Thursday, April 10, 2014

- (Hametz) + Matza = Simplicity + Awareness + Gratitude

What are you doing to prepare for Pesach?
I read about a synagogue in New York where “cleaning out the hametz” is being given a 21st century meaning. Staff and members have pledged to clear out the electronic “hametz” by not answering email during the Passover week, and not answering any email that arrives during Pesach, on the Jewish legal principle that we cannot use any hametz that we owned or received during the holiday. How can anyone manage this? They are urging everyone to call and speak on the phone during the Pesach week instead of shooting an email.

When we give up hametz, we understand that it’s not permanent. It’s a simple respite. The idea of “giving up” email reminds me of the practices of Lent, when people decide to live without something that is a temptation, or perhaps, an oppressive habit.  Many practices of Lent require self-renunciation.

I learned this week, however, that some Christian clergy are urging people to think of what they will add spiritually during the season of Lent, instead of what they will subtract. Perhaps that’s the principle behind picking up the phone instead of sending email. We could consider adding that personal touch to our communication. (Do you remember what it was like when friends actually made phone calls?)

I believe we can approach the week of Pesach in both directions: adding and subtracting. This week we add matza, a mitzvah and a spiritual practice that can help us focus on the dichotomy of slavery and freedom, as well as poverty and wealth.  We begin the seder with the Aramaic invitation:
            Ha lachma anya—this is the bread that our ancestors ate.
            Let all who are hungry, join us for the meal!

Lachma anya, or in Hebrew, lechem oni, can be translated as bread of affliction or bread of poverty. Either way, matza is intended to remind us of what it is like when you have no freedom. Matza is the most basic sustenance we can think of: flour and water. It is the bread of hunger—for food and for freedom.

On the other hand, matza is the bread of freedom! The story in the Torah that we retell at Passover is that in order to get out of Egypt, the people could only take the minimum, and they had to leave in a hurry. Without hesitation or planning, the Israelite people propelled themselves out of slavery into a new life. In this way, they were transformed into a free people.

Having matza, then is a sign of wealth. As we learn in the ethical teachings of Pirke Avot,

Who is rich? One who is content with what he or she has.

Matza, that simple food made of the simplest ingredients, is a treasure—especially in the face of all the hungry people of the world. When we add matza, we add awareness and gratitude.

But matza is only a mitzvah on the first day, and only at the seder. For those who get tired of eating matza and matza products, that’s good news. No need for the matza meal cake mixes or matza pizza.  (Of course, they come in very handy when providing for kids who yearn for carbs, but it’s still a poor substitute).

More than eating matza, the underlying mitzvah of Pesach is to subtract hametz from our dwellings. Hametz consists of any product of wheat, barley, spelt, rye or oats that hasn’t become matza. For me, that means no breakfast cereal, no tortillas, no pasta for eight days. Yet we could live well all week on vegetables and fruits, fish, eggs, dairy, and meat if we wanted to.

An article in The Boston Globe, “Five Ways to Freshen your Home for Spring,” caught my eye as I am in the process of “turning over” our house for Pesach.  Spring cleaning is also a way to let go and simplify. The author shared a few tips from an architect/interior decorator. Among them:

Roll up the carpets and enjoy the nice clean floor.

Take out old furniture and enjoy more space.

Open the windows and enjoy the fresh air.

All of these suggestions help us subtract one thing so that we end up adding another .

Some of us find spiritual value in thinking of hametz metaphorically. Hametz puffs up, like the ego. Hametz is a source of desire. To subtract hametz might involve a practice of living within our means, simplifying our lives, experiencing the bare minimum. When we subtract, we open up space (in our cabinets or our email) to discover other aspects of our lives, like the people who surround us, that we may not have given sufficient attention.

As we approach Pesach, in whatever way we are preparing, I suggest we take the attitude of “less is more.”  Even if you have a lot of planning the seder, cleaning the house or cooking yet to do, do it in the spirit of simplicity.

It’s not about giving up—it’s about opening up.
Chag same’ach—wishing you and yours a liberating, simple, and joyous Passover holiday!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Healing is both an exercise and an understanding*

How does one recover emotionally from illness, loss or suffering?

