Pesah Kavannot 5776
To read last year’s Pesah kavannot, click here.
Getting rid of hametz is a complicated task. Of course, there are the stovetops to clean, the cabinets to clear out, and the bread to discard. The leavened items in our homes are replaced with matzah, the bread of affliction. That bread reminds us of the haste in which the Israelites had to leave Mitzrayim, and its flatness alludes to the spiritual work that we try to do around this time of year. In our tradition which teaches that teshuvah, repentance, is always a possibility, we are reminded exactly six months away from the Yamim Noraim, that the hametz of our souls and the leavening of our ego is also worth examining. This Pesah season, we not only think about the physical hametz in our homes to clean out, but also of the spiritual hametz, the spiritual schmutz that’s getting in the way of who we really are. Today, as we observed Shabbat haHodesh, we ushered in the month of Nisan and we kick ourPesah preparations into high gear. These 14 days are a spiritual cleanse to help us prepare for what it really means to be free. It’s the time to think about the spiritual schmutz we are carrying around and what we can get rid of. What are the layers we need to peel away in order to be a more liberated version of ourselves? What is excessive? What’s the hametz, the leavened, puffed-up stuff that’s holding us back?
For the next 13 days, until erev Pesah, you’ll receive a daily kavannah written by a member of our community. We’ve asked these members to think about what getting rid of spiritual schmutz means to them. Our haggadah asks us, in each and every generation, to see ourselves as if we, too, had been liberated from Mitzrayim. This is a charge that urges us to think about liberation in multiple ways: who in our world is oppressed, how do I oppress myself, and what are the ways that I can make the world, and myself, more free? In that spirit, we offer three ways for you to incorporate this charge into your Pesah preparations and celebrations.
• Before Pesah, help the hungry and get rid of your hametz by donating non-perishable food items to our WSCAH drive. Donation bins are in our 89th Street Community House and in the entrance to our 88th Street sanctuary before Kabbalat Shabbat.
• Continue the BJ tradition of adding a red onion to your seder plate as a reminder that many of the farm-workers who grow and harvest our food do not have the right to basic labor protections such as a weekly day of rest and overtime pay. Get Pesahresources and learn more about BJ’s Economic Justice Hevra.
• As we celebrate the Jewish people’s biblical exodus from Egypt, we remember that there are 60 million displaced people around the world, people fleeing violence and persecution in search of a safe place to call home. As part of BJ’s effort to respond to the world’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, we are partnering with HIAS, a leading organization in refugee advocacy and resettlement work. Bring HIAS’s Passover resources to your seder, learn more about this issue, and find ways to act.
Rabbi Sarit Horwitz
Senior Rabbinic Fellow
We associate the word seder with Passover meals shared with family and friends that follows a specific order of blessings, foods, texts, and songs. But seder (“order”) is a Jewish value to be practiced daily and is a key ingredient in the spiritual cleanse my 21st century life requires.
Several years ago at a gathering of entrepreneurs, the featured speaker was a CEO named Warren Rustand. His inspirational talk focused on how professional success fits into a life rich with value. One of the examples he shared from his personal practice was that he and his family deposit their cell phones in a basket by the door when they arrive home – not to be touched again until they leave for work the next morning. He believes that work needs to get done at work, and that when one is home their focus should be on the people with whom they share their life. This implicit challenge to live a life of order and discipline so that time spent with my loved ones is sacred has stayed with me.
As a student and teacher of the Jewish spiritual practice called mussar, the middah (virtue) of seder refers to an ongoing focus to bring increased order into my life so that I am present and of service to others. As understood by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Satanov, we need seder so that “our thoughts are always free to deal with that which lies ahead of us.” It is not for the purpose of taking pride in good time management or a tidy home that my spiritual cleansing requires seder/order. Rather, lack of seder (disorderliness) puts me in a state of distracted self-absorption that precludes me from being the kind of spouse, mother, friend, and neighbor I want to be. The Passover seder is intended to remind us of the responsibility of freedom; the daily practice of seder carries the same message.
