Monday, April 18, 2011

Tishri versus Nisan

In my previous post, I contemplated the true beginnings of the festival of Passover, and my good friend Joel Bassoff observed that just as it begins before it begins, so too does it go on past the eight days on the calendar: how long do we still find matza crumbs on the couch, in our beds, under furniture...? I replied that a high school student of mine had a similar observation about Yom Kippur. I asked why the day is called Shabbat Shabbaton, the Sabbath of Sabbaths. Besides the fasting, what makes it so different from other Shabbatot? This particular student made some great observations: that it's longer than a regular Shabbat, not only because we finish eating before sunset so it's more like 27 hours long, but for spiritual reasons as well. We prepare by seeking forgiveness from our family and friends in the days leading up to the holiday, and when it's over we feel the effects of our pursuit of forgiveness by the lifting of the burden of guilt we may have been carrying around with us for months. We feel God and our loved ones have forgiven us, and our soul is unburdened. That comparison between a long Shabbat (Yom Kippur) and the Festival of Matza that goes on forever prompted me to think some more about the two sacred benchmarks of the Jewish liturgical year.

The obvious truth is that both are concerned with food. Yom Kippur is concerned with worrying about what to eat before the fast, and what to eat after the fast, and all the things we can't be eating during the fast. It's all about food and the lack of food and (hopefully) the appreciation that when the fast is over, we will have the blessing of a laden table and probably family and friends with whom to share the bounty. Passover of course is also all about food. We may worry about what to serve at Rosh Hashanah and Thanksgiving and Shavuot, but the preparation for those holidays doesn't come anywhere near all the preparation and concern for legalities we face at Passover time. Not only do we have special foods from our family traditions, but there are dishes we prepare because they allow us to feast without transgressing the requirements not to have any leavening on our table. We have to buy everything for Passover, down to the mayonnaise and ketchup. The flurry at the markets is intense. Sometimes I think we have to force ourselves to think about the real meaning of the festival, the liberation from slavery with the goal of forging a new nation with ethical obligations and lessons to teach the world. It's too often all about cleaning and shopping and cooking.

And that of course is unfortunate. The emphasis on food is so great, greater than at any other time of the year, that we lose sight of the spiritual components of the festival. But perhaps we can learn something from this emphasis on food.

Perhaps the most difficult thing to do is to stand in a supermarket or a local neighborhood kosher market (even worse) and amid all the noise and tumult of the last-minute shoppers, try to evoke words of mindfulness. But I'd like to suggest a kavanah - words of intent - next time we begin our Passover shopping: Master of the Universe, Guardian of my soul, how am I nourishing my spirit as I rush to prepare to nourish my family's bodies? At this time of year, when we are so worn out with the preparations for the festival, it is so easy to think about only the kind of food you can chop or puree or bake or roast. Of course it's unreasonable to expect someone already overloaded with work to find time to meditate on liberation as the festival approaches, but once the holiday is here, do we consider how we nourish our souls? The rabbis speak of ridding our souls of hametz by ridding ourselves of arrogance and self-importance. But what about the haroset, the yummy mixture (varying in composition depending on where in the Jewish world you are from) that is supposed to mimic the mortar with which the Israelites built the cities of Pharaoh? What sweetness do we bring into our lives? What renewal do we allow ourselves as we contemplate the parsley, symbol of springtime? What hope for the future do we nurture, as we look upon the roasted egg (meant to represent the generic festival sacrifice in Temple times, but seen by my eldest as representing the next generation of a chicken - he observed once when he was about 13 that the egg is the next generation of the Jewish people, always present on the seder plate)? When we think about the shank bone, do we think about where we will find the strength to face whatever challenge confronts us?

How do we nourish ourselves at this time of year (and going forward)? We are taught that after we break the fast on Yom Kippur night, the first thing we are to do is set the foundation of our sukkah. We are not to dwell in the past, on the sins we had to confront during the Days of Awe just ending - we are to look to the future. We are to prepare for the joyous festival of Sukkot. In the same way, if we look at Passover just right, if we take the time to nourish our souls as we do our bodies, we can also find ways to prepare for the future. And wasn't that really the Israelites' problem all along? That they spent so much time looking back at the false security of Egypt that they couldn't face the difficulties of moving across the desert to the Promised Land?

Both times of the year are about letting go, looking ahead, and finding strength to face the future.

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