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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From Shattered to Whole – From Lost to Found: Reflections for a New Year

From Shattered to Whole – From Lost to Found: Reflections for a New Year

by Rabbi Danielle Upbin

 

Sometimes it takes a complete stranger to remind us of something that we have been meaning to do for a long time. The calendar can tell us what day of the year it is, but not how we ought to be spending our time. Only we can be the time trackers – sometimes we just need a little help.

A story is told: Once on Rosh Hodsh Elul, the zaddik, Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berdichev, was standing at his window.  A traveling shoemaker passed by and asked him, “Have you nothing to mend?”  In response, the rabbi threw himself on the floor and cried, “woe is me, the Day of Judgment is upon us and I still have not mended myself!”

We are now in the Hebrew month of Elul, a forty-day period of reflection and renewal between the first of Elul and Yom Kippur. The Midrash connects these forty days to the Biblical account describing how Moses went back up the mountain for forty days after the incident of the Golden Calf.  After having shattered the first set of Tablets, Moses returned to the mountain top to seek God’s forgiveness. In a poetic response, God gave Moses a second set of tablets – and a second chance.

The shards of the first tablets were surprisingly not lost. They were placed beside the second set in the Mishkan, the Holy Ark that traveled with the Israelites in the desert. Yes, that means, for forty years, the Israelites carried around a heap of broken rocks.

Don’t we all, in some way, carry with us shattered pieces of our past? Those pieces, at least for a time, are necessary to ponder, to remind us of the arduous journey toward wholeness.  But the two sets of Tablets and the energy of those forty days of prayer, give us hope. Just as God forgave the Israelites, guiding them for forty years in prosperity, we pray that God will forgive and guide us. Equally as important, just as the Israelites were able to forgive themselves, fostering a new relationship with God and Moses, so can we move on- forgiving ourselves and those who are close to us.

This metaphor of brokenness can help us prepare to enter the High Holidays.

Brokenness is not the ideal state – it is not an end unto itself, it is a means to an end. There is a period in which we sometimes dwell in brokenness – observing the pieces of our lives – but in experiencing brokenness, we learn how to put ourselves back together.  The best way to understand how something works, is to take it apart. Mechanics and engineers take apart machines, scientists dissect genes and other physical matter, therapists dissect thoughts and experiences.

Like any Ikea project, constructing a beautiful whole from disparate parts can be a challenge – requiring time, focus and understanding.  I have been known to assemble a book shelf or two, only to end up with with an upside down or backwards piece of press board. A perfectionist would cringe.  I, however, have learned that “good enough” is sometimes as good as it gets. We all know that life does not come with instructions.  But if we are wise to our own truths and trajectories, we can attempt to create manuals of living. We can learn how to build the best version of ourselves, backwards pieces and all.

We also need to know that we don’t have to work alone.

There is another Hassidic story told by Rabbi Hayyim of Sanz in which, a man had been wandering in a forest for several days, not knowing which way was the right way.  Suddenly, when he saw another person approach him, his heart was filled with joy because he thought that he would be able to get some directions.  When they neared one another, he asked: “Can you tell me which is the way out? I have been wandering in this forest for several days, and by now I am good and lost. The other said to him, “Brother, I do not know the way out either. For I too have been wondering in this forest for many days – but this I can tell you – do not take the way I have been taking for that will lead you astray. And now let us look for a new way together.”

I love this story because I have been there. Literally. My husband and I were once walking through the woods that backed up to our family’s vacation home in the Catskills.  We were certain that we were just a stone’s throw away from Bethel Woods, the site of the historical Woodstock concert. Proverbially, we were trying to “get back to the garden”.

What was supposed to be a short walk became a frightening mis-adventure. I have never felt so hopelessly turned around. In my mind, we were lost beyond belief. Here is where it gets interesting. My husband, who is a seasoned hiker and former forest fire fighter, didn’t feel as lost. The problem was that I couldn’t accept his advice that would lead us home:  “Follow the path of the sun”, he said, “kneel down on all fours and follow the path like a deer.”  It all seemed so silly and unreasonable at the time, especially when he pointed out a tree that he recognized.  But when I allowed myself to trust in his experience and knowledge, I was able to get over my illusion of being hopelessly lost.  I simply followed his advice and we eventually did make it back to the house.  We never “got back to the garden” that day, but our experience was memorable nonetheless.

