A piece of my own history

30988704700_689c182dfb_zMostly what I did during my first Williams College Jewish Association board meeting a few weeks ago was listen. I asked a couple of questions, but my purpose there was to begin learning: about who the students are, and what matters to them, and what they're working on.

At the end of the hour, as they gathered their coats to leave, Evan -- the co-president of WCJA -- said to me, "Wait a second, I have something for you."  What he handed me was a piece of my own history: an original copy of the haggadah from the Williams College Feminist Seder from 1996.

1996 was my senior year at Williams, and I was an active participant in creating that haggadah and that seder. (The cover is my own handwriting -- I remember sitting at my desk, pencilling and then inking that intertwined woman symbol and Star of David.) It was wild to stand in the very room where our feminist seders took place, holding that staple-bound booklet.

I have some Williams feminist haggadot in my archives. Ten years ago, WCJA invited me to come and speak at the Jewish Religious Center about my experiences with the Williams College feminist seder, which inspired me to find those old haggadot and reread them. (I wrote about that at the time: Six years of Williams College feminist haggadot.)

But there's something extra-special to me now about this one, because someone saved it. Someone saved it, and passed it down, and handed it on, until it came into the hands of the current leadership of the Jewish Association, twenty years after it was assembled and printed and used. 

Leafing through it now, I'm moved by several things. One is how I can see glimmers of this haggadah in my Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach, the haggadah that I have for years shared online as a free download. Another is the poetry we chose -- and the fact that many of the poets there who were simply revered names to me twenty years ago are now colleagues and friends. (That feels to me like a sign that I am doing something right with my life.)

I'm moved, also, by the awareness that this haggadah represents a particular moment in the evolution of Jewish feminism. Today's students express their Jewishness in an intersectional framework for which we didn't have the language twenty years ago -- or at least I didn't. I know that there haven't been feminist seders at Williams in many years. I wonder whether the spiritual yearnings that used to be expressed through the vehicle of that experience are now bubbling up in some other way. 

This physical object teleports me temporarily through time. I'm grateful to have this tangible reminder of what was important to me in college, and I'm gratified at the reminder that the work I'm doing now has its roots in who I was then. 


Seder for the seventh day: a celebration of taking the leap

Red-sea-partedIt was on the seventh day after the Exodus that our forebears made it to the shore of the Sea of Reeds. Behind them, the Egyptian army. Ahead of them, the sea. (At least, so teaches our tradition.)

Midrash teaches that not until a man named Nachshon ben Aminadav walked in up to his neck did the waters part. The seventh day of Pesach is the anniversary of that leap of faith. 

The custom of holding a seder on the first night or two of Passover is one of the practices most widely observed across the Jewish world. (In the Pew study that came out a few years ago, seven in ten Jews reported participating in Passover seders.) 

The custom of holding a seder on the seventh day is less well-known, and less formalized -- and as a result, there's more room for ritual and liturgical creativity. This year's seventh-day seder (unlike last year's) took place without a haggadah. We had no foreordained plan for the journey. Instead we traveled with our mental map of the steps of seder, from sanctification to conclusion, and explored the internal territory revealed to us along the way.

The only ritual items we had on hand were wine to bless, and matzah: the bread of affliction and of freedom all in one. We gave matzah yet another meaning, declaring it to be the bread of choosing. One can always remain in familiar constriction, instead of taking the risk of stepping into the unknown. But authentic spiritual life calls us to choose becoming, instead. It calls us to take the leap into the sea.

We began Maggid, the storytelling step of the seder, by asking Four Questions of our own. We took turns contributing questions and answers, without preparation. Perhaps it wasn't coincidence that the questions that came to us in that ritual moment were big questions that don't have simple answers. That's the valance of this moment in the year: crossing the sea, not knowing what's on the other side.

We told the story of our people through the prism of our own story: from who we were then to who we are now; from times of constriction to times of liberation, not once but again and again. We remembered davening at the edge of an ocean not so long ago, and we imagined ourselves standing at the edge of the sea, taking the leap of trusting that the waters would divide and let us safely through.

Like last year, we made meaning in the items that were within reach. We turned my can of Fresca (with the aid of some gematria, a.k.a. Hebrew letter-math) into a parable about God lifting us away from Pharaoh, and turned a small rainbow slinky into the coiled spring which helps us leap from slavery into freedom. We laughed, but the meaning we found (or made) in what was at hand felt true and real.

Many of us spend the month before Pesach preparing diligently for the first two seders. The seventh day seder is different. It felt good to me this year to approach the seventh day seder in a spirit of openness. The seventh day is when we take a deep breath and walk boldly into the waters, not knowing for certain that they will part. No amount of advance preparation can truly ready us for taking that leap.

There's something extra-sweet about doing something free-form in between ritual experiences that are more fixed and more liturgical -- like the sedarim that Rabbi David and I led last weekend, and the services we'll lead this Shabbat. Perhaps if we're lucky we'll be able to take into our services a bit of our seventh-day-seder whimsy, a bit of the Not Knowing that can fuel our awe and our joy.

 


And the day came...

And-The-Day-Came-When-The-Risk-To-Remain-TightI've been sitting with this Anaïs Nin quote for a while. "And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was greater than the risk it took to bloom." It feels especially resonant to me as Pesach draws near. The Pesach story is one of risk-taking. 

The Pesach story says: in every life there are familiar constrictions. Sometimes we suffer them. Sometimes we accept them grudgingly. Sometimes we embrace them. Sometimes we grow so accustomed to them that we forget they're there.

