One Holiday – Many Journeys by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

“One Holiday – Many Journeys” by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

Passover is the most widely observed holiday on the Jewish calendar.  It is no wonder – a home-based holiday, families gather around set tables, savoring rituals that have been passed down through the generations.  It also helps to have a script to follow – Seder plates filled, Hagaddahs open, wine poured, discussions flow. Families are encouraged to interpret the rituals their own way. The premise of the Seder, after all, is the open door – even the “Wicked Child”, who cares little for the traditions of the past, reluctantly takes her place at the Passover table. 

Passover welcomes each of us with its varied entrances and deliveries. There are those who enjoy the traditions and others who prefer a fresh look. Some come for the food, others for conversation.  Many focus on creating shorter child-friendly experiences, others opt to start at dark, debating the intricacies of interpretation throughout the night.

The emphasis on diversity at the Seder is reflected in the nature of the holiday itself. Widely known as “Passover” in English, it is also known by four other celebrated names:  Chag Ha’Pesach (The Passover Holiday), Chag Ha’aviv (the Holiday of Spring), Chag Ha’Matzot (The Festival of Unleavened Bread), and Z’man Chei’ra’teinu (The Time of our Freedom). Each of these titles offer a different perspective through which one can appreciate and celebrate the depth of the season. 

The well-known English name, “Passover”, is derived from the Exodus narrative in which the Angel of Death “passed over” the homes of the Israelites, sparing them from the tenth plague – the death of the first born. The tenth plague is the catalyst for Pharaoh to cede to the Israelite God, finally releasing the Israelite slaves into freedom. While it is natural to celebrate our freedom, even God silenced the angels from singing when the Egyptians were drowning, a sign of mourning for his creation.  While the name “Passover” isn’t going anywhere, we can challenge ourselves to explore some of the other uplifting themes of the holiday, through the passageway of Passover’s other names.

First, let’s consider Chag Ha’Pesach, the first iteration of this Biblical holiday. In Exodus (12:1-8) , God commands the Israelites to prepare for the journey with a communal meal. The beauty of the ritual is that they are commanded to share this moment of celebration with their families, neighbors and friends.  The Biblical ritual of the sacrificial lamb is as much about family and celebration as it is about placing the blood on the door post.  That is why when the Temple was destroyed in antiquity, the rabbis could easily pivot from the sacrificial rite to an emphasis on gathering and discussion. The celebratory meal was already an essential part of the core experience.

The focus on observing the holiday as a gathering around the family table, without the need for a lot of liturgy or synagogue-based ritual, creates a grand threshold for Pesach observance.

Chag Ha’Pesach

The name “Pesach” can be taken in an entirely different, but equally energizing direction. As the Hassidic masters have noted – Pesach can be read Peh-Sach, “the mouth that speaks”. The primary observance of the holiday is “v’higadeta l’vincha” (Exodus 13:8) – “and you shall tell your children…” – We are obligated to sit around the table and tell the story of our freedom, to learn from one another, to inspire inquiry and share our personal and collective narratives.  Story telling makes the Seder experience rich and personal.  Our stories, meshed with those of the past, invigorate the ritual, creating a living tradition. The personal infused with the communal, keeps the Seder experience creative and fresh, letting the next generation know that their stories matter, too.

Chag Ha’Matzot

The Torah refers to Passover as Hag Hamatzot, the “Feast of Unleavened Bread”: “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread and on the seventh day there shall be a festival of the Lord.” The Matzah is both the “bread of freedom” and the “bread of affliction” (Deuteronomy 16:3). We are instructed, “You shall not eat anything leavened with it; for you departed from the land of Egypt hurriedly – so that you may remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your    life.”  (Deuteronomy 16:3).  For a simple cracker, the Matzah holds a significant weight of memory.

