Sermon by Rabbi Adina Lewittes at Temple on Friday, April 15, 2016

Preparing for Passover is not a subject that elicits much enthusiasm in the Jewish community. More often it elicits the groans of having to clean our homes, empty ourcupboards, scour our kitchens, haul out Passover dishes, pots and pans, restock our refrigerators and pantries and cook elaborate meals for big crowds, all of which assures that we show up to our Seder tables feeling exhausted, and frankly, more enslaved than liberated.
I want to offer an insight into this dynamic, and then suggest some implications of that insight regarding how to prepare for the festival.

What often accompanies these laborious tasks is a certain anxiety: not that we won’t get it all done in time, but that we won’t get it all done right. Amongst the 70% of Jews who attend Seders, so many people, regardless of their Jewish backgrounds, find themselves — on this holiday in particular — fretting over the plethora of rules that govern the retelling of the Exodus, sweating over the need to punctiliously perform all the rituals to their exact specifications, obsessing over the mechanics of this festival to the great peril of its spiritual purpose, that is, to tell our children the
story of freedom.

There was even an Israeli rabbi who ruled recently that there is a maximum amount of time you can spend cleaning your home for Passover – time’s up and that’s it — precisely because too many come to the holiday feeling depleted, overwhelmed and overburdened by the cleaning and preparations and become totally detached from the memory of freedom that’s core to the Passover narrative and key to the fulfillment of the holiday.

Why do we become so anxious? What is this connection between memory and anxiety?
My colleague Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer of the Shalom Hartman Institute offers a profound response that helps frame the work I think we need to do during the time leading up to Passover.

Yehuda suggests that anxiety around the rituals of remembering is a reflection of our fear that we will forget our own story. And that fear sometimes influences how we remember, how we engage with memory.

He teaches that ideally, ritual is meant to serve as a bridge between memory and imagination — prompting us to think about how lessons of the past ought to inform the choices we make today about how to act, how to live, how to love.

But we often obsess about the technicalities of ritual because we mistakenly think that without them the tale will be lost. After all, what is the point of all these cumbersome preparations and elaborate rituals? As the Torah says in Exodus 12, it’s that so that when your child finally asks you: Why are you doing all this? You can tell them: Because God took us out of Egypt and made us free, and now we must live that freedom and bring it to others.

The thinking is that the more involved and rigid the ritual, the more your child will be provoked to ask why, which will then prompt you to tell the story and it won’t be forgotten. As if, should the ritual not be so demanding and complicated, maybe no one would ask and the story would stop being told.

But when we focus only on the technique of retelling, we risk creating an idol of our history, ignoring its crucial lessons and sacrificing the future for the sake of the past. All because we’re terrified to forget.

Ritual without context can become meaningless. You know the old Jewish joke: A young Jewish mother is preparing a Brisket one Friday for Shabbat dinner. Her daughter watches with interest as the mother slices off the ends of the Brisket before placing it in the roasting pan. The young girl asks her mother why she did this. The mother pauses for a moment and then says, “You know, I am not sure…this is the way I always saw my mother make a brisket. Let’s call Grandma and ask her. ” So, she phones the grandmother and asks why they always slice the ends off the brisket
before roasting. “The Grandmother thinks for a moment and then says. “You know, I am not sure why, this is the way I always saw MY mother make a brisket.” Now the two women are very curious, so they pay a visit to the great-grandmother in the nursing home. “You know when we make a brisket,” they explain, “we always slice off the ends before roasting. Why is that?”
“I don’t know why you do it” says the old woman, “but I never had a pan that was large enough!”

As Yehuda Kurtzer suggests, the ideal is for ritual to serve as a bridge between remembering the original narrative with the lessons it imparts, and making meaning of it for life today, even many generations beyond that original event.
When we’re in panic mode about the continuity of our people and our traditions, we tend to obsess about the details, hanging onto the rituals in the desperate hope that they somehow will make our identity stick. But obsessing about the mechanics of memory too often obscures its very purpose, distancing us from the memory of our enslavement, and ultimately, from the promise of our liberation.