During the month of Elul, we are encouraged to take the path, to do the work, to inspect our pieces. But we don’t have to do it alone. Throughout  the High Holiday season, we have many tools that can serve as sign posts  along our journey. Here are three of my favorites:

  1. Cheshbon Hanefesh (“an accounting” of the soul) places us in a spiritual “tax season.” This is the time to review and take stock of where we have been and where we are headed, actively assessing how we spend our time, money, and energy. If our findings are favorable, we carry on, grateful for the “refund” that is sure to come.  Where we find areas to improve, we take note of where we overspent or underpaid. Our personal accounting provides us with the opportunity to manage the imbalance and set our budget of words, deeds and intentions for the coming year.

 

  1. The Shofar blast we hear each morning is our wakeup call to be mindful of our actions and thought patterns. When we hear the shofar, we are reminded to get back on the track – cut through the superficiality – and probe our lives for meaning. The blast of the Shofar can be piercing, shattering, or long.  But when the call ceases, we are left with the silence in which to ponder and prioritize.

 

  1. Psalm 27, which we recite each morning and night, focuses our attention on faith: “The Lord is my light and my help, whom shall I fear, the lord is the stronghold of my life, whom shall I dread?” We are reminded that trust in God will light the way through our darkest hours. When we turn to God, it shouldn’t be in fear of judgment, rather in faith that that our work will pay off.

The days of Elul are passing quickly, but this year, as in years past, we know how to measure our time.  May the rest of the season evoke for us a sense of reflection, forgiveness, purging, and rebuilding. So, when the cobbler comes knocking at our door, asking: “Have you nothing to mend?” We can answer knowingly – “we’re mending, we’re mending” –  our project of renewal is well underway.

 

 

 

Jewish Roots By Rabbi Danielle Upbin

Jewish Roots

By Rabbi Danielle Upbin

 This column was written in memory of Hannah Weiss, z”l, whose commitment to a sustainable environment dare us all to live better.

While the sage Choni was walking along a road, he saw a man planting a carob tree. Choni asked him: “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” “Seventy years,” replied the man. Choni then asked: “Are you so healthy a man that you expect to live that length of time and eat its fruit?” The man answered: “I found a fruitful world because my ancestors planted it for me. Likewise, I am planting for my children.”

~Taanit 23a

This powerful text prompts us to ask ourselves: What kind of planet do we want to leave for our children? How do our choices today impact our future, long term health and resilience of the planet?  These questions are often debated in the public domain, but one may be surprised to learn of the profound and authentic contributions of Jewish thought to these matters.  Over the centuries, our tradition has eloquently and creatively urged its adherents to be “environmentalists” – to be mindful of consumption and unnecessary waste, to support sustainable agriculture, to provide for the needy, and to exhibit gratitude for for what we have.

Consider another evocative text: Shimon bar Yochai taught: “if you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone says that the Messiah has drawn near, first plant the sapling, and then go and greet the Messiah.” ~Avot d’Rebbe Natan 31b

Planting a tree demonstrates our commitment to a healthy planet. Even when our long awaited spiritual redemption is at hand, we don’t forgo our personal responsibility to be partners with God. We are the dreamers, but we are also the planters. The seeds we sew will inevitably become the fruits of the next generation. Spiritual freedom is dependent on our informed choices and responsibility for one other.

Our tradition is keenly aware that our encounters with the natural world stir in us a sense of peace, wonder, and wellbeing – simple gifts bestowed upon those who are willing to accept them. Consider this passage from a mystical tradition:

“Every blade of grass sings poetry to God without ulterior motives or alien thoughts – without consideration of reward. How good and lovely it is, then, when one is able to hear this song of the grasses…” – Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav

Gently calling over a busy, loud, and over-connected society, Jewish thought invites us to do something counter-cultural like take a “tech-break” and stroll outside. We are invited to turn off the constant chatter and ‘tune-in’ to the symphony of the natural world.  Imagine getting so externally and internally quiet, as to actually hear the song of the blade of grass!

There is no better gift to ourselves, to one other, and to future generations then owning our role as the true stewards of the earth that we were created to be. As the Torah states: “The Eternal One placed the human being in the Garden of Eden, to till and to tend it” (Genesis 2:15). By making some small changes to our consumption, consumerism and waste habits, we may just be able to hear that song of the grasses from our abodes!

