Friday, March 30, 2012

Pesach: Affliction and Freedom

Sometimes our strengths and weaknesses can be one and the same.

Carl Jung famously noted that the adaptions that we make in childhood stop working in middle age. The resources and character traits that we tend to draw upon as strengths over the course of the first half of our lives can become obstacles holding us back as we grow older. Beliefs and actions that were once liberating can come to enslave us. At the same time, that which binds us can, when re-framed, become a path to new creativity and freedom. Our challenge is to re-orient ourselves, to let go of tried and true ways and take out—or create—new maps. This is one of life’s most difficult passages, for change rarely comes easily. It is hard for us to recognize when our former assets have become liabilities and we must embrace our vulnerabilities as a path to new strengths.

The Passover seder—and the portion for this Shabbat, which marks the first day of Pesach—points to this paradox at the heart of things. In Exodus 12:39, we read that we eat matzah because, upon leaving Egypt, our ancestors moved so hastily they did not have time for their dough to rise. Yet, in fact, those same ancestors actually consumed matzah before leaving Egypt, on the night of the Passover itself, at the first seder (see Exodus 12:8). In other words, matzah is both the bread of slavery and of freedom. We affirm this duality at our own seders, describing matzah as both lachma anya—the bread of affliction—and the symbol of our liberation.

One of my teachers in Israel, Biti Roi, once told me: “Either/or” is only for math. Life is about “both/and.” That which is a source of deliverance can come to enslave us. And that which has kept us in bondage—our fears and anxieties—can become sources of hope.

As we celebrate spring and Pesach and their message of renewal, may our bread of affliction become a feast of freedom.

Chag samayach v’kasher—a joyous and kosher celebration.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Shabbat HaChodesh--How to Spice Up Your Seder

In every generation, it is incumbent upon us to see ourselves as if we went out of Egypt


This Shabbat marks the beginning of Nisan, the month of our liberation from Egypt. That means Pesach is just around the corner. In that spirit, I’d like to offer a few suggestions on how to spice up your seder this year. My fundamental assumption as I approach this sacred event is that the seder is NOT about remembering something our ancestors did. It is about EXPERIENCING the journey from Mitzrayim—our own Egypts, our own “stuck” places of narrowness—to liberation in our own lives. With that in mind:

  1. Before the seder, contact all of your guests. Ask them to choose one question that they think it is important to discuss at seder this year and email it back to you. As host, print out all of the responses, without names. Then be sure to cover them in your seder.

  1. Start your seder someplace outside of dining room. Sit on pillows in a relaxed setting. Don’t go to the table until it is actually meal time. This will diminish the whining, “Can we eat yet?”

  1. In that same spirit, make a mini-meal out of the greens or karpas. Instead of just dipping parsley, set out pickles, olives, artichokes, and more—a whole antipasto that will take the edge off everyone’s hunger.

  1. If you have a diverse crowd of guests, you might sometimes divide into small groups, for separate activities and discussions. This can, among other things, allow those with younger children to focus on activities that will maintain their interest.

  1. The Talmud teaches that for centuries, before the Four Questions were scripted, they were meant to be raised spontaneously. The kids were supposed to see all the different dining customs taking place at their table and, on their own, ask “why”. In this spirit, if you are leading a seder, be spontaneous and flexible and creative, rather than sticking slavishly to the “script.” It is all about freedom.

  1. To encourage people to ask questions, toss pieces of candy to anyone who asks (or answers) a good question. I’ve done this for years and it never fails.

  1. When people do start complaining, “When do we eat?”—recognize that this is not new. It is, in fact, part of the Exodus experience, as people complained about food the entire forty years of wandering in the wilderness. The grumbling inevitably happens in the seder because the grumbling is a part of the bigger story, in the event itself.

  1. Use drama to re-create events and experiences. Try re-living the exodus. Let people play Moses or Miriam or Elijah. Or set out a bunch of items (flashlight, I-pod, can of tuna fish—whatever strikes your fancy) and ask people which they would take if they had to leave Egypt in a hurry and could only bring one or two.

  1. Encourage art. Put out crayons or paper and glue sticks, etc. Let people create their own artistic signatures of the journey.

