Pesach 5782 On The Seder As A Living Experience

Pesach 5782 On The Seder As A Living Experience

On seder night, we embark on a holy commemorative journey through the Haggadah as we move spiritually and temporally from degradation to praise. We do not merely recount by rote our journey out of Mitzrayim, out of the narrowness to a wide expanse, but we engage in holy reenactment of the experience.

In Mishnah Pesachim 10:5, it is taught that in every generation, every single one of us is obligated to see ourselves as though we, too, went out of Egypt. We aren’t only recounting the origin story of our ancestors, passed down generation after generation. We are part of the holy collectivity. We are active participants, not passive observers.

The Telling that we ritually experience on Pesach is not only about remembering our people’s foundational story. Indeed, this story is so central that we are asked to recall it every day of our lives. Jewish liturgy makes mention of it in the morning and the evening. Each holiday is referred to as a Zecher—a remembrance—of the exodus. Those who wrap tefillin bind these sacred words to their bodies. It is so central that we access it using as many sensory vehicles as are available to us.

Truly, Pesach is such a momentous event in spiritual terms that it is our duty to be actively shaping this experience for ourselves in every generation.

We move from the narrow place to one of wide expanse, a place devoid of G-d consciousness to one suffused with it. We move from a sense of degradation to praise, of owning our own narrative, no longer allowing others to define or shape it for us. We think about what represents mitzrayim in our own lives. What are those things that we cannot seem to free ourselves from? What would it mean for us to find a sense of liberation and possibility after years, perhaps, of feeling weighted down by story, by fear, by expectation that is far greater than we are as individuals yet impacts us so intimately?

In every generation, we are each obligated to perceive ourselves as if we, too, left Egypt. The promises G-d makes to our ancestors, which we recount on seder night apply to us as much as they did to those who came before. Our physical and social locations as a people have undergone tremendously radical shifts over the generations and continue to do so in our own day.

Pesach has carried our people through trials and tribulations, through times of great joy and ecstasy. Our calendar, with its emphasis on the spiral of time, encourages us to return, again and again, to the essential theological truth. We, too, were there, a part of the story. We participated in the awesomeness that was the exodus and as such, we are enjoined to bring its power into our lives. We do so in an embodied way so that it does not become a rote, stultified experience. Ideally, we bring this power with us into how we show up in the world around us.

We know that this leave taking is multifaceted, as relevant to us on the personal level as it is on the collective. So how do we actualize this beautiful idea from the Mishnah on a personal level? Maybe we choose one thing this Pesach we yearn to break free from. Maybe we set modest goals for ourselves. My anxiety might not vanish overnight, perhaps, or perhaps this one gnarly habit I have will remain with me. Yet, I can set an intention to embody the liberative possibility of choosing to live or act or show up in a unique way.

I can spiritually imagine and embody a future rich with the possibility of reemergence and rebirth by recalling that I, too, left Egypt, and so did we all. Our sederim are not meant to be rote, tired exercises in reciting lines that may not have meaning for us. They are, instead, about embodying the theological radicalism of our tradition. We move from degradation to praise, from narrowness to expanse in every generation, in large ways and in small ways. May it be so.

Shabbat HaChodesh 5782

I wish to dedicate this dvar Torah to the memory of Sheryl Grossman. Her love of Torah and her steadfast, unapologetic commitment to justice for people with disabilities will remain with me always. She taught me that one could both be a lover of Torah and a fighter for justice for those most marginalized. Her legacy will continue. One of her oft-repeated sayings will never leave me. “My mouth is my biggest organ and I’m not afraid to use it.” May Sheryl’s memory always be for a blessing, amein v’amein.


This Shabbat has the dual distinction of being both Rosh Chodesh and the first of the month of Nisan, as well as Shabbat HaChodesh, the Shabbat on which the 12th chapter of the Book of Exodus is read. This chapter establishes Nisan as the first of the months of the year and describes the preparations the children of Israel made to leave Mitzrayim. Mitzrayim is understood in Jewish tradition as both a literal and metaphorical place. The Exodus narrative is so central to Jewish collective memory that we recall it every single day, multiple times a day. We recall our ancestors’ journey out of the Land of Egypt as a transformative moment in our becoming as a people. Simultaneous to this, Mitzrayim, which is derived from the Hebrew word meaning narrowness or narrow place is understood to be a spiritual location. When we journey out of the narrow place and are answered or met with a wide expanse, as we sing joyfully in Psalm 118, we experience liberation in multiple realms.

