Bedikat chametz
Story and truth

Pesach at Elat Chayyim

I just spent three days on Passover retreat with rabbis Arthur Waskow, Phyllis Berman, and Marcia Prager, and cantor Jack Kessler. What a weekend!

Alas, many of the highlights don't translate well. The best parts for me were the new connections, prayers, and melodies. I don't think I can adequately blog the way it feels to sing and pray, open-hearted, in a room full of people who are invested in exploring and revitalizing Judaism the way I also want to do.

I can tell you a little bit about the seders and the davvening, though, and I can pass along some of the insights I gained through our study sessions. Maybe I can impart a little bit of the flavor of the retreat, what it was like for me to celebrate my favorite festival of the year in a community of like-minded folks. (Long-ish post alert: 2800 words. Read at your leisure.)


First seder

I'll start with the best part: Saturday night's seder was astonishingly close to my Platonic ideal of what a seder should be. We used Marcia's homegrown haggadah, and I have all kinds of ideas for cool additions and revisions to mine now! (Definitely expect a new version of the haggadah next year.)

There was a lot of singing, which made me happy. Every time we reached a new "gate" in the service (e.g. one of the fifteen steps in the seder) we chanted the order-of-service again, which helped us stay mindful of where we were and where we were headed. A few melodic lines kept weaving in and out of the evening, and then they turned out to work together, which was really cool. We sang "MiMitzrayim Ge'altanu" ("We Were Liberated from Mitzrayim," trad.) and folk songs ("There Is A Man Come Into Egypt," distinctly non-trad) with equal fervor.

Jack played guitar throughout. (The Four Questions sound surprisingly like a tango when accompanied by Spanish guitar!) And there were drums and tambourines, and at several points in the service there was spontaneous clapping and dancing around the room. Even the long blocks of storytelling involved song; we chanted most of the narrative in the old singsong mode of traditional Talmud study.

We also had opportunities to talk with our table-mates about the meanings of the exodus from Mitzrayim,  both in terms of the creation of the Jewish people and in terms of our own personal liberation from what constrains us this year and every year. And then we ended with song again: a bunch of the traditional songs, including "Adir Hu" (to the very melody I learned as a kid! Ahh, memory) and "Quien supese y entendiese," a.k.a. "Echad Mi Yodea" in Ladino. All in all, I sang myself hoarse, danced the hora until I was out of breath, and was sad to see the seder end.

Davvening in general

Over the course of the weekend, the two couples split up the retreat-leading responsibilities. So Marcia and Jack led one seder and two services; and Phyllis led one seder and two services (with help from Arthur), and Arthur ran the Torah study (about which more anon.)

I grooved on Marcia and Jack's services. They're a great prayer-leading team. Marcia's vibe is warm, friendly, and joyful, and she leads a really sweet service. And Jack's singing and playing are very soulful and occasionally wryly witty (as during the seder when he riffed, "Hello, matzah, my old friend/ you've come to dry my mouth again...")

I grooved on Phyllis' services, too, though she has a very different style than Marcia and Jack; her services are contemplative. She strips the liturgy down to bare bones, choosing one or two lines from each prayer to chant, placing a lot of emphasis on kavvanah (intention).

And sometimes she makes thought-provoking substitutions in the liturgy. For instance, in lieu of the bar'chu (the call-and-response that traditionally calls the community to prayer), she chose a chant of Shefa Gold's, Hinach yafa rayati ("how beautiful you are my beloved friend.") We paired off, clasped hands, and sang to each other (switching partners and serenading someone new with each iteration of the chant), with the intention of seeing and welcoming the spark of God in each person in the room.

I also quite liked the chant Hareyni m'kabeyl alai et mitzvat ha-borey/ v'ahavta l'reyacha kamocha ("Here I am, ready to take upon myself the connective instruction of the Creator: love your friend/neighbor as yourself.") We used that one in morning davvening, and then in the second seder, where we sang it repeatedly in Hebrew and then closed by singing a variation on it in English. The melody is very similar to the folksong I learned as "Heigh-ho, nobody home," so it makes a beautiful round.

Second seder

The contemplative seder we did on the second night of the holiday didn't quite work for me. In lieu of a haggadah we had a three-page chant sheet, and we interspersed chants with silence (and occasional periods of sharing/conversation).  It's a modus operandi I enjoy for shacharit (morning) services, but I have to admit, my inner liturgy queen balked a little at a seder sans haggadah!

