What Marks Your Doorposts?


Traditional preparations for Passover are detailed, complex and arduous. “Spring cleaning” doesn’t even begin to cover the hours and seriousness with which an observant Jewish homemaker would ensure that the house contains not even a crumb of leavened bread, crackers or even pet food that is not “kosher for Passover.”

I have to admit that I am not one of those dedicated and observant women. While I have sometimes performed a thorough house cleaning more or less because Passover is coming, my usual fall-back position is that I’ll just not eat anything leavened for the duration, and I’ll attend at least one Seder to mark this important holiday. I can come up with numerous reasons (excuses is probably more honest). Didn’t grow up Jewish; other members of my family are not so committed to observing; personality-wise I am very uncomfortable with what appears to me to be an obsessive position on any subject, but particularly in ritual matters.  I do feel conflicted about all this, because from my spiritual perspective Passover is a seminal and profound event. Perhaps the day will come when I can match my outward observance with the spiritual impact I feel, but I’m not there yet.

This particular narrative belongs to the Jewish people, and whether it literally happened the way it is told, or whether it is an apocryphal story is of no consequence to me.  But we are not unique in longing for freedom and redemption.  It is probably fruitless to rank suffering. Many people suffer unspeakable horrors at the hands of others, while some “only” struggle to free themselves from bad habits, difficult relationships, health or financial problems.  But we all struggle. The appeal of the Exodus narrative is universal because it is a story of deliverance from oppression, whatever form that may take.

Anyone who has attended a Seder will know that we don’t just tell the story. We discuss and debate, think and contemplate, teach our children, ask questions, wrestle with meaning or new interpretations.  We were commanded to tell the story as if we had actually been there and this is the heart of observing Passover.  To think deeply and spiritually about what we need to do in order to create and preserve freedom, to ask ourselves what we would risk to free our families, our neighbors, ourselves.  Who would we follow?  What would we choose to take with us on such a journey? Would we rejoice at the destruction of our enemies, gloating over their misery?  Or would we acknowledge the tragedy of human suffering in any form, and long for the time when it will no longer occur? Would we have the courage to step into the sea even if we were not sure we would survive?

And why do we need to mark the doorposts of our homes and gates?  The simple answer has always been so the Angel of Death would know where we lived and the final, most horrible plague – Death of the Firstborn – would not descend upon us.  But surely God knows where we live and could easily direct the Angel of Death where to strike and where not to.  A deeper layer of meaning may be this:   In order to journey to freedom, we first need to know who we are, in what spiritual home we live, what emotional gates we have built and what purpose they serve.  We need to know what we stand for, who we are willing to follow, and who will be our companions on the journey. We must not live in denial, but courageously mark the doorposts with our individual truth.

Sprinkle or Dunk?

A few years ago I had a conversation with a good friend about some of the differences among Christian denominations.  Having been raised  a Quaker and now identifying as Jewish, I did not have much understanding of the rituals involved in more traditional Christian worship.  Even though I had attended different church services for weddings or funerals, I lacked understanding of the subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) differences in formal rituals and beliefs.  I was fairly sure of the differences between Catholics and Quakers, for example.  But, I was still confused about the many Protestant religions and the differences among them.

My friend is an accomplished professional woman, who is able to speak eloquently off the cuff on a number of subjects.  She could have provided me with a great deal of technical theological information.  But she is also blessed with an excellent sense of humor.  While I don’t remember much from that conversation, her explanation of baptism remains:  “It depends on whether you sprinkle or dunk.” 

It is absolutely not my intent (nor was it hers) to make light of a sacred ritual that has deep spiritual meaning for millions of people around the world. But wouldn’t it be fair to ask: Does it really matter so much whether baptism is by sprinkling a small amount of holy water on the forehead rather than immersing the entire body in it?  Is it not baptism itself that is important?  My friend’s concise rendering of what is essentially a complex subject, however, reminds me of Rabbi Hillel (first century BCE), who was challenged to explain the Torah while standing on one foot.  Given that the Torah and the resulting body of law and interpretation is, to say the least, very extensive, the challenge likely seemed impossible.  But it was accepted and Hillel said:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah. All the rest is commentary. Now go and study.”

