Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Everything I Needed to Know About Passover I Learned from Knitting

[For the Ner Shalom Malakh, April-May 2010]

I've been trying to do more knitting of late. This is a great challenge for me, because it doesn't come naturally. Often I'm struggling against the tangle of shmateh hanging from my needles, determined yet inept, my own mistakes and miscounts coming at me as if out of the blue, like unforeseeable misfortune. But then at other times I'm in the zone. My needles sail, their clatter almost a prayer, my spirit disembodied from the action of my fingers. And I knit my thoughts and intentions right into the row.

Until recently, all I ever knitted were rectangles. Scarves. Stitch after stitch like stringing beads. But the good stuff, the non-rectangles, require ins and outs that are much more like life itself. You lurch forward, you double back, sometimes you are connected, sometimes you leave an emptiness in your wake. When you're in the row you can't see the meaning. Only after you've knitted enough and hold it away from your eyes can you see that there is, in fact, a pattern. The holes make sense; there are previously unperceived connections between this and that; there is grace in what turns out to be lace.

I've recently learned that "passover" is not only the name of our Festival of Matzot and our description of the Angel of Death's detour when approaching an Israelite home in Egypt. It is also a knitting instruction. Abbreviated passo, It involves several minute actions. You make a stitch. You follow this with another stitch. Then you reach back and grab the earlier one. You pass it over and around the more recent stitch, pull it off the needle and let it go. Then you keep knitting.

In a way, our lives and our history are like the passover stitch. We are part of a garment, that is for sure. We are connected front and back to past and future. We are linked side to side with each other and with this particular reality in which we live. But despite exhortations to "stay in the moment" or to "live in the present," we can't. Cut off the past and the present unravels. So how do we engage the past and still move forward? We use the passo - the passover stitch. We reach back, take hold of the past and let it briefly embrace the present. What perspective does it offer us? What flavor? What insight? Can we accept the generosity of its offer without being bound and tied to its specifics?

It seems to me that only by engaging the past in this way can we let it go honorably, knowing that we will carry an element of it into the future. A lesson, a custom, a considered rejection of a custom, a reshaping of a custom. We are not large enough to remember every story, every ritual, every event of our past. But we can remember that there was a story, a ritual, an event. We can catch and carry some element of its spirit. And then, like the passo, we can let go of it, let it gently slip off the needle, as we continue to knit the garment of our lives.

The Talmudic word for knitting or interlacing, serug, is also used to refer to broken lines in Torah. That is, lines of text written not in rectangles like a scarf, but rather like lace, with gaps and continuations. This style of writing is reserved especially for the great moments of poetry in Torah, for instance the Song of the Sea, sung by the Children of Israel after the parting and rejoining of the waves. The poetic climax of the Passover story, written to look like undulating waves, written to look like a knitted garment.

And so let us make lace this Passover. Let us take this old yarn of ours, this story of enslavement and liberation, of eagerness and doubt, of triumph and regret, and draw it for a moment around our own lives to see what insight it offers us. Are we free? Are we content? What must we do next? How do we celebrate our freedoms while regretting pain we've caused others in achieving it? Let us let the past pass over and around us and teach us its lessons. And then we can, at least for this year, let it go, knowing that with time and perspective, we will see the pattern that it helped shape.

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