The real challenge was, there were a lot of new faces that evening, community members from surrounding towns. I think it's great that Elat Chayyim opened itself up to the community for the second seder, but I don't know that everyone who came was prepared for something quite this alternative. I think this service would work well right on the heels of a silent meditation retreat, or in a small group...but I don't think all of us who were there on Sunday were in the right headspace for a contemplative service.

Even so, it was interesting, and I learned from it -- both from what did work, and from what (I thought) didn't. And at the end of the night, I joined an impromptu jam session, a bunch of folks banging on tables and drums and singing traditional songs and wordless niggunim, which was right up my alley.

Torah study: foregrounding

We began our first study session by exploring the traditional blessing for studying Torah, and I was tickled by Arthur's intentional mis/translation of ...l'asok divrei Torah as " soak ourselves in words of Torah."

Arthur also did a nice job of explaining why many of us no longer favor exclusive use of melech (King) as our one-and-only name/metaphor for God. Once upon a time, he pointed out, only God could destroy the earth, or create new species, or see the big picture of earth as a whole. So it made sense to relate to God as the ultimate, transcendent King.

Today we are capable of destroying the earth, we can and do create new species which would never have arisen in nature, and we can see the planet from space -- so the old metaphor may no longer feel like reality. Hence, many of us choose alternate ways of speaking about and addressing and conceptualizing God, among them Ruach (Spirit/Breath of Life), Ayn ha-chayyim (Source or Wellspring of Life), and Yahh (a name you might recognize from the phrase, hallelu-yah, "praise Yah!") He closed this thread by saying, "but for God's sake, if these words don't speak to your understanding of God, use ones that do!" That pleased me too.


The Haftarah (Prophets selection) for the Shabbat preceding Passover (called "Shabbat ha-Gadol," the Great Shabbat) is Malachi, so Saturday morning before services we studied Malachi 3:4-23. We talked about why Malachi focuses on the need to tithe, and how in giving to the poor we are giving to God. On the etymology front, we talked some about how the term mitzvah  is usually read as "commandment" but can be alternately translated as "connection."

The reading ends with a passage about the advent of Elijah, who "shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents" so that the world does not end in destruction. We closed that study session by affirming aloud our intention to become as Elijah, to turn not only the hearts of children and parents to one another but the hearts of all to all, in order that we may avert the path of destroying our earth.

Since we studied Malachi first thing in the morning, when it came to the place in the Shabbat service where we would ordinarily read the Haftarah, Jack chanted a gorgeous "alternate Haftarah" instead -- a contemporary Hebrew poem called "Midnight," by Yaakov Fishman, which Jack had arranged using the traditional Haftarah trupp (cantillation marks/melody notation). It was fascinating to think about what might be the prophetic texts of our generation, and to consider how the davvening experience changes when we interpolate old texts with contemporary ones.

Wheel of the Year

Saturday afternoon's class focused on the wheel of the year and the role Pesach plays in that wheel. A nifty piece of etymology I hadn't known: shanah, "year," can apparently also be translated as "change" and as "repetition."

Nisan, the month we're in now, is the first month of the year; Rosh Hashanah, the "head of the year," actually comes in month seven -- e.g. the sabbatical month! Just as Torah teaches that we should pause for the seventh day (Shabbat) and the seventh year (the shmita or sabbatical year), so we also pause in the seventh month to celebrate the head of the year. That said, the year actually begins now, in the month of Nisan.

The ancient rabbis felt strongly that Pesach must be in the springtime. Spring is the lambing season, the season when plants green again. It's a season of (re)birth. Since Peasch is the celebration of the birthing of our people, it makes sense that it must be in springtime. But the seasons happen on a solar calendar, and the Jewish calendar is lunar. To keep Pesach from migrating around the year as Ramadan does, the rabbis developed a system in which a second month of Adar is inserted, seven out of every nineteen years. (This whole system is problematic in the southern hemisphere, naturally. Whoops.)

Arthur talked about seeing the trajectory of the shalosh regalim (three pilgrimage-festivals ) as points in a cycle of birth and maturation. Pesach is the holiday of birth; Shavuot represents connection (the mystics read the holiday as our wedding anniversary with God, commemorating the revelation at Sinai); Sukkot, being the harvest holiday, celebrates fruition. (Sh'mini Atzeret, the festival at the very tail-end of Sukkot, can be mapped to a kind of retreating: planting new seeds and praying for rain to water them, in order that the cycle might begin again in the spring.)

We also talked about how Franz Rosenzweig linked the three festivals to creation, revelation, and redemption. (Intriguingly, he also linked the three prayers around the Sh'ma to that same set of concepts.) We looked at how the cycle unfolds, and at the lesson implicit in the round of the year: how to be born, connect, fulfil connection, and then plant seeds underground to prepare for birth again.