The command given to the children of Israel to establish the calendar, and particularly the month of Nisan as the beginning of the liturgical year may be surprising to those who think of the Jewish year as beginning with Rosh Hashanah. Judaism in fact has four new years. Rosh Hashanah, the 1st, and 2nd of Tishrei marks the calendrical new year. Nisan marks the new year for kings and for festivals. Liturgically, Pesach is the first holiday of the new year. I often like to think of the preparations for Pesach as spiritually paralleling the month of Elul and the cleansing that leads us to the Yamim Noraim.

Pesach is often thought of as a stressful period, focused on seder planning, food shopping and removal of chametz or leaven from our homes and other spaces. These tangible stressors can make it hard to set one’s heart and mind towards Pesach and its themes of justice, freedom, and liberation. It’s a deep irony that the preparation often leaves no energy for the deep celebration that this time calls us to do.

Many of us may also be grappling with difficult interpersonal dynamics this time of year. These are heightened in this liminal period. The pandemic is ongoing. Some of us joyfully anticipate our first in person sederim since 2019. Others of us may be feeling increasingly isolated and left behind, feeling like the world has moved on without us because we cannot yet be in person with others without tremendous risk to ourselves and our loved ones. We may feel like we don’t matter, are unimportant, are acceptable losses.

As we read this pivotal Torah portion, we may notice that the Pesach sacrifice was offered by every family. One can imagine the anticipation and anxiety. The bags are packed and metaphorically piled at the door, ready to go on a moment’s notice. And indeed, we left with such great haste that we didn’t have time for our dough to rise, hence why we eat matzah. Every household made an offering. Not just those with large families and circles of friends. Every single person was an integral part of this collective experience. The Torah even states that if a single household is too small for a sacrifice on its own, they should join together with neighboring households.

The rabbis, who crafted the Haggadah with great precision stipulated that recounting the story of the Exodus from Mitzrayim was so central that everyone is meant to take part, whether they are by themselves, or with just a few others, or in a larger group. The ways we observe communally can bring with them much joy, strength and blessing. They can also leave many feeling isolated, outside of the experience. Let us remember that praiseworthy is the one who recounts the story of the Exodus out of Mitzrayim in all the ways that we do so. May this Pesach be a liberating one for all.

Changing Ourselves To Change The World

This essay first appeared in Chaver Up! 49 Rabbis Explore What It Means To Be an Ally Through a Modern Jewish Lens, edited by Rabbi
Sharon Kleinbaum and Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.


One of the central motifs in the Pesach seder is our journey from degradation to praise, from narrowness to expansiveness, from slavery to freedom. We are now b’midbar, in the wilderness, making our way to Sinai, to covenant and to radical collectivity. We were all at Sinai, every Jewish soul past, present and future, beyond the limitations of time and space to receive Torah. We heard the aleph in anochi—I—all together and separately in a way we could understand. This is why, as we learn repeatedly in rabbinic tradition, the Torah has seventy faces, infinite interpretive possibilities. G-d desires all of us to receive Torah, to be met by Torah and to be in relationship with these sacred instructions, all the while knowing that our relationships with that instruction—Torah in its broadest definition—are as varied as we are.

This sounds quite lofty and abstract—being met by The Devine? Radical relationship? How are we, how am I, supposed to live that out if I am someone who has been cast aside, wounded by that Torah that I am told is a Torat Chayyim—a life-giving Torah? In a world in which the examples of religious leaders misusing, abusing, and weaponizing Torah against those who are marginalized is legion and unfortunately always growing or so it seems, thinking about allyship as a spiritual practice rings hollow. Knowing just how profound alienation from religious community is for folks who have been and are now marginalized and knowing my own human limitations, how do I live out this aspirational practice authentically?