How can Matzah be both the symbol of our freedom and of our slavery?  Made of just flour and water, without yeast or leavening, it is symbolic of degradation and slave rations. But seen another way, Matzah represents the hurried nature of their freedom – they didn’t have the time to let the dough rise. That is to say, although they were slaves, they didn’t eat food like Matzah, they were accustomed to leavened bread. Had there been more time, they might have taken delicious breads and cakes on the way.  But the nature of their freedom was such that their bread was compromised. They could take only unleavened. Matzah then, is the bread of freedom – no matter how plain (and tasteless) – it is beloved for what it represents.

Chag Ha’matzot calls us to attention – to shift our perspective from slave-minded to free-minded.  Matzah tells us, we can eat all the bread we want and still be enslaved.  Or we can eat meager rations and feel completely liberated.  On Passover, we switch the paradigm so that we can focus our attention and energies on what really matters – on what sets us free.

Chag Ha’Aviv

Chag Ha’viv, the “Springtime Holiday”, evokes delightful imagery of the natural world emerging from winter slumber. It is the beginning of the grain harvest, tethering the start of this festival to Shavuot, which takes place seven weeks later.  Beginning on the second night of Passover, we count down the days of the Omer, recalling the barley harvest and daily measure that was brought to the Temple in ancient days.  By commemorating our holiday through the lens of Spring, we enter into the season of renewal.  The symbolic foods on the Seder plate, the parsley and egg, remind us of the sprouting of fresh greenery and the cycle of life.  The Springtime also points to an awakened state of mind, joyously renewing ourselves in the spirit of vitality and youth.

Spring is also the season of lovers.  An accompanying text of the season is Shir Ha’Shirim, the Song of Songs, recited in many communities on the Sabbath of Passover, and continuing throughout the season. The Song of Songs colorfully describes lovers frolicking in the apple orchard, stretched out beneath the trees. It is typically read as a metaphor for the love between God and the Jewish people.

A Midrash highlights the Exodus story as the moment when God and Israel join into union.  God, as it were, had been peering through the lattice, eagerly waiting for the moment when the Israelites would be freed so they could unite and move forward together.  This metaphor conjures up the image of God and Israel sanctifying their union on Mount Sinai, with the Torah offered as their Ketubah, their official wedding document.

Z’man Cheiruteinu

Finally, “Z’man Cheiruteinu” means the “Time of our Freedom”.  At Seder we recount: “In every generation, we must see ourselves as if we personally came out of Egypt”.  This isn’t just a role play we take on at the table; it is an invitation to feel more free, to be more free, to dedicate ourselves to ensuring freedom for others. The Torah reminds us 36 times to “care for the stranger,” “don’t oppress the stranger, because you were strangers in a strange land.” On This holiday, we strive to create a little more freedom for ourselves and for others.  We commit to attending to whatever is holding us back and whatever is holding our society back.

Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word for Egypt, is not just a place name, it refers to a“narrow place” –  a state of being or a state of mind.  The call to freedom is a call within. We ask ourselves – what are we slaves to on this day? What can we do break free? The Midrash tells us that our descent into slavery was slow. The Israelites were comfortable in the land of Goshen for many years. All of their needs were met.  By the time they realized how ensconced they were in Exile, it was too late, they were on the road to Egyptian toil. Z’man Cheruteinu harkens to shift our focus, to notice what is tugging at our attention. What discomfort are we avoiding, what leap of faith is calling us forward?

There are many pathways into this beautiful holiday. Whether you are in it for the food, the ritual, the conversation, or the inner path, may each step on the journey lead you to greater freedom, satisfaction, and blessing.


Song(s) of the Sea by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

Song(s) of the Sea by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

Years ago, part of our curriculum for ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary was the art form called: “The Senior Sermon”. It was a daunting, yet celebratory rite of passage. To make matters worse, students didn’t get to choose their Torah portion; they were distributed by lottery.  As a singer, prayer leader, and music lover, I felt that I had literally “won the lottery” when I was given “Shabbat Shirah”, (the special Sabbath when the “Song of the Sea” is chanted from the Torah) as the scheduled date for my senior sermon.

Each year, when we come to this special Sabbath, I recall my Seminary days – our hard work and spirited community. But I also feel connected to the generations of women who have dared to sing and dance on the shores, grabbing the hands of those who would rather stand on the outskirts, bringing everyone into the circle dance, our celebration of freedom.

