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Reb Zalman on setting your seder free

I am here to free you from the Maxwell House Haggadah, to free you in your Pesach celebration!

...[Y]ou are not just free to use better Haggadahs, (the ones with good translations and more openness), you are also free to use the material as a jumping-off point for playing, for elaboration.  Like the Siddur, the Haggadah is a kind of a cookbook filled with recipes.  You can't eat a cookbook, even ones with the tastiest, the most nourishing recipes.  You must do the cooking to turn recipes to dishes.  And it's similar with the Haggadah:  You make the words three-dimensional, four-dimensional. 

That's my teacher Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi in his post Toward Freeing the Seder, which is excellent. He takes the fifteen steps of the basic seder structure and offers creative suggestions for making each of them one's own.

For instance, on the Four Questions:

Use your pencil and paper to jot down your four questions.  What are they?

Or your four questions about Judaism.

In other words, if I want to get some answers to my questions this night, what are my real questions, the ones I want answered?

Mah nishtanah halyla hazeh?  Why is the night different?  And what about life?  Why is life different from what I expected?  Jot down four "Differents," four "It isn't as I had thought it would be"-s.

Imagine using those four questions in your seder, questions that arise out of who you are this year, in this moment, as this festival unfolds! How would that change your experience? He offers suggestions for how to understand the idea of leaving Mitzrayim (hint: it has something to do with transcending dualities.) Also smart thoughts -- a little funny, a little painful -- about what it means that we're called to do the work of freeing ourselves from the slavery of old patterns around a table with our families, surrounded by the very emotional structures which may need to be transformed and redeemed.

The Seder is filled with ritual and symbolism. Why do we do each of the things tradition dictates that we do? Reb Zalman offers some explanations, but he also offers this response: "I won’t say, because it is important that at each Seder there be a totally new reason for these things we do. Just because someone once in the thirteenth century gave a reason, why should that remain the only reason forever?" I love that, even steeped in traditional wisdom as he is, he so strongly values the individual insights each of us brings to the spiritual journey we're on.

Of course, for some of us -- me included -- there can be deep attachment to the traditions of seder, the familiar words and songs. The ritual creativity Reb Zalman's suggesting may feel too far-out. Maybe we're reluctant to deviate from the text we know and love, or from the well-known patterns of what seder used to be for us. There, too, Reb Zalman has a suggestion:

There are two Seders, so for one of them, you could do it the way the family did it, the way bubbe and zeyde did it, with the old tricks you want the kids to learn, the same, old melodies.  That was the form you received, and that is the form you have to transmit.

But it is also very important to make a Seder that is new happen, one that is your own, one that is a leaving of your own Mitzrayim.

That feels to me like Renewal in a nutshell: transmit the old forms and honor the old ways, and (in the words of poet Ezra Pound) "make it new," do the spiritual work you need to be doing. That's what I try to do with my Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach. I hope it's what you try to do this year with your seders, too, whatever form they may take.

Many thanks to Reb Zalman for putting these teachings out there.

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This week's portion: Clean



Depression whispering poison
anxiety's frantic wakefulness
cancer teeming beneath the skin:
the afflictions we truly fear

are chronic and invisible.
Even doctors look for ways
to blame the victim -- you smoked
too much, your cholesterol

is poor, you shouldn't have been
on birth control -- because
we can't stand that life isn't
a meritocracy, the way disease

sometimes just happens.
It must have been easier
when what distanced us from God
was a visible patch of skin

turning white or red, a spot
on the body to show to the priest,
the binary of tahor or tamei.
When what erupted in us

was on the surface, when we
like cloth could be sterilized
the damaged parts cut away
and consumed in fire

leaving behind only
what could be washed
and washed again, what could
become wholly (blessedly) clean.

Tazria: not, historically, the easiest parsha for me to connect with! Though over the last few years I've been finding various pathways in, ways of understanding the conditions of taharah ("ritual purity") and tumah ("ritual impurity") that make sense to me. Part of my problem tends to be how those words are rendered in English; longtime readers know I find those words both inadequate and wrongly freighted...

Here, again, I'm finding that when I let myself relate to this section of Torah through the prism of poetry, new insights emerge. (If you're interested in how I've engaged with this portion through prose in years past, you can always check out the Velveteen Rabbi's Torah Commentary, the page where I keep links to all of my divrei Torah.)

Though the arcana of taharah and tumah may feel distant for modern readers, the sense that sickness can keep us feeling distant from God resonates strongly for me. Behind this portion and its rules, I see a sense of longing for the kind of wholeness that would make holy connection possible.

As usual, you're welcome to download Clean.mp3 if you can't see the audio player at the top of the post or if you'd like a recording of the poem.

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