Cross-posted from Builders Blog, a project of Bayit: Building Jewish.
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Cross-posted from Builders Blog, a project of Bayit: Building Jewish.
This is going to be a Passover unlike any other. I wrote a long paragraph of reasons why that is so, and then I deleted them. You are living in this world too. You don't need me to tell you any of the reasons why this year is different from any other year that any of us have ever lived through. You don't need me to tell you what's strange or scary or overwhelming or unknown, or why it feels so weird to be approaching Pesach in this moment when life feels both empty (of normalcy) and over-full (of fear).
The story of the Exodus, the story we re-tell each year during the seder, is the story of how our spiritual ancestors left Mitzrayim, "The Narrow Place." The Pesach story -- our national story as a people -- begins in tight constriction. It begins in dire straits. It begins in a time and place of profound inequality, when there was an unthinkable gap between rich (Pharaoh) and poor (the ancient Israelite slaves). It begins with plagues, darkness, sickness, death, and leaving behind everything that was familiar.
The tradition says each of us is to see ourselves as though we ourselves had been brought out of Mitzrayim. I don't know about you, but the idea that we are living in Mitzrayim -- the Narrow Place; tight constriction; dire straits -- feels very real to me this year. If we are feeling constricted, anxious, afraid, uncertain, maybe newly-aware of some of our society's fundamental inequalities and the harm they cause to the most vulnerable... then we are exactly where the Pesach story calls us to be.
When we left that Narrow Place, we didn't know where we were going. We didn't have time to fully prepare for our journey of transformation. We didn't know where we were going or how we would get there. We left the Narrow Place anyway, because it had become clear that staying where we were -- staying with the status quo -- meant death. If we are feeling unready, unprepared, maybe thrust into a journey we don't know how to take... then we are exactly where the Pesach story calls us to be.
In Talmud (Pesachim 116a) we read that מתחיל בגנות ומסיים בשבח - one should begin the recounting of the Exodus story with degradation, and one should end with praise. That's the spiritual journey encapsulated and recapitulated in the seder. The haggadah moves from the degradation of "we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt" to the praise songs of Hallel on the far side of the sea. The haggadah takes us from despair to redemption, from constriction to freedom, from mourning to dancing.
Right now we are at the beginning of the story of the covid-19 pandemic of 2020. We begin in "degradation" -- in this Narrow Place, in this fearful place, in this grief-stricken place. Our task is to trust that this is only where our story begins, not where it will end. Our work is to stay home, help those whom we can help, and cultivate our ability to hope. May scientists' labors toward a vaccine bear fruit, so that someday this slow-motion global tragedy will end and we will dance on the far shores of the sea.
If you're looking for resources for a home-based seder this year, here's a post I wrote for Builders Blog: Resources for Seder in a Time of Quarantine.
I've been reading a lot of posts and articles about why we should be stocking our pantries and medicine cabinets against the possibility of illness, quarantine, and/or disrupted supply chains. The most compelling piece I've read thus far is this one in Scientific American by Zeynep Tufekci. She argues that being prepared is our civic duty and is something we can do as a favor to those who cannot prepare. "We should prepare," she writes, "so that we can help lessen the risk for everyone."
One suggestion that a lot of people are making is: stock up on dried foods, and on the things that members of your household like to eat. This way if you become ill (or if there is a quarantine, or if you are staying home to avoid infection or to reduce strain on grocery workers who may be ill, or if supply chains are disrupted because of widespread illness) you'll have what you need. My kid's favorite foods include bagels, pasta, and toaster waffles. Oh, and granola bars. And buttered English muffins.
And on the Jewish calendar we're five weeks away from Pesach, when it's customary to remove all of the leaven from one's home. So should I be trying to "eat down" all the hametz in my home in the coming month to make it easier to clean for Pesach in the ways that I want to do? Or should I be picking up an extra box of pasta, an extra box of blueberry Eggos, and an extra box of shells and cheese every time I go to the grocery store, so that we're well-prepared in the event that we need to stay home?
I can argue that Jewishly I have a civic obligation to do what is best for the most vulnerable in the general population (that's the thrust of Torah's repeated injunction to care for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.) That may mean making sure I have two weeks' worth of shelf-stable food on hand, and stocking up on the things my kid will actually eat -- because as Tufekci argues, preparing is "one of the most pro-social, altruistic things you can do in response to potential disruptions of this kind."
