Eight Flourishes for Passover

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 4/8/2003
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We are sending eight different moments or practices for you to consider adding to your Pesach celebration. They deal with:

  • Shabbat Hagadol, April 12, becoming Elijah to heal the earth;
  • Searching for Chametz;
  • The Fast of the Firstborns, April 16, helping feed the poor;
  • The Freedom Plate at the Seder, personal symbols of liberation;
  • Adding Tochecha/Rebuke of a government that chooses war;
  • The Pharaoh of overwork, and the need for time to rest;
  • The Orange on the Seder plate, affirming the full inclusion of women, gay men, and lesbians;
  • Four More Questions on peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Please also check the Seder Supplement on Economic Rights that Rabbis for Human Rights/North America prepared with the help of The Shalom Center. See <www.rhr-na.org>

Many Christian and inter-religious groups now celebrate the Seder. So we hope some of these supplementary readings and practices may speak beyond the Jewish community as well as within it.

Blessings for a sweet and liberating Pesach for you and for the world

A. One moment actually begins on the Sabbath before Pesach, on April 12, Shabbat HaGadol.

As the Haftarah (prophetic reading) for that day, traditionally we read the last passage from the Prophet Malachi (last of the Prophets), who says (speaking for God):

"Here! —I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of YHWH—And he will turn the hearts of parents to children and the hearts of children to parents, lest I come and strike the earth with utter destruction."

In a number of congregations, I have followed the reading of this passage by first VERY briefly speaking of the environmental and/or military dangers now facing the earth.

Then I have called all the under-13 children forth to the front of the congregation, turning to face and be faced by the congregation, and I have asked the older generation to recite and then the children to recite, the following:

"And I myself will become Elijah the Prophet, to turn the hearts of children and parents toward each other so as to turn aside from our lives the danger that the earth be struck with utter destruction. I pledge that I—"

And then I ask them to fill in silently what they will do.

It has been very effective.

This could also be done upon lifting up the Cup of Elijah at the Seder, after reading this passage calling forth Elijah.

B. Searching for Chametz

(with special thanks to Lee Moore)

The Hassidim viewed chametz, the "leavening" or "swelling" of bread and other foods, as a physical symbol and correlate for the spiritual swollenness within us, for being "puffed up" in greed, pride, arrogance.

Cleaning chametz from our houses and especially searching for and gathering ten symbolic pieces of bread on the night before the Seder can become a time for us to talk with each other about how to choose more simplicity in our lives.

(This search is traditionally done by using a candle to light the search, for "the human soul is the candle of God"; using a branch of the palm-tree-lulav from the last Sukkot festival to sweep each piece of bread into a paper bag; then on the next morning burning the bag and its bread outdoors, meanwhile reciting the blessings over removal of our swollenness.)

We can also gather the foods we clear out into a bundle for giving to the non-Jewish poor of our society, as their poverty worsens under the present pressure of reductions in social services.

C. The Fast of the Firstborns

The daylight hours of April 16, the day before the evening when Passover begins, is traditionally a time to fast—the Fast of the Firstborns.

The fast is about the danger of violence, and we might therefore take special note of it this year—by peaceful action in the world as a kind of fast, whether we fast from food or not.

The fast honored and mourned the deaths of every firstborn in Egypt's slave society, while celebrating the deliverance of Israelite firstborns. By committing themselves to freedom and walking through a doorway marked in blood (like the birthing womb), they were born into a new community.

The Torah teaches us that every Egyptian firstborn suffered because the Pharaoh was so addicted to his own arrogance and power that he would not turn back from his destructive path even when his own advisers warned him he was destroying his own country.

This is the great archetypal tale of human literature on the arrogance of power, and its self-destructive outcome. To many of us today it looks like the story we read on our own front pages.

Many firstborns have observed custom of annulling the Fast by studying passages of Torah and then eating to celebrate the study.

But perhaps this year we should prepare for April 16 an act of our own that affirms peace. Perhaps we should remember Isaiah's outcry that a true fast means feeding the hungry—and give food or money to buy food.

Food for the suffering children of the world and of those American neighborhoods where hunger has reappeared.