Like so many others, I have been struggling to channel my fearful concern for the future of our nation into positive and meaningful thinking and action.  It is so easy to become shackled by the constant stream of negative comments on social media or decisions by those in power that are clearly hateful to our “neighbors.”  I desperately want to give in to the desire to stick my head in the sand and wait out the next few years, hoping that someone else can figure out how to make things better. But I have been trying to use both of these statements to help frame my approach to the many deep differences that are in such sharp focus in our world today.

It is precisely during times like these, when it is so tempting to be fearful, to shrink into hibernation, build walls and moats and “wait it out,” that it is spiritually necessary to resist fear, reach out, tear down walls and Speak Truth to Power.

Grief and Memory in Sacred Ritual

It is no secret that difficult memories can be stumbling blocks preventing us from living full and positive lives and holding us back from becoming our best authentic selves. This became clear to me when I was asked by the Rabbi of my synagogue to share memories of someone I loved during the Yizkor service on Yom Kippur.  I wanted to be able to share glowing, positive memories, but something quite different happened.

My experience during that service was recently posted as “Sacred Memory” on The Jewish Writing Project, and I hope people will be interested in reading it there.  The underlying question that plagued me was how to integrate painful memories into the religious and spiritual rituals that we have surrounding death and memory.  I found that being able to honestly portray my father and my conflicting memories within a spiritual framework was powerful and healing and enabled me to finally begin the process of mourning.

old-photo-1246910_640Grief is a difficult emotion under even the best of circumstances.  Humans have created ritualized ways to process grief and remember the dead for thousands of years. My own experience has been in the Jewish and Christian traditions and I do not know much about other cultural or religious approaches. While I would not suggest a tradition of eulogy or memorial that emphasizes misdeeds, sins or bad qualities, I have often felt that the liturgy fails people when their memories are not positive or good.

There are many talented and skillful therapists who can facilitate the processing of grief and its complications from a mental health perspective. But the spiritual component also needs to be reckoned with.  It seems challenging to create liturgy that satisfies both the need to acknowledge the pain of memory at the same time creating a sacred space for it and honoring those memories that are positive as well. Perhaps such liturgy already exists but I am simply not aware of it.

My hope is that others will be willing to share their experiences and thoughts, and perhaps identify some sources of ritual that help address this aspect of the grieving process.







Traveling in the Desert


Sundown tonight begins the holiday of Passover, which celebrates the journey of the Jewish people from a place of bondage through years of wandering in the desert in search of a promised land. We tell this story every year as if we ourselves were on this journey and acknowledge the struggles our ancestors endured as they transformed themselves from a subject people who served human masters to a free people bound by the ethical and ritual laws given to them at Mt. Sinai.

It is easy to imagine the hope and excitement with which the Hebrews set out to freedom. Certainly they must have imagined countless times how wonderful it would be to leave their place of bondage and enjoy the sweet taste of freedom.  But what soon happens in this journey?  Uncertainty, fear, discord….kvetching and complaining.  “Did you bring us here to die in the desert?  Better we should have stayed in Egypt….”

Back when I was working a stressful job and frequently wishing I didn’t have to get up in the morning, I thought about how wonderful it was going to be when I could retire and how getting older would be an experience of freedom.  While there is much about being retired and growing older that is positive, there has also been a lot of sadness that I somehow did not anticipate.  This is not sadness that has a particular cause that can be addressed and possibly changed, but a general, organic sadness that underlies everything else.  This journey, however long it may be, will eventually culminate in the ending of my life.  This is not meant as a complaint or bid for sympathy.   It is simply the truth.

Growing older is a blessing, and few of us would choose the alternative, just as freedom is a blessing and few of us would choose enslavement.  As I have been spiritually preparing for Passover,  I have felt many parallels in my journey getting older and the journey that my ancestors took through the desert. I often long for what has been left behind, frequently look around in bewilderment for road signs or landmarks that will assure me I am traveling in the right direction, and struggle to maintain the spiritual fortitude that makes the journey possible.

One of my favorite parts of the Passover Seder is “Dayenu!”  Essentially it is a statement that each blessing or gift we receive in life stands on its own merits, and is “enough,” even when (maybe particularly when) it does not completely fulfill our needs or desires.  It reminds us to stop and be thankful, to consider what we have to be more valuable than what we do not have.

This is not easy to achieve or maintain.  But one of the important spiritual tasks for life’s journey is to try to live in a way that when we reach the end, we can say “Dayenu!”