Friday, April 22, 2016
Searching for Meaning at Passover
by Learning the Meaning of our Searching or
Rising to the Occasion, Even without Chameitz
A Passover Meditation Inspired by
Julie Silver’s “That We All May Rise”
Rabbi Steve Weisman -- Passover 5776
Tonight, we celebrate our freedom as Jews, as human beings, our rising from the oppression of Egypt, by eating bread that has been deliberately prevented from rising. If that seems ironic, it should not, as the entire story of our Passover observance plays on subtle contrasts and connections.
We begin our celebration even before the holiday begins, when we search our houses to remove all scraps of leavened, risen food (chameitz). We search until we can be reasonably certain that all the risen matter is gone, just as we start our journey from Egypt in the absolute degradation of servitude. And yet, any search designed to make certain that something no longer exists, no matter how small the area to be rid of the matter, must end short of absolute certainty, for we never can tell if we have truly searched everywhere, can never be sure that there isn’t some other corner that was missed, some object not overturned, and therefore, there still MIGHT be something there, no matter how thorough our searching. Likewise, when we look around at our history and our world, we must eventually recognize that, no matter how dire our circumstances were in Egypt, they did NOT represent the absolute worst conditions ever endured by humanity, or any part of our race.
We start our telling of the story at the seder meal by breaking the middle matzah to create the afikoman, which will be the last food we eat together at the meal, and then lifting up the matzah – the bread that cannot rise -- and offering to share it with those who are hungry and in need, inviting them to raise themselves up and join us. We create something new, of significant value, at least within the seder meal, by breaking what already exists. And, in the process, no matter how careful we are, we must create some crumbs – less than 24 hours after undertaking the exhaustive search to remove all crumbs from our homes, in anticipation of the holiday! We take what is left of the matzh to invite those who might have only had crumbs for their meal, to join us and eat – to join our celebration and raise their spirits and condition.
At the end of the meal, we search for the (now stolen) afikoman, and the person who has taken possession of it, or have our children and grandchildren search for it, if we have hidden it. We do this in order that it can be redeemed, so that we can end our seder meal in the traditional way, by sharing and eating a piece of the unrisen bread, that we had earlier broken, and turned partially into crumbs. We share a broken piece of unrisen bread as a reminder of the redemption of our ancestors from servitude. We are symbolically redeemed by that which is unrisen itself, and broken by us, shared by those whom we invited earlier to come in from their own broken world, to rise up and join us on our journey to freedom. Our historic redemption is inseparably linked to the redemption we hope to bring to others in our own day, symbolized in this last bit of unrisen bread that we share to raise us up.
And we eat this afikoman, symbol of both our ancestors’ redemption, and our desire to raise others from their servitude to forces, seen and unseen, that hold them down today, as the last taste of food at our seder table, just before rising ourselves from that table (or sending our children) to open the door for Elijah, herald of the day when we hope we shall all be permanently redeemed and lifted up to the ultimate glory. This errand is, itself, a search, one which, once we grow older, we recognize was never likely to be successful. And yet, there was always that moment of uncertainty right before the door was opened – would this be the year that Elijah WAS standing there, facing us as we opened the door for him? A colleague this year shared the story of his mother’s twist on this piece of the seder – not wanting the children to be disappointed when they opened the door, she always placed a potted plant outside the door after the meal started (and they were searching for the afikoman), with a note from “Elijah,” apologizing that he couldn’t stay to greet them because he had so many homes to visit, but encouraging them to continue looking for him throughout the year, and again next Passover! A beautiful addition, with a powerful message for us all. And yet… I can’t help but wonder how this mother’s sacrifice impacted her own spirituality – forcing her to confront her assumption that there was no possibility that the real Elijah might show up after all!
Thus, we end our journey from the degradation of human servitude to the hope for ultimate rising just as we began – by partaking in a search that is destined to be somewhat futile, no matter how symbolically effective, no matter how hard we try. And in this final moment of shades and twists in the story, in our journey, individually and collectively, we recognize that no matter how successful we appear to ourselves to have been, there is always something more to still be achieved, something else that COULD happen, if only we work hard enough, if only we are open to its possibility, when we are able to see beyond ourselves. No matter how far we have come on the journey, there is still more road to travel, especially if our goal is to help others on the upward journey from where we were to where we hope to reach!
All this, inspired by applying the words and message behind this awesome song by Julie Silver to our celebration of Passover. And therefore, thanks, as always, to this gifted artist and true mensch, for teaching a powerful lesson with her words, her music, her example. And a Happy and Kosher Passover to those who are celebrating.