And in every life there are awakenings. We realize that we don't need to stay where we are. We realize that we could choose to risk the unknown, even though it's scary, even though we don't know what lies ahead. The Pesach story says: take the leap. Step into the sea and trust that it will part for you.

The Pesach story says, if we wait until we feel fully ready we might never act at all. The Pesach story says, we can stay where we are indefinitely, but at what cost to our hearts and our souls? We are made to change and grow, and sometimes that means setting out into the wilderness of not-knowing. Sometimes that means taking the risk of trusting that good things lie ahead, even if we can't see them from here. Sometimes it means leaping before we feel ready, because the whole idea of "ready" becomes something that's holding us back.

Can you imagine what it's like to be a tulip curled into a bulb, waiting patiently through the long and perhaps snow-covered winter for the indescribable call to unfold, to stretch toward the light, to shatter and expand and become something glorious and new? The Pesach story is like that. It's the beginning of our unfolding into the nation we continue to become. As a people we were curled into a tight place until we were brought forth from there -- maybe by the same ineffable force that whispers to tulip bulbs when it's time to burst free and emerge from underground.

Tradition teaches that each of us must relate to the Pesach story as though it had happened not then to them but also to us. The movement from constriction to freedom is recapitulated in every life, in the trajectory of every soul. But it's not just an individual story; the Pesach story is also a collective one. After the Exodus our mixed multitude became a people. We went forth together, and together we grew into something new, something greater than the sum of its parts. We went from being slaves of Pharaoh to being servants of the One. This is the core story of Jewish peoplehood.

The Pesach story doesn't offer easy answers. Torah reminds us that once the children of Israel leave Egypt they kvetch bitterly, missing the familiar comforts of the life they used to know even though that life contained grief and silencing and hard labor. That's human nature. It's hard to leave what we've known, even if we believe that God is bringing us forth from where we've been in order that we might be made new. In order that we might serve from that place of having been made new. Each of us has to choose, time and again, to become. To be open to changing. To learn to bloom.

Blooming is a risk. There could be a late frost, or not enough rain, or not enough sun. Anything could go wrong! There are always reasons not to bloom, or not to bloom yet. Pesach comes to call us out of those reasons. The One Who spoke to Moshe from the burning bush claimed the name "I Am Becoming What I Am Becoming." Our God is always becoming, and so are we. The day comes when the risk of remaining tight in a bud is greater than the risk of choosing to follow God's example and become. Maybe this is that day. What would you need in order to trust that this can be that day for you?

Chag sameach -- wishing a deep and sweet and meaningful Pesach to all who celebrate.

 

 


Taking the leap: on spiritual housecleaning, the ALEPH Listening Tour, and making God's Presence real

(A Listening Tour d'var Torah for Shabbat HaGadol and Shabbat Metzora at Kehilla Community Synagogue)

 

Shabbat Shalom.  I come bearing perhaps surprising news: Pesach is almost upon us. This is Shabbat haGadol, the "Great Shabbat" immediately before Passover. Traditionally, as Reb David mentioned last night, this is the day when rabbis are supposed to give sermons about preparations for Pesach.

Preparations for Pesach take many forms. For some of us this is a season of intensive physical house-cleaning, when we strive to remove every crumb of חמץ / hametz (leaven) from our homes. For many of us, this is a season of intensive spiritual house-cleaning, when we strive to clear the spiritual hametz from our hearts so that we may walk ever more upright into a future of renewal opening right before us. I don't much enjoy the physical housecleaning, but the spiritual housecleaning is my idea of a good time. I love that our tradition gives us this opportunity for reflection as Pesach draws near.

If I believed in coincidences, maybe I’d believe that our visit to Kehilla for the ALEPH Listening Tour just happened to coincide with this season of renewal.  But I think it's no coincidence that our time with you here, in this city which is one of Jewish Renewal's beating hearts, comes at this sacred season.

We set out on this year of listening to invite self-reflection – and reflection by all who care about ALEPH and Jewish Renewal -- about where our movement came from, where it's been, and where we might want to take it next.  We did so knowing that a future of renewal, all that this movement can be, is starting to open right before us -- and also knowing that it wasn’t yet clear what that future would be or how we’d get there.  There’s a certain leap of faith that we’re all taking -- being here in such a self-reflective way, visioning a future perhaps difficult to see, making ourselves vulnerable to the truths of what needs fixing, and going forward before our plans are ready.

In a nutshell, that’s the story of Passover -- going before we’re ready, not yet knowing how or where, trusting the way forward for transformation and renewal, and taking a leap of faith not despite not-knowing but precisely into the not-knowing.

Our people have done this before.  Our ancestors left a familiar enslavement with no idea where God would take them or how their lives might unfold. With the Exodus we reboot the story of Jewish peoplehood, the story of becoming who we most deeply are. Each year we're called to rededicate ourselves to taking the risk of leaving enslavement and choosing to become.

That's exactly the spiritual challenge that Jewish Renewal places in front of us. Are we willing to take the risk of reshaping Judaism so that it truly speaks to this moment of such profound social, generational and planetary change? Are we willing to take the risk of co-creating that kind of Judaism, risking that we might fail? Reb David and I, and everyone at ALEPH, are taking the risk to trust that your answer is yes. 

