Seder Readings for Passover 5780

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I’ve just finished “Fight for the Health of Your Community” – a new collection of Passover seder readings I wrote for members of my congregation. I’m happy to share them with the wider world as well – and sincerely hope you’ll find them helpful if you are holding/attending a seder this year.

It goes without saying that this year is a Passover like no other. As I wrote in the opening reading:

Before we raise the cup to another Passover, we must acknowledge that this night is very different from all other nights. In this extraordinary moment of global pandemic, we are literally dwelling in the “narrow place” of social separation. Thus, we come to the very first question of the evening: how on earth do we fulfill the mitzvah to observe the Passover seder? Where do we even begin?

Since the dictates of social separation render the group seders impossible, many families and groups are already planning to hold theirs’ via Zoom or other web-based platforms. There are already many online guides with tips on web-based seders that you may find useful. While I personally believe that there is no one perfect approach, I do recommend that seder leaders familiarize themselves with their specific online platform and to keep things simple and doable.

I want to stress that this particular resource is not a haggadah – and is not designed to be used in its entirety. I strongly agree with one online guide when it points out: “the seder should not be dominated by making connections of the virus to the Exodus story but it does need to be addressed in some capacity.” In this collection I’ve written one reading for each section of the seder and recommend picking and choosing the one/s you find most meaningful. While the extent to which COVID-19 is addressed will vary, I believe the most successful seders will be the ones that view the Exodus narrative as a spiritual frame to contextualize this unprecedented moment.

I wish you and those you love a happy, healthy and liberating Pesach. May we all make our way through this fearful moment together. And as I write here, “May this time of brokenness lead to a deeper solidarity between all who are ready to fight for a better world.”

Click here for a copy of the pdf.


For Passover: Opening the Door to a New World

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Another excerpt from the seder readings I’m putting together for Passover this year. This one is meant to be recited at the point when the door would traditionally be opened for Elijah:

The door is opened and we say:

And when your children ask you what
was Passover like that year,
you will tell them:

Yes, we shared our meal at separate tables,
in separate homes, behind closed doors
and yes, at times it almost felt like we
were the Israelites huddling in the night
behind their painted doorposts,
hoping, praying that the Angel of Death
would pass them by.

Except it wasn’t like that at all:
there were no Israelites, no Egyptians
no capricious, punishing God;
just all of us telling the story together,
the way we did every year
even if we knew nothing
would ever be the same again.

Then when the time came,
we opened our doors wide
and called out from table to table:
Let all who are broken gather
each another’s scattered, shattered pieces,
let all who seek liberation
find a place at the table
let all who hunger for a new world
come and eat.


Before Karpas: A Flash of Green

weed-growing-crack_shutterstock_60868711Another excerpt from the seder readings I’m putting together for Passover this year. This one is an intro to Karpas (green vegetable dipped in salt water):

Keep looking out your window
even as the earth hardens into stone
even as the salt stings your eyes
even if it looks like nothing will ever grow again.

Just keep a sharp lookout
for that flash of green in the distance.
You won’t want to be looking away
when the message arrives at last:

Spring is coming.
It’s time dry your tears.
The season of our liberation is at hand.


Observing Passover in an Age of Pandemic

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I am currently working on a scaled down seder for Tzedek Chicago to use for Passover (via web conferencing) this year. Here’s a taste of my work in progress: an introduction to be read before the first component of the seder, known as Kadesh (the Festival Kiddish):

From the narrow place I called out to God, who answered me with wide open spaces. (Psalm 118:5)

Before we raise the cup to another Passover, we must acknowledge that this night is very different from all other nights. In this extraordinary moment of global pandemic, we are literally dwelling in the “narrow place” of social separation. Thus, we come to the very first question of the evening: how on earth do we fulfill the mitzvah to observe the Passover seder? Where do we even begin?

Let’s begin here: now more than ever, we must affirm Passover’s teaching that liberation is not only possible, but inevitable. We know from nature that spring will invariably follow winter. We know from history that the oppressed do not remain oppressed forever. So too, we know in our hearts and minds that one day we will eventually make it through this narrow place of pandemic and emerge into “wide open spaces.”

