Almost from the first moment I walked in the door to this sanctuary, one challenge keeps reverberating over and over again. Tradition! Tradition! Tradition! Whose tradition? Yours? Mine?
And Passover really brings out the traditionalists in all of us. The seders of our youth, or right after we joined the kahal, or when we really engaged with our Judaism. Those are the ones that stir our soul…
A couple of stories: a niece of sam’s by marriage used to come to our seder, and finally, we mutually decided she shouldn’t come anymore, because she didn’t like our seder because it wasn’t like the one she grew up with; but the seder she grew up with espoused a Judaism that had caused her to run away from organized religion, whereas the Judaism in our seder worked for her. Go figure.
On the other hand, a friend’s friend’s daughter made a PowerPoint presentation of the Passover story for their seder this year, and while not my grandfather’s seder, all the kids, ranging from 3-1/2 to 8, paid rapt attention.
What is the balance between tradition and memory and trying to make the rituals and forms meaningful in today’s world? What is the balance between the comfort people experience from their Mi Sinai melodies, the ones that feel like they hark back to the moment at the mountain, and expanding our repertoire to include newer music that might sing to to their souls in a different way?
And what do we do here, when there are so many different traditions for the same ritual? After all, our traditions are not so traditional:
- We don’t follow traditional kashrut: chicken is not traditionally considered pareve.
· We don’t hold shabbat morning services.
- We don’t celebrate holidays, chagim, on the day they appear in the sacred calendar, but shift them to the nearest Shabbat.
- We do the evening Amidah half together, half silently; rather than do it silently.
None of these are exactly what I was brought up to think of as traditional… None of these are exactly what Reform shuls in Marin and Sonoma consider traditional.
Here we are, with our congregational traditions. Doing our best to be Jewish in the mountains, surrounded by a secular or Christian people. We make accommodations when we need to. The rabbis said that to know what the law is sometimes you have to look at what the people are doing.
One week in November, a congregant suggested we sing The traditional melody to Hinei Ma Tov. He started it, we sang it, and another announced that he didn’t know that melody. So next we sang his version. And we could have sung others. My personal favorite is probably no more than 15 years old, by Rick Recht, and I think I may be the only one who knows it.
Not surprisingly, I am one of the most traditional people in the congregation – probably a good thing in your rabbi, and, at the same time, I am probably one of the more “out there” people.
Given my druthers, I’d participate in a daily morning minyan. I prefer to pray the morning or evening liturgy in our lashon hakodesh, our holy language of Hebrew. I want to observe holidays on the holidays. I also want these observances to mean something more than the rote recitation of words and gestures. I want them imbued with the depths the rabbis endowed them mixed with the relevance they can offer us today. So I change things. Because looking at the spiritual message matters to me. Profoundly.
About the minyan and the Hebrew – I’m in the excellent company with R. Akiva: early in the Talmud, the rabbis let us know that when he prayed alone, he davvened with such inner focus he would start in one corner of the room and end up on the other side, but when he prayed with the kahal, he’d shorten the time and stay in one place.
A couple of stories about my relationship to Passover:
I grew up going to seders at my grandparents’ house with my mother, sisters, aunt, uncle and cousins. Many happy memories of drinking Manischewitz, singing Dayenu, eating really great food and hanging out with my cousin; not so much enjoying my grandfather’s speed praying in Hebrew. Unfortunately, by the time I was 12, our family seders had devolved into screaming matches between a small subgroup of the family so my grandparents threw up their hands, and took themselves to the Concord in the Catskills for Passover, leaving their daughters and grandchildren to fend for ourselves.
Years later, when Sam and I have moved to Marin and joined Rodef Sholom, I compiled the first Women’s Seder haggadah, and edited every one for the next 13 years. I became quite the seder queen, and found that the breadth of tradition is almost as big as the sky. There is NO SUCH THING as THE traditional seder. There is the tradition of your family, the tradition of my family.
That’s the awesome beauty of Passover: we are free to create in each generation, in each place, in each family, each year – our own interpretation of the tale. We have parameters embedded in the haggadah: recognizing that we were slaves and now we’re free, the four cups of wine, the items on the seder plate (ok, minus the orange). The afikomen – but as the young boy taught us at Granlibakken, that’s a Greek innovation… Some of you have seen the 2 minute seder – that’s all you have to do to be kosher – all the rest is up to us.
Seders offer up the opportunity to share each others’ traditions, open ourselves to new ways of melding old and new and seeing Judaism not as only tradition, but as a way of living that stirs our souls, inspires our thinking and guides our choices for living in the here and now.
For me, I love that the seder tells the story of liberation, on a person and political level. That we sit together and imagine what it was like, and think about how hard change is, how letting go of what binds us is so hard, even when it’s good for us. Any of you struggle to give up smoking for example? I remember watching my mother try and fail several times.
I don’t ever want to go to another seder where the leader mumbles the text in Hebrew – and I loved my grandfather. I don’t want to go to a seder that doesn’t connect then and now, that doesn’t make me think, and laugh, and grow and eat great food and be with people I like, preferably people I love.
On the last score, I can’t tell you how hard it was to not have the usual crowd at my family seder this year. We had the matzah balls, the charoset, the chicken, the haggadah, and wonderful people. But they weren’t my crew.
I remember, ezkor, my dear friends and family who have come for years to celebrate Passover with Sam, Olya and me, and I mourn the change. Not to trivialize it, most of the people I miss at Passover are alive and well and living in the Bay Area, but I miss them.
At the religious school seder, I asked the kids if they missed anyone they had shared seders with, and only a few of them named people – how blessed they are.
If we take a moment to go around and ask everyone – whom you missed at your seder table, I’m sure the list is longer. People who were present the seders that set the mark for what our Mi Sinai seder is, who were there when that part of our brain that floods chemicals of comfort at the smell or sound of seder tradition… And we miss them. We miss them in a powerful way this time of year.
And so we have Yizkor, that time at the end of holidays when we acknowledge our losses and remember the people we love who are no longer alive. The author Joshua Foer discussed in an interview in Moment Magazine, how we Jews are singularly good at remembering, because we not only exhort each other to do so, we create incredible rituals of re-actualizing and reenactment. Sukkot, with the living in the tiny booths, and most especially Passover. We don’t just remember, but we give ourselves all sorts of tools for doing so – the seder plate, the questions, the songs, the texts. The whole experience. Foer noted:
At the neurological level, the act of remembering involves re-actualizing. Every time we recall a memory, we are actively re-engaging that memory at the level of the neuron and re-contextualizing it ever so slightly in light of who we are in the present.
That’s why seders are so important each year, to remember and to recontextualize in light of who we are this year. But that’s also why Yizkor is so important. Each season when we come around to Yizkor again, we are ever so slightly different from who we were last time. And our relationship with the people we’ve lost is different.
Let’s name the people we are holding in our hearts, light a candle for them and begin Yizkor.