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

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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. 

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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.


On removing leaven (again)

40183920285_b3ba6b64c5_zI 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.


New in the Forward: Squaring The Freedom Of Passover With The Struggles Of Life

Struggle-of-pesach-1522266251We 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.


New in The Wisdom Daily: Passover Calls Us To Leap

Logo-twd-header...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.