In our post-Freudian western world, we benefit from the work of therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists. Talk therapy can help us process what has happened and develop strategies for moving on. Pharmaceuticals can help rebalance the chemicals in our brains. Some people find new pursuits that give life fullness and meaning. Many of us rely on the compassion and support of family and friends to guide us.

This week’s Torah portion, Metzora, begins with a description of the purification ritual for a leper who is about to return to the community. In last week’s portion, Tazri’a, we learned that the kohen (priest) is responsible for watching over those afflicted with skin diseases. We read of the care and attention the kohen took to examine the growth on the sufferer’s skin, to discern whether the victim should be separated from the community, and finally, to decide when she might return to communal life. This week we close the circle as the kohen escorts her back from isolation.

The process of purification is quite elaborate, taking 32 verses to explain. The strange ritual of purification brings together a seemingly random assortment of ingredients:  two live pure birds, cedar wood, crimson thread, hyssop, fresh water, and an earthen vessel. The kohen slaughters one of the birds over the fresh water in the vessel, then dips the live bird, along with the other ingredients, into the blood of the dead bird. He sprinkles the blood seven times on the person to be purified and then lets the bird go free. (Lev. 14:4-7) After this ritual, the one who has been purified must wash his clothes, shave off his hair and bathe in water before returning to the camp. Still, he cannot enter his own tent until the eighth day, when he has brought additional offerings and the kohen declares him pure, ready to be reunited with his household.

What is the message in this elaborate set of rituals?

Clearly, the kohen is not treating or curing an illness. The Book of Vayikra (Leviticus) is intensely concerned with maintaining boundaries, especially boundaries between what is holy and what is not. Terms like tahor (pure) and tamei (impure) signify the boundary between what can enter the holy precincts of the Tabernacle and what must remain outside. The role of the kohen is to restore the leper to a level of spiritual holiness in navigating the passage from illness to health.

Being ill or suffering a loss can bring on spiritual crisis. Struggling with circumstances that are unanticipated and unexplained, one might feel distant from the divine. Add to that the debilitating effects of pain or the overwhelming changes in daily living, a person can feel distant from one’s own self. Without the usual routines and comforting presence of others one can become depleted and near despair.

The rabbinic commentators focused on the odd juxtaposition of cedar and hyssop, both unusual items in the priestly toolbox. Ibn Ezra, of 12th century Spain, points out in his methodical, non-judgmental way, that cedar and hyssop are the tallest and smallest of plants.

Bechor Shor, a French commentator of the 12th century, takes this further, teaching that the person who is ill has gone from the heights of the cedar to the lowliness of the hyssop.

When we are sick or grieving, there are days when it all feels too hard, when all we can see is the challenge of the basic needs of living. It takes everything we have just to breathe. Part of the process of coming back to life is to restore spiritual balance.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel of Apt, a Hasidic rebbe who died in 1825, teaches that the low-growing bush is a symbol of humility, while the lofty cedar reminds us of our heavenly nature. They are combined to help us reach a healthy balance. This interpretation is reminiscent of the famous teaching of Reb Simcha Bunim, a contemporary of the Apter rebbe, who taught that a person should always have two pockets. In each, there should be a slip of paper.

One reads, “I am but dust and ashes.”

The other says, “The world was created for me alone.”

When the world seems hostile and hope is beyond our reach, that’s when we take out the second slip of paper.

When we are filled with the power of our own ego and forget to be grateful and compassionate to others, that’s when we take out the first slip of paper.

We can no longer count on priestly purification and sacrificial offerings to help us transition from the isolation of illness, loss or suffering. One ritual from ancient times has remained: immersion in the mikveh (ritual bath). We are fortunate to have a special place in our community, Mayyim Hayyim Mikveh and Education Center in Newton, where people often come to mark life transitions. Those who wish to celebrate healing or mark the end of mourning can find rituals to help ease this passage through immersion.

To return to the community, feeling different from those who have not known our suffering, catching up on what we have missed, and wondering what happens next calls for spiritual balance. How does one recover emotionally from illness, loss or suffering? With compassion for ourselves and gratitude for the gifts we have received. We return, forever changed, in ways we will only begin to recognize. But first, we need to cross that boundary, physically recharged and spiritually renewed.

*From the poem "Intention" by Margaret Torrie

This column was published in The Jewish Advocate on April 2, 2014 titled 
"Recovering from Woes with Compassion and Gratitude."