Monday, March 26, 2012

#BlogExodus, Nisan 3: Learning and Teaching

As we sit down at our Seder tables this year we repeat, as we do every year, the words that remind us that it is important for us to remember the exodus from Egypt as if we, ourselves, experienced it.  

The haggadah tells us that we have to find a way to make the experience of gaining freedom from slavery come alive for each and every generation.  This is not only to ensure that we don’t forget our heritage and our story; it is also because some of the early generations of Rabbis who crafted this ritual understood that the way Jews related to this story in one generation or in one era would be different to the ways that it worked for Jews of another time.

So, when we think about the Seder as an opportunity for learning and teaching, I'd like to suggest that we set aside some of our normative assumptions.  As we think about how to conduct our Seder, we might usually assume that it is any children or youth at the table that are doing the learning, and it is the adults doing the teaching.  In families that still conduct the Seder with a 'head of the family' running things, the flow of information is more likely to be one-way.  But we need to make space for younger generations to teach as well as to learn; to not only ask questions but also to provide answers.  Doing so provides an opportunity for them to relate to the deeper learning that comes from re-experiencing the journey from slavery to freedom in ways that work for today's generation.
The meaning and the purpose of Passover has changed over the centuries – it fulfilled a different need for us at different times.  Once it was an agricultural celebration.  At other times it was a story of hope when we were oppressed and discriminated against.  In the last generation in the USA it became a vehicle for Jews now living freely to speak about their obligations to help free others from their shackles, giving birth to Haggadot that focused on civil rights, women’s rights, the environment, and more.

What will Passover mean for the next generation? What ‘job’ will it do that adds significant meaning to their lives? It might have something to do with autonomy or the ability to feel like they can still make a difference in an era of powerful corporations and the undue influence of money.  It might be the freedom to make different kinds of lifestyle choices.  It might mean a psycho-spiritual kind of freedom that comes from within.  We don’t know what the next generation will dream. If we want them to imagine that it is they, themselves who are leaving the slavery of Egypt, we need to ask them what that means to them.

You can do this with children of any age, but I especially encourage those with teenagers or young adults at their Passover table this year to ask the question, as I will doing this year at my Seder.  I am confident that your Seder will be transformed into an interesting and important conversation, and I’d love to hear what you learn from our next generations.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

#BlogExodus, Nisan 2; Chametz - the good & bad of leavened bread

This is day 2 of #BlogExodus, and our theme is Chametz - the term that refers to leavened foods - the opposite of matzah (unleavened bread).  The Torah commands that, as part of our observance of Passover, we remove all chametz from our homes and refrain from eating it for the duration of the festival.

As is the case with so many of our Jewish rituals, we have many layers of interpretation that we can delve into from across the centuries to explore the practical and symbolic meaning of chametz and the importance of its absence during this holiday.

In the symbolic arena, many have referred to chametz as a sign of puffed-up ego, or yetzer hara  more generally.  Yetzer hara  is usually translated as 'evil inclination', but that gives a strong impression of something negative that we must rid ourselves of.  The problem is, we are allowed to eat chametz for the other 358 days of the year.  So it doesn't make a lot of sense, even symbolically, to assign chametz a meaning that is 'bad.'  In some of the earliest collections of rabbinic midrashim we find acknowledgments that yetzer hara is better understood as will or desire.  We all need it in healthy doses - without it we would not create anything, make love, enjoy food etc. But, as with all things in life, we need balance - too much yetzer hara isn't good for us or for our society.  Just as too much leavening makes for a sour taste when we bake bread, so too much yetzer hara turns everything we do sour.

Nevertheless, why do we have to rid ourselves of it completely for Pesach?  On a less symbolic level, some have suggested that, like the unleavened cakes that were part of the Temple offerings in ancient times, each of us turn our homes into mini-Temples.  We don't do the Pascal lamb sacrifice at the Temple any more, but our homes have become the new location for the rituals that we do to celebrate the holiday. So our homes are now sanctuaries for increasing our awareness of God's presence, just as the Temple that once stood in Jerusalem was where everyone was expected to go for the major holidays, because the intensity of God-awareness was greatest when everyone focused on one special place.

Back to the symbolic level again, I recognize that full freedom comes not only from the social and political environment we might live in, but from an inner state that requires trust and faith, and which I am more aware of when I participate in rituals or actions that make me more God-conscious.  Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught that it was not that the unleavened bread was holy and the leavened bread was absent of holiness; rather that the puffed-up nature of leavened bread represented a world where the inner essential holy sparks of all things can be disguised by the complexities of the material world.  That is the world that we live in.  But perhaps we become more adept at navigating our way through that material world if we can take a week to strip away some of the extraneous things, simplify our subsistence, and look for the inner essence within ourselves and others.