These are just a few of the many Jewish ideas that speak to the timely subject of “conscious living” on the planet. As we celebrate the “New Year of the Trees” this month on Tu B’Shevat, the 15th of Shevat may we be inspired to go back to our Jewish roots to plant a tree, or even an entire orchard, for the benefit of future generations.

 

*This blog post also appears in the Jan 27th edition of the Jewish Press of Pinellas County

“Your Light is Lifting Me Higher”

 

“Your Light is Lifting Me Higher”

By Rabbi Danielle Upbin

This may come as a surprise, but the art of “page calling” in communal prayer, along with the requisite “please rise”/ “please be seated” is not part of clergy education. Some parishioners tolerate the interruption because it helps them follow along in the service. Others find it to be an odious aspect of ritual.

A congregant of mine overcame his annoyance by reinterpreting the cues: “Please rise” became a spiritual directive, as in – “rise up and elevate your spirit”. “Be seated” became a reminder to contemplate and restore a sense of inner peace.

“Rising in spirit” has direct impact on our Hanukkah observance as well. The Talmud (Babylonian Tractate Shabbat 21b) records a dispute between Hillel and Shammai regarding the proper way to light the Hanukkiya (the Hanukkah candelabra):

The Sages taught in a baraita: The basic mitzva of Hanukkah is each day to have a light kindled by a person, the head of the household, for him/herself and their household. And the mehadrin, i.e., those who are meticulous in the performance of mitzvot, kindle a light for each and every one in the household. And the mehadrin min hamehadrin, who are even more meticulous, adjust the number of lights daily. Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree as to the nature of that adjustment. Beit Shammai say: On the first day one kindles eight lights and, from there on, gradually decreases the number of lights until, on the last day of Hanukkah, he kindles one light. And Beit Hillel say: On the first day one kindles one light, and from there on, gradually increases the number of lights until, on the last day, he kindles eight lights.

The text continues to add several arguments in support of both sides of the debate, concluding that the law is in accordance with Beit Hillel:

The reason for Beit Hillel’s opinion is that the number of lights is based on the principle: One elevates to a higher level in matters of sanctity and one does not downgrade. Therefore, if the objective is to have the number of lights correspond to the number of days, there is no alternative to increasing their number with the passing of each day. (Translation: William Davidson Talmud, sefaria.org)

Remarkably, as inheritors of Hillel’s rule, we are all mehadrin min hamehadrin, the best of the best, the ones who are “the most meticulous” in their candle lighting practice. That is, most of us add a candle to our Hanukkiya each night.  The challenge is to think about the ways in which we can do more than just add candles to our Hanukkiya.  Light is symbolic in most cultures and it holds true for Judaism as well. As we light our candles this year, I invite you to discover the symbolic meaning of the light in your life. How does the candlelight enrich your spiritual perception? Each night the candles illuminates a little more blessing in the dark of winter, pointing toward the ways in which we can aspire to cultivate deeper self-awareness. What might that expanding light mean for you this season?

One of my favorite aspects of lighting the Hanukkiya at home is seeing my family’s faces glowing in the candlelight.  The light not only makes for great photographs. It draws me into a space of gratitude. Taking time each night for the candles and for each other is a tradition that bind us together from generation to generation. My kids may look back and remember the presents they did or didn’t receive that year (After all, I still remember the “Barbie Dream House” I asked for and never got).  But I hope they will also cherish the light that I see dancing in their eyes.

I am drawn to the idea that the eight distinct flames of the Hanukkiya share a single power source – the shamash or “the helper candle”. The strength of the shamash is that it provides light to each wick without depleting its own resources. We are each a shamash, a leader and helper, capable of sharing our blessings without burning out or giving up.  At the same time, we each also receive from the Source – capable of being “lit up” in the variety of ways in which we find our own inspiration and voice. The increasing light of the Hanukkiya reminds us that we are each a candle of God, sharing knowledge and acts of love – living out the great miracle of our lives with gratitude and pride.

May each of us be blessed, at any age, “to increase in holiness”, to lift ourselves and each other up higher, just like the candles of the Hanukkah ritual. May the light that shines from within us grow throughout the holiday and for years to come.