March 29, 2007
You'll have to forgive me this week if I get all wistful and spiritual on you, but there's something about Passover I need to get off my chest.
I have a question for my readers. How many of you have been so moved by a Passover experience that something inside of you changed?
I ask this because over the years, I've heard rabbi after rabbi talk about the transformative power of the Passover holiday -- how in the retelling of the defining story of the Jewish people, there is a treasure trove of learning that can transform us.
So I want to know, is it working? And if not, are there things we can do to make the rabbis' wish for personal transformation come true?
For those of you who answered yes to the first question, I'm curious to know how Passover changed something in you. What did you do or see or hear that made this happen? Feel free to e-mail me your answers, and I might include them in a future column.
For the rest of you, welcome to the club.
This is the club of people who enjoy their Passover experience -- sometimes intensely -- but who are not moved in any meaningful or lasting way. Why is that? If you ask me, I think a lot of it has to do with the noise.
Passover has become one very noisy holiday.
Many of us run around for weeks frantically getting ready for the holiday. The list of special "kosher for Passover" items that wind through the shopping cart demolition derby at Pico Glatt is mind-numbing. The hunt for chametz, which has become a major spring-cleaning event, can be exhausting.
For many others, the new thing is to avoid the hassle and take off on a kosher Passover cruise or to some other fancy destination, and make the whole thing a fun-filled family vacation.
Even in the non-Jewish world, Passover is getting more visible every year, with celebrity chefs featuring their olive oil matzahs in The Los Angeles Times, and interfaith seders being held in black churches of the inner city.
With all this high-profile ballyhoo surrounding the holiday, is it any wonder that many seders have become rowdy happenings -- full of grand statements and stories about slavery and universal freedom, but devoid of any deep, personal and spiritual meaning?
In this loud, new world, what can we do to add some deeper meaning to our Passover experience?
One of the best insights I've heard on this subject is that to get the most out of any religious experience, you have to marry two things: the ritual and the spiritual.
Take, for example, the ritual of cleaning out the chametz from our house. It's easy to get so caught up in this physical ritual that we forget it has a spiritual component that can transform our lives: We should worry about cleaning out our own chametz, and not go prying into our neighbors'. In other words, we ought to work on ourselves before criticizing others.
Can you imagine if everyone who searched for chametz in their homes also followed this spiritual lesson in their personal lives? Could the Jewish people handle all that absence of gossip?
The thing is, these spiritual lessons are fragile and abstract; they don't do well on their own. They need the solid, physical rituals to contain and carry them. Precisely while we are doing these physical rituals is when we have the perfect mindset to absorb their spiritual lessons.
My favorite ritual-spiritual connection on Passover has to do with the afikomen. Here, the ritual is for parents to hide this special piece of matzah and to reward their children when they find it.
The spiritual component to this ritual goes like this. Our parents make a lot of mistakes when they raise us. But deep inside their love for us is a wisdom they are yearning to teach us, but often don't know how. The afikoman is that wisdom. When we search for it, we are searching for the wisdom that our parents desperately want to teach us -- a wisdom so powerful that it applies equally to all four sons.
Our reward comes when we find that wisdom.
The essential idea here is that every Jewish ritual is like a jewelry box that contains spiritual gems. It's up to us to discover these gems, and Passover, with its rich tradition and abundance of rituals, is an ideal time to begin that search.
Of course, it's hard to look for spiritual gems when we are drowning in noise. That's why this Passover, I'd love to see us add a little silence to our celebrations, especially to our seders.
Silence doesn't mean not speaking; it means creating an atmosphere that is conducive to a deeper and more meaningful seder -- even if that means a little time-out on family gossip and Israeli politics.
It means not just telling our story, but feeling it.
Silence means that we savor every matzah, pay attention to every guest, listen to every kid, hear every story, feel every blessing, absorb every moment.
In that atmosphere, we can better feel the spiritual sparks emanating from our rituals, and we can see how a little thing like the afikomen can hold a lesson that can transform our lives.
And as we all know, when we do things like transform our lives, we make our rabbis very happy.