The opposite scenario is equally perilous: When we’re too comfortable and satisfied with our levels of spiritual engagement and the meaning we’re drawing from our ewish practice and rituals, we tend to relax about the details, sometimes relaxing so much that we lose the sacred frames that give our lives texture, identity and purpose. When our rituals are so loosely connected to the original story, when we are so carefree or flippant about their observance, we also run the risk of alienating the present from the past, making them seem discontinuous, stunting the ability of the past to serve as a moral foundation for the future.
Yehuda reminds us that ritual only makes memory work when it expresses the values we’re trying to remember, and isn’t contradicting them.

In other words, being obsessive about Passover preparation and the precise performance of ritual sends the message of slavery and not freedom – the antithesis of the Passover messages of dignity and independence. Being careless and unconcerned with ritual integrity sends the message of indifference and aimlessness – also the antithesis of the Passover message of purposeful freedom, liberation in order to become liberators.

The anxiety over being forgotten – over Judaism being lost, our own personal and family traditions not being carried over into future generations – that anxiety is real. We feel it as individuals, as families, as communities, as rabbis and teachers. But we should be aware of our anxiety without allowing it to lead us into slavish behaviorism, or into a formless wilderness from which there is no clear path to a promised, and promising, land.

Being aware of our anxiety, we can try to unburden ourselves of it by working towards a framework for Jewish living that is rooted in memory, but inspired by contemporary imagination so as to be relevant and meaningful for each generation engaged in the rituals of remembering.

So how does this insight shape how we actually for Passover?

There are lots of fours in the Passover Seder (4 cups of wine, 4 questions, 4 children) so I will share four ways these ideas inform my Passover prep.

1 – On a practical level, it helps to keep us grounded as my wife Andi and I begin to prepare our home and kitchen for the blessed onslaught of our 6 kids, their significant others and our relatives and friends. The Zohar teaches: all holy things require a summoning. So we try to be mindful about our summoning of the festival. We clean and cook, shop and schlep, but have learned not to become unraveled by the enormity of the task by holding our practice up to a mirror of perfection. We are traditional in our observance but we embrace our spiritual commitments staying
focused on not only outward performance but on inner transformation – for ourselves and for those whom we gather around our table.

We also commit to setting aside time within the hectic planning to sit down together to study and discuss themes we want to explore with our guests, develop layers of the story we’re preparing to tell, and experiment with creative rituals and formats to reflect the essence of the festival.

And we try hard to do this all with joy, not to get frustrated or short with each other from the stress; to truly celebrate and sanctify the preparation.

2. Micah 7:15 reads “As in the days when you left Egypt, I shall show you wonders

[during the final redemption].”

The Sages in the Talmud asked, “Why does the verse say, ‘in the days when you left Egypt’ when the Exodus took place on one day, as the Torah says, ‘Remember this day on which you left Egypt’?”
The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, z”l, explained as follows: the reason the verse in Micah says “days” is because while our physical freedom was gained in a single day, our inner spiritual and psychological freedom takes a lifetime — each of our lifetime’s — to truly embrace and live. The Exodus is a never-ending process.

When we read in the Haggadah, “ In every generation a person is obligated to view themselves as if they were the one who went out of Egypt”, the same message is being taught: not only that our own lives were saved in that moment, for we would not have been born as free Jews had the Exodus not taken place. But that the original moment of physical freedom bequeathed to every Jew in every generation the responsibility and the privilege of truly understanding what freedom is and of striving to live it.

The Rebbe deepened his teaching: the Exodus from Egypt which freed the whole Jewish people was made possible as a result of the efforts of each individual Jew to redeem himself and herself from their inner, psychological and emotional enslavements. Indeed, the story of the Exodus really begins when God hears the people crying out in their pain, recognizing and acknowledging their own personal suffering from which they yearned to be free.

