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.

The King and the Invisible Gates: Rosh Hashanah 5774


Sometimes, the obstacles are imaginary.

The King and the Invisible Gates
Delivered Rosh Hashanah Evening, September 4, 2013
Congregation Dorshei Emet
Rabbi Julia Appel

I want to tell you a story, a story I learned from my teacher Rabbi Art Green. It’s a story of the Baal Shem Tov, the first Chassidic rebbe – a mystic, a healer, a miracle worker.

It’s a story about a king.  A king all alone, sitting in his throne. The king sighs. “All I want is to be close to my people!” he says. “I know! Maybe no one knows I am here! I will bring my throne right up to the street, right where anyone can find me.” So he brings his throne right up to the street, right where anyone can find him. But no one comes.

The king sighs. “All I want is to be close to my people!” he says.  “I know! I will create an optical illusion – I will make the people see something that isn’t really here. I will make them see towers, ramps and moats, and gate after gate between them and me. And next to each of these imaginary gates I will place a treasure.”

So the king creates the illusion, of towers, of ramps and moats, of gate after gate leading up to his throne, that aren’t really there. And he sends out invitations to his people: “Come! Everyone is invited to visit me! But you must go through gate after gate to reach me, and whoever does, will get to visit with me!” Then he scatters treasures around each gate. It is a test.

What a challenge! The people begin to come, to try to make it through all these gates to see the king. The first one, the cook, comes and makes it to the first gate, but she stops there and looks down. “Oh my! What beautiful kettles made of shiny new copper and what beautiful oiled wood handles!” She picks up a kettle and carries it home, whistling as she walks. Continue reading

The Cry of the Shofar: Rosh Hashanah 5774

My sermon for the first day of Rosh Hashanah 5774.

Shofar image

The Cry of the Shofar
Congregation Dorshei Emet
Rosh Hashanah Day 1: September 5, 2013
Rabbi Julia Appel

The Torah describes Rosh Hashanah in the following way: “In the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall observe complete rest, a sacred occasion commemorated with loud blasts.”

We see here and elsewhere that the oldest name for the holiday is not “new year,” but “Yom Teruah,” the day of loud blasts, the shofar blasts.  The shofar defines the day, which otherwise is like every other holy day of the Torah. So the shofar is important. It has a message for us. What is the shofar trying to tell us?

On Rosh Hashanah, the rabbis of the Talmud teach, the shofar trumpets to announce the re-coronation of the King, of God. We shake with fear and awe as we proclaim the Greatest Sovereign’s reign anew. They quote God telling us to recite before God on Rosh Hashanah “verses of Malchuyot, Zichronot, and Shofarot. Malchuyot (kingship) in order that you crown me over you; Zichronot (remembrance) in order that your remembrance should rise up before me for good; and with what? With shofar.” (RH 16a) There is authority, power, control.

The far away King, grand and stern. The trumpeting ceremony, the sovereignty. The Ruler deciding our fate. These become the meaning of the day and of the shofar. But what if these images are unrelatable? It makes the holiday unrelatable as well.

Today, I want to offer a different take on the shofar. It’s a counter text, a narrative of the holiday that is equally present in the texts and traditions of Rosh Hashanah, and yet is the very opposite of the far away king.

Continue reading