tight in a bud is greater than the risk of choosing to follow God's example and become. Maybe this is that day. What would you need in order to trust that this can be that day for you?

Chag sameach -- wishing a deep and sweet and meaningful Pesach to all who celebrate.

 

 


Taking the leap: on spiritual housecleaning, the ALEPH Listening Tour, and making God's Presence real

(A Listening Tour d'var Torah for Shabbat HaGadol and Shabbat Metzora at Kehilla Community Synagogue)

 

Shabbat Shalom.  I come bearing perhaps surprising news: Pesach is almost upon us. This is Shabbat haGadol, the "Great Shabbat" immediately before Passover. Traditionally, as Reb David mentioned last night, this is the day when rabbis are supposed to give sermons about preparations for Pesach.

Preparations for Pesach take many forms. For some of us this is a season of intensive physical house-cleaning, when we strive to remove every crumb of חמץ / hametz (leaven) from our homes. For many of us, this is a season of intensive spiritual house-cleaning, when we strive to clear the spiritual hametz from our hearts so that we may walk ever more upright into a future of renewal opening right before us. I don't much enjoy the physical housecleaning, but the spiritual housecleaning is my idea of a good time. I love that our tradition gives us this opportunity for reflection as Pesach draws near.

If I believed in coincidences, maybe I’d believe that our visit to Kehilla for the ALEPH Listening Tour just happened to coincide with this season of renewal.  But I think it's no coincidence that our time with you here, in this city which is one of Jewish Renewal's beating hearts, comes at this sacred season.

We set out on this year of listening to invite self-reflection – and reflection by all who care about ALEPH and Jewish Renewal -- about where our movement came from, where it's been, and where we might want to take it next.  We did so knowing that a future of renewal, all that this movement can be, is starting to open right before us -- and also knowing that it wasn’t yet clear what that future would be or how we’d get there.  There’s a certain leap of faith that we’re all taking -- being here in such a self-reflective way, visioning a future perhaps difficult to see, making ourselves vulnerable to the truths of what needs fixing, and going forward before our plans are ready.

In a nutshell, that’s the story of Passover -- going before we’re ready, not yet knowing how or where, trusting the way forward for transformation and renewal, and taking a leap of faith not despite not-knowing but precisely into the not-knowing.

Our people have done this before.  Our ancestors left a familiar enslavement with no idea where God would take them or how their lives might unfold. With the Exodus we reboot the story of Jewish peoplehood, the story of becoming who we most deeply are. Each year we're called to rededicate ourselves to taking the risk of leaving enslavement and choosing to become.

That's exactly the spiritual challenge that Jewish Renewal places in front of us. Are we willing to take the risk of reshaping Judaism so that it truly speaks to this moment of such profound social, generational and planetary change? Are we willing to take the risk of co-creating that kind of Judaism, risking that we might fail? Reb David and I, and everyone at ALEPH, are taking the risk to trust that your answer is yes. 

Continue reading "Taking the leap: on spiritual housecleaning, the ALEPH Listening Tour, and making God's Presence real" »


Haggadah for Pesach... as a slideshow

Earlier this year, ALEPH released a new digital haggadah for Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. As a manifestation of our commitment to caring for our planet, we released it as a slideshow, designed to be projected on a screen rather than printed and stapled or bound. After that came out, a few people reached out to ask me whether I would make my haggadah for Pesach available the same way. 

 

it can be streamed from there, or downloaded (30 MB PDF file / 174 slides.) 
Alternatively, here's the haggadah as a slideshow on google drive
 

The text is the same as in the most recent version of the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach. Some of the images are the same; others are new, because a file designed to be projected on a screen can feature different kinds of images than a file designed to be copied and staple-bound.

Alternatively, pf course, if you want to print and bind a copy (formatted for vertical 8.5 x 11" pages, not for slide projection), you can find the latest edition of the interior text and the cover on the VR Haggadah page of my website.

Enjoy!


Halaila hazeh (on this night)

After pyjamas, tooth brushing, and reading a book (which lately means him reading Press Here to me), we turn off the lights. Beneath the glowing stars on the ceiling we say prayers and sing our bedtime songs. This always includes the one-line shema, sung to the melody my mother taught me (which I now know to be by Sulzer.) This week I've started singing the first two of the Four Questions at bedtime, too.

Last year I sang the first question to him every night for a month and by Pesach he was able to belt it out proudly. This year I suggested he could learn the first two, and at first he balked. "I don't know," he said. "What if I can't do it?" I assured him that if he isn't comfortable singing them by Pesach, he won't have to. Grudgingly he admitted that I could sing them to him, but insisted he wouldn't sing along.

That was a few days ago. Then, one night as I began singing "Mah nishtanah," he joined in. To my surprise, he sang both of the questions with me, giggling all the way. When we were done I told him I was proud of him. He said he'd sing the questions to himself until he fell asleep. Then we sang the angel song. These days he usually chooses Shir Yaakov's melody over Carlebach's, though I love them both.

Then he said "Wait, before 'Goodnight You Moonlight Ladies' can I pray for one thing?"

"Of course," I said, startled.

"Thank You God for all the things You put in the world that make us feel better when we're not so happy," he said earnestly, and my heart grew three sizes at his spontaneous offering of prayer and his comfort with speaking not just about God but to God.  "Amen," I said. "That's a beautiful prayer." (And I wondered what brought that on, though by then it was already well past official bedtime, so I didn't ask.)

Then I sang him our variation on James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" (that's the aforementioned "moonlight ladies" lullaby, which we've been singing to him pretty much since the week he was born) and kissed him goodnight. Sure enough, when I walked by his room on my way upstairs, I heard him singing the Four Questions to himself. "Halaila hazeh, halaila hazeh..." On this night, on this night...

On this night, I am proud of my kid. On this night, I am humbled by my kid. On this night, I am so grateful for my kid.


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.

 

P2plogo

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.