I can also argue that Jewishly I have a religious obligation to remove hametz for Pesach: that's a practice I've taken on in recent years and it matters to me both practically and spiritually. So I'm laying in a store of the wheat-filled foods my kid likes to eat... and during Pesach, I will move them to the extra freezer in the garage so that they are not in my home proper, and I will "sell" them to a non-Jewish friend, and will declare them temporarily not mine. It's a legal fiction, but this year a very useful one.
Intellectually I know that selling my hametz means there's no problem here. But emotionally I'm finding this jarring. It feels truly strange to be stocking up now on foods that in any other year I would be trying to consume and not replace. One way to understand Pesach is as a spiritual call to leave familiar constriction and go, even if we don't feel ready. Buying extra stuff to have on hand is the opposite of "drop everything and go" -- though the "not feeling ready" part still holds.
It feels weird to be buying extra hametz when Pesach is little more than a month away. But I accept Tufekci's argument that preparing for the possibility of staying home (if I can afford a few extra groceries every time I shop, which I can) is my civic obligation, and I think it's a Jewish obligation as well. I'm willing to live with some cognitive dissonance in order to fulfill that obligation, even as I also prepare to fulfill a different obligation that will temporarily make some of these foods not-mine.
Tradition says we left Egypt as a mixed multitude; it wasn't just we who fled Pharaoh. An illness that spreads like this one is a powerful reminder that we are always a "mixed multitude." As a society, we are only as healthy as those who are most at-risk. Preparing now is what I can do to lessen the strain on the system later, and thereby to help those who may be harder-hit than I expect to be... even if that means I'll be schlepping an extra few boxes of pasta into and out of storage this year.
Today is the seventh day of Pesach, the day on which tradition says we crossed the sea into freedom.
I studied a text recently that I wanted to bring to my shul on the Shabbat before Pesach. And then I remembered that this year on Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat right before Pesach, we'll be hosting noted culinary historian Michael Twitty! (All are welcome!) So I'm sharing a pre-Pesach teaching a week early.
Each of us has a still point within us, given to us by God. So says Yehudah Aryeh Lieb Alter of Ger, the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet (that's the name of his best-known book, and it's one of the Hasidic texts I'm studying regularly this year). He returns to this idea often. Each of us has a nekudat elohut, a spark of godliness. No matter who we are, this spark in us is eternal.
And sometimes that still point, that little spark of holiness, comes to feel constricted. This can happen when we're min ha-meitzar, in tight places. Maybe you can hear the aural connection between meitzar and Mitzrayim -- life's tight places, and the Mitzrayim / Egypt of our people's core story. Mitzrayim is constriction that makes our soul-sparks feel crushed and insignificant.
The Sfat Emet says that in those times, this still point, this spark, becomes our internal lechem oni -- "the bread of our affliction," our smallness, our poverty of spirit. That phrase comes from the haggadah, when we say of the matzah (in Aramaic, but it's the same phrase) ha-lachma anya, "this is the bread of our affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt..."
He's saying that the "bread of our affliction," that sense of impoverishment, isn't just the literal matzah that represents our ancient poverty food -- it's also our own souls. Our souls become afflicted, become crushed into smallness and flatness like a piece of matzah. The spark of our souls can become crushed into something dry and flat and tiny. That's bread of our affliction.
Our job, he writes, is to make that crushed, tiny point become expansive -- to grow the point of holiness within our souls, to give it space. Take that in for a moment: our job in spiritual life is to notice when our soul-spark feels crushed and flattened, and to create the inner conditions in which that spark can rise and expand. Our job is to help our souls take up the space they deserve.
Pesach is a time of distilled memory. (I think this is true both as a people and as individuals -- we remember the Exodus from Egypt; we may also remember all of life's other Passovers.) Torah tells us to remember it and keep it. That's the same language Torah uses about Shabbat, which we also "keep" and "remember." It's the same language Torah uses about mitzvot, too.
