Passover — our annual journey from slavery to freedom — is once again approaching. Pesah reminds us that freedom is both a blessing and an obligation; it helps us refine our thoughts and deeds to better use our freedom wisely and in the service of the holy.
The Sale of Hametz
We are pleased to offer you the opportunity once again to sell hametz through the synagogue. Click here to fill out the form. In order to be included in the sale, your form must be received by Monday 26.
The Pesah Guide prepared by the Conservative Movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards contains helpful information on preparing our homes for Pesah, and what may and may not be eaten during the holiday. You can access it here.
If you are looking to purchase haggadot, we recommend the Feast of Freedom (published by the Rabbinical Assembly). Whenever possible, please buy your haggadat and other books and other Judaica from West Side Judaica on 89th Street and Broadway. They are a tremendous asset to the Jewish community, and are in need of the community’s support in the face of a significant rent increase.
Rabbi Uhrbach’s Pesach Message 2017/5777
The Seder as a Ritual of ResponsibilityPesach is certainly a festival in which we are called to embrace responsibility — from the sometimes overwhelming plethora of ritual obligations, to the implications of our story of being redeemed from slavery. A wise person seeks to understand the nature and nuances of his or her responsibilities, in order to be able to fulfill them. Who in the Exodus narrative takes responsibility, and how? Who fails to do so? What does the haggadah teach us about our responsibilities as human beings, as Jews, as American citizens? What responsibilities come with having experienced degradation and oppression? What responsibilities come with being free? What and who do you feel responsible for and to? How do you decide what to do when those responsibilities conflict? What is the nature of our responsibility to both the past and the future? What responsibilities do we share in as part of a people or society? What responsibilities do we bear alone? A wise person considers such questions.The Seder as a Ritual of ResistancePesach is very much a festival about healthy and unhealthy resistance, both of which tend to be labeled “wicked.” The story we tell is about healthy (holy!) resistance to oppression, immorality, injustice, and abuse of power; it’s about refusing to accept the traditional, existing order as inevitable or right. Indeed, the telling of the story itself — with intentional and extensive elaborations, new interpretations, questions and challenges — is itself a ritual of resistance; we resist narrowness, arrogance, complacency, routine, the fantasy that any story can ever be only one story, At the same time, that very same story is also about unhealthy resistance — a “hardened heart” — in the form of stubbornness, arrogance, the unwillingness to learn or change, the inability to admit being wrong, the unwillingness to revise one’s story or change one’s mind. In what ways are we the wicked child, resisting challenges to our ego, authority, worldview, or comfort? What are we refusing to learn or take in? On the other hand, what forms of resistance are important for us to embrace this year, even if doing so may result in our being called “wicked”? What norms need to be challenged — in our personal lives and relationships, in our religious tradition, in America, in Israel? What tendencies or characteristics within ourselves do we need to try harder to resist? What societal trends, values, and structures do we need to resist, and how might we do so? Perhaps most importantly, how can our seder this year help us become more discerning about when resistance in others or ourselves is actually wicked, and when such “wicked” resistance is precisely the Divine call in our midst?The Seder as a Ritual of ResponseWith all of its questions, the haggadah isn’t so much about teaching us answers, as it is about teaching us the need to respond. Responding doesn’t always demand great wisdom, knowledge, power, resources, or planning. And very often, it’s just not that complicated. There’s a need, a cry, a call; what is demanded of us is simply that we respond. We bring food, or open our home, or listen attentively. We offer support or compassion. We’re simply but fully present. Who in the Exodus narrative responds? How, and to what kinds of demands, requests or needs? What kinds of demands and needs can we be more responsive to this year? What keeps us from doing so? When do we engage in over-analysis or complication as a defense mechanism, to avoid seeing or responding to a need? How can the haggadah help us regain moral clarity and simplicity, and respond in more straightforward, direct ways?The Seder as a Ritual of ResilienceSometimes we can feel so overwhelmed, frightened or confused, that it’s difficult even to articulate what we need, or how to journey forward. Sometimes the challenges we face seem so vast, deep-seated and intractable, that we don’t even know where to begin to make a dent, In such times, tapping into our own resilience is essential. The Passover seder itself is a remarkably resilient ritual: it has thrived and been observed in times of peace and of conflict, in freedom and in oppression, among the most and least connected and committed Jews. Why do you think that is so? What does it offer that makes it so sustaining? How can your seder this year help to open the wellsprings of resilience within you? What examples of resilience are present within the Exodus narrative itself? We celebrate the coming out of Egypt, even though that step was but the beginning of a long journey into an as yet unknown future. What roles do gratitude, joy and celebration — even though a “redemption” may be incomplete — play in building resilience? What are the characteristics of stories which build or undermine our resilience? What changes can we make in the way we tell our own stories, or our national narratives, to help us be more resilient in facing challenges and uncertainties?
