Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Pesach: Celebrating both the Slavery and the Freedom

What seems strange about Pesach is that we actually commemorate the hardship as well as the redemption.

On Purim there are no sad symbols. We just feast and laugh. On Sukkot we sit out in our sukkahs and remember the protection God gave the Israelites in the desert and shake the lulav in celebration of a bountiful harvest. We don’t walk around in the heat to get a sense of the hardship of the desert. Tisha B’av is a day set aside to remember the tragedies.

But Pesach, what is unique about Pesach, is that we mix the two – we eat maror, bitter herbs, together with our matzah and our festive meal. We dip our karpas vegetables into tears. We take out a bit of wine to remember the slain Egyptians. It is a holiday that somehow includes the bitterness and the difficulties within the celebration of redemption. As my father was fond of reminding us, the matzah itself is a double symbol; it is both lehem oni, “bread of affliction,” or poor person’s bread, and also bread of freedom, a symbol of the blink of an eye speed with which we left Egypt, with no time to let our bread rise. Freedom and suffering are linked in this holiday, and the Seder is intended to somehow evoke both for us at the very same moment.

The Sefat Emet explains that on Pesach, part of what we are celebrating is not just the redemption, but also the exile and the slavery itself. What we are saying is that we are thankful for all of it. We understand that it is all part of God’s plan – as seen in God’s prediction to Abraham – that there was some need for the slavery to happen in preparation for the worship of God, and so the difficulties also become for us somehow a source of joy. This is a joy that comes from the knowledge that God intends it all for our benefit. The maror, too, now gives us joy, as we feel and accept that bitterness, too, has its place, has its role to play.

The sages say that we are obligated to give thanks for bad tidings as well as for good tidings, to acknowledge that they all come from the same source and that we don’t really know what is good and what is bad for us in the long run.

Many of us have had the experience that a difficult life event has helped us grow. On Pesach, we look back on our national history and thank God for all of it – for the slavery as well as for the freedom, for the tears and for the songs, and they all become part of our celebration.

It is always easier to do this global thankfulness in hindsight. Now, looking back, we see that it was all for the best. Someone once told me that this is why God told Moshe that he could only see God from the back. We can only recognize the pattern when we look back in history. In the present of our difficulties, we have to just trust that gam zu letovah, this, too, is for the best.

On Pesach, through our memory of both slavery and freedom, we learn to embrace all of life as part of God’s gift to us.

On Pesach and Being Redeemed: If You Think It, It Will Be So

In my Albany Bet Midrash a few years ago, as part of an examination of the concept of geulah, “redemption,” one woman articulated that she felt that she personally was unworthy of being redeemed.

On some level, many of us feel this same unworthiness in relation to redemption. We don’t expect it and can’t quite imagine it for ourselves because we do not, or do not yet, feel worthy. I think it is precisely to counter this obstacle to participation in redemption that the Haggadah emphasizes inclusiveness and lack of exclusivity in relation to redemption.

We are not required to be very wise in order to enter Pesach. The Haggadah makes it clear that the wise and knowledgeable do not in any way deserve redemption more than others. “Even if we were all wise . . . .. it is still an obligation to tell the story.”

The inclusion of 4 different sons again makes this point clear. This Seder is not just for the wise and the virtuous but for the wicked and the simple and ignorant as well.

Now the wicked son is indeed dismissed. He is the one person who is told that “if he had been there, he would not have been redeemed.” But precisely through his dismissal, we learn for what reason one is excluded and for what reasons one is not excluded. The wicked son is not excluded for his wickedness, but rather because he excludes himself. He phrases his question in the “you” formula, as if he already does not see himself in the group.

The one obstacle to inclusion in the process of redemption is an inability to imagine oneself as being redeemed. There are no other obstacles. We are not being judged here for whether or not we are worthy. The task is to imagine ourselves as capable of redemption and in so imagining, we become worthy.

Rabbi David Silber points out that the very same pasuk which we use to dismiss the wicked son is also used later to prove the obligation to imagine oneself as having left Egypt [hayav adam lirot et atzmo]. The pasuk says, ba’avur zeh asah Hashem li, “for this purpose God has done this for me.” In relation to the wicked son, we say, li velo lo, “for me and not for him” because that is his problem – that he cannot imagine himself as being redeemed and so he isn’t. Later in the Haggadah, we repeat this pasuk, this time as a reminder to all participants that all it takes to be redeemed is the ability to imagine yourself as li, as the “for me” for whom God wrought redemption. All it takes to be redeemed is thinking of yourself as worthy of redemption.

Neither virtue nor knowledge nor wisdom is the criterion for redemption. On some level, we are none of us worthy and on some level, we are all of us worthy. There are no distinctions made at the Seder table. We are in it together. All that is required is the ability to imagine that indeed it is possible, that at this moment we can be redeemed. If you think it, it makes it so.

The Sefat Emet notes a contradiction in the Haggadah. On the one hand, we say that we are obligated lirot et atzmo, “to see yourself” as if you left Egypt. On the other hand, a few lines later, we say that God did not just redeem out ancestors, but actually redeemed us. Which is it – did God actually redeem us or is it just that we are imagining that He redeemed us? The Sefat Emet answers that it is by imagining that we come to actual redemption. If we think of ourselves as redeemed, then we actually are redeemed. Redemption is in our hands, or rather, in our minds. If we think it, it becomes true.

We are all worthy of redemption. May we be capable of thinking of ourselves as worthy and thereby become redeemed this Pesach.

Friday, April 8, 2016

A Pre-Pesach Thought about Work and Joy

Ivdu et Hashem BeSimchah. “Serve God with joy” (Ps 100).

I would add: And it’s all service of God.

That is the key. How can we approach even the most mundane and burdensome of tasks (like cleaning the refrigerator before Pesach) with joy? By turning it into Avodat Hashem, service of God.

When a burdensome task feels meaningless, then it is even more difficult and onerous. If, while we are cooking a meal for our families, we think: what’s the point? It will be gone in a minute and then there will be another meal tomorrow, we are creating a situation of just plain avodah, of work without meaning. If, on the other hand, we think as we are cooking: This, too, is avodat Hashem, service of God, for I am imitating God, who is constantly providing food for others, and I am sustaining the family that God has put in my charge, if we think this, then we elevate the activity to be true avodat Hashem.

And we are happier. We do it besimchah, with joy, because what is better, what is higher, what is more fulfilling, than doing the work of the Holy One? We suddenly feel that we are part of something larger than ourselves, playing our small part of service in something large and meaningful.

On Pesach, we leave Egypt and the meaningless and depressing avodah of Pharaoh, and what we achieve is not so much freedom as it is a new kind of avodah, avodat Hashem, the elevating service of God. There is no life without work and obligation. Work and service are what give our lives meaning and purpose. The point is not to escape the work, but to turn it all into avodat Hashem, to elevate it so that we can do it with true simchah.

The heavy work burden associated with preparing for Pesach, which has often been wryly associated with the slavery of Egypt, is perhaps a test-case for this new approach to avodah. Is it still just onerous, meaningless work, or can it become avodat Hashem, meaningful work done besimchah because it is of service to a higher purpose?

These ideas emerged from discussions in my new Tefillah Workshop in Atlanta. Thank you to all who contributed.