(Here's a funny thing: the Hebrew letters that spell mitzvot can also spell matzot. We keep the mitzvot and we keep the matzot, and together those two keep us. As the saying goes, "more than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people" -- and far more Jews observe some kind of Pesach than observe Shabbes every week! But I digress.)
We're called to remember and keep Pesach as a nation and as individuals. As we retell the core story of our people's liberation, as we remember narrow straits and escape into expansiveness, we relive the Exodus not only on a national level but also on a soul-level. Our people went from constriction into freedom, and as individual souls we do too, not once but over and over again.
Pesach -- says the Sfat Emet -- is meant to be our springboard into expansiveness of soul. So that our lechem oni, the part of us that feels flattened like matzah by life's difficult circumstances, can become expansive. So our tight constricted places can open, like a risen loaf. So our hearts and souls can expand so far from that flattened state that we can barely contain our joy.
In one of the psalms of Hallel (which we sing at festive times including the Passover seder) we sing, "min hameitzar karati Yah / anani bamerchav Yah" - from the tight straits I called to You, and You answered me with divine expansiveness. Our own tight places are meant to be answered with expansiveness: with divine expansiveness, and with our own. May it be so.
This is the d'varling I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi congregational blog.) Offered with gratitude to my Torah study group of Bayit builders.
Step into the water.
You can't see the far shore.
Is the foam rising, or receding?
Take a deep breath and keep walking.
You can't see the far shore.
There's no knowing what's ahead.
Take a deep breath and keep walking,
Cultivating faith in your body.
There's no knowing what's ahead.
This is what the sages mean by
"Cultivating faith in your body."
Can you trust that you'll make it?
This is what the sages mean by
"The water is wide, I cannot get o'er."
Can you trust that you'll make it?
You're not crossing the sea alone.
"The water is wide, I cannot get o'er."
The only way out is through.
You're not crossing the sea alone.
Sing with me as we make our way.
The only way out is through.
Is the foam rising, or receding?
Sing with me as we make our way.
Step into the water.
Step into the water. Today is the seventh day of Pesach, regarded by tradition as the anniversary of the date when our ancient ancestors crossed the Sea of Reeds.
Is the foam rising, or receding? Midrash holds that the waters didn't part until a brave soul named Nachshon ben Aminadav stepped into the water and continued until the waters reached his mouth.
Cultivating faith in your body. See the teaching from the Netivot Shalom about how embodying faith enables us to sing.
The water is wide, I cannot get o'er. From a folk song, used in some communities as a melody for "Mi Chamocha," the song we sang at the sea.
On Thursday evening I hid ten pieces of bread. I called my son downstairs when they were all hidden, and I handed him a candle, a feather, and wooden spoon. With those traditional implements he searched the house for hametz. The following morning I took the pieces of bread, along with last fall's lulav, and burned them.
On the first two nights of Pesach we search for the hidden afikoman.
The seder has fifteen steps (like the fifteen physical steps up to the Temple in days of old), and one of them is Tzafun, "Hidden." At every seder a piece of matzah is declared to be the afikoman and then hidden. The kids hunt for it and then redeem it (in some households, holding the seder "hostage" for a prize, because until the afikoman is found and shared, the seder can't continue.)
Because of how the Jewish and Christian calendars overlap this year, our three days of (Jewish) searching bumps right into a (Christian) day when kids search for something hidden, too. Today my son will visit his Christian grandmother and search for colored plastic eggs filled with treats and small toys. He noticed the thematic resonance between our Jewish customs and this Christian one, and proclaimed it "awesome." I asked him what the searching means to him, and he said:
It's fun because it's about finding something new in regular places. If you find something new to do, then you always have it with you. And that makes it like you're traveling, finding new places, even though you're not going anywhere.
When I think about the candle-lit search for hametz, I think about the inner work of searching the corners of my heart for the last crumbs of old "stuff" I need to let go in order to be ready for freedom and transformation. When I think about the search for the afikoman, I think about the teaching that we hide the larger half of the broken middle matzah (rather than the smaller half) to affirm that there is more that is Hidden and Mysterious than we can ever grasp.
And now I will also think of the wisdom I received from my son. The candle-lit nighttime search, the afikoman hunt, and the Easter-egg hunt all take "ordinary" places and make them special and different because of the act of searching there. They enable us to "travel" without physically going anywhere, because they give us a traveler's wondering eyes. And when we train ourselves to seek the special within the ordinary, we acquire a skill that we can carry with us wherever we go.