10. And this is the most important of all: have fun! It is good to be free!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Exile and Redemption (Portion Vayakhel-Pekudei)

The English name for the second book of the Torah is, of course, Exodus. This seems like an apt title for the first third of that text, which recounts our liberation from Egyptian slavery. Yet in reality, most of Exodus is not about the exodus. Once we cross the Red Sea, the emphasis shifts, first to our receiving Torah at Mount Sinai, and then—for the last third of the book, which we conclude this week –to the details around the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that we will carry throughout our wanderings.

Is there a thematic link between these seemingly disparate sections of Exodus? The medieval commentator, Nachmanides believed so. He writes: “The unifying theme of the book of Exodus is redemption from exile, both physical and spiritual.” For Nachmanides, our release from physical servitude comes with the exodus from Egypt, but our spiritual liberation does not arrive until we receive the Torah and then welcome God’s presence made manifest in the mishkan.

This interpretation has a timely parallel in the Passover haggadah. Two thousand years ago, two great sages disagreed about the nature of the seder’s central narrative. Shmuel said, “Start with ‘we were slaves in Egypt’ and move from physical enslavement to political liberation. Rav countered, “Start with Abraham’s father, Terach, and the state of idolatry (spiritual servitude) to which we had descended, and move to our acceptance of divine service.” Of course, in good Talmudic fashion, the haggadah resolves this dispute by including both stories.

This week—as we finish the multi-faceted book of Exodus in the double portion, Vayakhel-Pekudei—we might well consider both sorts of exile, physical and spiritual. Let us ask ourselves: what holds us back from reaching our goals, individual and communal? What are the external challenges? And which obstacles lie within ourselves?

In the coming weeks, as we focus on our Pesach cleaning and preparation, may we begin to find liberation from all that binds us.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

God's Back (Portion Ki Tisa)

As any historian knows, oftentimes we can only understand the significance of critical events with the perspective lent by hindsight. Only after such events have receded into the past can we begin to see them clearly. As they are happening—and in their immediate aftermath—they loom too large for us to hold them in our line of vision.

Perhaps, suggests this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, we experience God in much the same way.

After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses wonders if God has abandoned the Israelites. In his time of doubt and despair, dearly longing for reassurance and renewed faith, Moses asks to see God’s face. God replies: “See, there is a place by Me. Station yourself on the rock and as My Presence passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and shield you with My hand until I have passed by. Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but my face must not be seen.”

What on earth does this mean? Since we Jews do not believe that God has a body—and thus, on a literal level, She has neither a face nor a back—Torah must be speaking metaphorically. Drawing on a teaching of the nineteenth century teacher, Hatam Sofer, Rabbi Harold Kushner writes: “We cannot see God directly. We can only see the difference that God has made after the fact. We can recognize God’s reality by seeing the difference God has made in people’s lives.”

During difficult times in my own life, one of my spiritual guides, Rabbi Amy Eilberg would commonly advise me to ponder: “What is God asking of me?” Very often, even after a great deal of consideration, I would honestly respond, “I have no idea.”

Then—weeks or months or even years later—I might stumble unexpectedly upon an answer. Like Jacob, I would realize that God was, in fact, there, asking something significant of me, all along—only I did not know it. I could not see it until well after the fact. God’s face was off beyond my capacity to see, but I was sometimes lucky enough to get a passing glimpse, as it were, of God’s back.

I hasten to add: I do not believe that everything happens for a reason, or that God determines all that occurs in our lives. My God is not All-Powerful; my world contains significant elements of chaos and randomness, some of which turn out for the better and some for the worse. I know that life is not fair. I would never suggest that anyone’s suffering—including my own—is, with proper perspective, a life lesson sent by God. Indeed, I find this view appalling.

But I do believe that sometimes blessings and genuine life lessons can only emerge with time and perspective, and that God is best seen with the benefit of hindsight. We cannot become adults until we learn to delay gratification, in matters spiritual as well as material. If we demand to see God’s face, here and now, we set ourselves up for disillusionment and deep disappointment. But if we train ourselves to wait, with open hearts and minds, then we, like Moses, may catch passing glimpses of divinity from our patient, rocky perches.