Why has hunger reappeared in this richest of all nations? —Why are schools rotting, teachers despairing, hospitals closing, in this richest of all nations?

In part because of the money devoted to the military, to enormous tax breaks for the military contractors like Halliburton and the oil companies that will profit greatly in money and in power from this war, and from the extra tax burden of the war itself.

So whether we fast from food or not on April 16, let us support agencies of bravery and compassion that seek to empower the poor of every people.

We can give food by taking the chametz we have removed from our houses, plus a donation of money, to a nearby soup kitchen.

Yet food for the hungry, while vital, is not enough. Passover is about not only feeding the poor, but freeing them to feed themselves. Empowering the poor.

In the Jewish community, this work is being done by agencies like American Jewish World Service and the Jewish Fund for Justice—both of whose leaders have spoken out against the Iraq War, while their agencies serve the deepest values of the Jewish people.

We can call them between now and April 16, to ask how to help them. (Their numbers are 212/736-2597 and 212/213-2113.)

And on April 16, we can let helping them be our own Fast of the Firstborn.

Facing Pharaoh, we are all first-borns. Seeking freedom, we are all first-borns. Pursuing peace and justice, we are all first-borns.

Time for our rebirth.

D. The Freedom Plate

Several years ago, Martha Hausman proposed that a special plate be set aside next to the traditional Seder plate, on which could be placed physical objects brought by every participant in the Seder as a symbol of her/ his liberation THIS YEAR from Mitzraiim.

Phyllis and I have done this each year since, and find it very powerful. Mature and learned Jews, children, and people who have never before attended a Seder can all relate to this, and the stories about the objects on the Freedom Plate become a very powerful part of the Seder.

Our custom is that soon after we begin, we ask those present to begin lifting and explaining their freedom-object. One year it was a just-completed 500-page book MS for one person; for another, a single gold coin his father had brought out of Germany as a last-ditch economic prop in case destitution were descending; for another, a watch (about liberation from rigid time-rules; for another, nothing—as an "object" of freedom from the rule that something should be brought.

For me, this year, it will be the plastic set of handcuffs with which I and 65 others were arrested for praying and teaching against the Iraq War in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. This seeming object of imprisonment is in fact a symbol of my freedom to act despite what any Pharaoh decrees.

Alternatively, one might use either of two passages in the Haggadah as occasions to raise up the Freedom Plate and hear its stories. These passages are: "In every generation one rises up against us to destroy us" or "In very generation every human being must look upon her/himself as if we ourselves, not our ancestors only, come forth from slavery"


At one or the other of those "In every generation" passages, we might recite some or all of the following Rebuke/Tochecha that was set forth by 25 rabbis in Washington DC in regard to the current war.

Rabbis in Support of American Compassion and Hope:
Megillat Tochecha Delivered on March 27, 2003 by Reform Rabbis from throughout the World

Lo Tis-na et a-chi-cha bil-va-ve-cha. Ho-chay-ach to-che-ach et a-mee-te-cha, v'lo tee-sa a-lav chet. You shall not hate your fellow human being in your heart. Rebuke your fellow human being but incur no guilt because of him.
—Vayikra (Leviticus) 19:17
Rebuke leads to love, as it states: Rebuke a wise person and he will love you. This is the opinion of Rabbi Yossi the son of Chanina who said: "All love that does not include some criticism is not true love."
—Proverbs 9:8 and Genesis Rabbah

It is our obligation to be critical when we see that society or individuals are making terrible mistakes. Criticism is an expression of our care for others. It is our sacred obligation.

Because we care deeply about the United States of America;

Because we believe that those who dedicate their lives to the military are part of the precious resources of our country, whose lives are ours to protect to the fullest extent possible-especially since they have voluntarily committed themselves to protect our lives and our country;

Because we care deeply about the fate of all humanity, even those who have been deemed "our enemies" (having been guided by the rabbinic injunction, hakem takim imo "you shall surely lift him up"(Baba Metzia 32a)-which was understood by the sages of our Tradition to indicate our sacred obligation to aid anyone in distress, even our enemy);

Because we care about the invaluable relationships that have been established by this country with other nations throughout the world over more than fifty years, painstakingly building a model of international cooperation and mutual respect;