In the same way, the future healing and perfecting of our entire world depends on the work that we each do as individuals to heal ourselves spiritually and to fulfill our potential as agents of change, as liberators of both ourselves and of others. No one can do our work for us. We are each tasked with actualizing our own piece of the collective freedom that awaits us.

In the weeks, now days, leading up to Passover’s retelling and reliving of that moment of redemption, we have a special responsibility to grapple with the limitations in our own lives that prevent us from living freely, to confront the brokenness in our own lives that prevents us from being whole. While this is inner work we ideally undertake all year long, Passover reminds us that the collective wellbeing and freedom of humanity relies on each and every individual working on, and achieving, his or her own wellbeing and freedom. During the preparations for Passover there is a special effort we’re called to make to invest in our personal inner healing so that we can arrive at the holiday prepared to actualize the healing of our family, community, society, nation and planet.

Whether through deeper, more intentional prayer, meditation, mindfulness, more exercise and sleep or other means, during these preparatory weeks we have a special responsibility to take the best care of ourselves possible and to work on ourselves most seriously.

3. If the anxiety that often infuses these weeks of preparations is, on some level, an expression of self-doubt on the part of Jews, Jewish families and the Jewish community, an inner worry about our ability to sustain our cohesion as a people, to carry on our heritage and to commit to our future, then part of the preparation, and a way to mitigate that anxiety, is to cultivate what I will call Jewish pride.

This is a time when we should examine most carefully our relationship to Judaism, the investment we’re making in our identity and the connection we’re living to our spiritual values. These are weeks when we as parents should take time to speak to our children about the responsibilities and privileges of being a Jew, when we as rabbis and leaders should speak with our communities about the importance of living proudly as Jews, of cultivating conviction and faith in our ability to not only build meaningful lives for ourselves but in our ability to transmit that meaning and joy to the generations who will come after us. These are weeks to highlight the importance of embracing our Judaism not out of fear but out of joy and confidence.

Remember that the essence of the Passover rituals is to teach our children, to speak with them, to tell them our sacred story of freedom. The Seder has been described as a model of what learning between parents and children should look and feel like.

On April 15, 1943, Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, father of Reconstructionist Judaism, noted in his diary that the Seder reinforces three basic principles of Jewish education:

1) Education can and should constitute a religious experience,

2) The parental responsibility for the education of the child should be prior to that of the state, and

3) The most important training which any education should afford should be a training in freedom. . . . The main theme of the Pesach festival is freedom… All this should serve as a token of the principle that the ideal education is that in which the child is trained effectively to be free to cherish freedom and to know how to use it.

What exactly is involved in training a child to be a free agent? It means that all who have anything to do with his education seek to elicit from him the awareness of himself as a center of initiative. It means making him aware of the inner resources of character and goodness and moral strength that are latent in him and stimulating him to make use of them.

During this time of preparation for Passover, let’s talk to our children about suffering and persecution. Let’s sing to our children the songs of freedom. Let’s use the language not only of Jewish possibility but that of Jewish responsibility; let’s ask the questions not only about spiritual continuity, but also about spiritual dignity.

Perhaps if we can instill this self-awareness and courage in our own hearts and those of our children then we won’t be so anxious about hanging on to the minutiae of the rituals as a stand-in for our own solid Jewish identity for we’d know that we are raising the next generation to be grounded in their own stories even as they write the next chapters of freedom for the world around them.
4. Many have noted that the holidays of Purim and Passover, which fall one month apart, are intimately connected. One rabbinic idea teaches that the day Esther prepared a feast for the king and Haman was in fact the second day of Passover, which is why on that day of the holiday some add an extra dish to their meals because it was at that feast that Haman’s downfall was set into motion.
But there’s a deeper connection between these two stories of redemption, one that relates to this notion of anxiety. It is one of my favorite teachings; I’m grateful for the chance to share it.