But as we also learn from our Passover story: this emergence never happens easily. It cannot happen without real struggle and hard work. We know that there will be causalities. We know, tragically, that the number of casualties is rising dramatically even as we gather together tonight. And while we know there is a new world waiting for us, we don’t yet know how many of us will make it there – or what that world will actually look like when we arrive.

For now, however, we do know this: like the Israelites of our story, we will not make it through without each other. So too, if the current pandemic has taught us anything, it is the lesson that was learned so painfully by the Israelites in our story: that we are all in this together. That my liberation is irrevocably bound up with yours. And that in the midst of the narrow place, there is no other way but forward.

So as we lift the cup to another Passover, let this be our blessing:

Blessed is the One who shows us how to stand together.
Blessed is the One who inspires us to show up for one another.
Blessed is the One who leads us all toward the wide-open spaces of a new day.


A Lament for the Detained Children

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My rendering of Lamentations 2, written and read for a Tisha B’Av vigil held at the Jerome Combs Detention Center, Kankakee, IL, August 11, 2019.

we are beyond humiliation
beyond shame
we incarcerate children without pity
we deport parents without a thought
and build systems that destroy families indiscriminately
now we truly know what it means to be dishonored
our so-called glorious past is now seen
for the sham that it was
the way of life we celebrate is but a privilege
for the few and the powerful
we can’t see that our own might
will be our downfall

we venerate leaders
who should be tried for their crimes
we never dared imagine a power
greater than our own
like so many before us
we conquered the land then drew borders
as a testament to our fear and dread
now we build higher walls
to keep out those who seek shelter
we built massive checkpoints
we lined up human beings
like cattle in cages
now children cry out for parents
who will never answer their calls
their voices echo endlessly
through the camps but there
is no one left to hear

we ask one another with bewilderment
have we ever seen such cruel violations
yet in truth we ourselves have inflicted
such cruelties on children here
and around the world
we sentence minors to life in prison without parole
we remain silent as a cruel occupation
abducts and imprisons children in military prisons
convicts them in military courts
and yet we dare to act surprised when
we hear news of children thrown into cages
at our southern border

our silence betrays us
these walls will soon encircle us all
soon there will be no one left
only a single mass of mourners
whispering broken hymns of lament
grieving what was lost
and what might have been
one day we will know the sorrow
of the dispossessed

we who never heard the cries of migrants
and their children will know what it means
to be uprooted detained and discarded
those who we scorned and abandoned
will bitterly welcome us to the world
of the dispossessed
the enemies we created
through our own fearful actions
will surely come back for us all

let us hope and pray
there is still time
let the cries of our children
pour into our hearts like water
the cries of any who have been forced
from their homes pursued
taken locked away sent away
anyone whose very lives are forbidden
forgotten forsaken
let their cries compel us
to take down oppressive systems
built by the powerful to maintain
the power of the powerful
let their cries remind us
that there is a power yet greater
that comes from a place that knows no borders
no deportations no barrier walls no prisons
no guards no soldiers no ICE no police

a place where we no longer need to struggle because
justice gushes forth like a mighty stream flowing freely
from the sovereign beyond all sovereigns
we beseech you chadeish yameniu
renew our days
that we may build the world
that somehow still might be
kein yehi ratzon – may it be your will
and may it be ours’
ve’nomar and let us say

Amen.


Sealing the Gates of Heaven

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According to an order from the most high
the first day of the month shall be a sacred occasion
when the shofar is sounded the gates will be sealed
and all roads will be closed to you.
You shall not you leave your homes
nor work at your occupations.
lest you and your kin be put to death.

Like fires lit on ancient mountaintops
the announcement spread throughout the land;
when the new moon came the wall was locked tight
so the people could gather in their houses of prayer
to greet another new year.

And the Chazan sang:
As a shepherd numbering his flocks
passing his sheep under his staff
thus I count you off one by one,
marking your every move, noting your every thought
writing you down in my Book of Life
that I may decree
who shall live and who shall die.

Day after day they sent out
fearful prayers into the dark dread
of a year they did not yet know,
desperately hoping their lives would be spared
by the merciful judge on high.

For today it is written
and in ten days it will be sealed
who will be taken in the dead of night
and who shall sleep until morning
who will die and who will be born
into this cruel and pitiless world

When the festival came to an end
the great shofar was sounded
and a still small voice was heard:
The gates of heaven are sealed;
they will not open to your prayers.


