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When the first Passover Seder took place, Israelites were instructed to close themselves into their houses and protect themselves with a ritual of dabbing the blood of the Paschal lamb on their door. They stood at high alert, staff in hand and sandals on their feet as they consumed the required meal of unleavened bread, bitter herbs and the roasted meat of the lamb. They were ready to leave Egypt behind and with it their confinement. And all the while, it is unavoidable to say, they waited out the ravages of the tenth plague safe behind their walls marked with the sign that they may be passed over.
Yes, we too are isolated with our households and likely to be so when Passover comes. But as tempting as it is to lean into the imagery of the plague, I do not want to do so. Because Covid19 is a terrible pandemic, but not a plague.
First of all, a plague is a punishment. The word that is used in Hebrew and the etymology of the English word plague both mean a blow that is struck. The Black Death, perhaps the most famous plague outside of the original ten, was also widely understood to be the work of an angry G*d. There are pockets of every faith that would find such an origin for the calamitous effects of Covid19. Still, by and large, those who find themselves in seclusion and trepidation do not see the virus as a Divine punishment.
The most dangerous part of associating Covid19 with the tenth, eleventh or any other Passover plague is not about the malady’s origin, but about our response. When the Israelites sequestered in their home and painted the blood on their door they did it to distinguish themselves from the rest of the households. The mark told the destroyer to move on by and find another home to devastate. To touch someone else.
When those of us fortunate enough to stay home with our loved ones do so, it is instead a recognition that there are no distinctions to the disease except our own age, health and other factors that are not points of identity. And we each know that whatever we do is not primarily for us, but for our neighbors and coworkers and others we do not know. We do not say to the invisible killer go get someone else, but to each other we are in this together, flattening a curve which commands us in a way more abstract, yet just as urgent as the One who told Moses and Aaron what was about to occur.
Our houses have no blood on the doorpost, neither for protection nor identification. Our meals are different, our fears and expectations vary, yet our prayers across faiths, beliefs, and doubts are almost the same. We await not a personal or communal salvation, but an all-clear for everyone.
As I imagine sitting at my Passover table with many fewer people in my house, but perhaps many more connected to us from theirs, I think about what we might do when we get to the part about the plagues that struck Egypt. As we take a drop of wine out for each in order to symbolize diminished joy, perhaps we will think also of those who have suffered and succumbed to Covid19. And we will recognize, please G*d, the blessing of being able to once more recount and relive the story of the Israelites and the meal they ate in haste awaiting redemption.
However, most poignant about having a Seder in a house closed off because of the threat of the coronavirus will be the unmistakable teaching that, unlike that midnight in Egypt we, all of us, are in this together
When we say the blessing over the first cup of wine we declare the holiness of this moment. This is the first step of the fifteen steps of the Seder. The very next step will be to wash in preparation for the green vegetable. But maybe we should wash before kadesh? Wouldn't it make sense to first preform the cleansing and then, in a state of readiness, declare the holiness of the day?
We learn from this order a profound truth: We are always ready for a holy moment. Not only when things are perfect, which they aren't, or even in good shape, which they aren't always. Holy is come as you are. Because each of us is holy, created in G*d's image. And each of our story is holy. Because our story plays a part in the story we tell tonight. The story of the Israelites breaking free from Egypt. And that story is part of the story of what it means to be human. And what it means to be holy.
By Rabbi Gavriel Goldfeder alternadox.net
Later on we will do ' rachtzah '─the washing over the matzah . Now we are doing ' urchatz ', which amounts to washing before eating a vegetable. This is not something we do every day.
To explain, Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first chief Rabbi of the State of Israel, writes of dividing life into two categories: the goal, and everything else. We set goals for ourselves and set out to reach them. Everything we do that helps us reach that goal is worthwhile. But how do we relate to all the other things we do? This is an important question that addresses how we feel about the aspects of our lives that our not essential. And this is one of the central points of the Seder.
What is the goal of the Seder? The peak spiritual moment of the Seder is when we fully absorb the spiritual impact of the matzah when we eat it. So why don't we cut to the chase? Let's get that matzah inside of us as quickly as possible! But the truth is, the Seder wants to help us experience every moment of our lives as an encounter with the Divine. It demands that we let go of our usual distinctions - important and unimportant, sacred and profane, good and bad, needs and wants.