In today's world, we often lose sight of the opportunity that Pesach gives us to simplify - we go overboard with seeking out 'kosher for Pesach' foods that we truly do not need to sustain us for 1 week.  How ironic that we have symbolically turned an entire category of 'appropriate for Pesach' foods into a kind of spiritual chametz - it gets in the way of the task that Pesach is designed to help us do spiritually.

So this year, perhaps take more time to think of the symbolic and spiritual meaning of chametz and use this as a guide to figure out what to throw out and what to buy in preparing for the Passover holiday.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Saturday, March 24, 2012

#BlogExodus, Nisan 1: From the narrow places I call

Tonight is Rosh Hodesh Nisan, the beginning of the first month of the year.  Yes, I know, its confusing - isn't Rosh Hashanah - the Jewish New Year that usually falls sometime in September - the start of the year?  Well, yes, that is the Jewish New Year, but Rosh Hashanah actually falls on the 1st day of the 7th month.  Because Jewish holy days were tied to the seasons long before our people superimposed historical and mythical layers to add to their meaning, it also makes sense that we would arrive at the beginning of the 1st month right after we announced the 1st day of Spring.  New life, new buds, new flowers appearing on earth - the sense of a new cycle beginning again.

This month I'm joining Rabbi Phyllis Sommer, along with many others, in #BlogExodus (that's how you'll search for others on Twitter who might have posted blogs as part of the project).  Together, we'll cover the days between the 1st and 14th of Nisan, leading up to Pesach.
Today's theme is the narrow places of Mitzrayim (Egypt).  As part of the Hallel (selection of psalms we sing on holidays and as part of the Passover Seder) we find the lines, min hameitzar karati Yah, anani va-merchav Yah.  From the narrow places I called out to God; God answered me expansively. (Ps. 118)

The first time I heard and learned the melody to these verses was with Debbie Friedman, z'l, at a Healing service in Westchester.  I don't quite recall, but it may well have been only the second time that I attended one of these services, and it was the month leading up to Pesach.  You can hear an excerpt of Debbie singing Min Hameitzar from 'The Journey Continues' album here.

I remember back to that time in my life.  I was not sick, but I had recently left the UK for a nine month stay at Elat Chayyim the transdenominational Jewish retreat center.  I was a bit home-sick, but it was also one of the most important periods of my life, in my mid-20s.  Looking back, I see that it was my soul that was aching - I was struggling internally with my sense of who I was and how to live my life.  I guess its the kind of angst familiar to many at that stage of life.  But it was a kind of spiritual mitzrayim - a narrow strait.  Debbie sang that song with a yearning in her voice - perhaps calling out from her own mitzrayim - and i felt some of the restraints that were holding me back start to break apart.  It was the beginning of my own journey through the wilderness to my Promised Land.

When I introduce the Mi Shebeirach prayer for healing during a service, I always invite my congregation to think of those in need of healing, 'whether healing of body or healing of spirit.'  I know that most people's minds turn immediately to those that they know who are physically ailing.  But Debbie taught us that we all need healing of spirit.  There is not one of us in this world who is so complete that we have no rough edges, no broken shards, or tender hearts, from some emotional or spiritual aching.  Each one of us can identify the mitzrayim that we live in, or have experienced at some time in our lives.

We begin the journey by calling out from that place - the narrow straits.  The ability to perceive expansiveness, to see that there is a path forward that can release us from the places we feel stuck in our lives, in our sense of self, in our sense of possibility ... the miracle is that the mere act of calling out can create the opening.  Just as the Hebrews in slavery had to call out before God heard and responded to their suffering.

Last week, we welcomed approx. 130 women, men and youth at our Women's Seder, dedicated to Debbie's memory, and led by the incredibly gifted and soulful Julie Silver.  It was a real honor to lead the Seder with Julie, accompanied by Carole Rivel, who accompanied Debbie in so many of the healing services and Women's Seders that she led for many years.  We all carry Debbie in our hearts, and her legacy lives on when we teach in her name, inspired by what she taught us.  She will forever remain as one of my greatest teachers.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The Book of Purim (ding dong!)

Its that time of year again... welcome to Adar!  The first Purim shpiel to hit my facebook page this year that had me laughing out loud was courtesy of the 1st year class at Hebrew Union College, on the Jerusalem campus.  I haven't seen the Broadway musical, 'The Book of Mormon' yet, but you don't have to know the show to enjoy this production.
Happy almost Purim!
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz