A few months ago, a teacher at shul told me that I would probably find that the rhythm of my year would soon shift to revolve around Passover and the High Holy Days. I didn’t quite understand what he meant, but this spring I have felt a kind of inner tectonic shift, reorienting myself to spring and fall. I didn’t expect Pesach to be as meaningful as it was and have enjoyed 8 days of opening and awareness.
And underneath it all, just a good old fashioned, pre-monotheistic (i.e., pagan) ritual celebration of springtime. Sacrifice of the firstborn lamb (totally pagan) and ritual meal of the first fruits of the field (totally pagan). The histories I have read basically all said the same thing: Pesach is a syncretic practice of probably two different pagan traditions, one pastoral and one agricultural, with a gradually emerging, nationalistic monotheism that was ultimately congealed during Babylonian captivity.
Although I’m slightly mortified by the thought of animal sacrifice, I find a depth of meaning in the grounded, in-your-face recognition of the fragility and utter dependence on other living things that the blood sacrifices of many older cultures contained within them.
In many ways, I’m probably a pagan at heart. I feel strongly the movement of the seasons, the changing in the length of days, the passage of time and change of the earth as it moves in its orbit. Like any good American raised west of the Rockies, I feel my most powerful connections when I’m out in wilderness (a fraught term, I realize).
This year, my practice included a long and, for me, glorious walk through Golden Gate Park and along Ocean Beach, watching birds, smelling the (invasive) trees, and talking with a good friend. Next year I want to find a way to bring those older, deeper roots of passover even more to the surface.
Bodies and Awareness through Eating Practice
The former Mormon in me rebels against minutiae of rules and strictures and the pressures of a community monitoring my practice. I am deeply lucky to have good Jewish friends who are either patient with my choices (and mistakes) or fully supportive, even when their choices are different. As a practice for the festival, I had decided to keep fully kosher and kosher for Pesach. Of course, I made a hilarious gaff on Erev Pesach by serving creamed asparagus with beef. And I decided to go the Sephardi route and rejected the kitnyot laws as arcane and ultimately too ascetic for my personal spiritual life.
What emerged for me was a hyper-awareness of my body, of eating, and of hunger and satedness. I thought about everything that I put into my mouth for 8 days. I thought about whether or not I really wanted it in my mouth, whether or not i was really hungry, whether or not I needed the nutrients and calories, and whether or not it would support my practice to eat it. This had a dual impact. First, as a person who is more or less a mindless eater (reflected in my voluminous girth) it gave me an experience of conscious eating that I’d never had. It was eye opening in a way that diet never could have been. I’m still, er, digesting what it means. Second, it set aside the eight days of Pesach as a time apart, a time unto itself. Judaism loves the notion of separation—which is frankly one of the things that I struggle with in Judaism, as I tend to be a lumper rather than a splitter—and for the purposes of practice I found the separation through an embodied practice so basic as eating to be just enough to push my awareness into a different space.
Moses, Mitzrayim, and (Re)Birth
Rabbi Waskow’s recent book on the passover story, an extended book-long midrash on the maggid, opens up the possibilities for understanding the exodus in a new way, one that resonated with me much more deeply than the national story so often retold. The traditional, ethnocentric, nation-building story only works for me on a metaphorical level, where I can think of the Hebrew people as they are described in the text, as being a hodgepodge, multi-ethnic, mongrel group of escaping slaves, so that rather than an ethos, Israel becomes a collection of the oppressed that can stand in metaphorically for the whole lot of the human family struggling for freedom.
Further, I’m surely not the first Jew to struggle with the idea of a god who would harden Pharaoh’s heart, magically force him to abuse, crush, and subjugate the Hebrews, in order to prove his power through the plagues. As the Hebrew god spends a lot of time in the Torah waving his divine phallus about to demonstrate his masculine superiority over all other forms of holiness, I find myself cranky with the ancient tribalism of it all and the immanent violence of the story. I cannot abide a god who would murder one nation’s first born in order to make a motley crew of escaping slaves into his own Firstborn.
Waskow’s midrash steps back from the surface-level, direct details of the story to see an intense story of birth, a feminization of divine power, a massive metaphor for the emergence of a new Being, a new kind of Holiness. Waskow teaches that, when read openly and with attention, the white fire reveals something quite different from the black fire in the Book of Exodus. Whereas for Waskow the new lesson is one of the centrality of the feminine, what resonated for me in his teaching (which builds on the last few decades of feminist Torah reading) was specifically the imagery of birth.
The midwives who resist Pharoh’s order are the beginning of the new story, with their resistance and their observation of the strength and power of the Hebrew women. In the white fire, all the blood of the escape—the entire Nile turning to blood, the blood of the firstborn Egyptians, the blood on the lintel (a not-so-subtle metaphor of a cervix), combined with the water of the (Red) Sea of Reeds—comes to stand for the blood of childbirth. Mitzrayim, the narrow place, the birth canal. Waskow writes,
They could feel their lives, pregnant with possibility, begin to point toward a destination. A birth. … These doorways echo the bloody doorway of the womb through which all human being must pass to being independent beings. … It reminds us that history, biology, human earthlings, and the earth, are intertwined.
Perhaps it’s my interminable midlife crisis, perhaps it’s my longing to be a father, perhaps it’s Just a resonant Jungian archetype, but i can’t stop thinking about birth, becoming a new being, starting anew looking forward to the other shore.
Earth’s crammed with heaven
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes
—Elizabeth Barrett Browning (quoted in Waskow)
As I’ve discussed at length in previous posts, I seek the human experience of holiness, and I want a framework within which to share it in community. Pesach this year has been a brief eight-day encounter with the Burning Bush, a glimpse into that state of awareness that brings me a sense of belonging, purpose, and connectedness.
Rabbi Waskow continues his midrash with the spiral of god’s name, ehyeh asher ehyeh asher ehyeh asher ehyeh…
Here he continues his feminist reading of the white fire, where the deeper, older name of god, Shaddai, insists on a feminine god who gives birth. The transformation of the name of god from Breasts to an unpronounceable name that only exists in breath, yyyyyyyhhhhhhhwwwwwwhhhhh, connects us to the breath of life.
God was seen as infinite mother, pouring forth blessings from breasts above and womb below, from heavens that pour forth nourishing rain from the ocean deeps that birth new life. … [And the new name is] just yyyhhhwwwhhh, a Breathing. ‘I am the breath of life and the breath of life is what will set you free. Teach them that if they learn My Name is just Breathing, they will be able to reach across all tongues and boundaries, to pass over them all for birth, and life, and freedom.’
Pesach became for me this year a reminder to Breathe. Life is breath; holiness is life. L’Chaim.