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.

 

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The God of the Machzor vs. The God of Mother Nature

The God of the Machzor vs. The God of Mother Nature

By Rabbi Danielle Upbin

 
What is our way in to the High Holidays this year? How do we greet “The Father” “The King”, “The Shepherd” “The Judge”? After experiencing the eye of the Hurricane, either behind shuttered windows or in front of a screen, we all experienced the heavy handedness of nature – a force beyond our control.  We confronted our mortality either face to face or vicariously through images of perfect strangers wading through flood waters, waiting on rooftops. The voice of God in Harvey, Irma and Maria was not the still small voice we crane to hear on the holidays.  It was the overpowering voice of the Psalms – Kol Adonai Ba’Koach. – The voice of God in strength, Kol Adonai al ha’mayim, the voice of God in raging waters. Kol Adonai hover arazim, the voice of God shatters the cedar, the oak, the palm.

When we open our Machzor (prayer book) this year, how will we relate to the metaphors for the Divine found within those pages?  To whom will we ascribe our faith? I hope that we will feel shepherded, spared the evil decree, written for a good life in the Book of Life. But we will also have to reflect on those who lost everything. What is a few days of power in comparison. Some will still feel petty that the power didn’t come on soon enough.  I hope we choose to dwell in the space of gratitude, reflecting on the grand coordinated country-wide efforts of power companies who drove a long way to send the message of Florida Strong.

Likely, through this journey of prayer, many thoughts and emotions will rise and fall, come and go. The liturgy may feel comforting on some pages and alienating on others.  We will have to ask ourselves again and again, who was that God in the hurricane? Was God in the feeling of helplessness? Or was God in the caring response after the storm? We will be called upon to feel deeply about what it means to be human in a very unpredictable world.

As we open our prayer books, I know we will all have a lot of questions for The  Majesty and the The Judge. Should we feel unheard, we may choose to direct our attention to the other aspects of the Divine hiding in the text: Our “Rock” and “Our Redeemer” – Tzureinu v’go’aleinu, our “Support” Somech Noflim, “The One Who Hears”, Ha’Shome’a, andThe Architect and Craftsman”, Ki Hinay Ka’Chomer B’yad HaYotzer.

I pray that we will allow ourselves to be present and sit with all that is. When we struggle, may we find reconciliation. When we doubt, may our faith lead us to perceive a new angle.  When we feel isolated in our thoughts, may our family, friends and fellow congregants softly bring us back into the fold.

For all of us, I hope that the experience of frailty can lead into gratitude for the blessings we have and for the good that we allow to unfold. We can choose to focus less on power outages and more on the power helping hands.  Life can go on, without all our stuff, even without electricity (although we hate to admit it). Wherever we find ourselves in the aftermath of the storm, my hope is that the symbols and rituals of the season will awaken us to a sense of renewal, recharge and readiness for whatever the New Year may bring.

 

 

“Living in Our Element”: Connecting Body and Soul

“Living in Our Element”:  Connecting Body and Soul

Rabbi Danielle Upbin

 

In college, a favorite past time among my group of friends was drumming and singing Native American chants. I recall one in particular – “The Element Chant”: Earth my body, water my blood, air by breath and fire my spirit/ We are a circle with no beginning and never ending.

 

While the lyrics aren’t exactly plucked out of the Jewish tradition, they absolutely resonate with

a Jewish ideology that celebrates the blessing of both a healthy body and spirit.  Our tradition does not ask us to choose one over the other. It recognizes the value of a working body in tandem with an attuned soul. Actually, drumming and chanting together create a beautiful expression of this balance because they require an integrated engagement of body and spirit. But even without a drum, one can readily make the connection. In our morning prayers, the Siddur scripts an offering of gratitude.

 

The prayer, Asher Yatzar, found at the beginning of most prayer books, recognizes and celebrates the creaturely part of our existence – our “earth and water”. Some people lovingly refer to this prayer as “The Bathroom Prayer” because it references the glory of “unclogged pipes”. Some readers get a chuckle out of the mention of the “Throne of Glory” as well….  The prayer reminds us not to take our health for granted.  Every orifice and organ is there for a reason, so the prayer goes. Our tradition encourages us to pause during our morning personal rituals to reflect on the miracle of the body. Here is the prayer:

 

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר יָצַר אֶת הָאָדָם בְּחָכְמָה, וּבָרָא בוֹ נְקָבִים נְקָבִים, חֲלוּלִים חֲלוּלִים. גָּלוּי וְיָדֽוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶֽךָ, שֶׁאִם יִפָּתֵֽחַ אֶחָד מֵהֶם, אוֹ יִסָּתֵם אֶחָד מֵהֶם, אִי אֶפְשַׁר לְהִתְקַיֵּם וְלַעֲמוֹד לְפָנֶֽיךָ. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, רוֹפֵא כָל בָּשָׂר וּמַפְלִיא לַעֲשׂוֹת.