Continue reading "Taking the leap: on spiritual housecleaning, the ALEPH Listening Tour, and making God's Presence real" »


Haggadah for Pesach... as a slideshow

Earlier this year, ALEPH released a new digital haggadah for Tu BiShvat, the New Year of the Trees. As a manifestation of our commitment to caring for our planet, we released it as a slideshow, designed to be projected on a screen rather than printed and stapled or bound. After that came out, a few people reached out to ask me whether I would make my haggadah for Pesach available the same way. 

 

it can be streamed from there, or downloaded (30 MB PDF file / 174 slides.) 
Alternatively, here's the haggadah as a slideshow on google drive
 

The text is the same as in the most recent version of the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach. Some of the images are the same; others are new, because a file designed to be projected on a screen can feature different kinds of images than a file designed to be copied and staple-bound.

Alternatively, pf course, if you want to print and bind a copy (formatted for vertical 8.5 x 11" pages, not for slide projection), you can find the latest edition of the interior text and the cover on the VR Haggadah page of my website.

Enjoy!


Halaila hazeh (on this night)

After pyjamas, tooth brushing, and reading a book (which lately means him reading Press Here to me), we turn off the lights. Beneath the glowing stars on the ceiling we say prayers and sing our bedtime songs. This always includes the one-line shema, sung to the melody my mother taught me (which I now know to be by Sulzer.) This week I've started singing the first two of the Four Questions at bedtime, too.

Last year I sang the first question to him every night for a month and by Pesach he was able to belt it out proudly. This year I suggested he could learn the first two, and at first he balked. "I don't know," he said. "What if I can't do it?" I assured him that if he isn't comfortable singing them by Pesach, he won't have to. Grudgingly he admitted that I could sing them to him, but insisted he wouldn't sing along.

That was a few days ago. Then, one night as I began singing "Mah nishtanah," he joined in. To my surprise, he sang both of the questions with me, giggling all the way. When we were done I told him I was proud of him. He said he'd sing the questions to himself until he fell asleep. Then we sang the angel song. These days he usually chooses Shir Yaakov's melody over Carlebach's, though I love them both.

Then he said "Wait, before 'Goodnight You Moonlight Ladies' can I pray for one thing?"

"Of course," I said, startled.

"Thank You God for all the things You put in the world that make us feel better when we're not so happy," he said earnestly, and my heart grew three sizes at his spontaneous offering of prayer and his comfort with speaking not just about God but to God.  "Amen," I said. "That's a beautiful prayer." (And I wondered what brought that on, though by then it was already well past official bedtime, so I didn't ask.)

Then I sang him our variation on James Taylor's "Sweet Baby James" (that's the aforementioned "moonlight ladies" lullaby, which we've been singing to him pretty much since the week he was born) and kissed him goodnight. Sure enough, when I walked by his room on my way upstairs, I heard him singing the Four Questions to himself. "Halaila hazeh, halaila hazeh..." On this night, on this night...

On this night, I am proud of my kid. On this night, I am humbled by my kid. On this night, I am so grateful for my kid.


Seder for the seventh day

NANTUCKET_NECTARS_GRAPEADE_JUICE_COCKTAIL_8The seventh day of Pesach is considered to be the day when our ancestors passed through the Sea of Reeds. Each of us is called to experience the Exodus from Egypt in our own lives, and this is the day when we too experience the sea parting and our arrival on the other side. Some have the custom of celebrating a special seder on the seventh day of Pesach, commemorating the journey.

A seventh day seder isn't a chovah, a religious obligation. The whole idea of a seventh-day seder falls into the category of hiddur mitzvah, "beautifying the mitzvah" -- in this case, the mitzvah of retelling and reliving the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Unlike the seder for the first and second nights of Pesach, this ritual retelling does not come with an inherited form.

On the seventh day of Pesach, after leading festival morning services, I sit down at my computer with my lunch, some grape juice, and some matzah. I have a date for a seventh day seder! David and I have decided to celebrate together remotely via videoconferencing. It is the first time I've ever celebrated the seventh day of Pesach in this way, and I've been excited about it all week.

We have an abbreviation and adaptation of Rabbi Evan Krame's seder for the seventh day of Pesach. We move through its seven steps, from kol / voice (beginning) to n'tilat yadayim (washing) to raglayim / feet (leaping) to eynayim / eyes (receiving) to oznayim / ears (believing) to peh / mouth (satisfying) to lev / heart (loving). I love that R' Evan has chosen gerunds. Everything is continuing.

We drink four swigs of the fruit of the vine, one for each of the four elements, one for each step of our ancestors' journey "which spanned treading the earth, passing through the water, reaching the rarefied air at Sinai, and receiving Torah from the fire." We read one of my favorite Hasidic texts about elemental trust, and a teaching from R' Evan about the brickwork of the song at the Sea.

We preface each swig of juice with the kabbalistic intention of unifying the Holy Blessed One and Shekhinah, divine immanence and divine transcendence, God far above and God deep within. We sing the psalms of Hallel, read Reb Zalman's translation of psalm 100 ("This is how you sing to God a thank-You song..."), and count the Omer. We close with a bissel of Yiddish and some laughter.

A few of our preparations didn't yield exactly the fruits we intended. Half of the lunch I meant to eat didn't make it with me to shul today. David couldn't find grape juice, and had to settle for Nantucket Nectars "grape-ade." In lieu of a pitcher of water for hand-washing, we each have hand sanitizer. In lieu of gluten-free matzah, he has a gluten-free kosher-for-Pesach black-and-white cookie.

But we find holiness even in the mishaps. The Nantucket Nectars bottle's label depicts the sea -- it could be the very sea which we experience ourselves crossing on this auspicious day! The black-and-white cookie hints at the Torah -- as midrash has it, the Torah is "black fire on white fire," and both of them holy! It reminds me of our undergraduate days, sanctifying whatever we had on hand.