My teacher, Rabbi David Jaffe in his book Changing the World from the Inside Out challenges us to encounter the self through deeply-rooted Jewish spiritual and ethical practice as a means of building a resilient inner core, which anchors us in a profoundly uncertain and destabilizing world. We cannot change the world, Rabbi Jaffe claims, if we aren’t working on internal change.

Too often, allyship becomes performative—a title we ascribe to ourselves and not a posture of profound humility we earn over time through authentic partnership, radical listening and embracing the notion, which is anathema in a Western cultural context utterly obsessed with knowledge gathering and action that we in fact don’t know everything. We have so much to learn from others we too often ignore because, though we may not admit this to ourselves, we fall into the trap of assuming that our educational attainments, or class, or our race, or our ability status allows us to have an objective view on what others need, those who are “less fortunate”. They don’t have all of the information they need to make impactful decisions for their lives and communities. Radical listening and accepting just how little we know allows us to turn this notion on its head. We are aware that we hold a piece of the tapestry of the human experience. We also know that ours is not the finishing piece of the puzzle. So much Torah has yet to be revealed to us. Or, perhaps, G-d is desperately trying to make known to us through encounters and events in our lives that Torah which we refuse to uncover because it shakes us, challenges us, asks us to let go of biases we may desperately wish we didn’t hold because we are good people after all. I believe that we have unfortunately ascribed a moral judgement to the inevitability of holding unconscious negative bias. We have all grown up in cultural contexts that had imbedded within them ideas about people of all sorts. Messaging that we receive is so subconscious that it takes years of conscious unlearning and relearning to rewire our neural pathways. Spiritual practice is not about the destination. Though we are heading towards a mountaintop moment, ours is a spirituality rooted in the sanctification of the everyday. As we unlearn, we re-learn. None of us is free of unconscious negative bias. Our task as spiritual practitioners are to deepen our inner awareness so that we show up with the most authenticity we can in our external reality.

I fear that we have become so focused on wokeness, on knowing the right language, reading the right books, hearing the right speakers that we are neglecting the reality that we are constantly a work in progress. G-d is infinite, we are finite. If we don’t allow ourselves to learn not merely to learn but also to put our learning into action, we will forever be caught in the self-defeating trap of fearing doing the wrong thing so much that we become frozen, unable to act at all.

With gentleness and compassion, Rabbi Jaffe invites us to explore our growing edges through Mussar and the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. A particularly impactful piece of his work for me is his teachings about bitachon—trust. There is no doubt that bitachon is a tough bridge to cross. Social change and good allyship is about action, about using my voice, my resources to stand alongside communities who are too often silenced. Isn’t bitachon a passive act? In fact, bitachon is precisely the opposite. Trusting that I hold what is mine to hold and that I am able to be in radical collaborative relationship with others allows me to remember, always, that I am part of that which is greater than myself. Allyship is not about the ego or escapism. Rather, it is about doing my own work through daily cheshbon hanefesh—soul accounting or another spiritual discipline so that I can show up most humbly in my external work. If my internal reality is consumed by a ceaseless need for self-gratification, I am stuck in an avdut consciousness. I have not made that journey as we are invited to during the seder from narrowness to expansiveness. I know both from personal experience and from the experiences of others that those who are not working on themselves but are seeking some external validation through allyship are some of the greatest impediments to meaningful social transformation. Human beings are not revolution objects, not canvases on which we thrust our baggage. If I am to be an ally in the deepest sense, I must never forget that I, being created in the Image of G-d am radically meeting another being created in G-d’s image, as inherently beloved as I am. Giving myself space to grow, to try something and not succeed, to learn from my mistakes allows the spiritual practice of allyship to be made that much more manifest. As the Psalmist teaches in Psalms 16:8, I keep the Divine before me, always. It is not upon me, as we learn in Perkei Avot to complete the work, but I am neither free to desist from it. Just as Shabbat is a container for the world as it should be, allowing us to taste a moment of redemption each week, so, too, is allyship a sacred container, allowing us to radically encounter the other and the self, remembering, always, that we are all interconnected one with another.


