Thursday, March 21, 2013

On Passover and Togetherness

I think the theme of Passover is togetherness.

According to the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:1), one should not eat on the afternoon before Passover. In fact, the Mishnah says, even the poorest person in Israel should not eat then. It goes on to say that once we arrive at the Seder even the poor should be provided with a full four cups of wine.

Why don’t we eat on the afternoon before the Seder? The Mishnah hints at the reason through its discussion of the poor --- the point is to feel the everyday suffering of the poor, to create a situation where all of Israel joins in the suffering of the hungry for one afternoon. We begin our Seder hungry – all of us, the wealthy, the poor, the fortunate and the unfortunate – as a way of indicating that we are all in this together. No one suffers alone on this night. We suffer together.

By the same token, when it comes to the wine, to rejoicing and celebration, no one should be left out either. The Talmud points out that normally poor people may have some resistance to accepting help, and would prefer to dine simply rather than accept charity. Not so on Passover, the Talmud ordains. On Passover, everyone must be equally well-dined – with a full 4 cups of wine -- and if this requires charity, so be it. Just as we suffer together, so we celebrate together. Today we are all poor, today we are all slaves, and today we are also all wealthy, also all free. Today we are together.

Perhaps that sense of connectedness is true freedom. We speak of being brought out of Mitzrayim, literally, “the narrow spaces.” What is narrower, more constraining than the confines of the individual self, the ego that holds us separate from others? Today we declare ourselves free of such confines, today we suffer together, and today we celebrate together. On Rosh HaShanah the world was created and human beings are born as individuals, but on Passover, the nation – the notion of a collective identity – is born. Today we celebrate togetherness.

This is a broad notion of togetherness, as broad as the straits of “Mitzrayim” are narrow – it stretches out not just horizontally, but also vertically – throughout time. Again and again, we say bekhol dor vador, “In every generation.” The Haggadah is a patchwork of voices from different eras of Jewish history. We go all the way back to Egypt in our suffering, but we can’t help but also think of the Crusades, pogroms, the Holocaust. This is a moment of connections across time and space.

And this togetherness strengthens us. Suffering alone is slavery. Suffering together marks the beginning of redemption and freedom, so that when we enter the celebratory side of the holiday, and the celebratory side of history, we do it together.

On Passover: From Shame to Praise?

“He begins with shame and concludes with praise.” That is how the Mishnah describes the movement of the Haggadah, from shame – the shame of slavery and idolatry-- to praise – praising God for redeeming us from slavery and for providing us with a new religious structure.

From shame to praise. There is something unequal about this dichotomy. The opposite of shame is not praise, but pride. The Sefat Emet must have been picking up on this in his comment to this phrase: “He who wants to talk about shame, should shame himself, and he who wants to praise, should praise the Creator.” Shame and praise are indeed not on the same continuum. They have different subjects. The subject of shame is humanity. The subject of praise is God.

The movement of the Passover Haggadah, then, is not just a movement from slavery to freedom, from a humble state to an exalted one, from national shame to national pride. No, the movement is from one scheme, one way of thinking about things to a totally different one, from a human-centered perspective to a God-centered one.

Both shame and pride are problematic. They are two sides of the same coin – the coin that claims that it’s all about us and our egos, that we should reflect on our own worth based on what happens to us, how people treat us or even what we achieve in the world.

On Passover we declare a freedom from such self-referential thinking. It is not about shame or pride or any other ego-driven emotion. The point is to let go of self, of ego, and simply praise God – feel the smallness of our selves and the largeness of the world and the One who created it. Such a movement is indeed a movement from the constriction of Mitzrayim, the narrow straits of ego, to a broader space. Praise is nothing if not large. That is the feeling of the song of Dayenu – we well up with praise like fruit out of a cornucopia -- we are so blessed, so grateful -- there is no limit. This is the feeling we are working toward. We end the Seder with the prayer, Nishmat – the ultimate expression of limitless gratitude. “If our lips were full of song like the sea, . . . we could not express the full measure of our gratitude.”

From shame to praise. From self-reference to God-reference. From a constricted place to a broad place of open seas and flying eagles. May we be open to it.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

On Passover and Vayikra: Clearing the Way

Sometimes it feels like there is a huge amount of junk blocking the truth in our minds and our souls. There is a restless swirl of things to do, worries, and ego protections constantly flooding the brain, leaving no space for the stillness of truth, the divine, eternity.

