Stimulating Conversation at the Seder

seder plate

Creating a memorable seder experience

Each year we relive the Exodus from Egypt to remember the misery of slavery and the lightness of freedom. Yet, this freedom is not open-ended. It is a way of life that reflects daily expressions of gratitude for our freedom and perseverance in freeing those still help captive. The sources of this captivity  and many, and include hunger, abuse, addiction, fear, poverty, mental illness trafficking, gun violence, and refugees.

Check out www.hias.org/passover2016 for a supplement on refugees.  American Jewish World Service (AJWS) also has a haggadah supplement,  “A Global Justice Haggadah ,” ajws-americanjewishwo.netdna

People: Memory Markers

Perhaps the most powerful memory marker comes from noting who is present in any given year and who is not. This bittersweet reminder pushes us to consider our responsibility to carry Seder and other Jewish traditions into the future. And we will do so in our own ways. It is not about everything always staying exactly the same. What matters is that it feels authentic to us.

Conversation prompts

Matzah: Symbol of Liberation or Affliction? 

During the Seder, we hold up the matzah and say, “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and share our meal.”

How can the matzah be both the “bread of our affliction” as well as the  symbol of our journey to freedom?

How might encounter with our own afflictions and those of others                                 (however affliction is defined), lead to liberation?

Our narrow places

Consider two points: 1) Mitzrayim, the word for Egypt, is related to places of emotional, spiritual and physical constriction and 2) Passover is a time to be with family.

What do we do when being with family feels like a place of constriction.

Explore this experience of constriction. What is its source? How might you create liberating space for yourself and others?   How would the Seder experience change?