We manage to drash (make or find meaning in) even the items on our lunch plates. David's eating sushi, which is obviously a representation of the Sea. I'm eating eggplant, which is purple, the color of royalty, hinting at the Sovereign Who redeemed us from slavery. When it comes time for the R'Evan sandwich -- a slice of onion atop a piece of fruit, reminding us that even bitterness or pain can be a catalyst for growth and enhancement -- we have no onion, so we make do with wasabi.

We're laughing as we make these substitutions on the fly, but we're also feeling something real. All of this is performative midrash happening in realtime. It's part of the never-ending work of adding to tradition's story that is in some ways the core mission of Jewish Renewal -- as the Haggadah says, whoever enlarges the retelling of the Exodus is praiseworthy. Jewish tradition isn't something fixed, unchangeable. Our task is always bringing it to life in a way that speaks to who we are here and now.

This is the work of spiritual life: working with what we have, instead of what we thought we might have. Sanctifying what is, even if it isn't exactly what we expected. Resisting the impulse which says "I'm not ready for transformation because I don't have all the items on my list" -- if we wait until we feel fully ready, we might never leap at all. The seventh day of Pesach is about leaping even when we don't feel ready, trusting that loving arms will catch us; that the sea will part for us.

Look up from the muddy sea floor. Notice the miracle. It's the seventh day of Pesach. What song of rejoicing will you sing now that we have come through these narrow straits, these walls of water, and emerged on the other side?


Tefilat Tal / Prayer for Dew

On the first day of Pesach we change one line in our daily prayers: instead of asking God for rain, we ask God for dew. It's also traditional to recite a prayer specifically for dew. A few years ago I wrote a d'var tefilah ("word about prayer") on the prayer for dew; in this post you'll find an English-language variation on that prayer, intended for community use as a responsive reading.

 

Give us dew to favor Your earth;
sweeten the land in which we live with dew.

Strengthen us with plenty, with grain and wine:
sheaves and vines sustained by dew.

Bring wholeness to the Holy City and to all who love her
as flowers are renewed by dew.

You have said "I will be like dew to Israel;"1
may Your mercy well up in us like the dew.

Let the proud and beautiful fruits of our harvest
be sustained and graced with dew.

Open our hearts; make us into open vessels
to receive the spiritual gifts of dew.

May a light shine forth from darkness to draw us to You,
as a root finds water from dew.

We are the people who followed You through the desert
as sheep follow a trusted shepherd; favor us with dew.

You are our God, Who causes the wind to blow and the dew to fall.2

For blessing and not for curse. Amen.
For life and not for death. Amen.
For plenty and not for lack. Amen.

 

1. Hosea 14:5

2. From the daily amidah.


#blogExodus 6: Tell

Blogexodus5775At the center of the seder experience is the step in the seder known as Maggid -- "telling the story." (The word maggid shares a root with haggadah; the Haggadah is the book which tells the tale.)

We are helped, in our storytelling, by the materials we have at hand -- both our printed haggadot, and the stirrings of our hearts. Not surprisingly, my family uses the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach to guide us along the way. But although it's the haggadah I've assembled, it's not the only one I love.

I love all kinds of haggadot. I love the classical text, and I love the many variations thereupon, and I love that a haggadah can still recognizably be a haggadah even when things change. Hebrew or vernacular (or both), prose or poetry (or both), minimalist or maximalist -- I love them all.

Right now I am enamored of the latest addition to my haggadah collection: The Asufa Haggadah, 2015 edition. Here's how the publisher describes it:

Hagaddah_Mockup-510x361It’s become a tradition: every year, a group of more than 40 Israeli artists comes together and creates a new haggadah. They follow only two rules:

  1. Each artist creates only a single page
  2. The artists must use the standard Haggadah text

Now, for the first time, that haggadah is available in North America, exclusively through Print-O-Craft.

The haggadah is stunning. Every page is different and every page is beautiful. The art brings the story to life. I'm a wordsmith; words have long been my trade. But this haggadah is as much about the visual storytelling as it is about the text, and I find myself lingering on every page. This is transformative work: the art changes my experience of the existing, and familiar, Hebrew text.

I love that this is how we both celebrate, and continue to create, our peoplehood: by telling a story. Once upon a time we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Holy One of Blessing brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.

There are so many ways to tell this central tale.

 Asufa_2015_6-e1423771013935-157x157 Asufa_2015_4-157x157 Asufa_2015_3-157x157




This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.


#blogExodus 2: Bless

Blogexodus5775The seder unfolds over the course of fifteen steps. The Hebrew word סדר / seder means "order," and this is a ritual with a distinct order. In our house, we sing the fifteen steps in the order of the seder every time we come to a new step, a new stop, a new pause along the journey.

The first step is kadesh, which means "make holy" or "sanctify." We sanctify the sacred space of the seder meal by lighting candles and blessing juice or wine -- just as we do every Shabbat. (This year the first seder falls on a Friday night, so we'll bless candles for Shabbat and yom tov / holiday, and bless matzah a bit later in the meal.)

Creating sacred space is something we do together with God. The evening of the seder may have some intrinsic holiness, because for so many centuries we have observed the full moon of Nisan as the night when we commemorate the Exodus from Egypt, but most of its holiness (I think) arises in our partnership with God. We work with God to make it holy, using the tools of candles and wine and haggadah, scents and stories and song.