Songs at the Sea

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After Exodus 15:1-18

As the waters parted before them
they sang their songs of praise:

Some sang to the one who
shattered Pharaoh’s army
with a mighty right hand,
some sang to the god of their ancestors
who remained faithful to them
and them alone.

Others sang to the one
who redeems the oppressed
so that the world may know of his might:
who is like you god of war,
consuming the enemy like straw
incinerated with one awesome
mighty blast from on high?

Some sang a hymn of praise
to the god of vengeance,
who shamed the Egyptians
hurling them all like stones
into the heart of the churning sea;

still others sang out with hope
that the peoples of the land
they were promised
would now melt away
as god’s people went forth
to dispossess them.

As they marched on
their voices joined into one feverish song;
a tuneless wordless howl
that echoed on and on
before finally disappearing
somewhere in the deep.


This is How You Will Restore the Temple

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A new rendering of Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (Prophetic reading for the Sabbath of Hanukkah)

Let loose your joy for
your prayers have
already been answered;
even in your exile
the one you seek has been
dwelling in your midst
all along.

Quiet your raging soul
and you will come to learn:
every nation is my nation
all peoples my chosen
anywhere you choose to live
will be your Holy Land,
your Zion, your Jerusalem.

Open your eyes and
look across the valley
look at this ruined land
seized and possessed
throughout the ages.

Look upon your
so-called city of peace
a place that knows
only debasement
and desecration
at your hand.

Turn your gaze to the heavens
and there you will find
the Jerusalem that you seek:
a city that can never be conquered,
only dreamed of, yearned for, strived for;
a Temple on high that can never be destroyed.

No more need for priestly vestments
or plots to overrun that godforsaken mount –
just walk in my ways
and you will find your way there:
a sacred pilgrimage to the Temple
in any land you call home.

Enter the gates to
this holiest of holy places,
lift up its fallen walls,
relight the branches of the lamp
so that my house will truly
become a sanctuary
for all people.

Yes, this is how you will
restore the Temple:
not by might, not by power
but by the spirit
you share with every
living, breathing soul.


when the final tekiah sounds: prayer for the end of yom kippur

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when the final tekiah sounds
anyone still sleeping will have to
rise up and join the strategizers
and schemers the marchers and
rabble rousers to chant that
final neilah prayer ki fana yom
there’s no time left it’s time
to storm the gates.

we’ll blow away the wasted years
the work undone the dreams denied
the lazy thinking and careless complicity
so that we may clearly see the road
leading to a world we always
knew was possible.

yes finally we’ll break the insatiable
unquenchable appetites threatening
to consume everything we’ve ever known
our hunger will turn into desire
our hollow emptiness into wide open spaces
that roll on without end.

when that final tekiah sounds
the barrier walls and security fences
will come crashing down
no one will be forced to wait in line
no one turned away at the border
no unseen hands opening and closing
the gates on a whim.

so let every shofar
send forth one unbroken call
quick while the sun is setting
we’ll gather together and march forward
under cover of darkness
in the halls of the most high
we’ll make sure there’s
room for all.


Esther and the Agagite: A Love Story

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“Rava said: ‘It is one’s duty to make oneself fragrant with wine on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai.'”

– Babylonian Talmud Megillah 7b

Now it came to pass in the days of King Ahasuerus,
(this is Ahasuerus who reigned
over the great Persian empire in 486 BCE)
that the King made a feast unto all the men of his kingdom
and Vashti the Queen held a feast for the women.

On the seventh day,
when the heart of the King was merry with wine,
he demanded that Vashti the Queen dance before him
wearing nothing but her royal crown.
But Vashti refused to come at the King’s command.

Thereupon the King asked his wise men,
“What shall we do to the Queen Vashti;
she has disobeyed an order of King Ahasuerus!”
Their answer: “Vashti has not merely insulted the King,
but all the people of Persia.”

The King’s men went to summon the Queen,
but she was nowhere to be found.
Some say she was executed,
others say she was imprisoned,
still others say she fled the empire.

The legends of her fearlessness however,
are told yet to this day.
(On many a moonlit night, they say,
Vashti’s songs and laughter can be heard
ringing out across the shores of the South Persian Sea).

The King sent out a royal command
Throughout all the provinces of his kingdom,
to all the maidens of the land:
Come to the palace!
The one that most pleases the King
shall replace Vashti as Queen.

Now the Jews had lived in Persia for a century –
ever since the Great Destruction
and they enjoyed freedom and prosperity
throughout the land.

In those days there was a certain Jew,
whose name was Mordechai.
Although he lacked for nothing,
he could not find peace,
for the memory of his ancestors’ exile
burned within him
like a fire that raged without end.

Mordechai’s niece Esther
decided that she would go the King’s palace.
When she told Mordechai, he smiled within.
“If Esther does indeed become Queen,” he thought to himself,
“I may finally avenge the wrongs done to my ancestors
and bring ruin upon the people of Persia.”

When Esther went into the King’s house
King Ahasuerus proclaimed:
“This one shall be my Queen.
Together we shall rule over all Persia.”

When Mordechai learned his niece
would soon be crowned as Queen,
he said to her:

“This is just the moment
for which we have waiting!
You must tell me everything
you hear from the King’s palace
so that we may move against it.

For we know it is but a matter of time
before the Persian empire makes good
on its plans to destroy our people.
Be true to your kin!
Who knows, maybe you have been made Queen
for such as time as this?”

But Esther said to Mordechai,
“This I will not do, for Persia is our home.
We dwell here in security and enjoy
a bounty of blessings in this land.
If I were as to do as you instruct me,
it would bring hatred and retaliation
against the Jewish people.”

And so Esther married King Ahasuerus
and joined him in his palace.
Esther did not hide her Jewish identity
from the King or anyone else who lived in the land.
The Jews of Persia rejoiced –
for although many of their kin
had held high and respected positions
in the King’s court,
they were proud that one of their own
had become Queen of all Persia!

Sometime later,
Ahasuerus promoted Haman the Agagite
to a place of highest honor in his court.
Though the Jews had been taught
to fear his ancestors,
Haman was a man of compassion and wisdom,
held in great esteem by all who know him.

When Mordechai learned of Haman’s rise
in the King’s court
he was filled with loathing and dread.
He gathered with four conspirators
and together they plotted Haman’s downfall
by striking a mighty blow against his people.

Back in the palace, Esther grew bored of the King,
whose passions were directed exclusively
toward dreary matters of state
and late night trysts with his many consorts.

But Esther was not content
to remain alone in her chamber.
She and Haman had come to know one another
and soon they became lovers.
When night fell they would steal away to his bed
while the King was snoring
in the chambers of his concubines.

In due time, one of Mordechai’s co-conspirators
came to regret the terrible plans they had made,
and he requested an audience with the Queen.
Bowing low to Esther, he said,

“Please forgive me, your highness,
for I have committed a grievous wrong.
Mordechai has set a terrible plot in motion:
In one day, on the thirteenth day
of the twelfth month of Adar,
he plans to murder Haman while he worships.
None will be spared and all who are gathered in prayer
with him will be slain.”

That evening, Esther lay awake
with great anguish.
If she remained silent, she would allow
the death of many innocents
and the Jews of Persia would be in grave danger.
But could she betray her own kin?
If she told the King of Mordechai’s plot
he would most certainly be put to death.

With morning soon to break
Esther finally knew what she must do.
Leaving the palace quietly before dawn,
she rode to Mordechai’s home
and told him thus:

“I know what you have planned,
so hear me now:
Although you are my own flesh and blood,
I am prepared to tell the king
of your evil plot.
If you attack Haman and his people,
you will bring nothing but bloodshed and sorrow
to our people and all of Persia as well.”

Then coming closer she said to him:

“We are Jews, but Persia is our home.
As a Jew, as a Persian, and as your Queen:
I swear that as I stand here before you now,
I will turn you in before I allow you
to bring ruin upon us all.”

Thereupon Esther returned to the palace
as the sun rose on the thirteenth of Adar.

That morning, Esther woke with a start
because Haman had already left
for his morning prayers.
When he returned, she she gave thanks to God
for she knew that Mordechai had turned away
from his wicked plan.

As Esther embraced her love, she marveled
at how quickly her sorrow had turned to joy
her fear into power,
her anguish into hope.

(So may it be for us
and for all who dwell on earth).