Freedom and Passover

This week, we welcome the holiday of Passover, the holiday of freedom. During the Passover seder, we act out the story of our ancestors being redeemed from Egypt. In the Talmud, there’s also the idea that we are supposed to understand ourselves to have been redeemed from slavery, too.

And there are those who take it one step further. Our ancestors were redeemed in ancient Egypt, we too were redeemed, and not only that: The 19th-century Chassidic Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (commonly known by the name of his influential book, The Sefat Emet) teaches that each and every year we have the chance to be newly free – if we put in the spiritual work. He writes:

“On every Passover, a Jew becomes like a new being like we were during the Exodus from Egypt; like a newborn child. The inner essence implanted by God within our hearts is renewed. That inner essence is called lechem ‘oni [poor people’s bread–a synonym for matzah] because it is totally without expansion. Matzah is just the essence of dough, which afterward changes and ferments. In the same way, every Jew has an inner essence, a gift from God. And actually, our usual task is to expand that point, to draw all our deeds to follow it. This is our job throughout the year, for better or worse. But when this Holiday of Matzot comes, it is the time when that inner essence itself is renewed and purified from all defilement. Therefore, we must guard it from any “ferment” or change on this holiday.”

One way to take this is that matzah is our essential self, and bread (chametz) represents our poofed-up ego, what we are with all the trappings of identity and society on us. This is the one time of year when we must strip away all the shmutz (dirt) that has accumulated onto our essential selves. We must find and watch carefully over this inner essence of ours, this essential self, just like people watch over the dough of matzah to make sure it doesn’t poof up into chametz. This, in fact, is the freedom of the holiday of Passover: we get to become like brand new beings, getting back to our most essential, matzah selves.

Over the last two years, including two Passovers that were the most alone I’ve ever been, I’ve experienced being stripped of all those markers of success, power, and even relationship that I held dear. Maybe you have too. We’ve lost jobs and friendships. We’ve lost the chance to show off our wealth or clothes or artistic flair because we couldn’t leave the house. We’ve lost status. Frankly, we’ve lost a lot of that poofed-up ego we usually carry. Perhaps this year, it’s not the matzah self of this teaching that we most need to get in touch with; the pandemic has done that very well. Perhaps it’s the freedom that comes with it, and the starting anew. We have a chance to re-enter in-person society as the version of ourselves we truly want to be. That is a much deeper kind of freedom.

Originally published in The Wisdom Daily.

To Forget and To Remember

There are some dark times that we commemorate in a ceremony with the reading of names. And there are some that result in celebrating with oily foods and candles. And there are some where we were so terrified, and now we are so out of our minds to have averted the decree, that we drink. We drink to forget. We don’t ever want to remember it was so awful. Blot out the memory. Forget the darkness. This is Purim.

We tell our story of what we went through, and we are commanded to listen to every single word. And then we drink to forget.

Maybe this moment in 2022 is the Purim kind of dark time. The pandemic began with Purim and we emerge from it (G-d-willing) with Purim. It was so hard. We sat in sackcloths. We lamented. We are changed.

This may be a Purim kind of survival – we may be entering the roaring 20s of oblivion. However, Purim teaches us to forget – but, also not to forget. The Torah portion we read right before Purim is Parashat Zachor, the parashah of remembrance, in which we are commanded to both blot out the memory of Amalek (considered to be Haman’s ancestor) and to remember his terribleness when he ambushed the Israelites in the desert. It’s not just drinking and forgetting. It’s deliberate remembering. It’s being glad we’re alive.

And it’s giving gifts to the poor. If going through something awful doesn’t make us more compassionate, we’re doing it wrong. Let us be softened. This pandemic made us realize we are all of us broken; we are all of us suffering. (Even more so now, as refugees stream out of the homeland of many of our ancestors and relatives. The suffering is almost unbearable.) We are all of us broken. Let us not forget that in our rush to forget what we’ve gone through. Now that we’ve seen the suffering, we are called to do something about it. We celebrate by hearing the story and then forgetting it, but more importantly, by being softened by it and preventing future suffering.

It’s true that we will always be looking over our shoulders. Each year it could happen again. Each year we fast again the day before Purim, worried it might not turn out okay this time. After all, once the violence stopped, Persia’s Jews went back to living next to the neighbors who tried to kill them. Purim’s victory is not a certain one. It’s not a permanent one. It’s maybe even just the luck of the draw. But it’s a victory nonetheless. And we must celebrate it, no matter what else may be coming our way next.

Originally published in The Wisdom Daily.

Our Wisdom Keepers

As we know, when Pharoah finally let the Israelites go, they lacked time for their dough to rise. But curiously, we find in our parashah that “Moses took Joseph’s bones with him, for [Joseph] had adjured b’nei Israel, saying, God will surely remember you, and you shall bring up my bones from here with you” (Ex. 13:19).

After 430 years, the Jews come back for Joseph to bring him home. How did anyone remember where Joseph was buried after so long? The Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael elaborates: It was Serah bat Asher who showed Moses the way.

Serah bat Asher is named in the Torah both in the list going down to Egypt and in the list standing at Moab after the Exodus – a span of 500 years! She becomes in the midrash a character of wisdom and ancient secrets: the secret of redemption was given to Abraham, passed on through the patriarchs until Joseph, who told it to his brothers. Asher told Serah. When all those generations later Moses arose, it was Serah who could recognize whether he was the true redeemer or not.