As we move into the Omer journey of preparing ourselves to receive Torah anew, may we be blessed with eyes of wonder. May we continue to seek, and may what we find uplift us, challenge us, enrich us, and enable us ever-more to become the people we aspire to be.
Image: searching for hametz by candle-light.
I'm deeply honored that Steve Silbert has once again found inspiration in one of my posts and created a sketchnote arising out of my recent post On removing leaven (again):
Find Steve's sketchnotes on his website. Thank you for doing me this honor, Steve -- this is a pre-Pesach gift for me!
Chag sameach (happy holiday) to all who celebrate.
I didn't grow up "keeping Pesach." By which I mean, my family of origin didn't remove the חמץ / hametz (leaven) from our house for seven (or eight) days. My family ate matzah at seders on the first two nights of the festival, and our seders were sweet and joyous and song-filled, but aside from two nights of matzah our dietary habits during Passover weren't any different from what they were the rest of the year.
By the time I got to rabbinical school, I wanted to take on more observance than I had grown up with. And, all marriages involve compromise -- and one of our areas of greatest difference was religious observance of all kinds. While married I maintained the practice during Pesach of not eating bread, or muffins, or bagels, or anything made of grain that had risen -- but I didn't remove hametz from my house, because my spouse was still eating it.
When my son was born I started doing the pre-Pesach ritual of bedikat hametz. Each year I've hidden bread crusts around the house for him to find, with wooden spoon and candle. Once he finds them, we burn them: a symbolic representation of the spiritual housecleaning that this season demands. But the hametz I was discarding was always only internal.
Two years ago on the day that would become Pesach I immersed in a mikvah to mark the end of my marriage. And last year as Pesach approached I was living on my own for the first time, which meant I could define my Pesach practice anew. It meant I could choose differently. For the first time, it meant I could choose to literally shed hametz.
I boxed up all of the hametz from my kitchen, and followed the custom of "selling" it to a non-Jewish friend for the duration. I bought a small set of bright red dishes for my son and me to use during the week, special Pesach plates and bowls to use only at this season. I hoped that eating on these pretty new plates would help to make the week feel special and set-apart, like a treat rather than a punishment. (And it did.)
Still, anxieties arose. Chief among them was what the week would be like for my son, who is a picky eater at the best of times. I want him to love Pesach. What if in my zeal to embrace a new level of religious observance, I alienated my kid from a festival I want him to savor? I went through several rounds of feeling the anxiety, and then thanking it for its service and sending it on its way. I experienced it as my yetzer ha-ra, trying to talk me out of a change in my religious practice because change is scary.
Yes, change is scary. Growth is scary. Trying an unfamiliar practice can be scary. And in some way, all of that is precisely the point. The Pesach story is one of taking a leap into the unknown, leaving behind slavery's familiar trappings for a journey of becoming. It's the nature of becoming to stretch us, to ask us to grow into more than we knew we could be. In a small way, my new experiment last year with a different kind of Pesach practice was a way for me to take a leap, as our mythic ancestors did.
Of course I didn't want to over-focus on ingredient lists and thereby pay insufficient attention to the festival's psycho-spiritual message of liberation. That would defeat the purpose of the practice, and leave me feeling enslaved to the holiday. But I don't think that was ever really a risk. I've been focusing on the holiday's teachings about liberation for years. My "growing edge" had to do with combining the psycho-spiritual with the practical -- via actually getting rid of my leaven.
Just because the pre-Pesach practice of removing leaven can be misused or damaging, that doesn't mean the practice has no value. I aspired to remove hametz in service of keeping me connected with God and with what I understand this festival to mean. The challenge lies in imbuing the holiday's external practices -- removing hametz, and making different dietary choices for a week -- with internal meaning. In that sense, it's the same challenge posed by every religious practice I know.
When I'm lighting Shabbat candles on Friday night, the difference between merely kindling a pair of wicks at the dining table and ushering in the holy presence of Shekhinah is an internal one. I have to make the effort to connect the two flames (as one of my favorite teachings holds) with the light of creation and the light of the bush that burned but was not consumed. Those meanings don't inhere naturally in the lighting. They're there because I invest heart and focus in putting them there.
