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