by Rabbi Carl Choper, Temple Beth Shalom
Passover begins the night of Wednesday April 8 and continues for the next 8 days until it is dark on Thursday April 16. During those days we avoid eating khumetz (leavening - any forms of grain other than matzah, yeast, and traditionally also beans). In their place we eat matzah.
Matzah has a double meaning. Eating it reminds us of the account remembered in the Torah that when we, as the Children of Israel, fled from Egypt we left so quickly that we did not have the time to allow our bread to rise. Therefore we eat unleavened bread as a remembrance of leaving Egypt and bondage. So avoiding bread and eating matzah is an act of celebration, a reminder of redemption and liberation. But at the same time, matzah in the Torah and in the Haggadah is called Lechem Oni, the Bread of Affliction. And before eight days are up it can feel like a bread of affliction too! Speaking personally, it is always such a joy at the end of Passover to have bread again. But I continue to avoid it for eight days both as an act of celebration, a statement of the potential for liberation in all moments, and as a reminder of the reality of affliction in the world - all at the same time. Life in all its circumstances so often is a mixture of redemption and affliction, of bitter and sweet, at the same time. Life is the double meaning of matzah, the greens of spring dipped in the salt water of tears, the bitter marror dipped in sweet Haroset. Certainly this year we are feeling this mixed reality directly. We are isolated from each other but reminded of how much we are connected to each other and actually yearn for that connection.
On behalf of myself and Temple Beth Shalom, we wish you a Meaningful and Liberating Passover, a Passover in which you may find ways to access opportunities for joy. Joy is life-sustaining, and it is important especially at moments like this that we connect with those things which give us joy. Passover is one of those opportunities for joy, which itself is a form of liberation.
I want to make sure you have resources needed to celebrate Passover in some way this year. Any way you find under these circumstances will be sufficient. (Dayeinu! If we only are to receive part of the redemption that we are given in coming out of Egypt, Dayeinu- It is enough for us!).
As part of that effort to provide resources by email in a time of social distancing, Rabbi Deborah Waxman, President of Reconstructing Judaism and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (with which we and other congregations around the western world are affiliated), sent out a message to the entire movement. Within her email are helpful resources for creating a meaningful Passover, including an online link to the Reconstructionist movement Haggadah for your use. Please look for her email forwarded to you from the Temple Beth Shalom office in a separate email.
For those especially who cannot get to a Passover Seder this year, a traditional course of action would be to take a Haggadah -such as the one linked to Rabbi Waxman’s email - and go through the steps of a Seder on your own. I also came across this effective depiction of a Seder online that perhaps you could participate with. You might watch this video and even participate yourself with the video by gathering around you the pieces of a Seder ( Matzah, grape juice or wine, and something with which to pour water over your hands. Salt water. An extra cup of wine or grape juice for Elijah. And on the Seder Plate: Greens; Horseradish; Haroset made of chopped apple, chopped nuts and wine; roasted hard-boiled egg; a roasted shank bone or beet.) You can always pause the video at each step to get yourself ready to continue. If you do not have all the pieces just do what you can and Dayeinu. It will be enough.
In general, to understand what is going on with the Seder it is helpful to understand that a Seder has 15 parts to it, corresponding to the 15 steps that led up to the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem. Those 15 steps are listed below inside a commentary to them written by Michael Strassfeld.
Rabbi Michael Strassfeld is a wonderfully talented and insightful Reconstructionist rabbi. (Some of you may remember The Jewish Catalogue of the 1970’s of which he was a co-editor.) He sends out a weekly e-newsletter by list serve from MichaelStrassfeld.com . This week he included this “Word of Torah” based on the 15 Steps of the traditional Passover Seder. I copy it below (although I have added in brackets an English translation of the name of each step).
A word of Torah: The seder mnemonic as a guide to the journey to freedom.