Because we envision a world in which someday "nation will not lift up sword against nation, nor learn war anymore" (Isaiah 2:4);

Because we want to be a model for future generations, teaching that the way to resolve conflicts is not through aggressive or violent means, but rather—to the fullest extent possible—through peaceful and diplomatic means and negotiations;

Because we believe that all human life is sacred, created b'tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and therefore should be preserved at all costs until that moment when one's own safety and survival are clearly jeopardized—

Therefore, out of our love and commitment to the men and women fighting this war for our country, and out of our love and commitment to the high ideals on which this country was established, we take upon ourselves the sacred obligation to rebuke our government—its leaders and advisors—for the following:

  • For its failure to "seek peace and pursue it" through diplomatic processes and for its arrogant dismissal of many other nations' efforts to secure more time to pursue peace.

  • For needlessly endangering the lives of our brave military personnel before expending every effort to avoid war, thereby destroying many of their lives and affecting those whose loved ones are killed or maimed or scarred by the terrors of war.

  • For abusing the tragic fate of the Iraqi people, suffering under a ruthless dictator, to initiate a radical shift in American strategic doctrine to a policy that allows unilateral aggressive military action with complete disregard for our allies and world opinion.

  • For claiming to stand against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction while provoking that very proliferation in North Korea and elsewhere throughout the world.

  • For exploiting the fear that was generated in this country as a result of the September 11th attacks and using that fear to confuse and bully the public into supporting an unprecedented and dangerous policy of unprovoked, pre-emptive war.

  • For lacking vision and a plan for the unprecedented and mammoth task of taking over an entire country and rebuilding it without the maximum international legitimacy and the allies required for this task.

  • For precipitating a major humanitarian crisis without insuring the resources to protect water, food, and ecosystems, while simultaneously preparing a massive shift of American resources from the needs of the American and global publics to the most privileged sectors of American society.

  • For taking billions of dollars from hardworking taxpayers that are desperately needed for social services for the most vulnerable, and diverting those funds to finance mortars and weapons which are being used to destroy and raze ancient cities—only to have to rebuild them again with taxpayer money that will flow to private corporate interests.

  • For compromising the civil liberties that are the very fabric of American life, the provision of freedom of speech, movement, and belief for all individuals regardless of their race, ethnic background or religion—fighting for "freedom" abroad while steadily eroding it at home.

  • For destroying the trust that once existed between people of varying backgrounds by encouraging neighbor to spy on neighbor and denigrating the views of those who dare to express dissent by declaring their expression unpatriotic and suspect.

  • For arrogantly dismissing the opposition voiced by millions of people worldwide, as well as losing the respect of the world community by not responding with decency to leaders like Pope John Paul II, Kofi Annan, Nelson Mandela, and past president Jimmy Carter.

  • For the attack on and wounding of precious institutions and systems that have been built over many decades to ensure international peace and cooperation (UN Security Council), systems of justice (World Court), survival of the planet (Kyoto Agreement), and weapons proliferation (land mine and disarmament treaties).

  • For further jeopardizing the safety and security of Americans throughout the world and demonstrating the worst of American character in what appears to most of the world as an arrogant American religious crusade of domination, thereby squandering the admiration and love which many peoples feel for the good heart of the American people, the strength of our systems of justice, and the beauty of our pluralism.

This critique flows from our hearts with love for our country, and for those who serve our nation. May they come home soon and safely. May our leaders hear our rebuke, acknowledge its truth, and change their ways. And may the world soon know peace.

F. For many of us, one of the worst Pyramidal/Pharaonic oppressions in our lives is being driven into overwork, and the spiritual and emotional exhaustion that follows.

(The NYTimes has reported that schools are increasingly abolishing recess time in order to get the children to do more work. This is a form of slavery. As the article noted, the possibility of "wonder" is being squashed. the opposite of Heschel's teaching that the root of all spirituality is "radical amazement.")

So we could add the following to the Seder, perhaps after the passage, "In every generation, there is one who rises up against us, to destroy us." (Some of the imagery is a paraphrase of a passage from The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel.)