The Passover story is a narrative of overt, explicit divine miracles and divine salvation: the plagues, the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart, the splitting of the sea, the liberation.

Purim is the holiday of divine hiddenness: there’s no mention of the Divine in the book of Esther, no overt miracles. The saving of Jewish life and heritage comes as a result of human courage, human initiative and human ingenuity, at a time when the presence of the Divine was eclipsed, as foretold by Deuteronomy and embedded within the name Esther itself – related as it is to the Hebrew word for “hidden” – nistar.

And yet, our tradition tells us that in the time to come, when the world has been redeemed, we will no longer have the need to observe festivals like Passover; they will all become null and void. But the holiday of Purim will remain in observance forever.

Why would the grand holiday of Passover with its dramatic storyline of divine salvation and its compelling rituals become null and void while the relatively minor story of Esther with no grand divine message or rituals remains on our calendars for eternity?

One of the most powerful teachings I have ever encountered comes from Rav Yitzchak Hutner, z”l. He explained that the absence of God or any explicit divine miracles in the Esther story is to be seen less as an omission of God and more as the Torah’s invitation to us as human beings to assume the primary responsibility for generating the presence of God and holiness in our world, especially in times of darkness and need, times when that divine silence fills us with anxiety.

Rav Hutner wrote:

Imagine two people are given the job of recognizing people at night. The first used a flashlight so that he could see the faces of the people and recognize them. The second did not have a flashlight, and therefore had to teach himself to recognize people’s voices.

As to which one had a greater level of clarity – the first was superior to the second, since seeing a person’s face is a clearer way of recognizing someone than hearing his voice. On the other hand, the second person has an advantage over the first, in having developed the new skill of recognizing voices, which the first one has not. 

In the morning, when the sun rises, the first one will turn off his flashlight, for it is of no use during the day. He will have gained nothing during the night that could help him during the day. The second one, however, will always be able to use the new skill of recognizing voices, which he developed in the dark, even during the day. 

We live in a world of great potential and great hope – for humanity, for nature and for our planet. We also live in times of great suffering and despair. But we can’t rely on someone else, not even God, to do the hard and courageous work of defending our safety and our dignity, of standing up for those who are oppressed and those who are at risk, of making sacrifices for the wellbeing of the earth, of tirelessly pursuing peace, justice and freedom.
When we find the strength and the conviction to stand up for what we believe in and to work for what we value, then the message we send is not that God has decided to abandon us – quite the contrary — but that God has given us the space and the power to — with our own hands, minds and souls — be the ones to bring the presence of kedushah, of holiness, of godliness into the world, to be the ones who can truly shape the story of our lives.

This is the lasting legacy of Mordecai and Esther in the story of Purim who together changed the course of Jewish history by bravely asserting themselves on behalf of the Jewish people. By truly living as images of God, they together brought the Divine into the story.

Passover is the story that teaches us to seek and find the Divine in ourselves, in others, in human struggle and achievement and in nature by using the obvious flashlights we have: the actions and cries of those in need and the grand gestures of strength, charity and kindness by those who have.

The darkness or silence of Purim, however, teaches us that redemption must first and foremost come by listening for the voices that have no sound, the voices drowned out and eclipsed by those louder, richer, more powerful. Purim teaches us to pay attention to the small, unnoticed acts of compassion that change the course of human life, that reorder someone’s universe. Purim teaches us not to be anxious or afraid of the dark, but to illuminate it with acts of courage and chessed, lovingkindness. Purim teaches us to find the Divine in our midst not by looking outside ourselves but deep within.

Once we understand that, as Purim taught us, we can make our way to Passover and exult in the manifest radiance of its miracles. But what will sustain us forever, through periods of blessing and gloom, is the discovery of our own, inner capacity to generate divine light. This is the work of these weeks of spiritual preparation for Passover – a rekindling of our own luminescence, one that scatters the shadows, calms our fears, and illuminates our way to freedom.

Shabbat Shalom


© 2016 Rabbi Adina Lewittes