Tonight, we are going to learn how to experience the Divine within all moments. Not only prayers and mitzvot, but also eating and conversation. Not only goals, but journeys. Finally free to let go of the reins for a moment, we can celebrate every moment equally. Not only will we recognize the holiness of the process, we will even sanctify ourselves toward this pursuit: urchatz.
R’ Kook deepens the concept for us: vegetables, in the Talmud, are thought to enhance hunger - 'appetizers'. If eating is an unfortunate concession we make to our animal nature, then vegetables are antithetical to the goal of living life more spiritually. But if eating is another opportunity for encounter with the Divine - if pleasure is an encounter with the Divine ─ then the vegetable we are about to eat is a holy sacrament, drawing us in to a moment of Encounter. So of course we should wash our hands to prepare ourselves.
Washing toward the matzah -goal and the vegetable-distractions represent two kinds of freedom: the first is freedom to live an intentional life. We celebrate our right and capacity to point ourselves in a specific direction and actually follow through. But there is another kind of freedom: freedom to let go, to know that wherever we go we will find Hashem and meaning and direction and connection. It is told that the Ba'al Shem Tov, the founder of Chassidut, when embarking on a journey, would have his coachman, Alexi, let go of the reins and sit backward, facing away from the horses. With the freedom to let go of the reins, we allow our desires to guide us as much we allow the Torah to guide us.
Rebbe Natan of Brelsov writes that ' urchatz ' is from the root-word in Aramaic that means 'trust'. At this moment in the Seder, pay closer attention to your capacity to trust and let go. The goal is to trust enough to sanctify aspects of yourself and the life you live that you never allowed yourself to see as holy. Can you trust the holiness of the night, the 'night of protection', to guard you from any negative impact of what's inside of you? Do you trust the people around this table, each of them looking at you tonight with holy Pesach-eyes, to be with you in your search for true freedom?
We have nothing to fear except holding back. We will never reach true freedom if we do not free our desires and appetites to be in service of the Divine.
As you wash, consider that you are preparing yourself for an encounter with something holy – your own desires! Use the washing as an opportunity to shift your perspective on those desires.
Eating the Karpas, the parsley or other vegetable, is a symbol of spring. Yet why the salt water? Why tears at this moment of renewal and celebration of life?
The rebirth of the Israelites, so crushed and reduced to dust by generations of slavery, required the revival of the dry wellsprings of their bodies no less than their souls. A midrash, rabbinic elaboration, teaches that when the men and women would return from the fields and brickyards weary and caked in mud there was scarcely energy to move, let alone to be moved by desire for each other. Yet one would show the other their reflection in a little mirror and say "I am more beautiful than you" and the other would be drawn in and respond "no I am more beautiful than you" and their bodies would awaken, flowing with love stronger than death.
Rebirth is not dry. The spring awakening symbolized by the karpas cannot be dry either. Salt water may taste a little bitter and too much salt will poison, but salt is also the source of life, the source of flavor. Not the strangely sterile idea of birth symbolized by a raw vegetable barely felt on the tongue, but the tanginess of life.
Returning to Egypt, when Pharaoh declared the boys be drowned in the waters of the Nile, Amram, the leader of the Israelite community told his people to separate from each other, to no longer come together to bring new children into the world just to have them drowned. Amram's daughter stood in her father's face and said "You are worse than Pharaoh! He has condemned the boys but you have condemned any future child." Amram relented and returned to his wife Yocheved. And their defiant daughter Miriam had a younger brother, Moses.
Miriam would help lead her people across the sea and become the keeper of the well of living water.
So salt water for the tears we cried. And salt water for the tears of birth.
