Friday, March 15, 2013

Zecher Litziat Mitzrayim:
Shabbat and the
Remembrance of Things Passover

For Congregation Ner Shalom, March 15, 2013

As we planned this musical Shabbat, Lorenzo and I had particular ideas about some Classical Reform hymns of my grandparents' era that we might be able to reclaim and bend a little and present in a fresh way. We began doing our research and found that those anthems, which everyone thinks are really dated, are, in fact, really dated. For the most part, our hopes for a Union Hymnal revival night began crumbling, and we fell back to our default plan of just having a night of beautiful music.

Then Gale Kissin stepped in. Gale's custom is to find music that excites her, rehearse it with the band, and then let me in on it. That gives me the holy challenge of figuring out how the various usually secular, sometimes sad, always beautiful songs, often in Yiddish, can function to prop up a night of Shabbos ritual. Sometimes that's hard to do, although mostly I'm the only one who sees the bumps, since mostly we're awash in the beauty of the music itself more than we are figuring out what prayer thematic it is supposed to relate to.

So this time I asked Gale, "What are you thinking of playing," and she told me that her band, Mama Loshn, was freshly rehearsed and ready to go on a variety of songs related to Pesach and our long-rehearsed story of liberation from bondage in the narrow land of Mitzrayim.

I found myself a little resistant to the idea, as Gale will attest from the whiny emails I sent her about whether this music wouldn't just be better for the Seder. Of course, Gale and I have enough of a relationship for her to know to ignore me; my complaints are the birth pangs of ideas, and all she has to do is sit tight.

So I began to wonder about my own resistance. I shouldn't be resistant. First of all, I find ancient Egypt interesting; I took a semester of Egyptian history in college, plus a full year of Classical Egyptian language, which has, alas, over the intervening decades, eroded into cocktail party chit-chat about hieroglyphics and bad snippets of jokes, such as singing "I got plenty Akhenaten" whenever there's a suitable setup. But that said, ancient Egypt has been an object of interest for me; and you all know how much I love Torah. So why am I resistant to another retelling of our ancient enslavement and flight to freedom?

I realized suddenly that it was a Pesach spillover effect. We tell the Exodus story on Pesach and I've frankly come to have mixed feelings about the holiday. It was once my very favorite. As a child, I loved seder, even though it was done in a kind of rote manner; nonetheless I was with grandparents and great aunties around a table doing a fancy ceremony and I was happy. Then as a young adult I began to appreciate how I could exercise my compulsive Virgo tendencies through the yearly ritual of cleaning and kashering the kitchen. And I loved the special diet, a daily reminder and signal of my Jewishness. I've never been a regular kippah wearer, but during Pesach I was revealed to the world as a Jew by the unmistakable trail of matzah crumbs wherever I went. In my twenties and early thirties I would attend or host seders that would go on until three in the morning, with singing and poetry and debate and the kind of fellowship that you only experience in the middle of the night after hours of group effort and perhaps one or two more than the customary four glasses of wine.

But then came middle age, when life became more complicated. Touring schedules that make it so that you will never have time to kasher your kitchen, at least not the way you want to; and worse, you will often arrive home on the morning of the day of seder, and hopefully you will have cooked and frozen some Pesach food in advance. And in any event, your seder that used to be so stimulating now has to work for the young children and the older children and the enthusiastic adults and the disaffected adults too. Your table will be filled with Jews, and there will no longer be enough non-Jews present to keep the Jews on their best behavior. And there's no more time to prepare yourself spiritually or to prepare a well-crafted seder. In part because now, at least for me, there's a congregational seder to prepare, which inevitably edges out the planning that used to be devoted to what happens at your own table. All in all, Pesach has, I confess, lost a bit of its sparkle.

And with my conflicted feelings about the holiday, so went the story itself. So now, when I hear about Pharaoh, or taskmasters, or plagues, I get sucked into a vortex of overwhelm and frustration and anxiety.

So: that was a big, if tangential, confession.

But in any event, I've concluded that my resistance is a disservice to an important story. The Exodus is a formative story. Right up there with Isaac being bound, or receiving the Torah at Sinai. This story is one so important that we retell it over and over. Not just in our annual Torah-reading cycle, but in our liturgy, for instance in the extended-play version of the V'ahavta, in multiple Psalms and, of course in the Mi Chamocha where every day we celebrate the crossing of the Red Sea. A story so important that we are commanded to tell it to our children, and we do so not at synagogue but around a table every year. It is a story that is supposed to live at home with us and suffuse our domestic spaces like the steam and aroma of Grandma's matzahball soup simmering on the stove.

