Shabbat Pesakh I: What is this Matzah?

Tonight at sundown over 70% of all self-identifying Jews will observe the beginning of Pesakh (Hebrew for “Passover”). At the very least, they will all have matzah, the symbolic bread of affliction, on their tables – gluten free, locally made, even homemade, matzah is the ultimate symbol of the holy day period. Hag haMatzot, “The Festival of Matzah,” is one of the holiday’s most ancient – and most official – names.
This simple bread is paradoxically rich in symbolism. Matzah is made only of flour and water in a rudimentary form, free of yeast or starter. There’s no magic to it, no rising, no crumb or crust. It is the epitome of fast, easy, straightforward. Yet it is so much more than that: when we consider the matzah, called by our tradition not only the poor person’s bread but also the bread of freedom, we begin to see the midrashim (interpretations) that centuries of sages and commentators have drawn from it.
1. matzah in its simplicity teaches us humility. We may find ourselves leading with our accomplishments, and what makes us special in our own eyes, “puffed up” as if with yeast. Matzah invites us to consider our essential simplicity as our most important and precious trait. If you let go of the outer shell of defense that you carry between you and the world, what might happen?
2. matzah is a demonstration of how few ingredients we really need to make bread. Let it help you consider how much – or how little – you really need in other places in your life.
3. matzah is an invitation to trust in abundance and in potential. The original mitzvah (command) is to clear out our dwellings from all the old bread: the starter, the leftover bread, anything at all that is made of last year’s harvest. Imagine yourself as a subsistence farmer in the ancient Near East, glad if you have some grain left in storage after the long hard winter – and now, just before the new wheat is ready to harvest, you are to take those last grains and clear them out. “You shall have no hametz (“leaven”) in your possession.” (Ex. 12.15)
It’s a demonstration of trust that the new harvest is going to come in, the  new grain will be gathered and we will eat, and survive, and live for another season.
In these days of chronic fear, trust is a difficult quality to come by, whether in each other or in the future. And yes, we American Jews have had it good for a while now, so it was easy to be optimistic and these words basically bounced off our hearts. But as the days pass and we come to know some small measure of the stress and worry our ancestors lived with, we come to see how courageous their hope was. How much they suffered, and yet they were still able to defy fear and sadness, and celebrate all that was good in their lives nevertheless.
Matzah is a symbol of poverty and being beaten down; matzah is a symbol of beautiful simplicity and serene trust in all that is good. When you lift it up at your Seder, what will it mean for you?
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Shabbat Terumah: The Gift of Your Life

What are you supposed to be doing with your one, wild, precious life? After all, it will all end, and too soon.
The parashat hashavua this week is Terumah, “gift”, a word that speaks of a free-will offering that comes from the heart, chosen by the giver out of the joy of the chance to share of oneself. Our Israelite ancestors this week are invited to participate in the process of creating the first Jewish sacred space, the mishkan, by bringing any gift that they are moved to bring, from their hearts, of themselves. The gifts range across the entire spectrum of building materials, from the structural to the decorative.
“From everyone whose heart moves them, let them bring gifts….to make a sacred space.” (Exodus 25.2,8)
The most touching part of this story is the eagerness with which the Israelites accept the invitation, bringing so much that Moshe has to call an end to the giving when they have brought more than can possibly be needed. This is the nature of giving from the heart: it overflows boundaries, flows without stint, without calculation, without fear that there somehow won’t be enough to go around.
Every day you give the gift of yourself to the world, and to the people around you. But it can be difficult to give from the heart; the walls we build around ourselves out of fear of being hurt – or fear of the world – can make it hard for the heart’s small chirp of longing to get through. Here I am, it says, here is what I give – please accept this gift from me, of me. And alas, sometimes the fear of our gift’s rejection is well-founded; we can be misunderstood, we can be mis-timed, we can be disappointed.
Yet our parashah conveys the underlying lesson for Jewish community – for all community – here most clearly demonstrated by the fact that the gifts of all Israelites were equally necessary and equally acceptable. No one was told that they were of the wrong gender, age, color, social status, or physical ability to give. All gifts from the heart, expressing the essence of the giver, were equally needed and equally precious.
It is not a holy space unless all give of themselves, from the heart. It is not a holy space until each who gives from the heart is equally celebrated for that gift.
And the promise, if we truly learn to value each other’s gifts of the heart as equally precious? “[G*d] will dwell among them.” (Exodus 25.8) Nothing less than this: the holiness we are capable of creating in our community when we are able to bring, each of us, the true expression of the heart to our community. No holds barred, no walls behind which we can hide, no assuming we will get hurt so that we never really open up….in other words, trust.
Trust is a big word these days, because trust is not a guarantee, and we see that so clearly on a day in which we are mourning another instance of senseless, murderous violence grown out of the dysfunction of our society. Trust is not in outcomes – this is the hard part – but in the glory of trusting in the good that still exists, each day, even on the terrible days when we are left speechless, our arms empty.
It’s almost a form of defiance, to nevertheless, in spite of everything, believe, as Anne Frank famously wrote, that “people are really good at heart,” and to continue to uphold the first rule of Jewish community ethics, which is to assume the best of others, and to give each person the benefit of the doubt. Without that trust, the heart stays closed tight out of fear. Somewhere in the wilderness in which we spend our lives, each of us searches for the holy space that will finally accept us. It is not some other community you have not yet found, where the human beings are somehow more perfect: it is this one in front of you, this one of which you are a part, this one that can love you. This one, in which you can truly live the life you are meant to live.

