The audacity of hope in 2021
We will soon be singing the songs of Hallel at the Passover seder. Although we sing Hallel many times in the year, the line from Psalm 118 will hold particular resonance, “Min heMeitzar karati, Anani bamerchavya” (From the narrow place, I called out to G-d, G-d answered me with expanse).
The resonance of this line for Passover is that Mitzrayim (Egypt) shares the same linguistic root as Meitzar (the narrow place). On Pesach, when we sing: “Egypt our place of slavery and the experience of constriction are one”, it seems as if freedom occurs dramatically and suddenly. We cry out to G-d from places of tightness, and G-d answers with expansion, we are free.
This might be how we tell the exodus story thousands of years later. However, if we study the story of exodus, we can see that it was a case of stops and starts until we actually arrived at freedom.
From the first time that G-d announced to Moses that he would respond to the cries of the Israelites until we finally sang the Song of the Sea was a long road filled with ten plagues, increased suffering, and glimmers of hope, an interplay of light and dark.
This year marks exactly a year since South Africa went into its first hard lockdown. Indeed, it was announced a week before Passover. By Pesach, our entire world had changed. We had entered the narrow place.
Some of us had a seder alone, others were fortunate to have immediate family. Yet, we all felt the pain of being isolated from the ones we loved dearly and we were all confronted by the terror of not knowing how the fabric of our known lives would be touched by the virus.
As we contemplated our own fate, we realised that this would have devastating consequences for the most vulnerable in our societies.
One year later, many of us have lost beloveds. Many have lost their livelihoods. The inequalities in our society have deepened, and we shall have to work with this trauma for years to come.
At the same time, we are now in an interplay of light and dark. There is hope on the horizon. The vaccine has arrived. It’s being administered around the world and in South Africa. People are chanting prayers of gratitude.
Just this past week, I went to buy groceries and an elderly woman wearing a mask made a joke to me as I passed by. I looked at her with appreciation and awe to be able to connect with older people again, to have moments of togetherness.
Writer Mari Andrew characterises it well when she says, ‘’For now I want to embrace this finicky in-between season when one day feels like a setback and the next feels like a leap forward. Growth and decay, hand-in-hand, with delicate flowers on the path.”
How do we “do” in-between? In the deepest time of despair in the exodus story, the Midrash tells us that the men lost their desire to procreate. But the women resisted. They would go down to where the men worked. Then they would take out their copper mirrors and look into them with their husbands. She would say, “I am more attractive than you,” and he would say, “No, I am more attractive than you.” In this playful manner, the women would awaken desire in their husbands, and procreation resumed.
Clinical psychologist Leanne Zabow suggests that this idea of looking into mirrors is about re-awakening and re-constellating the idea of potential. Mirrors became a portal to reflect not only on what is, but what could be. The men might have felt undermined, oppressed, and despondent. But the play of reflecting and reflection in these mirrors reminded them of the selves they were and they might become. Perhaps the width of expanse begins not with G-d saving us in an outright gesture of redemption, but with our persistent and audacious hope.
Just before Pesach 1939, on the eve of World War II, the Hassidic Rebbe Kalnymus Kalman Shapira (writer of the Esh Kodesh) wrote a letter to his community. He had exhorted them to leave Poland but as the year rolled on, it became almost impossible for many to leave. In this letter, knowing that the reality ahead for his people was grim and that evil huddled at the door, he instructed his followers to be joyous on Pesach.
He wrote, “Your joy should so exalted that you feel that you can barely hold yourself back from breaking into an ecstatic dance, leaping from the earth to the heavens. When you sit at the seder table, you imagine yourself sitting down to a festive meal in Gan Eden itself, participating in the celebration of the final redemption.”
It’s not my intention to compare the hardships of our pandemic to the monstrous atrocities of the Holocaust. But I’m struck by the rebbe’s radical resistance to despair. He knew what his people faced, yet he invited them to feel joy on Pesach night. It’s deeply moving!
This year, we are still betwixt and between. We aren’t yet freed from our experience of the narrow place. Yet, how we long for it! We can sense its possibility.
We may still have to deal with the ups and downs of this time. But on Pesach night, the Esh Kodesh invites us to become radical imagineers of possibility. We have a responsibility to hold up the copper mirrors of the Israelite, and remind ourselves and each other of the expanse, the possibility of lives fully lived.
For seder night, we enter into joy and sing our redemption song. The time is a coming.
• Adina Roth is a clinical psychologist in private practice, and a teacher of Jewish Studies.
Slave to the Omer – why counting makes us free
We are in the midst of counting the Omer – a commandment to count the days and weeks from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot.
Interestingly, the very first commandment we perform, marking our transition from slavery to freedom, is to count time, to count days.
Why is this? Rabbi JB Soloveitchik, in his essay, “Sacred and Profane”, offers a profound insight, as follows:
“The basic criterion which distinguishes free man from slave is the kind of relationship each has with time and its experience. Bondage is identical with passive intuition and reception of an empty, formal time stream.
“When the Jews were delivered from the Egyptian oppression and Moses rose to undertake the almost impossible task of metamorphosing a tribe of slaves into a nation of priests, he was told by G-d that the path leading from the holiday of Pesach to Shavuot, from initial liberation to consummate freedom, leads through the medium of time. The commandment of sefirah was entrusted to the Jew; the wondrous test of counting 49 successive days was put to him. These 49 days must be whole. If one day is missed, the act of numeration is invalidated.
“A slave who is capable of appreciating each day, of grasping its meaning and worth, of weaving every thread of time into a glorious fabric, quantitatively stretching over the period of seven weeks but qualitatively forming the warp and woof of centuries of change, is eligible for Torah. He has achieved freedom.”