Seder for the 21st Century

How might you change the seder to make it accessible and inclusive of the many beliefs and points of view held by seder participants? What are the core components of the seder?  How might symbols be reinterpreted instead of discarded? What spiritual, cultural and communal values are embedded in the seder experience?

~~~~

Haiku for Pass-over (Michael Levy), from A Poet’s Haggadah, Rick Lupert, ed., p. 54.

“Teaching at the Seder table

God’s loving-kindness

Killing first born”

Discuss the Haiku above. How does it fit into the seder story.

What makes a seder “successful”?

A successful seder raises awareness of the plight of the oppressed. Discuss the issue of oppression on a local, national and global level. Consider choosing one area in which to do some “freedom work.”

Shabbat Shalom & Chag Sameach!

Wishing you and those you love a sweet and engaging Seder and Passover holiday

Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

22 Adar II 5776/ 1 April 5766

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Seder doesn’t have to be boring!

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**Yes, Purim has just ended, but it takes some dedicated preparation time to create a meaningful seder experience!

Should the seder remain exactly the same from year to year. Or, is there value in adding new interpretations based on how we and the world have changed? What experiences and insights can we use to infuse the seder with an added layer of relevance and meaning? What contemporary insights might be gained from performing ancient rituals?

Chametz

The leavened products that may not be eaten during Passover.  To learn more about what hametz is, visit: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/leaven-hametz/

Spiritual meaning of hametz

Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav understands hametz to represent the evil inclination          (yetzer ha-rah)(http://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-birth-of-the-good-inclination/). Difficulty: How do we strengthen our inner desire to do good?  What obstacles do we face?

The mystics consider hametz to be spiritual obstructions. Rabbi Eliahu Klein writes (A Mystical Haggadah, p.10) that the “yeast in the bread” obscures the innate light that wishes to illuminate naturally.  In other words, hametz is an energetic, psychological, and spiritual obstruction.

Difficulty: How does mindfulness practice help us address these obstructions?

In The Holistic Haggadah, Michael Kagan describes hametz as our over-inflated ego. Just as we need to rid our food of all things that puff it up, we need to rid ourselves of all false pride that puffs us up.  And Ruth Gruber Freedman (The Passover Seder: Afikomen in Exile, p. 90) explains that matzah represents the spiritual ideal while hametz represents spiritual imperfection.

Difficulty: What is your concept of a spiritual ideal and spiritual imperfection?

Making rituals meaningful (Kagan)

Searching for Hametz :   Search for your “inner spoilage,” i.e. our over-inflated ego.

Burning Hametz – Identify and determine to let go of attachments

Lighting the candles – Bring in the light of…(hope, love, peace, connection, ???)

Blessing the children – Our children are our future. How can we give them roots in a precious heritage and encourage them to spread their wings to fly into a Jewish life we may not have imagined but which speaks to them?

Discussion: Engaging all the generations represented around the seder table, compare and contrast basic Jewish beliefs and experiences. 

Karpas dipped in salt water – The Karpas represents spring and new life. Water taken in sustains that life. The human body was built to handle just small amounts of salt.   Connecting to your inner flow, to what inner Egypt/ Mitzrayim/ Narrow place – i.e. unsustainable and unfulfilling life does the salt water take you?

Difficulty: How can you rescue yourself from that narrow place?

Yahatz – Breaking the matzah. This represents the broken self. Connect the journey from wholeness to brokenness and back to wholeness to the blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah (tekiah – 1 whole but short blast; teruah – 3 broken blasts; shevarim – 7 broken staccato blasts; tekiah gedolah – one long blast representing shalom – wholeness and peace).

Difficulty: How can we reconcile that even as the Israelites carried both the broken and whole tables through the wilderness, we, too, carry the broke and the whole through our lives?

Maggid – This is the retelling of the Passover story. It is also a time to tell our own story and connect it to the historical and spiritual narrative captured by the Haggadah.  What threads connect us to the past, present and future of the Jewish community?

Difficulty: Passover is about all Jews sharing a collective narrative.  Today, when there is so much divisiveness between the far right and other expressions of Jewish life, what do we all share in common and how are we different?  How are these connections and disconnections reshaping the Jewish community?

Some other thoughts

Consider the Pharaohs that still enslave abuse, threaten, bully, cheat, traffic, and oppress.   Make your own haggadah or select readings that address contemporary experiences of oppression – political, social, emotional, economic and spiritual – across the globe. Visit http://www.haggadot.com for templates and resources.

Listen to world music that captures the longing for and experience of freedom. Write or read poetry that connects us to journeys – those yearned for and those realized. Take a walk and enjoy the liberating feeling brought on by the explosion of spring. Find or take a photograph of something that stirs your inner being and evokes deeper understanding of the human experience of slavery and liberation.   Taste Passover foods using recipes from around the world. Reach out to people who might otherwise be alone during the holiday.

Whether your Seder is long or short, in English or Hebrew, traditional or contemporary, sung on or off key, with family, friends or strangers – make the most of the experience. What matters most is that we internalize the message of the Seder that we are not truly free until all are free.   And determine to make a difference, even the smallest difference, in the coming year.

For alternative contemporary haggadot, visit: http://www.rac.org/pesach-themed-haggadot

Wishing you an engaging, inspiring Seder experience and a joyous, hametz-free Passover.

Shabbat Shalom and (an early) Chag Sameach,

Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

25 Adar II 5776/ 25 March 2016

 

 

 

 

Prayer, Love and Eternity

Reaching-out Draw closer

This week Jews around the world begin reading Leviticus, the third book of the Torah. The parasha opens with the command to make offerings to the SOURCE OF LIFE –either as a voluntary action or as a mandatory action in response to behaviors that are condemned. Each type of offering addresses the reality that our behaviors can distance us from the Divine and prevent us from recognizing the Divine essence within each human being. Without reflection, we are spiritually diminished. Action is required to restore our spiritual and ethical brokenness.