Today we face a new kind of Mitzraiim,
the Tight and Narrow Place.
Freedom without jobs is a bitter joke—
yet many of us find our jobs dissolved, downsized, disemployed.
Jobs without freedom are slavery—
yet many of us are forced to overwork.
Our jobs exhaust us.
When Moshe faced the Burning Bush,
He learned that like an eternal burning bush,
Time itself is not consumed
Though each instant vanishes to open the way to the next.
Things of space seem permanent—
but as we seek to make them into our servants,
They may enslave us.
When the Israelites went forth from slavery,
they sought time for rest and self-reflection:
They found Shabbat.
Rather than live under the tyranny of space and overwork,
We will in our lives set apart a time for freedom.

G. "Why is there an orange on the Seder plate?"

"To affirm that our efforts to achieve the full presence in Jewish life of women, gay men and lesbians, and others debarred from full Jewish presence in the past, do not negate Judaism but expand it and enrich it—just as the Orange does not negate the Seder but enriches it.

The Orange is the only whole fruit on the Plate, and so carries within itself the seeds of its own future, just as Torah carries within itself the seeds of change. Adding the Orange at this moment of our history reminds us that our encounter with God has planted some new seeds within us and beckons us to a more fruitful future."

H. Four More Questions

A Passage to be Read in the Passover Haggadah
(Perhaps After the Tale of the Five Rabbis in B'nei B'raq)

Let us therefore tonight expand upon the story of our deliverance from slavery by asking:

Why is this Pesach night different from every other Pesach night?
Because on every Pesach night—tonight as well—
We call out to another people, "Let our people go!"
But tonight we also hear another people
Calling out to us: "Let our people go!"

Tonight the children of Hagar through Ishmael
and the children of Sarah through Isaac
call out to each other:
We too are children of Abraham!
We are cousins, you and we!
As Isaac and Ishmael once met at Be'er LaChai Ro-i,
the Well of the Living One Who Sees,
So it is time for us to meet—
Time for us to see each other, face to face.
Time for us to make peace with each other.

They met for the sake of their dead father, Abraham;
We must meet for the sake of our dead children—
Dead at each others' hands.
For the sake of our children's children,
So that they not learn to kill.

And so tonight we must ask ourselves four new questions:

(1) Why does the Torah teach: "When a stranger lives-as-a-stranger with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. The stranger who lives-as-a-stranger [hager hagar] with you shall be as one of your citizens; you shall love her as yourself."

Because Hagar Mamitzria [Hagar the Egyptian] was a stranger in your midst, and "because you were strangers in the Land of Egypt."

(2) Why do we break the matzah in two?

Because the bread of affliction becomes the bread of freedom—when we share it. Because the Land that gives bread to two peoples must be divided in two, so that both peoples may eat of it. So long as one people grasps the whole land, it is a land of affliction. When each people can eat from part of the Land, it will become a land of freedom.

(3) Why do we dip herbs twice, once in salt water and once in sweet charoset?

First for the tears of two peoples, Israeli and Palestinian; then for the sweetness of two peoples, Palestinian and Israeli; for the future of both peoples, who must learn not to repeat the sorrows of the past but to create the joys of the future.

(4) Why is there an egg upon the Pesach plate?

It is the egg of birthing. When we went forth from Mitzrayim, the Narrow Place, it was the birthtime of our people, the People of Israel; and today we are witnessing the birth of freedom for another people, the People of Palestine.

When the midwives Shifrah and Puah
Saved the children that Pharaoh ordered them to kill,
That was the beginning of the birth-time;
When Pharaoh's daughter joined with Miriam
To give a second birth to Moses from the waters,
She birthed herself anew into God's daughter, Bat-yah,
And our people turned to draw ourself toward life.
When God became our Midwife
And named us Her firstborn,
Though we were the smallest and youngest of the peoples,
The birthing began;
When the waters of the Red Sea broke,
We were delivered.

So tonight it is our task to help the Midwife
Who tonight is giving birth to two new peoples —
For tonight only Hagar can give a new birth to the children of Israel,
And only Sarah can give a new birth to the children of Ishmael.

Our lives are in each other's hands.
No Pharaoh can force us to kill.

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