Kadesh—[Saying Kiddush; the First Cup of wine]— We begin by striving to uncover the sparks of holiness in the world. Too often in life they are obscured by our noisy frenetic pace. Now they are hidden by our fears amidst the quiet of social distance.
Urhatz—[Washing hands without reciting a blessing]— We cleanse our hands from the tum’ah, the impurity of the virus and the paralysis of fear.
Karpas—[The greens dipped in salt water]— We hold the symbols of spring that remind us that the life of the universe continues its cycle of death and of rebirth. The new green sprouts break through the kittel, the lingering shroud of the snow of winter. Still, we dip the hopes of spring into the salt water of loss.
Yahatz—[Breaking the matzah]--we take matzah and break it in half. We start the Seder with matzah as the bread of affliction. Even that symbol is broken and incomplete. We hide it away searching for answers during the night.
Maggid—[Telling the Tale; ending with the 2nd Cup of wine]— In this time of isolation, we must remember that humans are defined by our ability to speak. We cry across the electronic void, hurling words of connection to those near and far. It is true: lo tov heyot adam livado—it is not good for people to be alone (Gen. 2:18).
We speak of the four expressions of redemption:
Freedom from fear
Freedom to hope
Freedom from inequality
Freedom to care
Rahtzah—[Washing hands again, with a blessing]— We wash again. This second washing is different for we have added a letter “heh” (another name for God) to the end of the word. We feel more connected to the holiness of the universe, to each other and to the Holy One, the “heh.” We can now bless our hands by reaching out to help those in need and “with a strong hand and an outstretched arm” we will help lift others out of their Egypt.
Motzi Matzah—[Saying motzi over matzah and the blessing for eating matzah as a symbol, and eating matzah]— We need to find (motzi) the matzah. All the blows of the taskmasters can be seen on its pockmarked surface. Yet it has become the symbol of freedom. It reminds us that once upon a time we left Egypt. The only thing we carried with us into freedom was matzah. It was enough-dayenu.
Marror—[Bitter herbs]— We taste the bitterness of this very moment. For the reality is we never completely leave Egypt nor make it to the Promised Land. We are always on the way. It is in the seeking, not the finding, where life is lived. Yet, tasting matzah, we are better equipped to confront the bitterness that is our lot.
Korekh—[The Hillel Sandwich - Matzah, bitter herbs, and by some traditions Haroset]— The deeper truth is that slavery and freedom are not distinct from each other. They are not separate realms. Thus, we take matzah and marror and eat them together, no longer imagining that we can separate them. Korekh means to embrace---to embrace all of life.
Shulhan Orekh—[The meal]— The pedagogy of the Seder rests on our eating the experience, not just talking about it. We ingest the bitterness and the freedom. By the time we get to the meal itself, it is freedom we eat as we remember the key lesson of the story—having once experienced freedom, we know deeply it is possible to be free again.
Tzafun—[The afikoman]— We began with matzah as the bread of affliction. It then became the symbol of the Exodus and finally it is the afikomen. The hidden is revealed. The afikomen points to the messianic future waiting to be announced by Elijah standing at the door of humanity. If only we would fully realize the potential that is in the world and that lies in our hand, the door to freedom could be thrown wide open and kol ditzrikh yaitei ve-yifsakh—all in need would celebrate the great redemption of Pesah.
Barekh—[Reciting Grace after meals, concluding with the 3rd Cup of wine]— we are grateful for the blessings of our lives and, even more, God’s call to Abraham to be a blessing, “heyeh berakhah,” and thereby live in such a way as to be a blessing to others.
Hallel—[Psalms of Praise, ending with the 4th Cup of wine]— we join with Miriam as we open our hearts and lift our voices in song—it is the only way to cross the sea.
Nirtzah—[Conclusion]— The Psalmist says: “open your hand and satisfy every living thing be-ratzon with will.” It is a mistake to understand that verse as meaning God gives every living being what they desire. That is not our experience. What we are given is ratzon—a will to live, to love, and to give. Now we are ready for the journey to freedom that lies ahead.