Rabbi Uhrbach’s Pesach Message 2016/5776
One of my favorite moments in the seder is the Haggadah’s demand that each of us see ourselves as though we have been redeemed from Egypt, which I see as a kind of personal litmus test. Is this a year of tzuris, in which Pesach calls me to see myself as already redeemed, envisioning hope, change, and possibility? Or do I sit at the seder feeling content, blessed, and satisfied, needing a reminder that once I was enslaved in Egypt, and having been redeemed, I’m now obligated to be empathic, humble, and engaged in the work of redeeming others? Indeed, each year, and within each person around the table, the Haggadah resounds differently. Do we feel newly liberated, or do we yet yearn for redemption from pain, suffering or loss? Do we embody new selves, or are we still enslaved to old patterns?
Collectively too, Pesach’s message changes over time. When Jews have been oppressed, we have told the Exodus story as an affirmation of faith in our own future freedom: just as God freed our ancestors, so one day will God redeem us. In times of external freedom and prosperity for Jews, we may have turned inward, working on our collective midot (character traits), ridding ourselves of characterological hametz. Or we may have moved outward, broadening our perspective and mining our story as a model for a more universal redemption, examining our role in helping other peoples move toward freedom.
Of course, whether as individuals or as a people, it is never either/or — we’re never limited to only one perspective or meaning. At the same time, different times and circumstances may demand a shift in focus or a particular emphasis.
This year, It strikes me that the Pesach story challenges us — as American Jews, and as Jews invested in the health and future of our beloved Israel — to understand the redemption from slavery as a continual process, rather than as an event. As an initial matter, yes, freedom is won at a particular point in time, be it 1776 or 1948. But ever after, freedom must be continually re-attained, lest it be lost. Every moment of every day — in ways large and small, individually and collectively — we make choices that either claim or forfeit, enlarge or constrict, our freedom.
In a sense, every deed and word reflects such a choice. But the seder highlights some very particular actions and ways of being as freedom-enhancing choices.
We delay our meal. This teaches that if we do not learn to consciously control our impulses and animal desires, we will become enslaved to them. At the seder, we delay physical gratification for the purpose of experiencing spiritual, intellectual and moral edification and elevation; we consciously bracket certain needs — real and pressing though they are — in order to address higher values. Free people are capable of doing that. Choices that weaken our impulse control, or that yield to emotional reactivity rather than nurturing mature reflection, move us toward slavery.
We eat lechem oni (the bread of affliction, the poor person’s bread). This teaches us that it is worth risking physical comfort and security to obtain freedom, and that one who sacrifices freedom for material comfort or a feeling of safety makes a poor bargain. The seder is of course a celebration, but it is also a reminder of the anxiety, challenge, risk and loss involved in becoming and staying free. Choosing safety or wealth over freedom easily moves us back to slavery.
We tell our story aloud. This teaches that words have the power to redeem or enslave. Whenever we use the gift of speech to heal, to create, to reveal truth, to connect, to increase understanding, to open dialogue, we reclaim freedom. Every time we tolerate – or God-forbid speak – words that cause harm, that are false, that sow hatred, that limit possibility, that cloud vision and insight, that close off discussion – we are a step closer to slavery.
We welcome all who are hungry, and four types of children, to share our seder table. This teaches that freedom demands openness — in two primary respects. One is the openness of generosity, sharing the fruits of our labors, and the bounty of our blessings. Hoarding our gifts and possessions eventually enslaves us to them. The other is openness to difference — hearing and valuing people with differing perspectives, beliefs and worldviews; differing abilities, talents and limitations; differing character traits, personalities and needs. Hunkering down only with people like ourselves — who look and sound just like us, and who confirm what we already know, think, or believe — limits our capacity to grow and makes us smaller, eventually enslaving us in isolationism and solipsism.
These are just a few examples. I encourage and invite you to discuss at your seder tables what the Haggadah and the rituals of Pesach teach us about the principles, values, character traits, and behaviors necessary not only to obtain but to retain freedom. How do those lessons play out in our world today?
Wishing you a sweet and liberating Pesach,
Rabbi Jan Uhrbach