When we speak our ancient words of blessing, we usually begin ברוך אתה / baruch atah, "Blessed are You..." (Or, in Rabbi Marcia Prager's beautiful translation, "A fountain of blessings are You...") We assert that God is blessed. This may seem a chutzpahdik assertion, but we bless God. The power of that blessing lies in our hearts. And as we reach out to God and offer our blessing, God reaches back to us with shefa, divine abundance, streaming into creation. We bless God, and in return God blesses us.

Several years ago at the old Elat Chayyim I took a week-long workshop in the art of offering spontaneous blessings. I remember finding it strange at first. Turning to someone and saying, "May I offer you a blessing?" and then, at their nod, continuing with words customized to their situation -- that was difficult for me. (I think it became smoother, or at least more familiar, during my nine months of Clinical Pastoral Education. My Christian colleagues taught me a lot that year.)

Today I think of offering a spontaneous blessing in much the same way that I think about using the classical blessing formula (or its gender-switched or gender-neutral variations, which I also employ.) Making a blessing, whether traditional or ad hoc, is an act of reaching with my heart toward God and imploring God to open a channel so that shefa can flow through my words. As the moon waxes toward Pesach, what blessings do you most need to receive? What blessings are you most able to give?

 

This post is part of #blogExodus, a daily carnival of posts / tweets / status updates relating to themes of Passover and Exodus, created by ImaBima. Find other posts via the #blogExodus hashtag.


The seder as time machine

Haggadot

The Passover Haggadah -- with which I have spent a fair amount of time, in its variety of forms -- teaches us that the Exodus from Egypt is not something which happened "once upon a time" to "them" back "then," but something which continues to happen right now for us.

עֲבָדִים הָיִינוּ לְפַרְעֹה בְּמִצְריִם -- "We were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt," the Haggadah teaches. Not "Our ancestors were slaves." Not "maybe our ancestors might have been slaves, though we're not sure, because the historical record doesn't entirely support the claim..." We were slaves. We ourselves.

In the text which describes the Four Children (one who is wise, one who is wicked, one who is simple, and one who does not know enough to ask), we are instructed to tell our children that we do this because of what God did for us when God brought us out of Egypt. Not for our ancestors. For us.

The seder is a time machine. It moves us through time and space (both of which, intriguingly, can be described with the Hebrew word עולם.) As we enter into the ritual of the seder, we re-experience that journey from constriction to liberation which is core to our sense of ourselves as the Jewish people.

As the traditional text teaches:

בְּכָל־דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת־עַצְמוֹ, כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרָיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר: בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְיָ לִי, בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם. לֹא אֶת־אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בִּלְבָד, גָּאַל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אֶלָּא אַף אוֹתָנוּ גָּאַל עִמָּהֶם...

In every generation one must see oneself as if one had personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt. As it is written: "You shall speak to your children on that day, saying, this is how the Holy Blessed One redeemed me from Egypt. It wasn't merely my ancestors who were redeemed, but the Holy Blessed One also redeemed us with them..."

It was not merely my ancestors who were redeemed, but the Holy One of Blessing also redeemed us. The Exodus isn't something that happened (or didn't happen) there-and-then: it's something which we can experience now in our own spiritual lives as we move from constriction toward freedom.

In Rabbi Dan Fink's words, "Pesach is not about remembering the distant past; it is about re-experiencing that past in the present time. It is not the story of our ancestors long ago; it is our story." We don't just retell; we re-experience. We make the experience present for ourselves again.

When we celebrate the seder together, we're connecting ourselves with everyone who has ever celebrated seder and everyone who will ever celebrate seder. Our ancestors and our descendants, and our fellow-travelers around the globe at this holy moment of interconnection. Seder links us all.

Sitting down at the seder table is a little bit like stepping into the TARDIS. (Keen eyes will have spotted the familiar blue box among the haggadot depicted at the top of this page.) If we throw ourselves into the experience, it will whisk us away into mythic time. It places us right in the story.

Liberation is still happening. Our hearts are still crying out from our narrow places, and God still hears those cries and answers them with expansiveness. We are always setting forth on a journey with an unknown destination. We are always being called to trust; to step into the waters before they part.

Where will the TARDIS take you this year? How will it feel to re-live the Exodus now, as the person you are becoming, with the experiences the last year have brought you? The haggadah may look like a plain bound book, but it's bigger on the inside -- and if you let it, it will carry you somewhere amazing.

 

Step into the TARDIS three weeks from tonight -- the first seder this year falls on the evening of Friday, April 3.


Shmita and interconnection at Purim to Pesach

My short meditation for the Shalom Center's Purim to Pesach project is now on their website. It's called Shmita and interconnection. (Shmita is the Hebrew word usually rendered in English as "Sabbatical" -- it means the year of rest which Torah mandates we provide the earth after every six years of working the land, and on the Jewish calendar this year is a shmita year.)

Here's how my piece begins:

Our sages took some pains to ensure a Jewish calendar in which Pesach would always fall in the spring. (They were operating in a northern hemisphere context; I don’t think the challenges of antipodean Judaism ever occurred to them.) In the northern hemisphere, Pesach is inextricably connected with spring.

As the earth shakes off the constrictions of winter, her frozen places thawing, so we remember our shaking-off the yoke of slavery to Pharaoh. As plant life and trees are “reborn” into the warming air, we tell the story of our renewal and rebirth out of the constriction of slavery and into freedom...