For your seder table, here are two suggestions to increase joy for participants of all ages. First, put out an array of veggies, chips and dips like guacamole to munch on after the karpas blessing. Second, encourage everyone at your seder table to share two blessings of gratitude in the Dayenu style, i.e: If only I was blessed with this good thing, Dayenu (it would have been enough), but also I was blessed with this other thing!
Rabbi Rachel Bovitz is the Director of Millennial Engagement at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a madricha of the Mussar Leadership Program. Rachel, Greg, Sari, Sammy and Annie joined BJ a year and a half ago when they moved to New York City.
Z’man Heirutenu, the time of our freedom. The BJ family trip to Israel this past winter made me think about the different shapes and colors of the aspiration for freedom. We met people whose grandparents made their personal exodus from the same part of the Ukraine as mine—theirs to Palestine, mine to Philadelphia. All sought freedom from oppression, from powerlessness over their fate, and none of us would likely be here if they hadn’t. But what defined the quality of the lives they made for themselves and their descendants is what they sought freedom for. Self-reinvention; financial security; a society that treats people more equally and more justly; the Zionist dream. Different promises, different promised lands.
Freedom requires freedom-from. Bound to the wheel, whether of Egyptian slavery or Russian persecution or even the self-imposed bondage to the everyday demands of the seemingly urgent, there’s no space, no breath, to imagine a different way to be. But there’s no real freedom without freedom-for: without engagement and dedication to something deep and true. Moshe demands that Pharoah release the Israelites from their “avodah,” their servitude, in order that that they may offer “avodah,” their service, to God in the wilderness—the same word used for both ‘slavery’ and ‘freedom.’ Spiritual freedom is, paradoxically, inextricably bound up with service. “You gotta serve somebody,” Bob Dylan wrote. Freedom is less about release than about asking, discovering, and continuously choosing what and whom is worth our devotion.
Z’man Heirutenu, and its offer of transformative change, seems like the time to ask: What do I serve with my energy and time? Is this how I want to dedicate it? Would my ancestors recognize in my choices the continuation of their exodus journeys?
For the seder table, compare the “Exodus” of your family to America with the biblical story. What were they seeking freedom from and what were they seeking freedom for? Do you think they found it? Imagine in what ways their and your lives would be the same or different if they had chosen to go to Palestine/Israel, or South America, or another place.
Max Rudin is publisher of Library of America, a nonprofit organization devoted to publishing definitive editions of great American writing. He and his wife, Amy Schatz, and children Eve and Noah, are longtime BJ members.
A few months ago, our dog suddenly went blind. He is learning to get around and we are getting used to his new behavior and needs. I guide him through the streets, calling out, “Step up, step down, look out.”
This reminds me of the days when we strolled our kids over the jarring humps of New York City streets. We used to sing to them, “The road is very bumpy; so very, very bumpy; we are taking a ride that is so very, very, very bumpy.” We intuitively wanted to teach them how to pair the roughness of life with their mother and father’s tender voices. Survival depends upon sensing goodness in spite of the hard patches.
One form of spiritual schmutz is forgetting this truth.
Like many parents who show up at my office, I have often wanted to launch my kids into life perfectly. Not being able to do so torments many sane parents into some form of Upper West Side mid-life angst. But perfection is an illusion, and the absence of pain is a myth. Fostering a healthy relationship to adversity is the best thing we can do for our kids and ourselves. The road is very bumpy! Hardship is more the norm than not.
Though we learn to live with the reality of pain, we also need to learn how to use it to better enable us to receive those great blasts of joyous wonder that also come our way.
For your seder table, consider seeking the wisdom about survival that is contained in the Haggadah. We know the story teaches us that we survived hardship. Now ask, “how?”
This Pesah finds me preparing to move out of the apartment I’ve lived in for nearly 30 years to a smaller space, so the question of what to hold onto and what to let go of truly resonates for me.
What is the spiritual hametz I need to get rid of?
