Saturday, April 23, 2011

Eliyahu's Cup: Why Utopia is Always 'Not Yet'

This week is Pesach, and last Monday evening, Jews worldwide gathered to usher in the "Season
of our Freedom" by participating in the annual ritual of the Seder, a meal surrounded by the telling of our redemption from slavery. And through telling the story, the Haggadah takes us each year through the journey from slavery to freedom.

The Seder has a prescribed order, and the ritual is set up to tell the story four
times and in four different ways, corresponding to the four promises made by G-d during the going forth from Egypt. Each promise is linked to one of the four glasses of wine that is drunk during the Seder, and each telling is linked to a particular type of bondage. The tellings address what it means to be so enslaved, and why the Eternal demands freedom from every bondage not only for our ancestors but for us, so that the by the end of the Seder each year, we have progressed through tellings of physical and mental and spiritual servitude and into freedom.

But there is also a fifth cup representing a fifth promise: 'I will bring you into the land.' The fifth cup is set out for Eliyahu ha-Navi (Elijah the prophet), a mythic, apocalyptic figure whose coming foreshadows the coming of the Messiah. During the ritual for the fifth cup, we read From Malachi, who wrote:

"Behold, I shall send to you Eliyahu ha-Navi before (in the face of) the great and awesome day of Adonai; and he shall return the hearts of the parents to the children, and the hearts of the children to the parents lest I shall come and strike the land with cherem (war of total destruction)." (My translation: many Haggadot leave out the phrase starting with "lest" at the end of verse).

After these words are read, Eliyahu's cup is set down untasted, for this is the only promise of the Seder that is left unfilled, as Eliyahu's time is not yet. After the promise is pronounced and the cup set down still full, and the door opened for Eliyahu is shut, then the assembly joins hands and sings Eliyahu ha-Navi, expressing the unfulfilled and unfulfillable longing for the coming of Utopia, a time that is always not yet.

Human beings have been dreaming of Utopia--the perfect world--since we achieved an understanding of linear time. What was cannot be changed, and what is will pass away, and there is no going back, only forward. But with this understanding came the idea that at some point that is entirely unknown and unutterable, time could come to an end. And so after--if the word has any meaning--the world as we know it will become unknown, and what is will be static and perfect. And dead. So dreadful and so terrifying to contemplate is this vision, not only one's own death, but of total non-existence and non-order. So terrible and dreadful it is, that people substituted the idea of perfection attained while still living, Utopia, a time/place where "everywhere will be called Eden once again", according to Judy Chicago.

But perfection is the enemy of the growing and changing that is always in the living. Biological beings, full of life, can never be perfect. There is always the movement, the exchange of molecules, the division of a cell, the dying and the coming to be. Eden was, if it ever was, and can never be again. Eden was not perfect, it was full of life; it was innocent of choice and therefore, of any knowledge of good and evil. It is a restoration of innocence that is longed for in Utopian visions, that is what perfection is understood to be, in that elusive Utopia.

Utopia, is innocence imposed, and it is therefore the opposite of freedom. For freedom requires consciousness and choice, which means an understanding of life and death, of goodness and evil. Utopia is cosmic equality imposed, and is therefore the opposite of the fullness of of life and freedom. For as soon as life exists, differences among individuals are introduced and differences are inherently unequal in the cosmic sense. For human beings, choice brings the inequalities to our conscious awareness, for choice by its very definition implies different possibilities of action, which creates differences in outcomes, inherently unequal.

In the Passover Seder, we tell the story of going from the slavery of physical bondage to freedom, from the degradation of idolatry and dependence to liberty. Each step of our liberation requires choice, and differences among us evolve with our freedom. Elijah's cup goes untasted, because as much as we may long for perfection,it is goodness we are after, and goodness requires the freedom to choose. Freedom is inherent to the nature of the human being, and necessary for the fullness of life.

Eliyahu does not bring the "great and awesome", terrifying nothingness of Utopia. Instead he turns parents and their children toward one another; their differences not erased, but understood, in order to reach fullness of life and prevent total destruction.