The way forward requires clearing the path. The Piasetzner Rebbe taught a technique for sensing the divine which is called hashkatah, “quieting.” It involves a gradual clearing of the brain until it lies quiet and unperturbed, and then is ready for a single holy thought. I imagine my mind as a box full of junk and I imagine myself throwing out pieces, one after another, until the box sits empty, open to being filled from above.

That is what we are doing now in preparing for Passover – emptying our cabinets to make room for something fresh and pure. The principal task of preparing for a divine encounter is a removal of obstacles. Hametz symbolizes such obstacles – the things that slow us down normally, that occupy our time like the process of bread-baking, the process of puffing ourselves up, creating an image of ourselves that is large and expansive.

But on Passover we shrink down, we empty out, and we therefore open up to something, become, as the Hasidic masters say, a kli, an open vessel for divine overflow.

This week’s parsha, Vayikra, deals with korbanot, a word that is translated as “sacrifices” but also means “things that bring you karov, close.” Perhaps what brings you close – to God, to truth, to a web of connectedness -- are precisely sacrifices – things that you give up about yourself in order to become open to something else. There has to be some shedding of self, of the klipah, the “outer shell,” to make room for others and for Another.

Last week’s parsha ended with the statement that Moshe was not able to come into the Tent of Meeting when the cloud of God’s presence covered it, and this week’s parsha begins with God’s call to Moshe to come in --- Vayikra el Moshe. The Sefat Emet says that the two are linked -- Moshe’s humility in last week’s parsha, his ability to step backward, to put himself behind the scenes, was precisely what brought him close enough to have God invite him inside in this week’s parsha. Like the way we start our Amidah prayer, a step backwards, a shedding of self, is required before the next step forward.

As we prepare for Passover, we, too, take a step back, shed something, go back to some simple essential self. Maybe we can throw out, along with the crackers, some of the clutter in our heads that blocks the way to closer connections -- to our family and friends at the Seder, and to the Eternal Presence that provides redemption in every generation.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Parashat Vaykhel-Pekudei: On Generosity and Gratitude

How do you turn complainers into active participating members of a community? Create a space for them to give. People like to give, like to be part of things. The very same Israelites who complain incessantly throughout their years in the desert -- we don’t have enough water and food, we want watermelon and meat – those same Israelites jump over one another to bring precious metals and stones and fabrics and their own creativity and expertise to the building of the Tabernacle here in our parsha. People actually want to give – it makes us feel good to be part of something larger than ourselves.

When we are giving, we don’t complain. Giving makes us feel rich and generous. There is bounty – the Israelites gave dayam ve’hoter, “enough and even more.” One can sense the excitement in the air – the whole community was rallying around this one project, each person contributing in her own way, feeling needed and a part of things. People want and need a communal space to bring their material wealth, their talents, and also their hearts (the Torah emphasizes again and again that the contributors were moved by the upsurging of their hearts – me’et kol ish asher nesa’o libo).

The Golden Calf was also a communal giving project, and it proved the need for such a project and the people’s willingness to give to it. Aaron said – get gold, and two second later, presto, there was enough gold to make a calf. People want to give. But to what end? The Golden Calf was simply a glorification of the gold itself – a celebration of the people’s egos – look at how beautiful our gold looks!

But the Tabernacle takes giving to another level. It creates a space where the giving that is done is in the service of God, and so becomes a way to acknowledge our appreciation of and our continued dependence on God. It creates a space where generosity is linked to gratitude. Generosity is easier for us than gratitude, because when we give, we feel good about ourselves, whereas gratitude involves a retreat of the ego, an admission that we are not self-contained, but very much dependent on others. The Tabernacle is where generosity and gratitude meet – where one can turn the natural inclination to want to give and participate not into a glorification of the self but into an acknowledgement of the self’s limitations, its interdependence on others and the Other.

Shabbat again helps to create this balance, to ensure that the contributions – the gold we give and the tapestries we weave in this world – are not ultimately aimed at self-glorification, but are tempered, even fueled, by an awareness that God created the world and us.