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.



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.


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 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."


Daily April poem: ten 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.



Daily April poem: terza rima



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!


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

"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.

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


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.


Daily April poem - a love poem


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!



#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?



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.


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 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.

14 Nisan: Being

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 Nisan: Changing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


12 Nisan: Redeeming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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11 Nisan: Counting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 Nisan: Leaving

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


9 Nisan: Asking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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