As I review my possessions and decide what to keep and what to leave behind, I ask myself:
What do I really need? (Certainly a lot less than I have.)
What am I obligated to preserve?
Do I use this in my daily life or on special occasions, Shabbat, the holidays?
Does this enhance my life?
Is it beautiful?
Does it evoke a memory that still has meaning for me?
Am I holding onto it for myself or someone else?
If I am keeping it for the next generation, will these things matter as much to them as they do to me?
Is it time to entrust them with it?
Are things I inherited from my parents still treasures or do I keep them only out of guilt, because it feels like a betrayal to move on without them?
Does this thing speak to my yetzer hara or yetzer hatov–my negative or positive inclinations?
Am I holding onto something painful, the last remnant of a broken relationship? Time to let it go. I toss things I should have discarded long ago. Why have I held onto them? I choose what to leave behind.
I choose what I want in my life moving forward. As I shred, toss, donate, and give gifts to family and friends, I bring peace and order to my soul, and experience the joy of making space for my new home, my new life.
For your seder table, name something that you have held onto from an earlier part of your life that you might now be ready to part with, and what that would mean for you.
Marcia Kaplan is a long-time and active member of BJ who lives and works downtown. She is an attorney with the N.Y.S. Dept. Of Health, Bureau of Professional Medical Conduct. Marcia is moving a mile west to Chelsea, and looking forward to a shorter commute to shul.
Pesah preparations focus on clearing out and cleansing. We remind ourselves of oppression through restriction. We limit. We remove. We diet. We diminish.
Our daily lives also increasingly demand limitations. From the food we now must omit and the closets we must organize to the to-do list we must complete, the inbox we must purge, and the newsfeed we must filter—we obsess around an unattainable, minimalist, perfectly Pinterest-worthy life.
But instead looking for meaning in simplification, why not mark freedom by embracing abundance?
Let’s celebrate the shift from depravity to wealth. Not in money or material things, but amassing wealth in positivity, wealth in fresh food, and wealth in friendship. Creating more opportunities. Providing more support and inclusion of others. Let’s flood our world with generosity and endless possibility.
This pesah, as we remove hametz from our diet, I challenge you to add more than you subtract. Honor freedom through radical abundance of positivity, creativity, openness, and acceptance.
For your seder table, find one way to make the service or meal more inclusive—such as an added transliteration or translation, shifting gendered language, offering more dietary options, or extending an additional invitation.
Dana Kalfas Bodine is the Vice President of Marketing and Brand Development at Time Inc. She has been a member of BJ and itshevra kadisha since 2010. Just before Pesah 2013, she married her husband, Jesse Bodine, in BJ’s sanctuary. Dana and Jesse live on the Upper West Side with their dog, Pickle.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin writes “just as the same grains can produce either hametz or matzah, the very etymology of the words is almost identical: hmtz/חמץ and mtzh/מצה. The only difference is the soft or hard ‘h.’ Moreover, matzot and mitzvot are spelled exactly the same way in Hebrew–מצות.”
When looking at these words, I ask how we can reframe our spiritual hametz into mitzvah. How can we transform something that is cluttering or blocking us into something that pushes us forward, a mitzvah for this season of possibility and growth?
Rabbi Marc-Alain Ouaknin also has a beautiful Hebrew reference to create this awareness. “The Hebrew word for guest is ‘oray-ah/אורח.’ We can also read the word as ‘or’ and ‘ray-ah’ meaning light and fragrance. To share bread (matzah) is to open one’s house to the light and fragrance of life. By welcoming another person, one becomes oneself, welcomed by the other, welcomed by light and fragrance.”
As the changing spring light brightens these days of Nisan and the fragrance of flowers increases, we clean, declutter, plan and prepare. Moving from hametz to mitzvah requires reflection and change. There’s a transformation that happens for dough to become hametz, and a transformation that happens when our matzah becomes a mitzvah. Change, even if we know will lead to positive growth, can be hard and I am often reluctant to change. It’s easier to stick to our baseline, to what we know. I try and think about how I can move beyond my baseline to more challenging mitzvot.