Shabbat Toldot: Trust, Despite Everything

In parashat Toldot we read of the birth of the twins Esau and Jacob, born to Rebekah and Isaac after years of trying to get pregnant, and much frustration and difficulty. The family that is created when the children are safely born seems to thrive: their parents succeed in helping their boys to find for each a distinct identity. A family of four, well-off and living at a peaceful time – they look as if all is well.
It all falls apart so fast, in a morality play that seems to demonstrate the damage a controlling parent can do to a child – or, perhaps, the way that deception and betrayal can tear even close families apart. At least, they seemed close.
Those who study the human condition, from ancient Rabbis to modern psychologists, remind us that there is much to be learned not from what we experience, but from how we react to our experiences. Faced with a crisis, Rebekah turns to deception; Jacob ignores his misgivings to go along; Isaac, it is suggested, knows what is happening but shrinks from confrontation; and angry Esau, at the short end, snarls and stomps out, threatening murder.
What if someone had simply spoken directly to the crisis? Why was there no trust among this family’s members? Why did everyone assume the worst?
Consider Isaac, neither the creator of his world – Abraham did that – nor really able to control it. Isaac, who was not killed in the Akedah, who survived his parenting and now is to carry forward their vision. Israeli sociologists speak of the “Isaac generation,” that person or generation that comes of age in the shadow of larger-than-life parents. In the early years of the State of Israel, after the heroes of old founded the state, their children had difficulty discerning how they might make their own contribution to the world. The same is true of any of us whose parent is of an outsize fame or reputation; that identity shadows our own, and it may prove difficult to find one’s own sense of identity.
There is an unfortunately significant attribute of the Isaac generation: its vulnerability to disappointment and cynicism. The first generation carries a great and visionary hope, but afterward, the deconstructionist histories are published, and we learn that all those to whom we had looked up and followed are only human – and some, a great deal worse. Sometimes we might find ourselves driven to punish those who disappoint us in ways that seem to reduce them to the kind of shadow some of us may feel we ourselves are.
Most of us have either felt or can easily imagine the enervation of having our early faith in god-like heroes destroyed. It has been suggested that we ourselves – the people of the United States of America – are part of a great Isaac-generation despair that began with the Vietnam War and sharpened with Watergate. Of course, it is also possible to go back much further, to the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention, which stained United States society and polity from the beginning.
Jewish tradition offers us a radical teaching in the face of all this demoralization: if you feel betrayed by another person, review your own assumptions. Why is it that you are reacting the way you do? What other choices might you have?
Jewish mysticism teaches that while we may not feel that we can always access a sense of faith – in ourselves, in others, in G*d – we can always act out of trust. Our tradition is full of stories of Jews betrayed by life who, bereft of the feeling of G*d’s presence, insist on it. The Piacezsner Rebbi, who led his people in the dark days of the Warsaw Ghetto, taught that even those who feel no faith can reach up to the ladder between heaven and earth and, by sheer force of will, pull themselves toward G*d, and bring G*d’s presence down to them.
Feeling unhappy, betrayed, misunderstood, disappointed? Reach up and pull heaven down into your heart again. All you need is your yetzer hara’s stubbornness, turned toward the lifeline rather than the pit. Then, judge each other, not from a place of demoralization, but from kindness and empathy, and so fulfill the mitzvah of loving your neighbor as you love yourself.