In order to tell the story, the matza must be broken. In part because lechem oni is the bread of affliction it is fitting to eat this bread of poverty, broken. And in part because lechem oni is the bread of answers, the beginning of our search for new ways to tell the story. That searching can not be done unless there is a way to break out of our assumptions. A way to let in something new. Or, in the spirit of Leonard Cohen, to find "the crack... that lets the light get in"
Ha lachma anya is in the present tense. This, right now, is the bread of affliction. We are asked to invite others in need to come and join us. But why not go out and give others this bread? Why not send it to people in need or as a gift of food for our friends like we do on Purim? Here is a great paradox of Passover. , Although the Seder can be a blueprint for our concern with justice and liberation, the way we tell the story is not about taking action. Instead, the Passover story calks us to inviite, refkect, learn, teach, and give praise.
The haggadah does not tell our story as we might imagine it, beginning with slavery in Egypt and highlighting Moses and Miriam, the heroes of the Exodus. In fact the Haggadah does not mention them at all.
This ia story about what G*d for me. There are only two main players tonight. G*d, whose outstreched hand and mighty arm take the Israelites out of Egypt. And me, each one of us who must see ourselves as if it were us, as individuals that came forth from slavery to freedom.
On other nights, other days we will be the one's to act, to break chains, provide for those who hunger, and repair the world. Tonight we though we sit at our table. We invite all who are hungry to eat and all who hunger for justice, peace, and freedom to come join us.
The Passover telling kicks off with the famous four questions marking how this night is different. The youngest child traditionally poses the questions which, in fact, are not really questions but a four part statement. “How different this night is!” the child proclaims and then names some of these special foods and traditions.
The mah nishtana is part of a multipronged approach to keeping the children awake and alert for the story to come. In talmudic times there would also be nuts and parched kernels (think popcorn) to pique interest. At our seder we use marshmallows judiciously pelting anyone who “interrupts” to ask another question. Why make such a big deal to keep even the youngest child up late?
Rebbe Aryeh, the Zeide of Shpole taught that these customs are not only aimed at the children at the table but also the children within each of us, the children of Israel. We must stay awake as the night goes on, as the dark times continue and we are in danger of falling into despair. So on this night we do things to pay attention, we notice things and feed the part of us that can still wonder. That is still awake to possibilities.
The word nishtana - to be different - resembles the word for repeat and the word for learn. The Four Questions are an invitation to be aware of and to learn from everything, what is different on this night and what we expect to be part of every seder.
Especially this particular night when the differences are so great - maybe we have stayed inside for weeks and maybe we are not all around the same table and maybe theres a computer sitting next to the seder plate! But still on this night we are eating matza, having a bitter herb dipped in charoset, a vegetable dipped in salt water and, when we remember to, leaning over and somewhat awkwardly reminding ourselves that we eat in particular luxury. In every generation and every household there are things that are different, but what makes this night different from all other nights is how deeply we connect to what makes this night so special. And how this night reminds us not to sleep on the possibility that before long the night will give way to a new day.
Jordan Namerow is the author of this insightful application of the story of the four children to responding to a time of fear
The Wicked Child
I read the haggadah backwards this year
The sea opens,
the ancient Israelites slide back to Egypt
like Michael Jackson doing the moonwalk
Freedom to slavery
That’s the real story
One minute you’re dancing hallelujah,
shaking your hips to the j-j-jangle of the prophetesses’ tambourines,
the next you’re knee deep in brown muck
in the basement of some minor pyramid
The angel of death comes back to life
two zuzim are refunded.
When armies emerge from the sea like a returning scuba expedition
the Pharoah calls out for the towel boy.
The bread has plenty of time to rise.
I read the hagaddah backwards this year,
left a future Jerusalem,
scrubbed off the bloody doorposts,
wandered back to Aram.
The story does not begin with Egypt, but with Abraham, The Torah teaches
Arami oved avi translated “My father was a wandering Aramean” because before Abraham set
on his journey he lived in Padan Aram, the land that is today Syria, He left at G*d’s call to find a
land that was promised.
A Seder is a time to think about what it means to come from traditions that started with a prophet
who wandered. Who had to be a newcomer and a stranger, different from those around us.
When some of Abraham’s children went into Egypt and became slaves, they once more felt the
vulnerability of being stranger in a strange land. This time, however, they were made to be
slaves and put to backbreaking labor by a cruel Pharaoh. And then “With an outstretched arm and mighty hand, did G*d take them from bondage”
Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. from "Birth of a New Nation"
There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom. There is something deep down within the very soul of man that reaches out for Canaan. Men cannot be satisfied with Egypt. They tried to adjust to it for a while. Many men have vested interests in Egypt, and they are slow to leave. Egypt makes it profitable to them, some people profit by Egypt. The vast majority, the masses of people never profit by Egypt, and they are never content with it. And eventually they rise up and begin to cry out for Canaan’s land.