A slave owns no time of her/his own. Every second of life is owned by a master, and therefore a slave can have no concept of responsibility because they have no ultimate choice of action. A slave may “choose” to go for a walk at 17:00 on Friday only to have that choice countermanded by the master at 16:59. Inevitably, a slave has no concept of their own time, their ability to choose to act in one way at a particular time, and to take responsibility for those actions in the fullest sense of the word.
So, the Jews needed to learn to own time, to feel its contours and use it so that they could learn responsibility.
One of the signs of real maturity is this time-responsibility awareness – just think of a child saying they will clean up their room “later”. Children lack a sense of true responsibility because they feel that there is always an infinite “later”, a period in which every wrong can be righted, every desire fulfilled, every mistake corrected.
A free adult recognises that they own a very limited amount of time, and that the gift of freedom is the choice of how to use that time. The burden of that self-same freedom is the responsibility for the consequences of that choice.
Finding faith in the hippo
This week’s parsha details the laws of kashrus. The Torah makes a brave statement by enumerating the one and only animal that has split hooves but doesn’t chew the cud. It’s a “brave” statement, because if a human being wrote the Torah, how would they know that the pig is the only one on the “face of the planet” with this characteristic?
Moses was born in Egypt, spent some time as a fugitive in Ethiopia, and died somewhere near modern-day Jordan. If we presume that he was the author of the Five Books without any divine inspiration, and he sucked the whole thing out of his left thumb, then how could he be so confident that there wasn’t a marsupial or wallaby in the furthermost corners of the planet that didn’t have at least one of these characteristics? This was almost 3 000 years before anyone even knew there was an Australia. If he was inventing the whole religion, he would have taken the more prudent course of being rather vague. He wouldn’t have blatantly listed the only four exceptions “from all the animals on the earth”.
With this great piece of Torah veracity in my mind, my faith was shaken when, on a trip to London’s Natural History Museum, (I know, it’s a pretty nerdy thing to do), I discovered that there was a hoofed animal, classified by zoology, that seemed to be an exception “overlooked” by the Torah – the hippo. It’s classified as an “ungulate”, a split-hoofed animal without a ruminant stomach that isn’t listed in the Torah as another exception!
I thought about this problem for a while, and then the solution came to me. Why should we allow zoology to dictate the classification of animals? The more I thought about it, the more I realised that hippos don’t have hooves like a pig or cow, they have toes (like camels). I know it’s more fancy to talk about ungulates, phylum, and genus. It even makes us look clever, but if we are really honest with ourselves, we won’t let zoological classifications stand in the way of our emunah in Hashem and His Torah.
Let’s start talking about Pesach
For the past few weeks, my family and I have been doing something really special. We’ve been getting together every Sunday night, sitting around the table, and going through the Pesach Haggadah.
It’s just me, Gina, and our children – our eldest, Mordi, his wife Avigayil, and Levi, Shayna, and youngest Azi. We have supper together, and then we get stuck into the Haggadah, discussing, debating, sharing as a family, covering everything from the four sons, the four questions and the ten plagues, to matzah, maror, and the four cups of wine.
It has been a truly memorable experience. We started this family tradition a few months ago, setting aside the Sunday night slot to connect as a family and share Torah ideas. It’s an open forum, a space for every member of the family to express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions. We’ve covered the Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith and the weekly parsha, and now, most recently, the Haggadah.
Going through the Haggadah, which tells the story of the Jewish people and goes to the very heart of who we are as Jews, has been particularly special. We’ve fine-tuned our understanding of the story, and gained so many new insights and ideas. Just as importantly, we’ve grown closer as a family, and feel more connected to each other and Hashem. Now, as we head towards Pesach, we all feel that this is going to be a dramatically different seder experience. Our mindset is different.
The Pesach seder is perhaps the formative Jewish experience. The seders we had as kids seem to stay with us. Even as we grow older, we recollect them fondly and vividly. It’s so much more than a ceremony, a procession of rituals, it’s the rich soil in which our families and our very Jewish identity are formed.
Of course, as we grow older, there’s the temptation, given how familiar the story is, to slip into autopilot on seder night. But if we prepare, we can avoid this and enter the seder charged with inspiration and filled with rich new perspectives. In doing so, we can transform it into an incredibly powerful spiritual and emotional experience that changes us, that truly frees us from our tired routines and habits and brings us closer to one another, to G-d, and to our true selves. A rebirth in the deepest sense.
That’s why I would like to call on all of us to start these meaningful family conversations in preparation for Pesach, to discuss the ideas and themes and get a deeper understanding of the seder itself. Of course, we need to prepare our homes – cleaning and cooking are incredibly important because they help us to fulfil all the mitzvot of this special chag and ensure we have a proper, kosher Pesach. But the seder, too, needs preparation, and the more we prepare for it, the greater the experience is going to be.
There’s something that can help you get the process started. My family and I were so excited and inspired by our Sunday night learning sessions, we decided to record our Haggadah discussions. We’ve turned these recordings into a special Pesach series, called The Goldstein Family Podcast, which you can access via my website or wherever you get your podcasts. The sessions have been cut and edited into eight episodes ranging from 10 to 30 minutes each to make them as accessible as possible.
There’s not much time left before Pesach, but I would like to encourage you to devote some time to preparing for the seder, and our podcast can be a good place to start. Even just a couple of hours can make all the difference to your seder.
Especially at this time, after a year of being battered by a pandemic, we need the healing, the meaning, and the deep inspiration of the seder more than ever – the message of faith in Hashem, connection to generations past, the sense of rootedness it gives us in an uncertain world.
Let’s take this opportunity to prepare so that we can connect with the ancient words of the Haggadah – with the great origin story of our people – in ways we’ve never done before.
Gina and I wish you all a chag kasher v’same’ach – a beautiful Pesach – and deeply meaningful, enriching seders.
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