Be sure to pick up a copy of the new Berkshire Jewish Voice! Volume 20, No. 5 — the March 26 – May 5 issue — features a Rabbi Reflections column by Reb Rachel. And in case you don’t have your copy nearby, you can read the whole issue online; and/or, here are those reflections — reprinted from the new BJV, with gratitude.
Rabbi Reflections: Out of Slavery and Into Freedom
We’re entering my favorite part of the Jewish year: Pesach and the counting of the Omer.
I love the story at this season’s heart. Once we were slaves, and now we are free. Once we were in Mitzrayim — the Narrow Place — but the Source of All lifted us out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Once our lives were embittered with hard labor, but now our hearts are expansive — and in our exodus from that tight place into freedom, our national identity was formed.
The story has great power. But in some way even more powerful, for me, is the way our community has clung to this story as the central narrative of our peoplehood. We are the people who understand ourselves to have been brought out of Mitzrayim, out of slavery and into freedom, and it happened not only “once upon a time” (if it even happened in historical time at all) but it continues to happen now. Each of us, tradition says, must see her or himself as though we had been brought forth from there.
Each of us has experiences of constriction. Maybe it’s fiscal constriction; maybe it’s emotional; maybe it’s spiritual. Maybe it’s postpartum depression, or depression of some other kind. Maybe it’s sickness. Maybe it’s sorrow. Pesach offer us the opportunity to recognize, and celebrate, the Source of Life Who enlivens us and brings us out of those tight and painful places.
I love the many forms the seder takes. In my own lifetime I’ve moved from the familiar old Silverman haggadah, with its gendered God-language and slightly dated illustrations, to the Velveteen Rabbi’s Haggadah for Pesach (available for free download at velveteenrabbi.com!) which features poetry, original artwork, kabbalistic teachings and an orange on the seder plate. Each seder, anywhere in the world, is a variation on a timeless theme.
There’s a Hasidic teaching which holds that on the first night of Pesach, we’re lifted up to elevated spiritual heights — we’re at the top of the mountain with God, as it were. The next day, we return to the valley again…but having experienced the heights, we have an impetus to make the arduous climb to get there again. The climb takes seven weeks: the duration of the Counting of the Omer. At the end of that time, Shavuot brings us once again to a spiritual peak.
These rhythms of peak experience and then the slow climb back up, of festival and measured time and festival again, are woven in to the Jewish understanding of how the year unfolds. Each day we’re given a new opportunity to experience ourselves as having been brought out of Egypt, as being part of the covenant community which stands even now at Sinai in some ineffable way. And the festivals don’t pop up out of nowhere on our spiritual horizon; one leads to the next.
By the time we finish these steps in our year-long festival dance, it will be almost summertime in the Berkshires — another of my favorite seasons, to be sure, though for very different reasons. I look forward to summer’s warmth and sunlight and greenery. But in some ways, the anticipation is the sweetest part: knowing that the days are getting longer, that the migrating birds will return to our trees, that the earth will green again.
Spiritually, too, the anticipation can be the sweetest part. Shavuot will come, with celestial shofar blasts and a cosmic download of Torah directly into our hearts — but before it does, we get to savor the 49 days leading up to the holiday. The days of counting offer a chance to prepare ourselves to receive the blessings which are coming.
I wish a a sweet (and meaningful) Pesach, and a joyful journey through the days of the Omer. See y’all at Sinai!