 

Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Me’lech Ha’olam, asher ya’tzar et a’adam b’chochma u’vara vo nekavim, nekavim, chalulim, chalulim, galu’i v’yadu’a lifnei kisei k’vodecha, she’im ye’fa’te’ach echad me’hem o ye’sa’tem echad me’hem, ee-efshar l’hitkayem la’amod le’fa’necha. Baruch Ata Adonai, Rof’ai kol basar u’maf’lee la’asot. 

 

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who fashioned humans with wisdom, and created within them many openings and many cavities. It is obvious and known before Your Throne of Glory, that if even one of them were to be opened (that is supposed to be closed) or if even one of them were to be blocked (that is supposed to be open), it would be impossible to be sustained and stand before You. Blessed are You, God, Who heals all bodies and acts wondrously.

 

The tandem prayer, “Elohai Neshama” – gives thanks for our pure soul – the “air and fire” animating our being. “My God, the soul You have given me is pure.”  Our breath is our soul-connection traced back to the Divine breath shared with Adam Ha’Rishon, the first human (Genesis 2:7) into whose being God first breathed life.

 

A word play in the Hebrew language makes this connection evident: In Hebrew, Neshama means Soul/Neshima means Breath.  Each morning, we affirm our appreciation of the gift of this SoulBreath and for ability to tap into the Divine spark within us. The prayer makes it clear that the soul is our essential, but only on loan for our limited run.  We are reminded that as long as we have this life sustaining energy within us, it is our duty to praise and thank the Spirit’s Creator.  Here are the words of the prayer:

 

אֱלֹהַי, נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַֽתָּ בִּי טְהוֹרָה הִיא. אַתָּה בְרָאתָהּ, אַתָּה יְצַרְתָּהּ, אַתָּה נְפַחְתָּהּ בִּי, וְאַתָּה מְשַׁמְּרָהּ בְּקִרְבִּי, וְאַתָּה עָתִיד לִטְּלָהּ מִמֶּֽנִּי, וּלְהַחֲזִירָהּ בִּי לֶעָתִיד לָבוֹא. כָּל זְמַן שֶׁהַנְּשָׁמָה בְקִרְבִּי, מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ, יְיָ אֱלֹהַי וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתַי, רִבּוֹן כָּל הַמַּעֲשִׂים, אֲדוֹן כָּל הַנְּשָׁמוֹת. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ, הַמַּחֲזִיר נְשָׁמוֹת לִפְגָרִים מֵתִים.

Elohai Neshama she’natata bee, tehora hee.

Ata b’rata, Ata yetzarta, Ata nefachta bee,

v’Ata m’shamra b’kirbee,

v’Ata atid l’tila mi’meni,

u’l’hachzira bee l’atid la’vo.

Kol z’man she’han’shama b’kirbi,

modeh ani l’fane’cha,

Adonai Elohai avo’tai, Ri’bon kol ha’ma’asim,

Adon kol haneshamot.

Baruch ata Adonai, h’amechazir neshamot lifgarim me’tim.

 

My God, the soul you have given me is pure. You made it, You created it, You placed it within me, and in the future, You will take it from me in order to return in to me in the time to come. All the time that my soul resides in me, I offer praise to You, my God and God of my ancestors, Ruler of all creation, Master of the souls. Blessed are You, Adonai, Who returns souls to lifeless bodies.

 

The power of this prayer hit me one morning when I happened upon a group of Jewish day school children in morning prayers, chanting first line over and over with fervent gusto –  clapping, dancing, and full of joy. It reminded me of those drum circles from my past. Proudly, I joined in, clearly in my “element” singing with all my kishkes –  body, soul, breath and spirit.

 

As we welcome each new day, may we be blessed with a healthy cognizance of our Whole Body/SoulBody connection. Let us commit to honoring the value of our health and the limitless of our spirit.