Written in collaboration with Rabbis Joseph Berman, Avi Killip and Micha'el Rosenberg.
As we prepare to celebrate Passover isolated in our homes, separated from loved ones, and struggling against the grave injustices of our society, now so clearly unmasked, I am thinking of a teaching from Rabbi Arthur Green about the central tension of the Seder. Rabbi Green explains that the tension is between the contradictory claims in the Haggadah, which contains the words "now we are slaves" and then, moments later, "we were slaves to Pharaoh in Mitzrayim (the narrow place)…" The Haggadah seems to be saying that we are both enslaved and free.
This year the whole world is in a narrow place - mitzrayim - as we are living through what many people are describing as a plague. We often sing as our prayer for healing at Shabbat services the words of the Three Silver Mount Zion Memorial Orchestra: "when the world is sick/can't no one be well." How acutely we know this to be true. But then we sing another line: "and I dreamt we were all beautiful and whole." These last words capture for me both the yearning for a world of wholeness, healing, and liberation along with the truth that we are in fact beautiful and whole, even if we might not feel that way. More than one thing is true at once says the Haggadah.
For those who were not present online during Friday night services, I wanted to take a few moments (as a break between cleaning my fridge and my stove) to share some brief reflections on preparing for Passover this year.
This is the first time we have experienced seder in the midst of a pandemic, but it is not the first time Jews have celebrated this holiday in a moment of danger and fear. We have celebrated Passover in narrower times. All week I have been thinking of a photo published in the NY Times, of women baking matzah in the oven they built beneath the Lodz Ghetto in 1943. We may be physically distant, but we must remind our bones that this is not World War II. We may never have seen a solo seder as something that might happen to us, but Maimonides did and we know this because he taught us that one is required to ask themself the Four Questions. Our seders this year will become a link in a chain of seder throughout Jewish history that offered Jews comfort, ritual, and joy in uncertain times.
Perhaps you too have been wondering how best to prepare for Passover this year. I've had moments in the past few weeks where I thought I should say to our community, don't worry about Passover this year. Only focus on what is urgent and what you most need to do. The last thing you need to be worrying about is purchasing matzah and making charoset. This may in fact be necessary for some of us and that is OK! And, with the help of my chevruta and teacher, I'm now thinking about the process of observing Passover as an opportunity to move through our present narrowness.
Part of what has been anxiety provoking about this pandemic is that we've lost many of the mechanisms by which we structure time. This might be a commute, in person meetings, "going" to school, or "going" to work. Part of the gift of Judaism is that we still have the possibility of structuring, of texturing, of sanctifying time. It can help our mental health and create joy. While we are spending so much time at home, we can still do a serious Spring cleaning and put away the chametz. Whether at home or on Zoom, we can tell stories and ask questions. The Haggadah also says, one who expands upon the Exodus story, harei zeh meshubach - that person is worthy of praise. Because in truth, the Exodus from Mitzrayim never ends. This year's story is ours to tell.
This doesn't mean you are going to necessarily observe Pesach this year the way you have in previous years. In fact, that is likely impossible. Passover is at its heart a night of questions. And so it seems fitting that my primary instruction on how to prepare for Passover this year comes in the form of a question. I invite you to ask yourself:
What are the core principles or observances of Passover for me?
Maybe that means having a seder, maybe it means calling the mayor to demand he decarcerate PA jails, prisons, and detention centers, maybe it means asking big questions about freedom and justice and dreaming up even bigger answers, maybe it means eating matzah, maybe it means avoiding bread or all chametz or even kitniyot. AND, at the same time, ask yourself:
What are the adornments and practices that in other years I have put attention on, that might not make sense in this time?
For example, I am still committed to deep-cleaning behind my stove. But unlike previous years, I am planning to eat kitniyot.
Many of us associate Passover with a heightened attention to practice, going above and beyond what we typically do. There is a culture, particularly in Ashkenazi communities, of leaning into stringencies, a kind of strictness of observance. For some of us this will still feel meaningful, in which case I invite you to see this as core to your practice. But for those who feel ourselves retreating at the idea of Pesach this year, overwhelmed by the prospect of having to figure it out, approach Pesach with gentleness, let go of things you might have done in previous years, and focus on the core principles and observance. Give yourself permission to prepare in ways that are meaningful and to know you are allowed have a shvach seder. And please do not put yourself at increased risk or danger for the purpose of ritual observance.
I must admit, when I looked at the ritual calendar just before Purim, I could never have imagined this moment. To imagine that all plans and projects could evaporate. And on the one hand, it is unnerving and utterly disorienting. On the other hand, it seems infinitely hopeful. To realize that change is not only possible, but inevitable. It means that liberation is also not only possible, but inevitable. That oppressive forces will also one day cease and desist. And this is why we celebrate Passover, every year. Not just to remember it, but to live it, to breathe life into the potential this ancient story represents. In the words of the Haggadah:
בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלוּ הוּא יֶָָצֶָא מִמִּצְרַָים
"In every generation each of us is obligated to see ourselves as though we had gone through Mitzrayim."
Rabbi Shai Held taught this morning, Yetziat Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) is a paradigm for the truth that there is no status quo that cannot be overturned. So let this be the year you have the strength to tell a story that takes you from bitterness to joy, because if it is possible for us to adapt and make the great changes these times require of us, liberation is also possible. I am grateful for the reminder from my teacher Rabbi Ebn Leader: "Closed in our homes as we were in Pesach Mitzrayim, may this night again be a gateway to redemption." May it be so, speedily and in our days.
May it be a uniquely meaningful, liberatory, and healthy Passover for you and your loved ones.
Chag Kasher v'Sameach,
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.