Rabbi Abraha Joshua Heschel "Religion and Race"
At the first conference on religion and race, the main participants were Pharaoh and Moses. Moses’ words were: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let My people go that they may celebrate a feast to Me.” While Pharaoh retorted: “Who is the Lord, that I should heed this voice and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord, and moreover I will not let Israel go.”
The outcome of that summit meeting has not come to an end. Pharaoh is not ready to capitulate. The exodus began, but is far from having been completed. In fact, it was easier for the children of Israel to cross the Red Sea than for a Negro to cross certain university campuses.
Let us dodge no issues. Let us yield no inch to bigotry, let us make no compromise with callousness.
During the Seder, while the plagues are being recited there is an easy to miss tradition. Not the taking out of a drop of wine as each plague is said, which can stand out as one of the most powerful moments in the story as we think about how our own celebration of freedom came with the suffering of others. But following that part, the traditional text tells is that one of the sages, Rabbi Yehuda used three words or actually just hebrew letter combinations that were used as mnemonics for the ten plagues. And as we say them, d'tzach, adash, bechav, we take one more drop for each. Why? First of all, why do we make such a big deal about these acronyms at this dramatic moment? And why is it necessary to take more drops out just for this mnemonic device?
I think one answer is actually quite impactful in the world we live in. The names of the plagues themselves, moving from the blood that ran through the Nile to the slaughter of the first born of every Egyptian household, evoke strong images. But the mnemonics are just letters strung together. They are easier to say, easier to remember and make it even easier to forget the devastation each wreaked. And that is the point. We say these letter combinations and take a drop of wine to remind us that even when we use other more anodyne words, euphemisms to describe the plagues it us on us to not let it get too easy.
G*d famously tells the angels who want to sing at the drowning the Egyptian army, that the death of G*d's creatures is an occasion to remember the preciousness of life. We have an angel eye view, able to watch from anywhere the stories of others, devastation from wars, and statistics that sketch the shape and curve of a global crisis. We have no capacity to truly alllow ourselves to feel the sorrow just as we never could truly lean into what even a drop of the suffering in Egypt is like. Certainly it was not covered by a single drop of wine.
Yet at this moment we stop to at least take that much. Ten for the plagues we name. And a few more to remind us not to hide behind terminology and statistics. A few drops to remind us of the depth of the troubled waters.
“Move beyond any attachment to
names. Every war and every conflict between
human beings has happened because of some
disagreement about names. It’s such an unnecessary foolishness,
because just beyond the arguing there’s a long table of companionship,
set and waiting for us to sit down.
What is praised is one, so the praise is
one too, many jugs being poured into a huge
basin. All religions, all this singing, one song.”
--Rabbi Menachem Creditor, Congregation Netivot Shalom, Berkeley, CA
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha’olam, asher kidshanu bemitvotav vetzivanu al netilat yadayim.
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה' אֱלֹֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶך הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדָיִּם.
Blessed are You ETERNAL our God, Master of time and space, who has sanctified us with commandments and instructed us regarding lifting up our hands.
Flour and water. Elastic and Cotton. Simple ingredients, common materials. What makes them special is the occasion and the urgency.When matzah is needed for Passover, then mixing flour and water and baking it properly within eighteen minutes from the time the flour becomes a holy action, irreplaceable by the fanciest breads or cakes.
When simple masks are needed to protect and even save lives then people who can sew suddenly are called to make them. Stitching fabric and elastic together becomes a holy act.
Responding to the call transforms what is simple and easy to find into what is precious and holy.
One of Passover’s differences from all other nights is that we lean at the table. There was a time when leaning was a particularly lavish way of having a meal, surrounded by servants or slaves feeding the guests as they reclined on their couches and ate their delicacies. This kind of occasion in the Ancient world could be an opportunity to discuss matters of state and philosophy. And so the connection to the Greek word symposium, meaning to recline together.