Leaving Egypt, Serah tells Moses that the Egyptians buried Joseph in a metal coffin at the bottom of the Nile. Moses writes the name of God on gold and throws it in the Nile, conjuring Joseph and his coffin by evoking God’s promise of redemption. The coffin rises, and Moses brings it with them—the Mekhilta later says Joseph’s bones are carried even beside the Ark of the Covenant.

From earliest times, we Jews have known what it is to be separated from our history, our people, our places. To be buried far from home. To not remember where we’ve put our most valuable things, lost to the generations. Yet among us are the secret keepers, the wisdom holders. Like Serah bat Asher, we must listen to their stories, to hear where we come from. Sometimes they can also point us where we are going—toward redemption. Who are yours?

Originally published in the Canadian Jewish News.

Jacob’s Blessing in a Time of Antisemitism

I was talking with my brother-in-law last weekend while we watched our kids play. We just heard the news about the attack on a Monsey Chanukah party. What can be done? Is this new or very old antisemitism? How do we keep our children safe?

This week’s Torah portion, Vayechi, concludes Jacob’s life, in which he gives blessings to his sons. But in a few short verses at the beginning of Exodus next week, we flip from a family story of relative safety to a dangerous time for the Jews of Egypt. A dramatic turn: Joseph practically commands Egypt and then, upon his death, the Jews of Egypt are swiftly suspected and enslaved.

This year has felt swift and disorienting to me. Continue reading

Ascending and Descending the Rungs

One of the first books I read as I began to learn more about Judaism as an adult was Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s “God was in this place and I, i did not know,” a beautiful book of commentary on the story of Jacob’s ladder, of spirituality and deep reading. A Reform rabbi and mystical teacher, Kushner’s books open up Jewish mysticism for liberal Jewish communities.

In the story, Jacob is fleeing his brother Esau after tricking him, and along the way he lies down to sleep. In his dream, he has a vision: “A ladder, standing on earth, its top reaching the heavens. And behold: angels of God, going up and going down on it. And behold: God is standing on it…” (Genesis 28)

I hadn’t had much experience with deeply reading Jewish text and discovering the many voices inside it. I remember being struck by Kushner’s prologue. Continue reading

The Joy of Sukkot Can Linger

This Sukkot was harder for me than most. Something about the Monday-Tuesday holiday calendar maybe, with its accompanying brutal schedule of meal cooking, holiday, Shabbat, day off, and holiday again, several times over. I didn’t have much joy in Sukkot at the beginning, which is called by the rabbis of the Talmud “zman simchateinu,” the time of our joy. It’s connected to the joyful abundance of bringing in the harvest and the knowledge of having been forgiven by God.

As a parent of two small children, with two full-time working spouses, work stress, the worry of whether we’ll ever be able to afford a house in Toronto, the concern about the end of Western democracy, etc., I’ve honestly been low on joy for a few months now. Continue reading

Returning to Roots

During the closing service of Yom Kippur, we imagine the gates of teshuvah, repentance, closing. There is a tradition, though, that the gates remain open through Sukkot. We continue eating honey on our challah through the end of Sukkot, too, connecting these holidays together.

What an opportunity. Now that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are completed, with their accompanying flurry of meal preparation, synagogue services, family visits, time away from work and school, we still have time. Sukkot is called “zman simchateinu,” the time of our joy. Which joy?

This year I took a somewhat foolish trip to Montreal for a few days, returning to Toronto a few hours before Rosh Hashanah began. My husband and I were attending a friend’s wedding and took the opportunity to revisit our old haunts. Continue reading

Revealing the Heart: The Work of Teshuvah

It can be a challenge to do the work of teshuva, of repentance and personal change, in the weeks leading up to the High Holidays. For some of us, it’s connected directly to our feelings of shame about how we have acted. Sometimes, that shame makes us runs from our misdeeds instead of confronting them.

As the renowned sociologist of shame Brene Brown explains, “Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That’s why it loves perfectionists­­we’re so easy to keep quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees.” Being able to talk about what we are ashamed of with a trusted friend or therapist brings light to that darkness, and enables us to then take steps to rectify the situation. Continue reading

Facing the Emerging Future, Together

We hear this week Moses describe pleading with God: “‘O Lord God … Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan…’ But the Lord said to me, ‘Enough! Never speak to Me of this matter again! Go up to the summit of Pisgah… Look at it well, for you shall not go across yonder Jordan.’”

After devoting his life to bringing the Jewish people out of Egyptian slavery, helping them become God’s people, sacrificing and cajoling and leading, it has always seemed cruel to me that Moses must die before reaching their destination, the Land of Israel.

Working in generational change within our community, I lately see it differently. Continue reading

Responding to #MeToo as a Community

Parashat Nasso contains two unusual passages, one right after the other: the Sotah and the Nazir. The Sotah ordeal is as follows: If a jealous husband suspects his wife of adultery, only God can accurately adjudicate this he-said-she-said situation. The husband brings his wife and a grain sacrifice to the priest, who exposes her hair in humiliation and has her swear her innocence. The wife drinks curses dissolved in water. If she’s guilty, something horrible happens to her womb. If she’s innocent, she conceives a child by her husband. Later, the Talmudic sages determined that the necessary conditions warranting the Sotah ordeal were near impossible to satisfy. Still, this situation of enacting a woman’s humiliation simply on the word of a man who has power over her can be disturbing to a contemporary audience. Continue reading