Mandatory Offerings

Our conscious engagement in ritual sacrifices restores fissures in our relationship with the Holy One and with each other. The mandatory offerings cover general and specific transgressions, taking from Temple property, when one is unsure if one has sinned, and for stealing from others. Rich and poor are equally obligated, but are required to given within their means.

Voluntary offerings

There are also voluntary offerings. The Torah does not permit Israelites to atone for intentional or premeditated offenses by bringing a sacrifice. In these instances, the law deals directly with the offender, imposing punishments and acting on preventative reoccurrences. Restitution is required if another person has suffered any loss or injury (Etz Hayim Torah Commentary, p. 585.)

Prayer replaces sacrificial offerings

OK – so how does this “behavior modification” system pertain to us? And, more specifically, how do our prayers (the post-Temple replacement for sacrifices) achieve the same purpose? How does prayer transform us spiritually, ethically and behaviorally? How might traditional or spontaneous prayer restore the connection between each of us and Source of Life? How might prayer, in any form, inspire us to become better human beings – to treat ourselves, others, and all of creation, with a heightened consciousness of the sacredness of life?

“I’m not into prayer”

I have often heard people say they just aren’t into prayer. What does this mean? Regardless of whether or how one believes in “A Force Greater than Us”, isn’t it just sound spiritual sense to develop a practice that deepens our capacity to build meaningful relationships and make the world a better place?

The prayerbook(siddur) as a guide to spiritual and ethical values

By embracing the ethical and spiritual values articulated over and over again in the prayerbook, we draw out the Divine Essence within us and draw us closer to one another. What an incredible blueprint for repairing a broken world – for all people: secular, humanist, atheist, agnostic or the traditionally observant and the liberally observant! Here are some examples of the values you will find:

  • Awe
  • Humility
  • Gratitude
  • Regret
  • Forgiveness
  • Generosity
  • Thoughtful speech
  • Compassionate listening
  • Asking for help
  • Affirming the preciousness of life
  • Performing acts of loving kindness
  • Connecting the generations
  • Pursuing justice
  • Seeking peace

Mindfulness practices prepare us for prayers’ guided journey

Mindfulness practices such as yoga, meditation, and wilderness experiences, help us open our hearts and minds. They deepen our ability to draw near all that is sacred and prepare us for what comes next – prayer itself. Again, this prayer may be personal or communal. What is important is that it reminds us that we are not alone in the world and that we have a responsibility to heal, encourage, support and sustain one another.   The rabbis, then and now, use scripture, poetry, and values to create a journey that leads us each day through themes such as:

  • Gratitude for breath and body shapes our day-to-day experience.
  • Blessings are really action steps for acts of loving kindness and social justice.
  • Worlds are created and destroyed by words – use them carefully.
  • Creation is awe-inspiring, humbling and a gift to be cherished.
  • Torah is a vibrant loving source of wisdom and guidance that speaks to each generation.
  • Our rescue from bondage demands that we take responsibility for our actions and rescue others.
  • Our history matters and the merit of our ancestors paved the way for us.
  • Healing is both physical and spiritual.
  • Regret, teshuvah and forgiveness restore hope and possibility.
  • Working for peace is a constant.
  • Memory of those whom we lost reminds us of the power of love.
  • There is a vision before us of a world in touch with Divine Essence and united by shared values and a vision of peace.

Held by a GREAT LOVE, a glimpse of eternity

Fully present in a moment of prayer, we may actually experience a glimpse a moment of eternity. Prayer opens our hearts to receive goodness and love. And, conversely, enables us to touch the darkest experiences of pain with forgiveness and compassion.   Prayer reminds us that even in the face of our imperfections, we are loved by a “Great Love”. And, resting in the embrace of that Eternal Love, we are breathed by all that has been, is and will be.   This Love may be strong and gentle, demanding and accepting, transcendent and within reach.

I am my prayer

Secure and held by a Love that freely flows into us as it also emanates from our hearts, may the words from our lips and the intentions of our hearts lovingly move us closer to one another through thought, word and deed.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

8 Adar 11 5776/ 18 March 2016

Remembering My Father’s Chair

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Dad sitting in his chair (mid 1980’s)

Memory, even as it stirs the pot of unresolved feelings, can also restore connections. I remember the day we were packing to move my father into assisted living. My mom, divorced from my dad for nearly four decades, came to help. She spent hours patiently writing his name on his clothes and other belongings. She sorted through dad’s clothes, making sure to select the best things. Watching her sitting on the bed, her head bent over, writing carefully with a thick indelible marker, I remembered how she did the same for me when I went to summer camp. Then, and now, it felt like such an act of love. Strange, after all these years, the simplest thing could feel so intimate. That moment, one that I will always cherish, also brought some measure of healing to our family.

My dad sat in the other room in “his” chair. In fact, he refers to the chair as, “my chair,” which always makes me smile, because when I was growing up, dad also had a special chair. No one sat in it except for him. It reminds me about studying the rules written by the rabbis concerning not sitting in one’s fathers or one’s rabbi’s chair. It is considered a sign of disrespect. When dad would come home from a day’s work, not made any easier by a long commute, he would relax in his chair. There he was king. There he would nap, read, listen to all kinds of music and smoke his pipe. There he would help me study for tests, while I sat on the floor by his feet. There, my favorite times, he would tell his wonderful stories. This chair became a sacred space, a place that brought him physical and emotional comfort, and one that I associate with love. Of course he would bring his current chair to his new home, which both he and I found comforting. Now settled into his new home, he still tell me with such gratitude that he is relaxing in his chair. When I miss him, I imagine him there and take comfort in knowing that even as he moves deeper into dementia, he still has his throne of dignity.