Perhaps the seder was the Rabbi’s version of a symposium on the story of the Exodus and the meaning of freedom. For a long time, however, the idea of leaning is more perfunctory, being particularly prescribed for certain moments in the seder, chiefly the drinking of wine and eating of matza and in some traditions the karpas as well. Notably, however, the maror, another of the central foods of the celebration, is not eaten while leaning.
At first glance, perhaps it is not surprising that we would not consume a symbol of bitterness in a position of luxury and leisure. However, the counter argument could be made. After all we lean as we eat matzah, the bread defined by the haste in which the Israelites ate on their last night as slaves. Is it any more a contradiction to combine leisure and urgency?
But the bitter herb is different. We must eat it to make sure we know what slavery meant. To remember that it was more than just constriction and being controlled, but was a life made bitter by the cruelty of taskmasters and the denial of dignity. We learn from the bitterness we face and that we recall facing. We respond to the great bitterness that many in the world feel. And we are, as human beings, drawn into the temptation of sinking into that bitterness. Not just swallowing maror, but allowing ourselves to be swallowed whole.
Instead, the Seder gives us the opportunity to partake of maror but not indulge in it. Even as we lean into other aspects and lessons of slavery. we do not lean into being the bitterness of our past.
Charoset is a strange symbol. Number one answer on the board for whywe eat it is to represent the mortar used to hold the bricks with which we were forced by Pharaoh to build his storehouses. Tangible, visceral connection to the back breaking deadly toil of slavery. But charoset is sweet. It has apples or dates, nuts, wine, ingredients evoking the sensual tastes and fragrances of the Song of Songs. We put it together on a sandwich with the maror to mitigate the bitterness. So how can mortar be something sweet.
And that is what makes charoset so meaningful. While much of the seder emphasizes how once we labored but now we are free. charoset is a reminder that freedom also comes with work. No one should live in complete leisure especially while others work as or as if they are slaves.
A nod to the way that work in the world should be fruitful for the worker themself, not a mode of slavery and drudgery.
One of the memorable parts of a seder is the hiding and finding of one of a piece of matza
known as the afikomen. There are different ways that this is done, but in general it is the
children who look for the piece and they are rewarded with a prize for finding it. The part that is
hidden is the bigger part of the matzah that is broken earlier. This is a reminder that there is
more to the world that we can’t see than that which we can. And sometimes to find it we have
to trust the children and the childlike part of all of us. So first we mighht have to find the child that is hidden before we can look for the Afikomen
Elijah is at the door. His cup is waiting.
"Why are you here, Elijah?"
He has heard this question before, a long time ago. Before he left the world but did not die.
"Why are you here, Elijah?"
He had just struck his greatest blow against idolatry. First humiliating then slaying hundreds of prophets of Baal. The fires of G*d had done his bidding and he had done the Lord's work with the edge of his sword.
"Why are you here, Elijah"
And then, having fled he hid in a cave and G*d asked:
"Why??? I have done Your work as Your people have denied Your Covenenat, Destroyed Your Altars, Slain your Prophets! I alone am left! Why????"
And then G*d had Elijah come forth from the cave and there was a great whirlwind and an awsome earthquake and fire once more from the Heavens. And G*d was not in the roaring wind, not in the quaking Earth, not in the fire. And then silence and the faintest, slightest voice.
"Why are you here, Elijah?"
That was the end of his career as a prophet of mountains and fire. The beginning of a new journey to hear the voice of the valley, the echo in the cave. He would leave the world carried by the storm but return to soft and invisible as the dew.
"Why are you here, Elijah"
To attend the rites of covenant and change. Marking moments of birth and transition. Bearing silent witness to the invisible G*d of the doorframe. Rustling just enough that we never know if we hear him or if it was just a gust of wind. So when we look out we can ask not Elijah, but ourselves.
"Why are you here?"
Even when the Jaffa gate is closed, the gates of prayer are open
Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower. I placed my two heavy baskets at my side.
A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker.
“You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.”
“But he’s moving, he’s moving!”
I said to myself: “redemption will come only if their guide tells them, ‘You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left down and a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.’”