Old hope

My parents collected haggadot for Pesach, many of which are now in my library. There is a slim, tattered haggadah from Prague, printed in Hebrew and Czech. A note tucked inside dates it to 1898.

(My mother wasn't sure, in the end, whether it had been a gift from her aunt -- born, like my mother, in Prague -- or something Mom found in a bookstore on one of her visits once the Iron Curtain fell.)

There is one bound in metal with full-color illustrations. There is one that's full of Chagall prints and illustrations alongside the Hebrew text. And there's this one, which just found its way to me:

 

53493910848_7d61176906_c

The cover just says "Haggadah for Pesach."

When I first opened it, I didn't see anything out of the ordinary. It's bilingual, Hebrew and English. The texts sketch the story of the Exodus in the traditional way, with quotes and snippets of narrative.

The graphic design is neat. The interior flyleaf has a stylized print of swirls and flowers, cups of wine and bunches of grapes. Vines and flowers and grapes twine around the words on every page.

And then I turned to a page that contained a photograph, and that's when I figured out what makes this haggadah different from all other haggadot. (You had to know I was going to go there.)

53493911258_487f0444a2_c

The caption reads, in Hebrew and English, "And the children of Israel were fruitful and swarmed and increased," a line from Exodus that appears on the facing page as part of the story of the Exodus.

Something about this photo (the hairstyle on the woman in the center?) reminded me of photos of my parents in the late 40s and early 50s -- and also of photos of those I grew up calling halutzim.

I flipped to the first page, and found an explanation. Here it is in English. (You can find the Hebrew version here on Flickr.) The haggadah turns out to be from 1954, the year my parents married.

The very fact that for the past seven hundred years, Jewish illuminators and printers have been able to illustrate the Haggada in terms of their own times and surroundings attests to its timelessness and its message for every age. In keeping with this tradition, this new edition of the Passover Haggada has been prepared, illustrated and printed in the State of Israel, in an era which has seen the New Exodus, the Ingathering of Exiles and the rebirth of the Jewish State. And it is only fitting that the eternal truth of this ancient and stirring narrative should be reaffirmed in terms of living pictures of our own land and the people of our own time.

What an artifact. Oh, those capital letters on the New Exodus and the Ingathering of Exiles! It feels soaked in hope, the way baklava or teiglach are soaked in honey or knafeh soaked in rose water.

Like many in their generation (they were young children when the Holocaust began), my parents believed completely in the dream of Israel -- as they believed completely in the dream of America.  

In written instructions for her funeral, my mother asked for "America the Beautiful" and "Jerusalem of Gold:" for the nation that took her in, and the Jewish state she felt privileged to have lived to see.

53493911193_16cb5fbb64_c

Mid-century graphic design... and photo.

This haggadah makes me wistful for the optimism my parents felt both about Israel and about the U.S. -- even as I know that the stories they held dear aren't the whole story about either place. 

It's a complicated knot of feelings: missing my parents deeply, and remembering where we disagreed, and feeling grateful that they aren't here to see some of what's unfolding today both here and there. 

A haggadah is a ritual object, not a history book, though this one feels steeped in history. And that history feels sharp with heartbreak, as it has every day since Shemini Atzeret / Simchat Torah. 

53495762241_606ff782ae_c

Had Gadya - a parable in song about all the nations who've tried to destroy us.

In Hebrew the name מִצְרָיִם / Mitzrayim is both a place (Egypt) , and a state of being. The root connotes narrowness or constriction. It's the same root as in the word tzuris, suffering or sorrow.

All of the people, and peoples, who love that land are in a Narrow Place now. I keep returning to lines from Psalm 118: "From constriction we cry out to You; God, answer us with Your expansiveness!"  

Imagine a future where all the peoples of that place can flourish side by side in mutual safety and human dignity. Where is the Moshe, the Musa, who could lead the way to that Land of Promise? 


Who's afraid of antisemitism?

 

Ugh

Wow, y'all. Is this really how they see us? 

I've heard from a lot of us who are activated by the anti-Soros rhetoric coming from the GOP this week. I happen to be a fan of Mr. Soros' philanthropy, but in this moment that's almost beside the point. Blaming the world's ills on any Jew strikes fear into a lot of hearts, and not without reason.

Conspiracy theories about Soros are rooted in lies about nefarious Jewish control. (That Washington Post piece is from 2018, but it's no less true now than it was then.) Hearing this ugliness during Holy Week, historically a season when Christian slaughter of Jews has surged, adds to the anxiety. 

The Catholic church officially blamed Jews for the death of Jesus until 1965. And for centuries, Eastertide passion plays blamed us for that death in no uncertain terms... which dovetailed with the popular conspiracy theory that we put Christian children's blood in our Passover matzah. 

The false allegation that Jews make ritual use of the blood of non-Jewish children was popularized in the 12th century, resulting in Eastertide violence against Jews in England at the time, and against Jews in Prague in the fourteenth century, and against Jews in Lisbon in the sixteenth century.

In the 20th century, as you might imagine, things got worse. See 1903:Easter Week | A Proclamation Inciting a Pogrom of the Jews, with accompanying write-up from Kishinev. And of course, Hitler and his Nazi propagandists were big fans of this vile rhetoric, and they slaughtered six million of us.

The claim that Jews kidnap and kill Christian children to put their blood in our Passover matzah is so ridiculous it's hard to take it seriously. But scratch the surface of QAnon's lies about a secret cabal harvesting children's blood, and it becomes clear that the lie of blood libel is still with us. 

So yeah, Holy Week is a time of heightened anxiety for many Jews. Even if we haven't experienced violence at this season, many of us know that our ancestors did... which becomes part of our inheritance, whether via epigenetic trauma or because we empathize with our ancestors' suffering.

(Christianity Today ran an article about this in 2004: Why Some Jews Fear The Passion. They were trying to understand why so many of us were afraid around the movie The Passion of the Christ.  I give them credit for recognizing that yeah, we had reason to be afraid. Unfortunately, we still do.)

I used to not be afraid of antisemitism. I thought it was a horror of the past. I thought humanity had finally reached a level of post-triumphalist spiritual evolution in which no one hates other human beings because of how we mark holy time or understand scripture or experience the presence of God.

(Of course, that's not actually why most of them hate us, setting aside for the moment those who shoot up synagogues because they hate Jewish support for refugees. They just need to blame someone for everything that's wrong in the world, and for thousands of years we've been a favorite scapegoat.) 

I thought antisemitism was old news. Then came "Jews will not replace us." And antisemitism at an all-time high. And antisemitism in schools. And did you know Ye has twice as many Twitter followers as there are Jews on earth? And now there's the antisemitic demonization of George Soros... again.

When I started this blog in 2003, people would occasionally ask why I didn't write about antisemitism. My answer then was that I didn't want to give it any energy by naming it, and besides, it wasn't part of my lived Jewish experience, honestly. But these days, I can't not mention it. It's everywhere.

I don't want to be marinating in the fact that some Christians hate us. Especially not during this glorious festival week of Passover which just began. I guess this reality is part of what I'm experiencing as this year's Mitzrayim, the "narrow place" of constriction from which I (and we) yearn to be free.

In the face of this, I want to say: your hatred can't stop Jewish joy. Your hatred can't stop the sweetness that is Shabbat, or the sparkling gems of our festivals set in the wheel of the year. You can't destroy the wonder of our encounter with that Mystery we name as God, or our tapestry of teachings. 

Today is the first day of the Omer, lovingkindness within lovingkindness. Today I'll eat matzah, the humble cracker of servitude and the mnemonic waybread of our flight to freedom. Tonight I'll light Shabbat candles, blessing the twin flames that evoke the light of Torah and the light of creation. 

I woke with Jewish words of prayer on my lips, and I'll go to sleep the same way. Today I'll serve my Jewish community as best I can, and parent my Jewish child, and I'll do so knowing that there is joy in my tradition that haters like you can't begin to imagine. No one can take that away from me.

 

For more on the appalling artwork that accompanies this post: here's a fascinating and distressing article about the original image and its origins "on a blog discussing the conspiracy behind Jewish ritual murder of Christians." In 2001, which is to say, in this century. I wish I were making this up.


Take a Lamb: Shabbat HaGadol 5783

Screen Shot 2023-03-29 at 9.02.00 AM

Today is Shabbat HaGadol, "The Great Shabbat," right before Pesah. It's customary on this day for rabbis to teach about getting ready for the holiday. Usually that means teaching about removing hametz, whether literally (leaven) or metaphorically (the spiritual stuff we need to shed in order to go free.) And this afternoon it's traditional to study the haggadah -- again, to ready ourselves.

Today is also the 10th of Nisan. On this day our ancestors were told to take a lamb. Bring it into the home and look after it. Four days later, slaughter it and put its blood on the doorposts. The blood on the doorposts would tell the Angel of Death to "pass over." Though the Chizkuni, 1200s, teaches that God didn't delegate that. And surely God knows who we are. Maybe the visible reminder was for us.

What if the blood on the doorposts is to remind us? What do we need to remember? What deep truths do we forget about who we are? What are the costs of freedom -- what might we have to offer up in order to be freed from our stuck places... and to help others who aren't granted full human dignity to get there with us? Those are some big questions. But let's start with a smaller one: why a lamb?

Ramban (d. 1270) says the reason for the lamb is that Aries is the star sign ascendant at this time of year, and God wanted to prove to us that when we go free, it's not because of any luck in the stars. Among other sages, he also suggests that it's possible that the Egyptians worshipped lambs. So the sacrifice of a lamb was a way for us to break any allegiance to the symbol of their "god."

Readying ourselves to go free involved making this korban / offering. And it was supposed to be something familiar, something personal, something we'd been holding on to for a while and had even been nurturing. This pre-liberation offering evolved into the offering of a paschal lamb in Temple times, still represented on the table in our seder. So what's our modern emotional-spiritual equivalent?

I read an article the other day about climate "doomers." What's the point of doing anything, when we've ruined the Earth? It's a compelling question. And yet I keep thinking about Ramban's teaching that the lamb represented idolatry. Isn't fatalism a kind of idolatry, in which we think our hopelessness is stronger than God? (As always, if the "G-word" doesn't work for you try justice or hope or love.)

Nihilism is never a good Jewish answer. Because nihilism is an abdication of responsibility, and Judaism is all about responsibility: to ourselves, to each other, to our world, to our Source. Doom and despair perpetuate kotzer ruah, that spiritual shortness of breath that our ancestors knew in Egypt. And if we're stuck in despair, we aren't owning our agency, and we're not creating change.

Here, too, our ancient spiritual story offers a roadmap. Their spirits crushed, our ancestors cried out, and that cry was the first step toward liberation. So yeah, cry out. Feel what's broken and give it voice. And remember that crying-out is the first step. When we face what's broken, when we cry out, we open up a tiny internal space. We open ourselves to the possibility that things could change.

Granted, change may not be easy. Our spiritual ancestors went from Pharaoh's frying pan into the fire of forty years of wilderness wandering. But the fact of a new path is hopeful even if the path is hard. Because nihilism and despair and paralysis say: nothing's ever going to be different. What's broken will always be broken and can never be mended, so it isn't worth even trying. But it is worth trying. 

That "climate doomer" article notes, "Nowadays, climate scientists try to emphasize that climate change isn’t a pass/fail test: Every tenth and hundredth of a degree of warming avoided matters." In other words, don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. What we do matters, even if it's not a complete fix. And if we scorn anything short of a complete fix, we're compounding the problem.

Here's a question I sit with: who benefits when we lose ourselves in doom or despair? I think the answer is: whoever has a vested interest, often a fiscal one, in things staying the way they are. And that results in greater harm for those who were already vulnerable -- whether we're talking about people in the path of the next tornado, or schoolchildren helpless against the next mass shooting.

R. Avi Weiss notes the order of operations: before offering the lamb, we clear out hametz. First we cast away the puffery of overinflated ego, because the paschal offering asks humility. The korban Pesah is also the first step toward the revelation of Torah at Sinai... which reminds me that we never know what holy outcomes our choices might set in motion. That's another form of humility.

I like his teaching about humility, though this year I prefer to think of hametz (from לחמוץ, to sour or ferment) not as ego but as sourness. Everyone needs a healthy ego. Often what holds us back from liberation is the old sour stuff: old stories and flaws and resentments, old patterns of seeing ourselves or each other in the worst light... and maybe also old habits of hopelessness and despair.

So first we seek out the hametz we need to clean out of our physical houses and our metaphysical houses. Look within for the old sour stories that no longer serve, and cast them to the burning. Then we can bring the korban Pesah we need to offer up this year -- maybe the helplessness or fatalism that we've been unwittingly nurturing. We offer up the habit, the tendency, the fear that holds us back.

R. Lynn Gottlieb wrote:

"All that rises up bitter, all that rises up prideful, all that rises up in old ways no longer fruitful, all hametz unknown to me... may it find common grave with the dust of the Earth." 

This year, I add:

May our sourness be nullified. May we offer up what we need to let go. May we mark our doorposts with reminders of who we aspire to be. And in that merit, may we go forth ready for freedom.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires on Shabbat HaGadol (cross-posted to the congregational From the Rabbi blog.)