This is a story that lends itself easily to metaphorical rather than historical readings. Mitzrayim as metaphor: enslavement, narrowness, oppression, injustice, fear. Everything that holds us back as individuals, as a society, as a world. And the Exodus, yetziat Mitzrayim, assures us of our ability, with some amount of chutzpah and some amount of faith, to break through those obstacles into the great wide unknown that awaits us.

But besides being a metaphor for our lives, there's another connection explicitly drawn by our tradition, and that is the relationship between the Exodus and Shabbat. In the Kiddush that we chant on Shabbat evening, the valences of Shabbat are explicitly laid out. We first call Shabbat zikaron l'ma'aseh v'reishit - a memory of the act of Creation. Shabbat is the pause that punctuated and gave final shape to that first week. Then we continue in the Kiddush: ki hu yom t'chilah l'mikraey kodesh. Shabbat is the beginning of holiness. It is the first thing mentioned in Torah that God calls holy. It is not the end product of holiness but rather the first occasion of it; it is what opens the floodgates of holiness into this universe.

Both of those understandings of Shabbat - creation and holiness - make sense to us; intuitive and clear.

Then we continue: Shabbat is a zecher litziat mitzrayim, a remembrance, a souvenir, of the departure from Egypt.

What does that mean? What do Shabbat and the Exodus have to do with each other? Shabbat is other-worldly, primordial. It was God's first thought and last act of Creation. Whereas the Exodus already takes place in another kind of time, within the much smaller scale of human history, or what we imagine to be human history. Shabbat has to do with our cosmology of holiness and time. The Exodus, at least on its surface, is about politics and migration.

How are they connected?

The rabbis would undoubtedly say that God brought us out of Egypt in order to keep Shabbat. They would say that Shabbat, though ancient, couldn't be practiced until there was a people who agreed to practice it, that people being us, in the desert, free at last, beginning our long wanderings.

But there's more to say here, because Shabbat is not just a day on the calendar, but is in itself the breath of freedom. The pause where something that has engaged you and burdened you stops and you perceive the difference. It is the sensation when, after a hard illness, you wake one day feeling better. It is the moment of quiet gratitude after you've fixed dinner and set it on the table and you finally sit down to eat, no longer the maker but the receiver. It is the sensation of relief you feel when you finally close your computer at the end of the day and you notice the cricket call outside replacing the psychic buzz of the Internet. Shabbat is not unlike the chord that continues ringing through the concert hall after the last note of a symphony is released. The moment of sad-happy-fulfilled directionlessness when you close the last page of the novel you've spent the last week with.

And the experience of Shabbat is not unlike the surprise and bewilderment and relief of the Israelites when they realized they were, at last, beyond Pharaoh's reach.

Shabbat is zecher litziat mitzrayim: either a souvenir of the Exodus or a remembrance offered for the Exodus. What I mean is that it's not clear which concept is the reminder and which is the reminded.

We can say that a way to get at the feeling of Shabbat is through the idea of the Exodus. Shabbat is a release from the narrowness of the week, in which we were enslaved to our ambitions, our struggles, our things. But it could work the other way. If you want to understand what the departure from Egypt might have felt like, but let's say you live in a shtetl in a country where you've never been free of persecution, where real freedom is practically unimaginable, then the way to imagine liberation is through the familiar experience of Shabbos.

Both Shabbat and the Pesach story represent a courtship with God, with the Shechinah. God called on the slaves in Egypt like a beau standing at the door, asking, "May I take you out sometime?" And on Shabbat, every week, the Shechinah arrives at our doors as a bride awaiting us. Both Shabbat and the Exodus mark relationship, even love affair, with the divine.

But I guess if I were to try generalize anything about this connection, I'd say that we are taught by our experience of Shabbat that there is a rhythm to things. Just as a sentence of speech arrives inevitably at a pause and a breath, so too the rhythm of our lives. And the rhythm of our societies. And our biology. And our cosmology. Every tyrant will eventually fall. Freedom will keep happening again and again. The days of our weeks and the years of our lives will succeed and supplant each other like Egyptian dynasties. We will build monuments with our hands and with our words. We will be our own slaves and our own taskmasters until the breath of possibility that we learn from Shabbat reminds us how to remove ourselves from the machinery of our slavery.

And one day our bodies will stop altogether and, we pray, what comes next will be freedom, spaciousness, relief, Shabbos. Forever Shabbos.

So let us sing the songs of our enslavement and our liberation, in all of our languages. Let us feel the rhythms of this life and this world, knowing that at the end of six days comes rest, at the end of pain comes release, at the end of struggle comes delight, at the end of our narrowest places a great and unknown land awaits.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautiful!