Passover Observance Then and Now

and when your children ask you what
do you mean by this rite tell them
in the beginning we offered late night sacrifices
and supplications while our god meted out
punishments against the gods of egypt later
we hid behind behind doorjambs swelled with
dread murmuring pour out your wrath on
those who seek our blood and destroy the nations who know
not your name but now we observe by bursting the
gates of fear wide open proclaiming let all who’ve been
broken gather each another’s scattered
shattered pieces let all who seek liberation
come to the table let all who are hungry
come and eat

(Exodus 12:12, 26-27)

My Father, the Wandering Aramean…

In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, God instructs the Israelites, upon entering the Promised Land, to offer up the first fruits of their harvest. They are then to recite a short narrative of their history, beginning with their earliest ancestors and ending with their own arrival at the land.

This narrative, made famous by its central place in the Passover Haggadah, begins thus:

My father was a wandering Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation…” (Deuteronomy 26:5)

The opening words of this passage have been the subject of considerable controversy for centuries. According to most commentators, the “wandering father” is identified as Jacob. This would certainly fit neatly into the Biblical narrative, as Jacob did indeed go down to Egypt with his sons during a period of famine.

In the traditional Passover Haggadah, however, the Rabbis translate the Hebrew “My father was a wandering Aramean” (“arami oved avi“) very differently.  By changing the vocalization of the Hebrew “oved” (“wandering”) to “ibed” (“destroyed”), they render the text to mean: “An Aramean sought to destroy my father.” (The Haggadah identifies this would-be murderer as Laban who, by threatening Jacob, “sought to uproot us all.”)

So which is it?

In true Jewish fashion, the debate rages on. Among the classical commentators, Rashi supports the Haggadah’s reading, while others, including Ibn Ezra adhere to the conventional interpretation. Rashbam accepts the “wandering Aramean” interpretation as well, but identifies the wanderer as Abraham rather than Jacob.

Beyond the fancy hermeneutics, however, I’m struck by the two spiritual models suggested by these respective translations. One highlights our wanderings, identifying our peoplehood with our collective seeeking – our desire to journey toward a better and more blessed future. The second model suggests we are essentially a hunted and hated people, forever on the run from those who would seek our destruction.

These two readings illuminate a critical question that inform our collective Jewish self-understanding to this very day.  Centuries later, the question remains: with which narrative will we identify?  The narrative in which we are the perpetual victim or the spiritual seeker? Does our story forever pit us against an eternal enemy – or does it ultimately celebrate our sacred purpose and the promise of blessing?

Yizkor and the Rhythms of Remembrance

As we do every year, JRC just observed a Yizkor (“Memorial”) service to mark the end of the Pesach holiday. This particular year, I introduced our memorial prayers by saying that mourning itself is something of an open-ended journey – and one that rarely unfolds in a predictable manner. I also pointed out that more recent research in the psychology of grief tends to reject the linear “Stages of Grief” approach made famous by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross.

From a recent piece in The New Yorker:

Though Kübler-Ross captured the range of emotions that mourners experience, new research suggests that grief and mourning don’t follow a checklist; they’re complicated and untidy processes, less like a progression of stages and more like an ongoing process—sometimes one that never fully ends.

I do believe that the notion of grief as an “ongoing process” is at the heart of the Yizkor memorial observance. It often feels to me that there is a powerful rhythm to the practice of saying memorial prayers during major four festivals of the year (Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Pesach and Shavuot). Since each festival has its own unique spiritual themes, the process of ongoing Yizkor observance drives home the truth that grief is a cyclical – rather than linear – experience

Here is my own take on how this process resonates through the Jewish holiday season:

Yizkor of Yom Kippur – “Dwelling in the In-Between:” the Day of Atonement is, if you will, the spiritually rawest time of the Jewish calendar. It is the time in which we acknoweldge our mortality and look into the coming year with a potent emotional mix of awe and trepidation. The tenor of Yizkor for Yom Kippur thus resonates with the pain and uncertainty that inevitably comes with grief. In the juncture between a year past and a year yet to come, we allow ourselves to dwell in that “in-between place” between the past we know and the future we have yet to experience.

Yizkor of Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret – “Preparing for Winter:” Immediately after the harvest festival of Sukkot comes the observance of Shemini Atzeret, which marks the beginning of the rainy season in Israel. Our Yizkor prayers are recited during our preparation for winter – the season in which we construct the necessary protection and defenses for these cold, dark months. Yizkor for Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret honors these defenses – as well as the spiritual work we know we must do in order to make it through the long nights ahead.

Yizkor of Pesach – “Inevitability of Life Renewed:” On Passover we begin to see the green shoots of new life sprouting up from the previously hard, fallow earth. The natural world around us testifies to the inevitability of liberation – and we come to understand that this rebirth is indeed woven into the very fabric of creation. So too, with our own lives as we walk the path of the mourner: the Yizkor of Pesach comes to remind us that there is life after grief as surely as Spring follows Winter.

Yizkor of Shavuot – “Celebrating the Fruits of our Labor:” On Shavuot, we bring in the harvest. As Spring moves in to full bloom, we now begin to reap what we’ve sown. We now affirm that all of the hard work (and bereavement is nothing if not hard work) does indeed pay off if we do it in a spirit of openness and love. On this Yizkor, we celebrate the fruits of our labors – and rededicate ourselves to the journey ahead.

It’s a shame that the observance of Yizkor tends to be falling off among liberal Jews. I truly believe there is great spiritual resonance in these rituals – which cycle outward over the seasons and throughout the years. Even for those who are not traditionally observant Jews, there is real meaning to be found in these rhythms of remembrance.

The next Yizkor will occur in several weeks, on Shavuot. (May you reap a bountiful harvest…)