Four Children

 


Grief, sometimes
you're the wise child reminding me

you wouldn't even be
at my table if I didn't love.

Sometimes you're the unruly one
insisting life is nothing

but an invitation to loss,
over and over. You sneer

care isn't infinite, only
this sea of salt tears.

Mostly you're the one
who doesn't know how to ask --

or how to answer
when you will depart.

 


 

This poem arises out of the haggadah's four paradigmatic children. Shared with gratitude to my fellow Bayit board member and dear friend R. Pamela Gottfried, who remarked to me earlier this week that "Grief is a wayward and rebellious child" -- which sparked this poem.


A new feminist haggadah, and reflections on history

9780827615519-768x1122The most formative experience of my college years wasn’t in a classroom. It was the collaborative work of the Williams College Feminist Seder Project, which began in 1992. My classmates and I were awakening to the realities of patriarchy and the relative absence of women’s voices in Jewish tradition. We read the works of feminist theologians Judith Plaskow (Standing Again at Sinai) and E.M. Broner (A Weave of Women, The Women’s Haggadah). We rewrote Hebrew blessings one letter at a time backwards because our word processors couldn’t handle text that ran from right to left.

The bricolage that we assembled and staple-bound each year feels clunky to me now. Parts of our Haggadot were more like footnoted arguments than liturgy. And the feminism of the early 1990s lacked an awareness of intersectionality, how axes of oppression intersect and refract each other—not to mention an awareness of gender beyond the male-female binary.

Still, our collaborative work taught me that liturgy could be iterative, evolving to meet the needs of the moment. Looking back, I can see the roots of my rabbinate in the realization that our traditions are living, not set in stone—and that together we can build the spiritual and ritual life that this moment needs...

That's the beginning of my book review of Marcia Falk's new haggadah, Night of Beginnings. The review is also a meditation on feminist seders, liturgical adaptation, and the work of building Judaism anew. Read it at Moment magazine: A Seder Reimagined by a Feminist Poet

(If you want to learn more about the Williams College Feminist Seder Project, referenced in the review, here's some history.)

I'm grateful to Marcia Falk for her beautiful work, and to Moment for asking me to write the piece. I'm glad to have this haggadah as part of my collection.


Questions

Was the roast meat smoky, maybe
charred from fire? We'll never know.
Back then everyone knew
only free people got couches.

Gemara says: a wise child asks.
Any gender may ask.
Two scholars can ask each other.
If there’s no one, ask yourself.

Why these questions, why now?
Matzah and maror say slavery.
Dipping and reclining say freedom.
Tonight we lean into both:

where we were, and where we are.
Kruschev hated Jews because
“We always ask why,” but
God loves it when we question.

 


Roast meat - see Mishna Pesachim 10:4:2. Originally the text we now know as "The Four Questions" had a different form, and included a question about roasted meat, a reference to the lamb sacrificed just before the Exodus and the paschal lamb sacrificed while the Temple stood. Only free people - see Pesachim 108a.  When reclining on a dining couch was a known practice, there was no need to ask a question about it. Gemara says - see Pesachim 116a, about who asks the questions. Two represent - see Zevach Pesach, Don Isaac Abravanel.  Kruschev and God loves questions - see Rabbi Steve Greenberg, “Wrestling with God and Men."

You can find all of these source texts and more in David Schwartz's excellent Sefaria source sheet The Story of the Four Questions. And if this interests you, I'm teaching a Zoom class on this at my shul at 5pm ET on Sunday; click through to learn more and to register to get the Zoom link.


Wrestle and stretch

Jacob-wrestling-with-the-angel

This week's Torah portion, Vayishlach, contains the story from which our people takes its name.

Jacob is on his way to meet up with his brother Esau for the first time in years. He sends his family away: he is alone on the riverbank. There an angel wrestles with him until dawn, and blesses him with a new name, Israel -- "Godwrestler." We are the people Israel, the people who wrestle with God.

Jacob -- Israel -- walks away from that encounter with a limp. His hip has been wrenched; Rashi says it's torn from its joint. I imagine he was never quite the same after his night-time wrestle. Maybe he could feel oncoming damp weather in his aching hip, or in the sciatic nerve that Torah instructs us not to eat.

Our struggles change us. They may leave us limping.

I think we all know something about that now. The last eighteen months have been a struggle. We've wrestled with fear and anxiety, and with loneliness. We've wrestled with disbelief at outright lies about the pandemic being a hoax, or about vaccines being an instrument of government control.