For your seder, consider discussing the practical implications of this transition fromhametz to matzah to mitzvah. Are there arenas in your life where you can carry out a new mitzvah, perhaps a more challenging mitzvah?
Judy Geller-Marlowe is a language lover, student of Jewish texts, and a retired ESL teacher. She is an adjunct professor at NYU and currently mentors aspiring language instructors.
The Haggadah progresses through 14 steps meant to bring us to higher and higher levels of spirituality, light, and freedom. Like the prayers in the Mahzor do for Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur, these steps during the seder provide us with vehicles for continuing the spiritual work we begin before Pesah.
We dip (Hebrew: טבל/tbl) the Karpas (“lowly” vegetable from the ground) in salt water. Rearranged, these letters spell בטל/btl, and one definition is something that’s a small piece of a much larger whole, suggesting we begin the process with humility.
The steps that follow in the seder are:
Yahatz – breaking the middle matzah. We all have broken parts of ourselves. Splitting this matzah reminds us to go below our surface and look deep down. But know , while perhaps scary, one piece of that matzah is hidden away in safety – we are both vulnerable yet protected at the same time. Later this piece (the Afikomen) will be reunited with us at “Tzafun” (“Hidden”). In fact, we can’t continue the seder (or our growth) without reintegrating our broken pieces.
Maggid – telling the Pesah story. Our journey from slavery to freedom. Like eating the Pascal sacrifice the night before in Egypt, Maggid is meant to be done in community. We are not alone. While getting rid of our individual spiritual schmutz, we have family/friends to help and support us (and we, them). Rav Soloveitchik’s beautiful article “An Exalted Evening: The Seder Night” tells us “the Torah require(s) of spiritual man to open his mind, his heart, his existence. Invite others! Eating becomes a cohesive force bringing together people who were shut up in their own small worlds and coalescing them into a community…unites people, fosters friendship.”
Rahtza – we wash our hands, the active part of our body that intersects with the world. They can do positive, loving acts, or the opposite. We use water – a purifier and life giving substance – to vitalize and strengthen our hands to do loving, kind acts to others. Crowding out negative actions with positive ones helps us remove our schmutz.
Near the end we say Hallel. After going through this both difficult and inspiring process, we sing blessings both to God, and perhaps, to those around us in our new found, enlightened community.
Shari Kenner is a social worker who works with individuals with developmental disabilities and psychiatric diagnoses. She has been living on the UWS for over 35 years and has been going to BJ for 17 years.
It all started with a joke. A boy in my grade said to his friend, “you’re so retarded,” after his friend tripped and fell on the floor. I was appalled. I couldn’t fathom why he would use a mental disability to substitute the word “clumsy.” I recognized that it was wrong. But I also recognized that the word “retarded” was slang, and the boy did not have offensive intentions. Later that day, I went home and thought about what had happened. It wasn’t unusual for me to hear words like “retarded” being thrown around in the hallways at my school. Somebody’s backpack was too “gay,” somebody threw a ball “like a girl,” or somebody with an organized locker was “OCD.” I would constantly hear these phrases being used colloquially. I tried not to use them offensively, but I, as most people are, was guilty of not speaking up when I heard them.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the only reason these phrases were considered slang was that people like me, bystanders, didn’t speak up when other people used these words. I always assumed that if I personally didn’t use slurs in offensive ways, I was making a difference. However, in order to truly stand up to this injustice, being aware of one’s own personal word choice isn’t enough; people need to speak up when they hear others using these phrases.
We need to understand how our words affect others. Before you say, “I’m going to kill myself,” think about people who actually have suicidal thoughts or tendencies. Before you say, “you look anorexic,” think about the people who actually struggle with eating disorders. The use of these words diminishes the seriousness of the obstacles that people genuinely struggle with. By using offensive phrases, we contribute to the stereotypes of certain groups of people, marginalizing and dehumanizing them and teaching others that it is okay to use these words in offensive contexts.