In Parshat Beshalach, we find two songs.

The more well-known and elaborate of the two is known as Shirat Hayam (“The Song of the Sea”). Spanning 18 verses of the Torah (Exodus 15:1-15:18), this song has come to be identified with the Israelites expression of faith and their recognition of God’s role as protector and warrior. Shirat Hayam has become a focal point of our tradition and liturgy, included in our prayer books and recited each morning. The rabbis included the song in our prayer books to recited during the Pesukei D’Zimra (“Verses of Song”) section of our morning prayers. When we arrive at Shirat Hayam during the weekly reading of the Torah portion, we pay homage to it by standing and singing it with a special melody.

The second song, shorter and less gallant, appears right after Shirat Hayam. In Exodus 15:20-21, we find these verses:

Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.

The song of Miriam, recorded in one lone verse, speaks volumes. Some scholars claim that these two songs are one and the same. The 13th-century French scholar Hezekiah ben Manoah, better known as the Chizkuni, argues that since the Torah uses words sparingly, it did not repeat the entire song again, but merely alluded to the first line suggesting the rest to follow.

But the two songs in fact serve different functions. Shirat Hayam is a record of events when the Israelites had full faith in God and trust in Moses their leader. Miriam’s song functions more like prayer, its words more akin to liturgy.

First, consider the length: just one verse. In Eastern religions, one word or phrase can serve as a focal point of prayer. Reciting the word again and again, the worshipper can get lost in the experience of the sound. In the Hasidic tradition, this is how the niggun functions — the repetitive melody becomes a meditation, stirring the soul and captivating the heart. One can imagine the women as swirling colors, dancing on the shores of the sea, timbrels in hand, singing to God.

Second, consider the structure. Miriam’s song has an urgency to it. Shirat Hayam begins Az yashir Moshe — then Moses will sing. But Miriam’s song is written in the present tense, in the plural imperative: Shiru ladonai, sing to God now. The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 23:8) recognizes this, stating that when Israel emerged from the sea, the angels came to sing to God first. But God said, let my children sing first because they are of flesh and blood. They must sing now before they die. But you, as long as you desire, you remain alive and can sing. Miriam grabbed the moment.

In Western culture, we don’t often experience this communal desire to sing, but the opportunities are there — in exceptional worship experiences, or even at concerts when throngs of fans sing their favorite song together along with the artist. At Jewish festivities, particular songs often spring to our lips. No one has to be asked to sing at a wedding or bar mitzvah. We do it instinctively in celebration.

Finally, consider the instruments. The biblical commentator Rashi wonders where the women found these drums. Could it be that the Israelite women, rushing from their Egyptian homes in the middle of the night with only a few precious belongings and some matzah to eat, brought drums with them? Rashi quotes a Midrash to explain:

With drums and dancing: “The righteous women of that generation were confident that God would do miracles for them; so they brought drums with them from Egypt.”

We can surmise from this commitment to shlep the instruments from Egypt that music must have played a central role in ancient worship. And glancing through the Book of Psalms, it becomes clear that music was in fact a focal point of Israelite prayer. Psalm 92 reads: “A song for Shabbat: Sing to God with a ten stringed harp with a voice and lyre together.” Or Psalm 150: “Praise God with the blast of the horn/ with the violin and harp/ with timbrel and dance/ with lute and pipe/ with resounding cymbals/ with loud clashing cymbals.” In the ancient temple, the Levites would accompany the sacrificial offerings with singing and musical instruments.

In our day, we don’t need a playbook to tell us to sing when we pray. It comes naturally. Melodies tether us to one another and to God. There is a mystical power in unbridled human song. It lifts the spirit and brings us to our feet, evoking the passion and celebration at the shores of the sea.

May we take a page from Miriam’s song book by creating our own unique songs of praise to God. They don’t have to be long, just love notes from the heart. On whatever shores we find ourselves, may these songs bring us together in freedom, community and lasting peace.