Many of us are grappling with climate grief, the fear that our planet is already irrevocably changed. Or with political anxiety, wondering whether "red America" and "blue America" can really remain one nation. Or with the reality that the pandemic is now endemic and will not go away. That's a lot.

Jacob wrestled for one night and was changed.

How will we be changed by the wrestling we're doing during these pandemic years?

Earlier this fall I had a bout of sciatica, and I went to see my neighborhood bodyworker. She reminded me that when one part of the body hurts, most likely a different part of the body needs work. My lower back ached, so she worked on my hip flexors! Pain often calls us to stretch in the opposite direction.

That's a physical truth, but it landed metaphysically. When despair ties us in knots, we need to stretch into hope. Remember what we learned from Mariame Kaba at Rosh Hashanah: hope is a discipline. We have to practice it, and stretch it, and lean into it exactly when our pain pulls us the other way.

Torah tells us that Jacob's sciatic nerve was wounded in his wrestling. And Torah also references his heel; Jacob's name means heel. When I was getting treatment for my sciatica, my bodyworker picked up my heels and leaned back, pulling on them gently. "I feel like you're making me taller," I joked.

She said: that's because I am. Stress and tension and gravity all conspire to tighten our bodies, but we can lengthen. In fact, every night while we sleep we get taller as we unclench. Just as astronauts get taller when they spend time in zero-gee, away from the literal pressure of earth's gravitational pull.

When she pulled on my heels, I could feel my whole body getting longer: legs telescoping, spine lengthening. We compartmentalize -- imagining that this body part is separate from that one, or that body is separate from mind and heart and soul -- but we are integrated beings: everything is connected.

That's another physical teaching that lands metaphysically. When we tighten up spiritually, that manifests in our bodies. Stress and tension and gravity tighten us, but rest can help us loosen. Shabbat can help us loosen. Giving ourselves a break from the relentless press of news can help us loosen.

So can stretching ourselves toward hope. When the wrestle feels most overwhelming, when we feel most ground-down by everything that's broken, that's exactly when we need to stretch our capacity to hope. Our spiritual practices can help us shift, as the Psalmist wrote, from constriction to expansiveness.

Jacob named the place of the wrestle P'ni-El, the Face of God. May we too encounter divine presence in our wrestling. May our wrenched and tight places give us greater compassion for each other and for ourselves. And may we learn, in our times of constriction, to open up and stretch toward possibility.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbat (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Shared with gratitude to Emily at Embodywork. Image by Marc Chagall.


Four flavors

Images

A crisp sprig of Italian parsley dipped in salt water. Vibrant and green, salt giving way to savory as the stem crunches. It's the third step of the seder, karpas: greens representing spring and new life, salt water representing the tears of slavery in ancient days and our tears at injustice even now. It's a gustatory hyperlink. The minute that first bite hits my tongue, I feel it in my bones: change is coming. If we wait until we feel fully ready we might never take the leap at all. It's time to go.

Storebought matzah spread with horseradish is another one. Matzah, at once the humble hardtack of our affliction and the hasty waybread of our freedom. Maror, evoking the bitterness of slavery, the sharpness of oppression. The cracker shatters with a crunch, the horseradish stings the nose. This year, its sharp scent is another reason for gratitude: I don't have anosmia, I don't have COVID-19. It's a humble taste, a simple taste, and one that speaks volumes. We're leaving this narrow place.

My spoon carves through a matzah ball: light and fluffy, resting in hot broth. My grandfather taught me to make them years ago: beating the egg whites until fluffy, then folding in the egg yolks and oil, the matzah meal and white pepper. Every year after I've made the batter I panic, fearing that I mixed it too much and it's become dense. I chill it, already planning how I'll make a second batch if I need to. Every year after twenty minutes of simmering, the kneidlach float like soft clouds.

This year I added a new-old flavor to my table. I think my father's mother (peace be upon her) used to make home-made gefilte fish. The stuff in jars is unappealing, but I wanted to try it from scratch, remembering generations who stretched what little they had to make a feast worthy of Shabbat or seder. I didn't bring home a live carp; I used a recipe from the Times. The delicate quenelles of minced tilapia and salmon, simmered in a light broth of fennel and aromatics, are a revelation.

These are some of the most evocative flavors I know. They link me with last year's seder, and the year before, and my childhood seders at my aunt and uncle's house in Dallas, and their childhood seders...all the way back to the sages in the second century who asked why this night is different from all other nights. They too ate unleavened bread, and dipped herbs in salt water tears, and let the maror of their era shock their sinuses and their hearts into readiness to go free.