But how does this relate to Passover? It’s the time of year when we clean out our houses of hametz. As we wipe down our kitchen counters, get rid of any food containing hametz, and stock up on matzah, we also need to cleanse our vocabularies of offensive phrases. For your seder table, go around the table and have everybody come up with a certain word or phrase that should not be used in a derogatory way.
Nina Glesby is a ninth grade student at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School. She has been a BJ member for her whole life and spends her free time volunteering with kids with special needs.
“No, no no, on Pesah, we’re all royalty!” My friend said, and – reaching over to stop me from pouring my own wine – took the bottle from my hand and poured me a full glass. Quickly catching on, I grabbed the bottle and returned the favor, filling my friend’s cup to the brim.
My friend’s custom – that on Passover, we don’t serve ourselves – is one of the many reminders in the seder that we are no longer slaves; we recline (or just eat with a nice soft pillow supporting our backs), we eat and drink, and we recount our mythic journey to freedom. And there’s something especially symbolic of freedom in having food and drink appear before you whenever you ask. Being served is a sure way to know that you’re not a servant. But at the same time, this particular tradition is a little hypocritical; by refusing to serve myself, I’m turning my fellow seder-guests into my servants, and they’re doing the same thing to me!
Ultimately, though, true freedom requires an acknowledgement of our interdependence. It means learning to both serve and be served, to give and receive. Too often, I’ve found myself enslaved to my own pride, refusing to accept the help and support of friends and loved ones, out of a desire to remain “free” from obligation or a sense of inferiority.
For your seder table, make a pact that everyone present is royalty, and no one needs to serve themselves. All anyone has to do is ask. But beforehand, do the spiritual work of cleaning out your inner pride, along with anything else that might prevent you from asking your fellow free people for help.
BJ Rabbinic Fellow
Our tradition commands us to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. This command is at its pinnacle at the Seder when we are required to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt. The Seder is the vehicle through which we are essentially supposed to relive our journey from slavery to freedom– a daunting if not impossible task.
Every year I ask my Seder guests to do a bit of homework. Though I realize that a person who has never experienced anything but freedom could not fully appreciate slavery, I try nonetheless to tackle that challenge. A task I have given to my Seder guests is to imagine themselves a person (real or fictional) from a period of transition in Jewish History (the Exodus, the expulsion from Spain, the Holocaust, the creation of the State of Israel, etc). Then, they are to write an entry into their diary as this person, describing what they are going through. For example; how might the Exodus have appeared to a 5 year old boy or, conversely, to a 90 year old woman? How might your grandfather have felt leaving the pogroms in Europe to come to the United States, knowing that he might never see or speak to his parents again? While this activity in no way can actualize the experience of slavery, it might make one more sensitive to what others have been made to endure.
As we attempt to imagine the plights of our ancestors, we will become more aware of those going through similar struggles today and have a greater appreciation of that with which we have been blessed, thus more fully celebrating the gift of freedom.
Elana Weinberg is a Judaica Artist specializing in ketubot, as well as a teacher, currently teaching Hebrew in a Hebrew Charter school in Harlem.She is a long time BJ member who has served on various committees over the years.
Death, displacement and disability have combined to diminish our interpersonal worlds with each year of advancing age. The increased neediness of old age has me relying too heavily on the people that remain, especially the daughter who has taken on the burden of being available to me. As I age, I reluctantly become accustomed to receiving help; as a result, I find myself growing more helpless, diminished.
The emotional and spiritual schmutz I need to sort through is my excessive reliance on my daughter. I am mindful of the burden I place on her; I must seek more of the support I need from other, more impersonal sources. In doing so, I hope to open further opportunities to give and receive help from people in other areas of my life. I’m learning to be vulnerable by asking for help in finding a place as a contributing member in this B’nai Jeshurun community that I don’t know well. (I’m also learning that help comes in different forms and may come from unexpected or non-traditional places.)