Exodus motifs

We spent a fair bit of the weekend exploring the leitmotifs in the Exodus story. One is firstborn-ness: God says the people Israel is/are God's "firstborn," and there's that tenth plague in which the firstborn of the Egyptians are killed, and later in the story we're reminded that the firstborns of the house of Israel are consecrated to God and must be redeemed (via the pidyon ha-ben ceremony).  So what's all of this about?

In what sense is the people Israel God's "firstborn"? I suggested that (like Isaac and Jacob) we're not chronologically firstborn, but we're the underdog that transforms into the chosen one. Torah is full of children who are not technically firstborn, but who receive the blessings due the firstborn through cleverness or cunning, a thematic inversion of the traditional power structure. We also spent a while unpacking birth metaphors in the story of the Exodus: the tale kicks off with the rebellious act of the midwives Shifra and Puah, the people Israel come through the Narrows (Mitzrayim) and are "birthed" into new collective identity through the parting of the Sea of Reeds, etc.

We spent a while on Exodus 12:12-12:51, exploring the assorted symbolisms of blood and birth. We also examined the commandment to eat matzah every year in commemoration of the Exodus. Every year we're instructed to throw out our hametz, our leaven, and to begin again, afresh. In the days when a sourdough starter was the way one insured the continuing ability to make bread, ditching the leaven was a powerful act. What can we learn from our tradition's insistence on an annual ritualized return to uncertainty?

One of the retreatants, a wonderful man named Moishe Lev, noted to me on Saturday that he finds the interpretation  which conflates hametz with personal imperfections a little bit problematic. It's perfectly okay to have hametz in the house all the other weeks of the year, he noted. So maybe hametz is more like ego: we need it, ultimately we can't function without it, but it's good to take some time each year to flatten it out again and keep our puffed-up-ness in check. (Moishe also told some great stories over the course of the weekend: how he and his mother escaped from a death march, his early experiences with Hasidism, how he left his math professorship at Cornell to be an anti-war activist and never found his way back to academia. Torah study of a different kind, the Torah of our individual lives and searches for God.)

Okay, anyway, back to matzah and food and uncertainty. Uncertainty was one of the recurring themes of the weekend. We kept returning to the idea that freedom from slavery isn't easy, because it's freedom into uncertainty. As a corollary, there's the notion that we exchanged forced servitude of Pharaoh for voluntary service to God. As the Counting of the Omer which begins on the second night of Pesach reminds us, Passover is connected with Shavuot; the holiday of our liberation is connected with the holiday celebrating the covenant we made at Sinai. We're not just freed from, we're also freed towards.

Pesach and politics

We spent a while reading and discussing the New Freedom Seder, and exploring questions like: is a secularized seder with political relevance enough for us, or is the haggadah incomplete without the call to serve God as the ultimate endpoint of redemption? If serving God means healing the world, can we understand that process as a kind of yin/yang in which inward work and outward work are in balance? What's the relationship between healing the world through social action and healing the world through contemplative practice and prayer? In light of these debates, what do we make of Abraham Joshua Heschel's notion that when he marched for civil rights he was praying with his feet? How can we pray with our feet today?

Song of Songs

In the final study session of the weekend, we read, chanted, and studied Shir ha-Shirim (Song of Songs), the traditional text for study at Pesach-time. Arthur and Phyllis gave a dramatic reading from Marcia Falk's gorgeous translation, interspersed with chants from the text (more Shefa melodies, from Shir Delight), and then we talked about the Song and some different ways it's been interpreted over the centuries. One of my favorite insights came from Rabbi Shawn Zevit, who suggested that though God's name is absent from the Song, that doesn't represent a dropoff in holiness from other parts of Torah; rather, it represents an ascent towards a nondualistic understanding of God and creation. God's name needn't appear because God's presence permeates the whole book.

We talked, too, about eros and distance, about bridging distance (between lovers, and between humanity and God), about what it might mean that the Song has no "consummation" (can that teach us that what matters is the process/the dance, not the endpoint?) We also spent a while on Rabbi Akiva's famous assertion that the Song of Songs is like the Holiest of Holies (the inner altar in the Temple of old), and how it might be possible to see the Song as a road map for a genuinely relational world, a new Eden for conscious grownups.


And then I came home. And spent all afternoon rereading my journal entries, organizing the pile of papers I brought back, and typing up this blog post. Which I hope you have enjoyed. I had some interesting conversations there, which I may blog about later; I figure this post has gone on long enough...

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