 

See also: Parsley dipped in tears, 2017

 


Third Pesach Without You

You never removed leaven.
(Salt, sugar, and oil: sure,
but that was different.)

This year the work of
finding every last crumb
is daunting. I take respite

in the seder prep I know
you used to do, polishing
the silver until it gleamed.

Okay, let's be real, you
assigned it to the housekeeper,
but your table shone.

Humming seder psalms,
I rub silver polish into
the pitcher we used for

pouring water on our hands
when we returned from
your funeral. I'll fill it

with ice water, and
your small silver creamer
with our salt water tears.


Removed leaven. Many Jews remove all leaven (or leaven-able material) from our homes during the seven days of Pesach.

Pouring water on our hands. There's a tradition of placing a pitcher outside a shiva home so that when mourners return from the burial, so that we can ritually wash our hands before entering.

Salt water tears. One of the ritual items on the seder table is salt water, representing the tears of our ancestors during slavery. 

This poem is (yet) another in the vein of Crossing the Sea, the collection of poems I wrote during the first year of mourning my mom. It was published in December by Phoenicia Publishing (thanks Beth!) and is available wherever books are sold. 


Shabbat HaGadol: From Where We Are

Screen Shot 2021-03-18 at 12.54.16 PM

A slide from Bayit's Pesach offerings this year.

Many of you have heard me say that on Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat before Pesach, it's customary for the rabbi to give a sermon about how to prepare for Pesach. Traditionally speaking, I'm supposed to give you instructions on how to prepare yourselves and your homes for Passover. You know -- here are the five "leavenable" grains, here's how to remove them from your homes for a week, here's the halakha on how to properly clean to remove every last scrap of hametz.

As we approach our second pandemic Pesach, the idea of preparing for Pesach feels different than it ever has before. I mean, if you remove hametz, you can do that the same as you always have. And even if you've never followed that tradition, you can mark the week by making a conscious choice not to eat bread. A week of mindful eating is a valuable experience and a deep way to connect with our traditions. But that's not the kind of preparation with which I'm grappling this year.

It's the inner preparation that's challenging me. Because the pandemic continues. Last year who could've imagined that we'd be here now: preparing for another Zoom community second night seder? Still staying apart to protect each other and ourselves. Many of us still in lockdown mode, or sheltering in place, to prevent the spread of a virus that's still killing 1200 people each day in this country -- about three times as many as last July 4; the equivalent of a 9/11 every three days.

There are three excellent vaccines out in the world now. There is reason to hope that once the population reaches a certain vaccination threshold, we will be able to be together safely again. Elementary schools are even about to re-open! But we are not "there yet." What does it mean to prepare ourselves for liberation when many of us may still feel constrained: by pandemic, by economic challenges, by racism and all the harm it creates, by the reality of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers?

The haggadah teaches: in every generation one must see oneself as if one had been liberated from Mitzrayim / the Narrow Place -- from tzuris / suffering, from meitzarim / constrictions. How can we see ourselves as if we were going forth from those tight spaces when we are still manifestly living in them? We aren't liberated from COVID. We aren't liberated from racism and hatred. We will celebrate Pesach as a community again via digital means, not "in person." What kind of liberation can this be?

Earlier this winter I worked with a group of poets, artists, rabbis, and liturgists to co-create new materials for the start of seder, recognizing the meitzarim that still bind us so that we can prepare our spirits for the liberation that is not yet quite here. (We'll use those materials at our community seder on Zoom with Rabbi David and the TBE community -- please sign up now, we need your RSVP by Wednesday!) And, there are things we can do practically to prepare our hearts to go free.

Set your seder table with a white tablecloth, if you have one. If not, use a bedsheet... or whatever festive cloth you can find. Make it feel different than on a regular night. It's too early to have spring flowers where we live, but if you can pick up a bouquet at the grocery store, treat yourself: a symbol of spring, something beautiful and festive. Put candles on your festival table: we'll light them to bring the light of the festival into the room and into our hearts.

Create a second seder plate memorializing this COVID year: hand sanitizer, a face mask, a vaccination card if you're fortunate enough to have had a shot. We'll light a memorial candle for the half a million who have died as we move through the door into this year's community seder. And you'll also want a "regular" seder plate symbolizing our ancestral story of freedom: an egg, a roasted shankbone or beet, a sprig of green, haroset, maror. Maybe an orange and an olive.