I hope to diminish my dependency on my daughter in favor of greater involvement in this spiritual community. It becomes a two-way mitzvah: When I am more involved, I can contribute to its success, and I can seek out productive and satisfying contact with others. I want to deepen those connections so that things are expected of me – not to move fast, and not to schlep the gear that encumbers us, but to help write and edit the things we are trying to say, for instance. Within the limitations of old age, I seek a place in the community as someone who can be counted on.
Sue Finkelstein is a retired psychologist/psychoanalyst. She has three adult daughters. She lives at Atria on the Upper West Side.
I like to talk. It’s sort of my thing. I make a habit of answering questions with questions, then answering those questions with more questions. So imagine my distress waking up on Monday morning, my brain suddenly having levied some sort of sanctions against my vocal chords. Sure, I could wheeze out a “good morning”, and ask my mom if she wouldn’t mind cooking me breakfast, but even that cozy request came off sounding conspiratorial in my urgent whisper.
What to do? Could I really sit through a full school day without giving anyone my take on things? (What if they were wrong?) I knew from the get-go that I really oughtn’t use my voice any more than I had to, but it took about forty minutes of history class to ultimately convince me I wasn’t going to participate in class discussion that day. I might actually have to let my classmates’ ideas steep for a while without jumping in with my own objections.
I began to listen without the expectation of being able to respond. As the incessant note-taking and on-the-spot rebuttal formulation that usually accompanies my listening quieted, a new question rose to the surface: Does this matter?
Does this matter?
I will never apologize for the (very Jewish) instinct to squeeze every drop of meaning out of any little thing, but the cultural need to constantly be commenting on every story that hits your newsfeed, an experience that, particularly for someone of my generation, is ubiquitous, is not only exhausting but time consuming.
When we quiet down our own voices of commentary, we allow other stories to come to the surface. It becomes less about how I filter a story through my own lens and more about what someone else’s story means to them.
I’ve mostly regained my voice since then. But as Pesah approaches, I wouldn’t mind channeling that spirit of stepping back and listening to the deeper, older stories. I seek connectedness to the undercurrents flowing beneath all the small talk we make: currents of justice, currents of freedom, and the current of history yet unfolded. There’s a freedom in that sick and gravely voice: you no longer speak just to hear it.
Leon Kraeim is a high school senior.
Even as we near erev Pesah, it’s easy to feel like our preparation isn’t quite done. We struggle with the nagging suspicion: there’s still some hametz hiding that we’ve not yet found.
Our liturgy anticipates this incompleteness. Upon finishing the search for hametz, we are instructed to say: May all the hametz that exists in my property that I have seen and have not seen, that I have destroyed and have not destroyed, be considered nullified and ownerless, like the dust of the earth.
We learn that by erev Pesah, even the hametz that we couldn’t find no longer belongs to us.
This Pesah, I want to let go of the hametz of doubt, of censorship, of judgment. I know that I must disavow even the hametz that I don’t yet know how to name. And from that place, rededicate myself to the work of moving towards freedom.
The Passover haggadah says: “השתא עבדי. לשנה הבאה בני חורין” Now we are slaves. Next year we will be free people. We experience our slavery when we disconnect from our neighborhoods. When we start ignoring our ethical impulse. When we stay silent before oppression. We grow heavy with the burden of inaction.
We shed a year’s worth of accumulated hametz to make space for the courage and clarity necessary to be good neighbors, allies, and friends. We must dedicate ourselves this year to justice, to curiosity, to challenging the status quo, that we might come to feel how deeply our freedom is linked with the struggle for liberation of all those around us.
May this year’s song be a song of liberation. Hag sameah.
For your seder: invite those at your table to draw clear connection between the story of the Israelites’ struggle for liberation and those who fight for freedom today. Let the seder be an opportunity to practice making explicit the ways in which our movements and communities are bound up together.
Arielle Rosenberg has loved serving this year as a BJ Rabbinic Fellow and is glad to get to continue as a fellow for another year as she finishes her final year of rabbinical school (b”h) at Hebrew College in Boston.