Coming Close To God: A Reflection on Pesachim 98

A version of this piece was originally published as part of My Jewish Learning’s daf yomi page of the day Talmud project.


On today’s daf, the Talmud is deep in the weeds of a continuing discussion about when, how and by whom the Passover sacrifice must be brought. What happens if a person purchases a variety of animals designated for sacrifices, but can’t remember which animal was designated for which sacrifice? We learn in a Mishnah the following:

“In the case of a Paschal lamb that was intermingled with other offerings, such as guilt-offerings and burnt-offerings, and it is not known which animal was separated for which offering, all of them are left to graze until they develop a blemish and become unfit; and they are then sold, and with the proceeds of the choicest of them he must bring this type of sacrifice, and with the proceeds of the choicest of them he must bring this other type of sacrifice, meaning that he must purchase one of each type of sacrifice that was intermingled at the value of the most expensive animal in the group. And he loses the difference from his own pocket. Not all the offerings were as expensive as the most valuable animal in the group, yet he must purchase an animal for each type of offering for the value of the most expensive animal in the group.”

Written centuries after the destruction of the Temple, which was the focal point for animal sacrifice, the rabbis in our Mishnah and the Gemara which follows it are very committed to understanding and living out, in a limited fashion, the sacrificial system. Why? To this day in traditional daily morning liturgy, one can find a series of Biblical and Talmudic references to the sacrifices offered daily and on holidays. Though none of us are making pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem, we learn and study the sacrifices and their surrounding laws as a remembrance of what once was. For those of us who are quite happy that prayer has entirely replaced sacrifice, the idea of studying the sacrificial system in any fashion may disturb or make us uncomfortable. Wasn’t the entire point of the Talmud that the rabbis wanted to radically remake and reshape Torah law for an entirely new, portable, diasporic context, decentering the Temple entirely? And what are we to make of the passage which immediately follows our Mishnah?

“If a Paschal lamb was intermingled with firstborn animals, Rabbi Shimon says: If those whose offerings became mixed together were groups of priests, they may eat all of the animals on Passover night. This is because priests are permitted to eat the meat of a firstborn animal, and the slaughter and other services for a firstborn animal are the same as those for a Paschal lamb. The attending priests should state that they intend to sacrifice as a Paschal lamb whichever animal is the Paschal lamb and to sacrifice as a firstborn animal whichever animal is a firstborn.”

The rabbis here are quite careful to make determinations about how to designate and consume various mixed or intermingled animal sacrifices. Though there is not a consensus on this point—Rabbi Shimon disagrees with the Gemara’s reasoning—it is clear that the rabbis are taking great pains to preserve the memory of a system which, though not present for them in any sense, would one day be restored.

At the end of the Amidah, the thrice-daily standing prayer, there is a personal meditation which concludes traditionally with a prayer for the rebuilding of the Third Temple, speedily and in our days. There we will offer the sacrifices as of old and in ancient days.

The rabbis of the Talmud were living during a profoundly liminal moment in Jewish history. The trauma of the Temple’s destruction and the loss of the religious life that pulsed throughout it was still fresh. Yet, the desire remained strong to retain what they could and remake tradition so that it would endure. How blessed we are to be heirs of their genius. As the rabbis embraced a new way of being and doing Jewish, which we today call Rabbinic Judaism, they were careful not to erase the old.

We, too, are living at a time of tremendous global and communal change. COVID has forced us to ask questions we may never have imagined. Can ten Jews constitute a minyan on Zoom? What about fulfilling mitzvot like hearing the Megillah on Purim which we just observed yesterday? What will remain with us when we return, bimheirah b’yameinu—speedily and in our days—to in-person Jewish life and what will be dropped? What might we study and preserve for future generations? Are their pieces of how we used to pray and practice that may never return?

As we continue to navigate our new normal, remembering and studying the old as we embrace the new, may we take inspiration from our rabbis’ careful study, explication and questioning of what was and is no longer.

The Importance of Hallel on Passover A Reflection on Pesachim 95

This piece was originally published as part of My Jewish Learning’s Daf Yomi page of the day Talmud project.