Read the whole thing at Purim to Pesach: Shmita and interconnection. (And to receive further daily teachings on how we can connect Passover with caring for the earth, you can sign up for the Shalom Center's email list.)


From Purim to Pesach

 

Today is Purim -- the full moon of the lunar month of Adar. Pesach (Passover) begins in one month, at the full moon of Nissan. There's a traditional teaching (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 429:1) which holds that "One must begin studying the laws of Passover thirty days before the holiday." In the Mishnah Berurah (note 2, Biur HaGra) we are told to begin studying Pesach specifically on Purim itself. That's the impetus behind "Purim to Pesach," a new project of the Shalom Center.

 

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The Shalom Center is sending out a new series of daily emails between now and Passover. The goal, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow explained it to me, is "to make broadly available powerful short kavanot (intentions) that reawaken and revitalize the meaning of Pesach, especially in a Shmita (sabbatical) year devoted to healing Earth and renewing social justice." Each day's post is by someone different who was solicited to share their words as part of this project: rabbis, activists, poets, writers & more.

This is a new twist on the idea of studying the halakhot (laws/ways-of-walking) of Pesach for a month before the holiday begins. Instead of focusing us on matters of ritual and praxis, these emails aim to focus our attention on what Pesach might come to teach us about our relationship with the earth, especially during this Shmita year when many of us are paying renewed attention to our relationship with consumption and with the planet. And they link Purim with Pesach, which I think is really neat.

I'm honored to be one of the writers whose words will be going out as part of this series, and I'll let y'all know when my post goes out. That said, I'm only one of 30 voices taking part in this project, and I'm excited about reading what the other participants have to say, too. If you want to receive these writings in your inbox, sign up for The Shalom Center's email list; alternatively, you can visit the Purim to Pesach website daily and see what new earth-oriented Passover wisdom has been shared.

Chag sameach -- happy Purim! And here's to Pesach, only one month away.


Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach, Version 8

The full moon of the month of Shvat was last night. (Happy Tu BiShvat!) A month from now, at the next full moon, we'll celebrate Purim. And a month after that, at the next full moon, we'll celebrate Pesach!

Okay, so most of you probably aren't thinking about Passover yet. But just in case you are...

If you're looking for a free downloadable haggadah which tells the story of the Exodus with traditional texts alongside creative interpretations; offers classical material alongside contemporary poetry; honors new traditions as well as old ones; and interweaves song, story, prayer, and opportunity for community participation; you might dig the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach.

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The Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach, Version 8 (2015)

 

2020 Edited to add: you can always find the most up-to-date version of the VR Haggadah by going to velveteenrabbi.com and clicking through to the haggadah page.

 

It's four years since the last full version (7.1) came out, so I figured it was time for an update. New in this version:

  • a better Hebrew font, in which all of the vowels are clear (now matching the font in Days of Awe)
  • clearer page design (now matching the look and feel of Days of Awe), as well as more transliteration
  • many new poems, including (but not limited to) poetry by Linda Pastan, Primo Levi, Lisa Greene, Yehuda Amichai, Luisa A. Igloria
  • a rendering of the prayer "This is the bread of our affliction" not only in Aramaic (and English) but also in Ladino, courtesy of Rabba Emily Aviva Kapor, along with a teaching of hers
  • a new teaching from Rabbi Jill Hammer, from Pirkei Imahot / the Sayings of the Mothers
  • another alternative to the traditional Four Sons text by Tamara Cohen, Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, and Ronnie Horn (of course the classical text also still appears, as does Reb Zalman z"l's creative reinterpretation, as does Ben Aronin's singable English ballad along with Howard Cruse's fabulous illustration)
  • some poems about Miriam to balance the material about Moses
  • three different options for the classical prayer "Pour out Your wrath"
  • before Had Gadya, a poem ("Poem for the Kansas Shootings") by Rabbi Michael Rothbaum
  • ...and much more!

As always, the haggadah is available to all -- download it, use it, share it. Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are needy have the resources they need to celebrate the Passover!

 

 


Daily April poem: about Elijah the prophet

ELIJAH WAITS


Elijah walks the streets
with Moshiach's phone number
programmed into his cellphone.

In his messenger bag
gift cards and cigarettes
he hands out to the homeless.

He always buys roses and gum
from the kids who peddle
at busy intersections.

He doesn't visit
every seder in the world
anymore. He still loves

the old melodies, the way
the story rewrites you
from the inside out if you let it

he finagles invitations
to the houses with great singing
and eager children, but

he's learned that our words
only matter so much.
When we box Pesach away

he holds his breath:
will we really emerge different
this time? Will we admit

we choose comfort over conscience
we cling to the neverending hametz
of our painful history --

or will we whistle Had Gadya
and recreate Mitzrayim?
Elijah sits back down

on the crumbling stoop
in the overcrowded hospital
at the enemy's table and waits.


Today's poem arose all on its own, without a prompt. It draws on some classical midrash about Elijah.

Had Gadya is a Passover song. Mitzrayim means Egypt, though it relates to the word root meaning narrow, so it can be rendered as "The Narrow Place."

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Daily April poem: ten lies


TEN SEDER LIES


We didn't open the door for Elijah last night.
Miriam's Cup wasn't full of living waters.

The hidden matzah languished, unlooked-for.
Costumes for the pageant never left their box.

No one asked about the seder plate stowaways.
We decided to skip all of the poetry.

I didn't wake to the melody of imagined trumpets
summoning me to join the pilgrimage.

When I close my eyes, I don't see my ancestors.
No glimpse of my great-grandchildren up ahead.

