Monday, April 18, 2011

Seder Tonight? Be a Stack of Matzah

This holiday of Pesach is a huge exercise in living symbolism. The items on our table, what we consume, how we sit - all these things are linked to a deeper meaning. Sitting on our seder table is matzah - not just one piece, but a stack of three. Some say they represent the three great themes of Jewish thought and prayer: Creation, Revelation and Redemption.

Living in Sonoma County, it's blessedly easy to connect with the throb of life that courses through this world. Just to step outside on a rainy Erev Pesach is to feel the cycle of ongoing Creation - vapor becoming raindrops; trees drinking; flowers blooming; bees buzzing. We perceive, participate and revel in the great flow of shefa - of divine abundance. At Pesach, we bless the renewal of life and sing love songs to Creation.

Being in community with each other is our great mechanism for Revelation - the flow of enlightenment that comes to us through Torah. Not just the written words of our holy texts, but the wisdom we all share with each other; the insights we've drawn from our life experiences, our hard times, our joys. Sharing insight is what seder is about, and it is why we look forward to reclining together in discussion tonight at home or later in the week in community settings. As Rabbi Chananiah said in Pirkei Avot, "When two people sit together and words of Torah are exchanged, the Divine Presence, or Shechinah, rests between them."

The final matzah in the stack is Redemption - our belief that despite all our narrow places, our setbacks, and our hard-earned, self-protective cynicism, change is possible. Does this require a belief in divine intervention? Absolutely -- if we also believe that we are how the Divine acts in this world. When we use our hands and hearts and heads to make more justice, more freedom, more fairness, more compassion, we are Divine intervention. We are the mighty hands and outstretched arms of Redemption.

So let us, this week, reawaken our appreciation of the Creation around and in us.
Let us dare to share our deep and real wisdom with each other.
And let us renew our commitment to making the world a better place.
Let us be the three matzot of the seder plate.

B'ruchah Yah Shechinah, Elateynu Eyn Hachayim, asher kidshatnu b'mitzvoteyha, v'tzivatnu al achilat matzah.
Blessed be the Source of Life that calls us to embody the matzah.

B'teavon. Now eat up.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

My Two Egypts

[For the Ner Shalom Malakh, April 2011]

Our tradition ties the Hebrew name for Egypt, Mitzrayim, to the word metzar - a narrow place. Over the millenia we've come to think of Egypt as representing not only a spot on the map but also our own personal narrow places, our struggles and limitations.

But there are famously two Egypts: Upper and Lower. Upper Egypt is, counterintuitively, in the south. It is the higher ground that impels the Nile northward toward its delta. In Arabic, Egypt is called simply Misr. But Hebrew remembers Egypt's twofold nature and gives it the "dual" suffix -ayim. Mitzrayim - the pair of Egypts.

So looking inward, do I see not only a single narrow place, but a pair of them?

I already know about one narrow place. My collection of hard stuff that I've struggled with, complained about or apologized for for years: my shortcomings, bad habits, self-sabotaging patterns. Alas, I know these places well because I'm stuck in them still.

But what is that other Egypt? Every once in a while I discover a narrow place I had not been aware of before. It usually comes in conversation with someone else. Their story causes a light to go on for me suddenly, bright as the lighthouse of Alexandria. Some narrow-minded spot; a prejudice that I'd never noticed or or assumption I'd never questioned before. There it is: my other Egypt. The narrow place I hadn't yet recognized but which constrains me invisibly nonetheless. And in noticing that heretofore unseen personal enslavement, it shifts.

This is one reason community is important to me and why, I think, seder is important. Without discourse, without dialogue, without the test of human engagement, there are parts of ourselves we might never discover. Other people's realities surprise and challenge us. Hearing their personal stories of enslavement and liberation inevitably triggers our compassion and self-recognition, and it breaks the dam that holds so much of our selves back.

It feels like magic sometimes. And rightly so. Isn't freedom always accompanied by otot umoftim - signs and wonders?

So it's that time again, to widen the narrow places and let our waters flow free to the sea. Not just the places you always think need widening, but the narrow places you're about to discover. Clear a passage through both your Egypts. Undam it all.

Have a good, deep seder this year. With family, friends, shul, whatever. Go traditional or try something altogether new (check out my cousins' elegant and tasty Sipping Seder or Storahtelling's Four-Question Seder that will go live any day).

And may we all, between sips of wine or maror martinis or chicken soup or borscht, grab the chance to liberate all of our Egypts - two each.