A Seder Not a Seder but a Seder of Our Lives

It was our second Pesach seder online. So it was not really a seder.

I wanted to be able to tell the Passover story in the light of our own, though.

For indeed, we have learned what it is to live each day in Mitzrayim, in a narrow space often defined by squares on a computer screen. We have spent a year unable to see those we love, touch those we love, live our lives alongside and intertwined with those we love. We could not be full persons in a world in which we existed as head shots, living onscreen. We were perennially faced with our own images, constantly seeing ourselves react. It was difficult to be completely free to focus on others.

Our seder unfolded in unexpected ways. The lyrics to our Passover songs resonated differently. Avadim Hayinu led us to ask: how have we felt enslaved to forces beyond our control, trapped by fear of a virus we could not see but which rode roughshod across the planet? Dayenu — what could we call enoughness in a time of scarcity? Where was the Hallelujah of the moment?

During the maggid portion of our seder, I asked members of my havurah to go to a Padlet online. I set the Padlet so that everyone’s responses would be anonymous; I wanted everyone to feel free to be open, unencumbered by any expectations. Across the picture of a desert, members wrote their responses to my Passover prompts. Their answers were simultaneously heartrending and liberating.

A first question: What element of the Passover story seems most real to you after living through a plague in your own time? “The loneliness that happens when you are walking the same direction as all the other people but still separated because there is no end point,” one wrote. And though the travails in the wilderness are not part of our traditional Pesach story, another added, still, the sense that we were all wandering in the desert without any idea how long the journey would be brought the narratives of Torah home. “There is no external place to flee to,” wrote a third.

A second question: Imagine you speak to a Jew of the future for whom the pandemic is a description in a history book. What would you need to tell that future Jew? One of my havurah members wrote, “My friend, it may not look that way to you now, but you would not be here without us.”

We are a people who tells and retells our stories every single year. We revisit a shared past — however mythical — and we reinterpret that shared past in order to give meaning to our times. To imagine ourselves part of that legacy was surprising, even shocking.

And indeed: those Jews of the future depend upon us.

A third question: If you could get a letter from YHVH in your mailbox (safe to open!) what would be in it? Some wrote words of encouragement, the Holy One blessed them with the knowledge that they would get through the pandemic. “You are stronger and braver and smarter than you sometimes believe,” one wrote.

A fourth question — perhaps the most moving on the board: What is your post powerful hope right now?

And the members of my havurah answered: Could we just mask up? Could everyone please get the shot for everyone’s well-being? Could we understand that the entire globe had to work together to beat this pandemic? Could we just normalize common sense and compassion?

We took some time to look over each other’s responses, to post and share our gratitude, too. Our families were healthy. Our little havurah had come through this without illness or loss. We had a realistic hope to be together again sometime soon, to hear each other’s voices in prayer and song.

No, it was not really a seder as we have known all our lives. It could not be so.

It was a seder describing our lives. It had to be just so.


Kotzer Ruach – Finding Breath (and Life) in Torah

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, used to tell a story about the rebbe who insisted that his students should “live with the times.” The students, his Hasidim, were more than a little perturbed by this remark until the rebbe explained. Live in your Torah time, he insisted, in your liturgical time. Follow the rhythms, the teachings, the texts of the Jewish year. You will simultaneously travel with our people’s stories and discover your own.

In the past weeks, we began reading story of the Exodus. Just days ago in Jewish time, YHVH revealed the private, particular, special name Moses should use when speaking to his people. YHVH explains its meaning: Ehyeh asher ehyeh: The one who is sends Moses to Egypt. The one who will be, sends him. The one who is becoming sends him.

Many Jewish Renewal teachers point out what happens when we try to say the letters of YHVH’s private, mysterious name, with no vowels at all. We are, simply, breathing. Yeh, weh.

After creating Adam in Genesis 2, YHVH’s very first act is to breathe life into the human being. Targum Onkelos, an Aramaic translation and interpretation of Torah, tells us that in that moment “man became a living being” (Gen: 2:7). As Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk wrote, “it says [‘and there was in the body of Adam’] the inspiration of a speaking spirit.” Speech, according to the rebbe is equivalent to life.

Imagine that YHVH’s very essence is breath – the essence YHVH breathes into us. My name is breath, YHVH says to Moses, my name is life.

In last week’s portion, Vaera, we read that children of Israel could not hear what Moses had to say. They suffered, the Torah tells us, from a kotzer ruach. Sometimes our translations read: “their spirits were stunted.” Ruach can mean spirit of course. But it can also mean “breath.” The root for kotzer, kuf-tzaddi-reish  can suggest “shortening.” In Psalm 102:24 we read that YHVH kitzar yamai – YHVH “shortened my days.” The Israelites were short of breath, the very essence of life.

The root for kotzer also evokes powerlessness, decline, distress, anxiety of spirit. Combine kotzer with the Hebrew word ruach and you might translate the words as a “depression of soul.”

YHVH, who is breath – life itself – sees, hears, understands that the people are short of breath, short of life. No wonder YHVH asks Moses to make sure that these people learn God’s name – it is the name of that which sustains them, that which seems lost to them. How else can they return to life and regain their freedom?

Breath is speech, Menachem Mendl writes. YHVH gave Adam a speaking spirit with that first breath. Even more: Our speech, they add, is akin to YHVH’s speech. With it, we can create new heavens and new earth. We can remake our realities, recreate our world. Name that which we must do, which we must change, and we partner with YHVH in creating the world.

But when our spirits have been crushed, when we are short of breath and life, it is hard to speak, to find the words that will free us.

We are living in such times. There is no need to point out the obvious barrage of speech and the onslaught of action that appears to be sucking the very life out of the world.

For a long time I felt I could write nothing in this blog. I was suffering from a kotzer ruach; I felt powerless, distressed, anxiously crushed by a tsunami of cruelty around me in the speech of those who would lead, in the actions of those who do.

We must indeed live with the times. Our stories are not only of our people. They are not only of ourselves. They are of the world. And we are, right now, living in mitzrayim, the narrow space where spirits are crushed, where the burden of pain makes it impossible to catch our breath and speak.

Our task, as we read, is to make liberation real. For us and all who depend on us. Name them. Find them. Offer them the breath of life through your own speech and action.

How else can we cross the water and reach Sinai?


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