Today’s daf opens with a Mishnah. “MISHNA: What is the difference between the Paschal lamb offered on the first Pesaḥ and the Paschal lamb offered on the second Pesaḥ? On the first Pesaḥ, at the time of slaughtering the Paschal lamb, it is prohibited to own leavened bread due to the prohibitions: It shall not be seen, and: It shall not be found. And on the second Pesaḥ it is permissible for one to have both leavened bread and matza with him in the house. Another difference is that the Paschal lamb offered on the first Pesaḥ requires the recitation of hallel as it is eaten and the second does not require the recitation of hallel as it is eaten. However, they are the same in that the Paschal lambs sacrificed on both the first and second Pesaḥ require the recitation of hallel as they are prepared, i.e., as they are slaughtered, and they are both eaten roasted with matza and bitter herbs, and they override Shabbat in that they may be slaughtered, and their blood sprinkled even on Shabbat.”

This Mishnah outlines the differences between the Paskal offering that is brought for the first Pesach E.G., on the 14th of Nissan and the second Pesach a month later on the 14th of Iyyar. We’ve discussed Pesach Sheni or second Passover on previous dapim. Pesach Sheni is, today, a minor holiday but was initially instituted in the Book of Numbers as a means for men who were not ritually able to bring the Paskal sacrifice at its proper time the opportunity to do so. Today, some have the custom to eat matza in honor of the day and to refrain from saying Tachanun, which are supplicatory prayers found in the Shacharit (morning) and Mincha (afternoon) weekday services. There has also been a process of making the day more spiritually meaningful, by talking about the importance of second chances. Missing the opportunity to bring the Paskal sacrifice does not mean that a person cannot bring it a month later.


Amongst the similarities and differences between these two offerings the Mishnah outlines is that while both sacrifices require the recitation of Hallel—Psalms of praise—as they are being slaughtered, one only recites Hallel while eating if one brought the Paskal sacrifice in Nissan. To this day, we recite Hallel at the seder. Part of it is recited prior to the meal and the majority of it is recited after the Birkat HaMazon, blessing after the meal.

Hallel is one of my favorite Jewish liturgical and ritual moments. During this pandemic year, when communal singing became impossible and gathering at all incredibly hard, I have reminisced fondly about the many holidays I have spent in Jewish spaces that had a deep and abiding love for communal singing. Hallel was the absolute pinnacle of that. The root for the word Hallel relates to praise, though the Psalms that make up Hallel—Psalms 113-118—actually incapsulate a wide human emotional spectrum.


In previous years, I’d often quickly gloss over those parts of Hallel that hit a more somber tone. This year, however, they have come alive for me in a very deeply resonant way. Thinking about what it must have been like, experientially, to say Hallel as one was consuming their Paskal sacrifice, as part of the larger project of reliving the liberation that came through the Exodus from Egypt inspires me to enter the emotional complexity Hallel affords me in a more authentic way. Liberation came for B’nai Yisrael when we left Egypt, yes, but we also then had to learn how to be in the world as free people, receiving a covenant that bound us to The Divine and one another. No sooner do we leave Egypt, in fact, than we begin to lose faith that that choice was a wise one. The spiritual life is not merely about the joys and transcendent moments. For me, it is as much about the sorrows, sadness and rawness of being human. Perhaps that is why the rabbis instituted the recitation of Hallel twice for the first Pesach but only once for the 2nd. Those bringing the second Pesach already endured a sense of spiritual separation, making their praise even sweeter.