 


Today's NaPoWriMo prompt invited us to write a ten-line poem in which each line is a lie.

The couplet about the imagined trumpets is a reference to the melodic motifs of festival nusach, the melodic mode used for chanting prayer on the Three Pilgrimage Festivals.

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Daily April poem: terza rima

 

GIFT


You stand beside and sing the words with me.
I did the same in Texas years ago.
How is this night different? Come and see.

My childhood seders aren't for you to know.
You draw an orange on your seder plate.
What will you remember as you grow?

You're bleary-eyed: we kept you up too late.
I can't regret allowing you your glee
at finding hidden treasure. Now I wait

to see what sticks. What matters most to me
is that you come to love the telling too.
Once we were slaves to Pharaoh; now we're free.

The songs, the story -- they're my gift to you.

 


Today's prompt at NaPoWriMo asks us to try terza rima, a form featuring three-line stanzas with a specific rhyme scheme.

My poem arises out of last night's seder, which was wonderful in so many ways. Chag sameach / happy holiday to all who celebrate!

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Burning the old, preparing for the new

Dsc00643This morning my co-teacher and I hid scraps of chametz -- leaven -- around the synagogue. Not because we wanted to give our cleaning crew an extra challenge tomorrow, but because we wanted to teach some of our youngest members -- and their families -- about a strange and beautiful ritual done right before Passover begins.

Once our Hand in Hand families had arrived, we sang a song together. We told the Pesach story, which the kids acted out with gusto (if not always with total comprehension.) Then we handed out wooden spoons and feathers to our littlest kids. We made a blessing together. And they went on a scavenger hunt, searching the building, calling out in excitement when they found what we'd hidden.

The chametz all went into brown paper bags, which in turn went onto the synagogue's barbecue grill along with our lulavim from last fall -- the bundles of myrtle, willow, and palm fronds which we ritually shook in the sukkah every day. And then we lit them afire.

This is a ritual called bedikat chametz. It originates in the Mishna, in tractate Pesachim. I've been reading about it for years at my first-night seder, when it is our family custom to read Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb's poem "Spring Cleaning Ritual on the Eve of the Full Moon Nisan."

On the eve of the full moon
we search our houses
by the light of a candle
for the last trace of winter
for the last crumbs grown stale inside us
for the last darkness still in our hearts...

Literally, of course, chametz means leaven. It comes from the root l'chimutz, to sour or ferment, and we cleanse our homes of it at this season because during the week of Passover we eat matzah instead, the humble waybread of the journey. But metaphorically chametz can mean the puffery of ego and vanity; it can mean the old sourness we've been fermenting in our hearts and spirits over the last year; it can mean whatever we need to let go of, in order to move through the birthing waters of the Sea of Reeds and into freedom.

As we burned the lulav fronds and the crumbs, I was thinking:

All that rises up bitter
All that rises up prideful
All that rises up in old ways no longer fruitful
All Hametz still in my possession
but unknown to me
which I have not seen
nor disposed of
may it find common grave
with the dust of the earth
amen amen
selah...

"All chametz still in my possession but unknown to me..." -- that's the traditional close to the ritual of bedikat chametz. Whatever we haven't found and rooted-out -- in our households, in our hearts -- we declare it to be ownerless, no longer ours, one with the dust of the earth. At a certain point we have to accept that we've done the best we can. The festival is coming tomorrow night, and however clean we've managed to make our houses -- however we've managed to refine our souls in preparation for the holiday -- has to be enough.

As we were burning our palms from last autumn's sukkah, our Christian friends were celebrating Palm Sunday. As I understand it, some of their leftover palms will be saved and burned to ash next winter, to mark foreheads on Ash Wednesday. I don't have deep wisdom to offer about this calendrical connection, but I think it's neat the way we link our fall festival with our spring one this way -- and they in turn link their spring festival with the following winter.

 All that rises up bitter / All that rises up prideful / All that rises up in old ways no longer fruitful...

May I really be able to shed old bitterness, old pride, old habits which no longer serve. So that I can move into Pesach with a light soul and an open heart. So that I can lead my family, and my congregation, along that path with me. So that this can truly be the season of liberation -- including liberation from the husks of old attitudes and prejudices, old unkindnesses, old ways of being in the world.

 

If you want to do bedikat chametz, here's a short ritual: the aforementioned poem, plus the blessing before and after the leaven hunt: Bedikat Chametz [pdf] I made it a few years ago, so the date of the first seder is wrong, but otherwise everything about it still works.


Four eclipses; four worlds; four holidays; four holy perspective shifts

A Jewish Renewal perspective on the tetrad of lunar eclipses, by rabbinic student David Markus and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.

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We in North America are about to experience four total lunar eclipses in a row which, incredibly, will coincide with Pesach (15 April in 2014, 4 April in 2015) and Sukkot (8 October in 2014 and 28 September in 2015). In 2014 and 2015, the full moon marking these festival times will be eclipsed at the moments of perhaps the greatest joy in the Jewish calendar – at Pesach, when we experience freedom from the Narrow Place, and at Sukkot, when we enter with thanksgiving into our fragile and impermanent harvest houses.

Jewish mystics link the moon with Shekhinah, immanent and indwelling Presence of God manifest in creation. Many Hasidic teachings depict hester panim, the hiding or withdrawal of God's presence from us. In every life, we experience alternating phases of God's presence and God's (apparent) absence -- but just as the moon remains present even during its eclipse, so God's presence remains even when S/He may seem veiled in shadow.

