On Passover

On Passover four is the magic number.
Chag Sameiach Again

Dear Rabbi Drucker, Chag Sameiach. As usual, I am struck by your uncanny tendency to articulate (write, that is) words which sing so close to home for me. “Near fanatacism of inadequacy” is EXACTLY the fuzzy (if fuzzy can be exact) description of what I have been feeling year after year, as the days before the Chag approach. Finally, I can smile at myself with your phrase coining, for me, the sentiment into words, and I can smile also at knowing that I am not alone with fighting this tendency creeping towards despair.

For me, I know, the feeling is exacerbated by a yearlong (everyday!) tendency towards procrastination, and an endless struggle to overcome this horrible foe.

This year I felt readier (physically, and geographically in the kitchen) for Pesach than any other year. Yet, still, dusk on Erev Chag fell before I was ready to relinquish my preparations. What a fascinating and strange exercise this holiday is.

Of course, all this pales in the face of a sense that this year the Chag draped itself over our little country with a tentativity that must come from the deep sadness within which the nation is enshrouded. The mourning for so many lost individuals, killed in the middle of having their vibrant healthy lives, hangs heavily, almost palpably in the fabric of each day. And along with the mourning for what’s been lost, a bewildered dread that there is no end in sight, seemingly no near possibility of reconciliation with a people who have steeped themselves in hatred and who are raising their children, with each passing day, to believe that the ultimate good they can do is to kill.

The bread which the nation of Israel ate in their first moments of nationhood was not the food of an empowered people, but rather the non-luxurious food of a people hanging in question mark. I feel that way now. There are those who would deny this pessimistic sentiment, and would point to the Jewish country as proof of a need for more positivism. Yes, yes, yes. But still the nagging and quite frightening question-marks hang over us, and their presence can’t be denied.

Well, on a mundane note, I am being called to check on things in the department (on-call, in the peds department on Erev Chag Sheini…). Chag Sameiach
April 15, 2003
Dear Friends,

On Passover four is the magic number: four cups of wine, four questions, four children, and God’s four promises to free us from slavery. Here are four things to learn from the seder:

1. Passover celebrates the season of our freedom. We watch tender shoots push toward air and sun, and we remember our own emergence from the darkness of slavery. Three times a day we mention that we were slaves in Egypt. Why remember such a time? First, there is nothing like our own pain to get our attention, and what we do with our experience makes us who we are. Shall we become embittered, defensive, and aggressive? Or shall we thank God every day that slavery is only memory for us? We were slaves so that we might become compassionate; God freed us to work to free others. Finally, how we begin is not as important as what we become.

2. Passover celebrates birth in the season of birth, spring. When the Israelites took the risk to leave Egypt and enter the unknowable depths of the sea, the Jewish people were born in the broken fetal waters of the Sea of Reeds. Children are central to the seder: we make the night different to awaken their curiosity, because every child’s birth is a celebration of hope and promise. Just as Baby Moses was the one chosen to lead the people to freedom, we pray that this generation of children be chosen to demonstrate justice and mercy.

We hide the larger piece of the broken middle matzah as the afikomen. A child is our hidden, future life. Our own children carry us with them on an unknown journey. The child represents the tenderness with which we were born, and the part of ourselves that we work to keep soft, even when frightened, angry, or confused. We remember Pharaoh’s hard heart and God’s response to our cries, and we use our freedom to choose who to imitate.

3. The temple isn’t the only place to experience God. Every home is a mikdash me’at, a little sanctuary. The seder is supposed to be at home, without a rabbi, Torah, or synagogue. Our homes become sacred space as we retell a 3500 year-old story and overlay our personal memories of past seders. Every year I hear my grandfather’s gentle voice telling me that I am to learn the four questions, and for the first time I really want to be at the seder, because they, the adults, need me. May we always feel that we are necessary in this life to do our part in perfecting the world.

4. On Passover Jews eat history. Food plays a key part in the story of liberation. Dry, tasteless bread reminds me of the food of the afflicted and it also reminds me that a simple life is best. We live so much of the time puffed up with pride in our possessions and accomplishments; for a week we take a rest from the hubris, the chametz, we build our identities upon. Those first Jews wandering in the wilderness owned nothing and all was provided. It was the best time in Jewish history for clarity, strength, and gratitude.

Being Jewish has a lot to do with telling stories, and on Passover we tell the most important story of all. Sometimes the Jews despair, sometimes Moses is ready to give up, and even God has trouble keeping the faith! Let’s reveal ourselves to each other and not let pride keep us from telling our truth. I’ll confess that the preparations for Passover throw me into near fanaticism of inadequacy because I’m never sure that I’ve done enough to clean the hametz from my house. If you share this worry, you’ll like the following story.

One year the rebbe took ill on the day he was to inspect the baking of Passover matzah. Since the matzah is called shmurah, guarded, matzah, he chose his most gifted disciple, Mendel, to oversee the baking. As the rebbe described the various steps and what Mendel was to look for, he saw that the disciple was taking copious notes and asking questions of almost absurd detail. “Mendel,” he said, wearily. “Put down your pencil!” The young man jumped at the unusual sharpness in the rebbe’s voice. “This is all you need to do to be able to call the matzah shumurah. There is an old woman who works there. She will be wearing grey, because that is the only dress she owns. She is poor and sick, but she works all the time to provide for her family. See that she is paid promptly and fairly.”

This is the story that always brings me back from the brink of excessive zeal and allows my heart to soften towards myself and all of us who labor to make Passover different from all other days. Put on some music while you make those matzah balls!

We have a place for one more person at a seder and we need places for several more people. Please make room for one more or ask your host if you can bring someone. Don’t we want to know that everyone in our community who wanted to be at a seder was able to find a place to go? Just e-mail or call: 988-1860.

We’ll be offering a Passover teaching teaching tonight at 6:15 followed by a minyan at 7 at my house. The teaching will answer every question you may have ever had about the holiday (well, close to it). Saturday morning, at Ponce de Leon at 9:30, we will study the Song of Songs, the traditional reading during Passover and the one that the rabbis had the most trouble giving their blessing to. While no one denies its frank erotic energy, a few sages saw that there are many paths to heaven, and what better holiday than Passover to celebrate the joy of sex!

Peace and Blessings,
Rabbi Malka Drucker