Baalotecha 5779

Our parsha this week is Behaalotecha, the third parsha in the Book of Numbers. We are introduced this week to the second Passover or Pesach Sheni which falls on the 14th of Iyyar, exactly one month after Passover. Pesach Sheni allowed those who were unable to offer the Passover sacrifice at the appointed time the chance to do so. Much has been made of this second chance holiday, which is still observed today in some circles. Why maintain this holiday at all without a Temple? How do we turn something that was all about making up for a very important missed sacrifice into something relevant to our lives?
Much has been made of the spiritual significance of second chances. Just as Pesach Sheni was instituted to allow those who were unable to offer the Passover sacrifice at the appointed time—the 14th of Nisan—the chance to do so, we, too, often find ourselves wishing we had a second chance at any number of things. How many of us spend precious time, energy and brain space ruminating about events in our past, replaying sequences of events in our heads, as if by doing so, a different outcome will emerge? So many of us yearn to change the past, to do things differently, all of those would-haves and should-haves consuming so much of our daily energy and drive. We know, intuitively and subconsciously, that we cannot change the past, and that the present moment is all we have and yet, we continue our fruitless quest. Pesach Sheni offers us a container within which we can reflect upon those opportunities we missed; those things we wish we’d done differently. Our tradition understands Pesach Sheni to have been instituted on behalf of those on a journey and unable to offer the Passover sacrifice as well as those in a state of ritual impurity. Just as those states are temporal and not definite, so, too, do our lives and circumstances constantly change and shift. This is indeed reminiscent of the famous Buddhist teaching of impermanence and non-attachment. Change is itself permanent, stasis is, often leading to a state of spiritual and emotional stuckness is to be avoided. May we utilize the spiritual container offered to us through Pesach sheni as an opportunity for reflection. In those moments of stuckness, may we remember that second chances are not as fleeting as we tend to think.

Pesach 5779

One of the central obligations of Pesach, as we read in the Haggadah is that we each, individually, have the obligation to see ourselves as though we ourselves went out of Egypt. The story of the Jewish people’s liberation, then, becomes a collective, national retelling beyond time, space and generation. Not only did our ancestors come out of Egypt—Mitzrayim, but so, too, do we every year. Indeed, our rabbis and sages placed such importance on the Jewish people’s remembrance of Yetziat Mitzrayim—the Exodus from Egypt—that it is mentioned twice daily in traditional liturgy, on every Shabbat and holiday during the Kiddush blessing sanctifying holy time, and, in the most traditional circles, it is mentioned daily as part of what are known as the Six Remembrances—six things that Jews are commanded to recall every day of their lives.

Our going forth out of Egypt is also spiritually understood as a practice of seeking to liberate ourselves from narrow places that constrain us. Mitzrayim, the Hebrew word meaning Egypt is derived from the Hebrew root for narrowness. Seeing ourselves as though we, too, went out of Egypt thus is understood by Chasidic and other mystically-inclined commentators as inviting us on a journey to free ourselves from those narrow places in our lives that constrain our sense of self-worth or make us feel limited, blocked, or otherwise unable to move forward. Put another way, the stuckness that so many of us wrestle with is seen spiritually by many of our sages as a narrow place that we are invited and encouraged to see ourselves emerging from. Every year, this obligation remains because our tradition understands and knows that liberating the self from that which makes us feel stuck is not a one-time thing but an ongoing, often painful and slow-going process.

The Piaseczna rebbe, who is most commonly referred to as the Aish Kodesh—Holy Fire and was the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto wrote beautifully about this in his book, Derech HaMelech, which is a series of sermons or drashot. He invites us to think about the obligation we each have to see ourselves as though we, too, went out of Egypt first as a call to examine ourselves as who we truly and authentically are, and once we understand deeply what it is we are wanting from life and what it is about ourselves that make us shine, then, we are able to truly fulfill this most important of Pesach commandments.
Those of us who are engaged daily in working towards justice often experience a sense of diminishment or burnout, as though the change we so long for will never be realized. Sometimes, we might feel like the work isn’t bearing fruit and as the world around us feels increasingly harder to live in, it is easy for despair to become all-consuming and unrelenting. Even amidst the narrowness, Pesach offers an opportunity to step back and recharge, to reexamine anew who we are and why it is that we care so deeply about our work. What is it deep within our own souls and selves that calls us to this work, even and especially when the road is filled with boulders and it feels like liberation is further away than it has ever been?
As we conclude Pesach and celebrate the splitting of the Yam-Suf—the sea of reeds, which enabled our ancestors to cross on dry land towards liberation, may we seek to embody the liberatory posture we wish for the world.