I think the same has to be true for these Pesach traditions, too. Maybe we do them because our ancestors did them, or because others in our community do them, or because we want to see how they might change us. Regardless, it's our job to infuse the external acts with internal meaning. I can seek to make my house-cleaning and disposing of hametz a symbol of my willingness to let go not only of literal crumbs but also old habits, old narratives, old hurts that impede my ability to serve God.
Removing rolls, flour, and breadcrumbs from my kitchen didn't, by itself, make a difference in my life. But having removed them meant that every time I cast my eye over the pantry shelves I noticed their absence, remembered why they were gone, and tried to take the additional step of searching my inner places for old baggage that needs to be discarded so I can journey with God into becoming. Removing leaven gives me an opportunity to do some necessary work not only on my kitchen, but on me.
And like most of the inner work that we do, this isn't work that one only needs to do once. Each year the fires of my heart grow choked with ash and need to be cleaned. Each year I find sour stories and old hurts that need to be swept away. Each year the physical practice of disposing of hametz for a week offers me a reminder of the inner work to which my spiritual life perennially calls me... just as each year Pesach itself invites me into a recognition of how I feel constrained, and how I can go free.
We talk a lot about freedom at this time of year. Freedom from bondage. Freedom from our narrow places. Freedom from constriction. But what do we do with this talk of freedom if we ourselves feel stuck, if liberation seems impossible? What are the psycho-spiritual implications of that narrow place, the one that feels existential rather than circumstantial? What if we’re stuck with something: a diagnosis that isn’t curable, or financial ruin, or a sick loved one, or a grief that we know will persist?...
That's from my latest piece for the Forward.
Read the whole thing here: Squaring the Freedom of Passover With The Struggles of Life.
...Reb Nachman teaches that when the time has come to leap, we have to leap. No dilly-dallying, no tarrying, no anxiously writing scripts about what might go wrong. But how can we tell when the time has come? What if we don’t have the resources (inner or outer) to enable us to even imagine change? And what if we’re so habituated to the brokenness that we don’t even feel it anymore?...
That's from my latest for The Wisdom Daily. Read it here: Passover Calls Us To Leap Toward Freedom, Even If Just Internally.
It's Shabbat HaGadol: "The Great Shabbat," the Shabbat before Pesach. The Shibolei Haleket (R. Zedekiah b. Abraham Harof Anav, d. 1275) explains, "on the Shabbat before Passover the people stay late into the afternoon... in order to hear the sermon expounding upon the laws of removing leaven..."
Everybody ready to listen to instructions for kashering your kitchens?
Just kidding. Though I am going to talk about hametz, and this week's Torah portion, and miracles.
The word חמץ / hametz comes from lichmotz, to sour or ferment. Hametz is grain that has fermented. When we left Egypt, we didn't have time for natural sourdough to leaven our bread, so we baked flat crackers and left in haste. Torah offers us two instructions 1) eat matzah as we re-live the Exodus, and 2) get rid of leaven. The matzah part, we'll do during Pesach. The getting-rid-of-leaven part, we have to do in advance.
Today is Shabbes, our foretaste of the world to come. Today we do no work. We rest and are ensouled, as was God on the first Shabbat. But tomorrow, and in the weekdays to come, many of us may be doing some spring cleaning as we prepare to rid our homes of leaven for a week. Of course, getting rid of leaven doesn't "just" mean getting rid of leaven. It can also mean a kind of spiritual housecleaning.
Hametz can represent ego, what puffs us up internally. The therapists among us might note that ego is important: indeed it is. Without a healthy ego, you'd be in trouble. But if one's ego gets too big, that's a problem too. The internal search for hametz is an invitation to examine ego and to discern what work we need. Some need to discard the hametz of needing to be the center of attention. Others need to discard the hametz of not wanting to take up the space we deserve.
Another interpretation: hametz is that within us which has become sour. Old stories, old narratives, old scripts. Old ideas about "us" and "them," old angers, old hurts. Look inside: are you carrying the memory of someone who made you angry? Are you holding on to old grievances? Search your heart: what's the old stuff you need to scrape up and throw away?
That's where this week's Torah portion, Tzav, comes in. This is the ritual of the burnt offering, says God. Keep the fire burning all night until morning. And every morning, take the ashes outside the camp, to a clean place. Notice that removing the ashes is mentioned right up there with burning the offering. Because if the ashes are allowed to accumulate, they'll choke the fire.
The spiritual work of keeping our fires burning belongs to all of us. It's our job to feed the fires of hope, the fires of justice, the fires of our own spiritual lives that fuel our work toward a world redeemed. Keep the fire burning all night: even in our "dark" times, when we feel trapped, even crushed, by life's narrow places.
The thing is, over the course of a year our fires get choked with ash. Disappointments and cynicism and overwork and burnout keep our fires from burning as bright as they could be. This week's Torah portion reminds us to clean out our ashes. (It's no coincidence that Tzav comes right before Pesach.)
Pesach offers us spiritual renewal. Pesach invites us to live in the as-if -- as if we were redeemed; as if we were free; as if all of this world's broken places and ugly "isms" were healed. But in order for our spiritual fires to be renewed, we have to clean out the ashes. We have to get rid of the hametz, the schmutz, the ashes and crumbs and remnants of the old year that have become sour and dusty, in order to become ready to be free.
Ridding ourselves of the old year's mistakes and mis-steps in order to begin again: is this making you think of any other time of year? If this inner work sounds like the work we do before Rosh Hashanah, that's because it is.
I learned from my teacher and friend Rabbi Mike Moskowitz that we work on our imperfections both during Nissan (now) and Tishri (the High Holidays), and we can dedicate one to working on our "external" stuff and the other to what's hidden or internal. The Megaleh Amukot (Rabbi Nathan Nata Spira, d. 1633) wrote that these two months of Nissan and Tishri correspond to each other, because during each of these seasons we're called to seek out and destroy hametz in body and soul.
Another link between Passover preparation and the teshuvah work of the new year: this season, too, is called a new year. Talmud teaches that we have four "New Years"es. The new moon of Tishri is the new year for years. The new year for trees, Tu BiShvat, is in deep winter. The new year for animals is on 1 Elul. And then there's the new moon of Nisan, ushering in the month containing Pesach... and this entire month has the holiness of a Rosh Chodesh, a New Moon. This whole month is our springtime new year.
Right now the moon is waxing. The light of the moon can represent God's presence -- sometimes visible, and sometimes not, but always with us. Right now there's more moonlight every night, and we're invited to experience more connection with holiness with each passing day. Our work now is to clean house, spiritually, by the light of this waxing moon -- in order to be internally ready to choose freedom.
When you think of a miracle, what do you think of? Maybe the parting of the Sea of Reeds: that's a big, shiny, visible miracle from the Passover story. But hope growing in tight places is also a miracle. The fact that we can make teshuvah is a miracle. The fact that we can grow and change is a miracle. The fact that we can do our inner work and emerge transformed is a miracle. This is a month of miracles -- as evidenced by its name: the name Nissan comes from נס / nes, "miracle."
On Thursday night, some of us will hide crusts of bread around our homes. We'll search for them by the light of a candle. And then on the morning of the day that will become Pesach we'll burn them, destroying the old year's hametz. Whether or not you engage literally in that ancient custom of bedikat hametz (searching for / destroying leaven), you can do that work spiritually. (And we'll begin some of it together during our contemplative mincha service this afternoon.)
What is the old stuff you need to root out and discard in order to walk unencumbered into freedom?
How can you "carry out the ashes" so the altar of your heart can become clean and clear, ready to burn with the fire of hope, the fire of justice, the fire of new beginnings?
This is the d'var Torah I offered at my shul this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
Pesach begins three weeks from tomorrow, and maybe some of you are considering "keeping the Pesach" this year. Maybe you have some anxiety about what exactly that means, or how to do it, or whether you're going to "do it wrong." What is keeping the Pesach?
In Exodus 12:15 we read:
Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses.
At its simplest, "keeping the Pesach" means 1) eating matzah and 2) removing leaven. In some Jewish contexts there are clear guidelines for how to remove leaven from one's home, and you either follow them or you don't. But in the community that I serve there are many gradations of practice. I don't see "keeping the Pesach" as a binary. I see it as a spectrum.
At one end of the spectrum, you go to a seder or two, but otherwise your dietary practices are unchanged that week.
At the other end of the spectrum, you remove all leaven (and items made from the five leaven-able grains) from your home, and eat only natural foods (fruits and vegetables don't need a hechsher, a kosher certification marking) or foods certified as "Kosher For Passover" by a trusted rabbinic authority, and you eat on special plates that you reserve only for this week of the year, plates that have never touched a leavened grain.
There's a lot in between those choices. For instance:
1) You might choose to avoid bread for a week. Just leavened bread. If you would look at it and say, "Yep, that's bread," then don't eat it. In that case, you might still eat pasta (after all, spaghetti isn't bread). You might still eat breakfast cereals made from grain (they, too, are not bread.) But your diet would shift enough that you would notice, all week long, that this is a special time.
2) You might choose to also avoid not only actual bread but also bread-like things, from bagels to English muffins. Even sweet muffins, like blueberry or pumpkin muffins, are leavened -- so you'd avoid them too. You might choose to avoid beverages that have fermented, like beer or kombucha. In this case too, the pastas and the cereals might still feel okay to you, but the class of foods you're avoiding would be a larger one.
3) You might choose to remove from your home all things made from the five grains that our tradition considers "leaven-able." (That's wheat, barley, oats, spelt, and rye.) If water spilled into a container of flour and you left it there, the flour would eventually grow its own sourdough starter, which means that flour is "leaven-able" -- it is capable of becoming leavened under the right circumstances. Anything made from leavenable grains, you would remove from your home for a week.
4) You might choose to eat special "kosher for Pesach" pasta... or you might avoid it because it looks like and acts like "regular" pasta, and you want your diet this week to feel different.
5) No matter what your dietary practices are, you might choose to get a set of special Pesach dishes, to use during that week only, and to remind you that this is a special time, a week that is set-apart from ordinary life.
6) You might choose to eschew kitniyot (corn, rice, beans, and peas -- which have long been part of Sephardic Pesach dietary practice, but used to be forbidden in Ashkenazic practice, though today they are accepted in Reform and Conservative communities)... or you might embrace them wholeheartedly.
All of these are legitimate Jewish ways of experiencing Pesach. (My own family of origin spans that spectrum from one end to the other.) My invitation to you is to choose consciously what you want your Pesach practice to be this year... and to pay attention not only to the contents of your pantry, but also to your heart and soul. Whatever practices you take on should (ideally) serve the purpose of awakening you to the festival and its meaning (at least some of the time.)
The Jewish renewal practice of hashpa'ah (spiritual direction) invites us to ask: where is God for you in this? (If the "G-word" doesn't work for you, try: meaning, or holiness, or love.) How does this experience connect you with something greater than yourself? How will this practice renew your heart and soul -- how will it align you with holiness -- how will it open you up to transformation?
The haggadah teaches that it's incumbent on each of us to see ourselves as though we, ourselves, had been freed from slavery. Pesach comes to teach us that we can experience liberation from our narrow places, from life's constraints and constrictions. Pesach is about leaving slavery and taking the first steps toward covenant. It's about taking risks, leaping when the time is right, venturing into the unknown even though it's unknown. It's about crossing the Sea and finding ourselves in an unfamiliar wilderness on the other side. It's about new beginnings, and spring, and trust, and hope.
The word chametz (leaven) comes from the Hebrew l'chimutz, "to sour or ferment." In one Hasidic understanding, chametz represents the internal puffery of ego. Chametz can mean all of our old narratives, our baggage, the stories we tell ourselves about who we are and how the world works. Chametz can mean our own sour places, the old psychological and spiritual and emotional "stuff" that we need to clean out and throw away in order to be ready to experience freedom. Whatever you're doing with the literal chametz in your pantry, ask yourself: what is the internal chametz I need to throw away before Pesach begins?
Whatever your Pesach dietary choices are this year, may they bring you more fully into awareness of the holiday and its meanings, and may they open you more fully to transformation.
Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.
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.
This 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.]
On 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.
“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!
It'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]
A 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.
The 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.