Beyond mere veiling, a lunar eclipse invites a shift in spiritual perspective.  If we were on the moon looking at Earth during these eclipses, we would see the Earth silhouetted in the sun's fire.  Standing on the moon's surface, we would look up at the Earth and witness sunrise and sunset happening simultaneously, everywhere, along the Earth's shadowed rim.  It is the red of the Earthly sunset that we Earthlings see projected onto the moon at the time of a total lunar eclipse.

Lunar eclipses thus invite us to lift grandly above habitual ways of seeing.  Reb Zalman taught that once humanity could see the Earth as a swirled green-blue marble suspended in space, a paradigm shift occurred.  A door opened for us to see ourselves as cells in the cosmic organism of our planet, without artificial borders and boundaries that appear to divide us.  Lunar eclipses call us toward that global vantage.  Lunar eclipses project onto the moon the timeless reality that sunrise and sunset – shifts of awareness between light and dark – are unfolding at every moment.  Usually this truth of nature (and spiritual life) escapes our day-to-day awareness.  A lunar eclipse, however, visibly projects this truth onto our cosmic symbol for Shekhinah, the indwelling divine presence. A lunar eclipse thus reminds us that with God is our power, and our calling, to lift our consciousness beyond the narrowness of place and boundary. 

That lunar eclipses coincide with our biannual festivals for two consecutive years invites especially profound opportunities.  At Passover, season of our liberation, we leave behind the constrictions of slavery and limited insight.  At the Passover eclipses, we can look up and see the ultimate natural image of liminality and change projected onto the springtime full moon.  So too at Sukkot, season of our joy and gratitude, we leave behind old calcified patterns and emerge into deep truths of impermanence. At the Sukkot eclipses, we can gaze at the fall harvest moon and see the ultimate natural image of global interconnectedness reflected on the face of Shekhinah.

At these festival times, traditional liturgy includes Hallel, songs of praise drawn from the Psalms. At the time of these festival lunar eclipses, how amazing to proclaim the Psalmist's joyous words of unity and higher perspective:

רָם עַל-כָּל-גּוֹיִם ה׳ עַל הַשָּׁמַיִם כְּבוֹדוֹ
מִי כַּה׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ הַמַּגְבִּיהִי לָשָׁבֶת
הַמַּשְׁפִּילִי לִרְאוֹת בַּשָּׁמַיִם וּבָאָרֶץ

God is high above all nations: God's glory is above the heavens.
Who is like YHVH our God, enthroned on high,
Looking down low on heaven and earth?

-- Ps. 113:4-6

These eclipses are ultimate expressions of natural liminality reflected onto our Jewish calendar.  At Pesach we stop saying the prayer for rain and begin saying the prayer for dew; at the end of Sukkot, we switch back the other way.  These festivals are liminal moments, as are sunrise and sunset. During these eclipses we'll see liminality projected onto Shekhinah at the very moments that we ourselves are liminal, sanctifying transitions from one state of being into another. 

And with four total lunar eclipses back to back, every six months, timed perfectly to our holiday calendar and seasonal shifts, we have four chances to experience this grandeur -- one lunar eclipse for each of the four worlds of action, emotion, thought, and spirit.  One lunar eclipse for each of the four letters in the Shem HaMeforash, the unpronounceable Name we denote as YHVH.  Four festival opportunities to deepen our amazement and wonder gazing into the night sky. Four festival moments of liberation and gratitude unlike any that we have known before.

Chag sameach / Happy Holidays.


Daily April poem: a Pesach sestina for #blogExodus

ALWAYS MORE TO LEARN



BlogexodusIt's time to unearth the haggadot again.
Scour the countertops before the night
we'll gather around the table, all
ears to hear the story our people tell:
once were slaves, now we're free -- that's why
the songs and foods and prayers: come and learn.

The sages say there's always more to learn
even if you're wise, discerning, have studied again
the details of the Exodus, even why
Akiva and his fellows stayed up all night.
Explain matzah, maror, paschal lamb. Tell
your children on that day, our ancestors all

were lifted up, and not them alone, but all
the generations to come, including ours. Learn
the lessons this tale comes to teach. Tell
yourself: if you're in that narrow place again
there's always hope for better. Tonight
we sing the story that makes us who we are, why

this night is different: why matzah, why
we recline, eat bitter, dip parsley in tears, all
the customs of the seder night.
The orange on the plate, to help us learn
all have a seat at the table. Now again
we make the tale our own, tell

old truths in new metaphors. It's a tell:
do you feel for the Wicked Son? (Why
does he get the bad rap for asking, again?)
Or the Good Son, memorizing all
the halakhot of Pesach: will you learn
with love as he did? Or maybe tonight

you feel like the Simple Son: "this night,
why is it special?" And you shall tell
your child on that night -- listen and learn,
the "you" is feminine, mama's job to explain why --
it's because of what God did for me, for all
of us, bringing us out of slavery again.

Seder night with One Who doesn't yet ask why:
tell that child what you cherish, all
the stories we learn, transform, repeat again.


Today's #blogExodus prompt is "learn." I thought it would be fun to write a sestina about the themes of learning, repetition, asking and telling which are so integral to Pesach.

The poem references a number of things which are in the traditional haggadah, among them the story of Akiva and his fellows staying up all night until the bedtime shema, the Four Sons, "we were slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt," "You shall tell your child on that day..." and "even if we were all wise, discerning, learned, scholars of Torah..." -- the passage which reminds us that no matter how much we think we know about Pesach and the story of the Exodus there's always more to learn.

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