We'll harness our sensory experiences to bring us into the festival of freedom. The crunch of matzah, the taste of parsley (or whatever you use for karpas, the green vegetable dipped in salt water tears), the sharpness of horseradish and sweetness of haroset... all of these will spiritually hyperlink us with seders past and seders to come. Our people have celebrated Pesach in narrow straits before. Our rituals give us strength, and they connect us with each other and with our Source.

The journey to Passover begins where we are. Not in some imagined reality where the pandemic never happened, but right here and now. And I know with all my heart that when we gather on Zoom for second night seder, the words and the tastes and the rituals will lift us out of where we are and prepare us for the unfolding of something new. The journey to Sinai. The journey to togetherness. The journey to the better world we'll build together on the far side of the sea.

This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)

 


Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah... in new slide form

As we approach our second Zoom Pesach, I'm sharing a set of slides that I created out of the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach. The slides were made with google slides, and reflect what I've learned over the last year about creating materials to use via slideshare / on Zoom. They also integrate the pre-seder module that the Liturgical Arts Working Group at Bayit just released. 

Screen Shot 2021-03-18 at 9.05.56 AM

You can find the slides here on the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach webpage

Two things to note:

1) Bayit's pre-seder materials are intended to flow directly into the karpas step of the seder. The slide deck also includes the "old" karpas slides that were already in the haggadah. So you'll likely want to delete a few slides as you figure out which of the karpas slides you want to keep. 

2) Please, please, PLEASE, download the google slide deck and then re-upload it to your own google drive under a different name before editing it. This way the source slides will remain there for others to download. 

I hope this is helpful -- if you use any part of this slide deck, let me know how it works for you.


As Pesach approaches again

When we planned our first pandemic Zoom seders a year ago, none of us imagined that we would be preparing now for a second "season of our liberation" locked down at home. There's a sense of emotional and spiritual heaviness. We are all so tired, and so grief-soaked, and so ready to be with each other in person again. We yearn to feel free, but we're not "there yet."

Screen Shot 2021-03-12 at 9.44.17 AM

"Whatever gets in the way of the work is the work," as my poetry mentor Jason Shinder z"l used to say.

Before we can experience liberation at Pesach, we need to begin where we are. When the Bayit Liturgical Arts Working Group met to begin planning our offering for this second COVID Pesach, we decided to offer materials that could be a bridge or doorway into seder: starting where we are, and bringing us (we hope) to a place of readiness to approach freedom.

 

Screen Shot 2021-03-12 at 9.44.06 AM

What does it mean to approach the season of our liberation when so many of us feel we are still in Mitzrayim / in the Narrow Place of pandemic, economic uncertainty, and global grieving? What do we carry with us on the journey? How will this seder be different from all other seders, even the first pandemic seder we celebrated a year ago? Here are our collaborative answers.

You can find the whole collection here, in google slides form (beautiful!) and PDF form (somewhat more utilitarian): Approaching our second COVID seder. Please use them, excerpt them, adapt them, share them. We hope that they will reach everyone who would find meaning in them. May they make our second COVID Pesach more meaningful and real.


Not the end of the story

JoyIn this week's Torah portion, Va'era, God hears the cries of the Israelites and promises to free us from bondage. But when Moshe comes to the children of Israel to tell them that, Torah says:

וְלֹ֤א שָֽׁמְעוּ֙ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֔ה מִקֹּ֣צֶר ר֔וּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָ֖ה קָשָֽׁה׃

They did not hear Moshe, because of kotzer ruach and hard servitude.

Rashi explains the phrase kotzer ruach by saying, "If one is in anguish his breath comes in short gasps and he cannot draw long breaths." For the Sforno, kotzer ruach means "it did not appear believable to their present state of mind, so that their heart could not assimilate such a promise."

So which one is it, a physical shortness of breath or a spiritual diminishment that keeps hope beyond our grasp? Of course, the answer is both. Body and spirit are not separable. If you've ever had a panic attack, you know the feeling of being physically unable to breathe because of an emotional or spiritual reality.

Kotzer ruach means that we were short of breath in body and soul. Our breath and our spirits were in tzuris, suffering. Literally at this point in our story we are in Mitzrayim (hear that same TzR /צר sound there?) But this isn't about geography, it's about an existential state of being so constricted that we couldn't even hear the hope that things could be better than this.