As the day grew late, my father told me he couldn’t remember why he had gotten divorced from my mother. This, even though he had been in a long-time relationship with another woman following the divorce. I didn’t know what to say, especially since so many negative memories leading up to the divorce had been reinforced. My father called to my mother. He spoke to her with such intimacy that she was caught off guard.  In a sweet moment, he asked if she remembered how they met. I enjoyed listening as they each recalled their own version of the story. When my dad opened his arms for an embrace, I could see confusion in her eyes. Later, when I asked her, she would admit that she had never really processed the divorce. But, at that utterly awkward moment, I needed to do something. “Family hug!” I cried out, transforming the moment into one of healing and wholeness. Here, after all this time, we created a new memory, one that fills me with gratitude and such love. A memory that makes me especially happy to share with my mom, which makes her happy.

Memory, even as it stirs the pot of unresolved feelings, can restore connections. And, if there can be a moment of redemption in dementia, it can be the loss of memories that make us sad. Opportunities to transform painful memories exist, but require openness and courage to change one’s actions.  By forgiving ourselves and others we make room for our own healing and the healing of those we love or once loved.

May your reflections on this and every Shabbat lead to a deeper understanding of how remembering is a conscious act that can heal and deepen our capacity to love.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi

Community Rabbi

Shabbat Pekudei 5776

Get Un-plugged!

jung-solitude-healing-silence-quotation-jungcurrents

Solitude has been my friend since childhood.  Nothing soothed my soul more than escaping to the woods.  There, life felt slower.  A smell of earthiness filled my lungs with its richness.   The thrill of jumping from rock to rock as I crossed to the other side  of the brook- hopefully, but not always, without getting my feet wet.  Darting water minnows, small crayfish and tadpoles in all stages of development held my attention for hours – without ever making a sound.  It felt as if the babbling of the brook was intended for my ears only. The spotted salamander remained elusive despite my stealth and focused search.  Lifting up rock after rock, I never knew what would appear – all kinds of worms and other “creepy crawlers.”  This I did with caution, as snakes called the woods their home as well.   The skunk cabbage was, well, smelly!  But I loved the beautiful ferns and the soft green moss.  Every step was an adventure.  Following the path or not, I would make my way through this sanctuary.  My busy brain was quiet;  my heart opened by wonder and joy.

It seems so much harder today to escape the noisy world.  What would happen if we just asked everyone to use their “inside voice”?  Or better yet, use the acronym, W.A.I.T., “Why am I talking?”, to create space to be more discerning about when to speak and when to listen – with compassion and complete attention.  Other times, we are called upon to speak, which can be exhilarating or exhausting – or both.  I know I am not alone when, following teaching or speaking engagements, or even social events, I need complete retreat, quiet and stillness.  Not for thinking or processing, but simply to recover my center.

Susan Cain, in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” reminds us that at least one-third of the people we know are introverts.  Of particular interest to me is Cain’s discussion of how American society moved from a “Culture of Character” to a “Culture of Personality.”  In a culture of character, the following characteristics were valued by society: citizenship, duty, work, golden deeds, honor, reputation, morals, manners and integrity (p.23).  Dale Carnegie, who played a major role in shifting cultural focus from character to personality through his lectures, trainings and writings, highlighted a completely different set of  characteristics: magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, glowing, dominant, forceful and energetic (pp. 23-24).  This cultural shift impacted areas such as advertising, parenting, education, the workplace and social circles.  It also “intensified … biases and applied them not only to political and religious leaders, but also to regular people” (p.30). “The pressure to entertain, to sell ourselves, and never be visibly anxious keeps ratcheting up” (p.31).

Whether you view yourself as an extrovert or an introvert, I highly recommend reading this book.  Silence and solitude as regular mindful practices strengthen our character.  Anais Nin wrote,”Our culture made a virtue of living only as extroverts.  We discouraged the inner journey, the quest for a center.  So we lost our center and have to find it again.”

Spring is a particularly good time to practice re-centering.  Consider setting aside time daily quiet time to notice even the minutest changes as evidence of spring’s approach.   Quiet your brain.  Renew your sense of wonder.  Consider reading the works of Emerson and Thoreau, Muir or David Suzuki, or the poems of Mary Oliver. Employ every sense in experiencing the miraculous renewal of life that occurs each and every day.  At the very least, open your windows and let fresh air replace the stale.

Notice how  you feel.  Breathe deeply.  Notice the wafts of fragrance.  Take a walk through the woods even if the ground is muddy.  Stand still and pay attention.  Can you hear the songs of birds beginning to return home? Can you feel the energy of life renewing?  Open your heart to life in all its glory.  Offer words of gratitude for the simplest things you notice!  Re-energize your spirit.

Whether or not you pray,  the following phrase from the siddur, Jewish prayer book, reminds us that goodness itself each and every day  is recreated.

“The Ever-Renewing Essence of Life renews the work of Creation each and every day as an act of goodness”  –  “Ha-mechadeish b’tuvo bechol yom tamid ma’asei vereishit”  

Drink in the joy of being alive. Spread that joy to others through a smile, a kind act, a quiet moment shared over a cup of tea.  Practice listening to yourself and to others with an open heart and mind.  Try to be present, holding both humility and pride, making space for yourself and others.  Focus on developing your character – one trait at a time.  Shtika – silence, which may include solitude, is but one of many soul traits  we spend a lifetime practicing.

Shabbat,with it’s focus on noticing the natural world as a remembrance of Creation itself, offers a perfect  opportunity to begin exploring the virtue of shtika, silence.  Listen to the “still, small voice”within calling to you to pay attention.   And, this Shabbat people all over North America are joining in for “Shabbat Un-plugged.”Imagine, just setting aside all of your technologies and becoming present once again – for yourself your loved ones and friends.  May your quiet journey replenish and renew your soul and fill your open heart with love.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi, Community Rabbi

23 Adar 1 5776/ 3 March 2016