I know a lot of us are navigating heightened anxiety these days. A scant ten days ago, an armed mob refusing to accept the results of November's election broke in to the US Capitol with nylon tactical restraints and bludgeons. Many members of that mob proudly displayed neo-Nazi or white supremacist identities.

It's becoming increasingly clear that the attack on the Capitol wasn't spontaneous, but planned. The FBI is warning now about armed attacks planned in all fifty state capitols and in DC, on inauguration day if not before.

The covid-19 pandemic worsens by the day. We keep breaking records for number of sick people and number of deaths. Meanwhile the integrity of our country feels at-risk. I mean both our capacity to be one nation when some portion of that nation refuses to accept electoral defeat, and our moral and ethical uprightness.

Anybody here feeling kotzer ruach? Me too. 

And... Our Torah story comes this week to remind us that kotzer ruach is not the end of the story. Being in dire straits -- unable to breathe, unable to focus, hearts and souls unable to hope -- is not the end of the story. On the contrary, it's the first step toward liberation.

In our Torah story, our kotzer ruach causes us to cry out. That's where this week's Torah portion begins: with God saying hearing our cries and promising to help us out of narrow straits. If you have a prayer practice or a meditation practice or a primal scream practice, now is the time to cry out. (And if you don't have such a practice, now is a good time to start.)

I don't actually believe that God "needs" us to cry out before God takes notice of us. I think it goes the other way. We need to cry out, because that's the first step in opening our hearts to God -- to hope -- to the possibility that things can get better.

The path toward the pandemic getting better is pretty clear. We shelter in place as best we can, we stay apart, we wear our masks, we get the vaccine. And then we probably keep wearing our masks. But in time, it will be safe to gather again outside of our household bubbles. In time, we will be able to gather in community, and sing together without risk, and embrace.

The path toward restoring the integrity of our nation is less clear to me. I think it involves accountability, and justice, and truth, because I think integrity always asks our commitment to those ideals. Regardless, we begin that journey from here, where we are, crying out with our anxious and broken hearts.

We've entered the lunar month of Shvat, known mostly for Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees, which will take place at the next full moon. The full moon after that brings Purim. And the full moon after that brings Pesach, festival of our liberation. These three full moons are our stepping-stones to spring, and change, and freedom.

When I was working recently with the rabbis and poets and artists of Bayit on new liturgy for Tu BiShvat, one of my colleagues said something that moved me so much I wrote it on a post-it and stuck it to my desk. I wrote,

"Karpas dipped in tears -- like the tears that water our new growth."

Karpas is the spring green we dip in salt water during the seder. The salt water represents the tears of our enslavement, the tears of feeling stuck in kotzer ruach. For us this year those might be tears of grief at covid-19 deaths: 381,000 and counting. They might be tears of grief at how far our democracy has fallen from its ideals, or tears of fear for whatever may be coming.

Our tears can water new growth of heart and soul. Our heart's cry now is the first step toward the changes that will lead to liberation. Then we will fulfill the words of the psalmist: "Those who sow in tears will reap in joy." Kein yehi ratzon.

 

This is my d'varling from Shabbat services at my shul (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

Illustration, by R. Allie Fischman, from Connections: Liturgy, Art, and Poetry for Tu BiShvat, Bayit, 2021. 

 


New questions

New questions

 

For those who can't read images, or who want to copy-and-paste- a transcription:

How is this night the same as other Passovers in the past or in the imagined future?

What does it mean to experience an Exodus from the Narrow Place when our lives may feel more constricted (by illness, quarantine, economic hardship, or grief) than ever before?

How can the rituals of seder connect us across the chasm between what we're experiencing now and what was "normal" before?

We can't physically invite all who are hungry to come and eat. (Then again, we probably didn't do that last year before the pandemic either.) How can we reimagine that call in this time? What will we do to nourish those in need this year?

Hiding the afikoman reminds us that spiritual life means searching. For what are we searching this year? What hope or healing do we yearn for... and what will we do, during the coming wilderness wandering, to bring our yearnings to pass?

 

Cross-posted from Builders Blog, a project of Bayit: Building Jewish.


We are exactly where the Pesach story calls us to be

Beginningoftheend

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.

 


Preparing for Pesach in a time of covid-19

ESVqeXEWoAI0SzsI'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.


From constriction to freedom: a d'varling looking toward Pesach

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.


Pantoum for the Seventh Day

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.

 


Seeking: seeing the ordinary through new eyes

41103862801_a487c0fafd_zOn the eve of Pesach we search for hidden hametz by the light of a candle.

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.