Our Rabbis were wise, they understood the human longing for perfection, and they understood that perfection is another idolatry. Therefore, although they recognized our desire for it and accommodated it, they also understood that it is freedom that we need in order to live and live well. And they put it all in the Seder.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

How is This Pesach Different?

Ma nishtana, ha-laila ha zeh, mi-kol ha-leilot!

How different is this night from all other nights!
On all other nights, we eat chametz or matzah,
but on this night only matzah.
On all other nights we eat all kinds of herbs,
but on this night, only bitter herbs--maror.
On all other nights, we do not even dip once,
but on this night, we dip twice.
On all other nights, we eat sitting up,
but on this night reclining."
--The Four Questions of the Haggadah

I have been making Pesach in my own home for more than 20 years, and with the exception of a few years, I have had a first night Seder each year as well. Over the years, I have developed a rhythm for doing the spring cleaning, and for turning the kitchen over, and for making the Seder. This rhythm has carried over from apartment to rental house, from rental house to my first house, and to two homes with the Engineering Geek.

But this Pesach is different from all of the other Pesachim I have made. All my previous moves have occurred either after Pesach--meaning that the packing and spring cleaning accommodated one another, and after the Seder, the move could begin in earnest. This year, is different. The protracted move to the Ranch was supposed to over long before the cleaning began. And although this year, I was not expecting to make a Seder, I did expect to be settled in one place. Instead, I have been wandering in the wilderness, with some of my things here, and others there, with the things that are there needed here, and the things that are here needed there.

This is most disconcerting, as I had carefully nurtured my routine for Pesach, and I took comfort in the yearly process that led me physically from Chametz to Matzah, and spiritually from slavery to freedom. Pesach seems to have snuck up on me this year, and I am not ready. Everything is changing, including my relationship to my synagogue, my proximity to other Jews, and my predictable journey to Pesach itself.

It seems that through some choices and decisions that are good in and of themselves, I have quickly made changes that I was not at all prepared to make. Although I have felt that in a very strange way, guided through this process, as if each step was bashert, the messy way that some of this is happening--and not at all as I had planned, does not feel at all familiar or at all comforting. It doesn't feel at all as I think it is supposed to be.

I am not ready for this holiday. I just barely bought my Matzah before the store was out of it. And I was beginning to feel that sense of failure, of feeling that I am--as I often am--a day late and a dollar short.

Except, I realized that today, this year, I am meant to learn that Pesach is not about me being ready for it; it is about the holiday coming whether I am ready or not. That, as often as not, the joy of freedom can be found in the midst of the chaos of change.

And I think of all of the Jewish women, from Sinai until now--who by choice or perforce--also greeted a Pesach that was different from all other Pesachim that they had made; a Pesach that they did not make but that made them see the journey from Chametz to Matzah differently.

  • the women who put the dough on their backs, in order to flee the slavery of Mitzrayim in haste;
  • the women who wandered in wilderness, wondering whether manna could be matzah;
  • the women who prepared a Seder before crossing the Jordan;
  • the women who marched, chained, to the waters of Babylon, and made their first Pesach in the first Tel Aviv;
  • the women who made haroset in the quiet years of Babylon, who chopped karpas while their husbands argued the Talmud in Yavneh.
  • the women who fled the sacking of Jerusalem, wondering what to do with the lamb now that the Temple was gone;
  • the women of Lincoln, who made Seder but did not taste the Matzah, driven out as they were into another exile;
  • the women of the Good Friday Pograms, who were driven from their homes during the Chol ha-Moed, in Kishinev, in Odessa, with no time to take the Matzah;
  • the women who prepared the Seder in the sewers and bunkers of the Warsaw Ghetto
  • the women washing the plates on the way from Jerusalem to Rome, and from Rome to Spain, and from Spain to Morocco, to Greece and to the New World;
  • the women throwing Chametz into the waters of New York Harbor, --a harbor indeed!-- at the feet of the Lady Liberty.

Pesach is, like all of the Holy times and seasons, zichronot-- a remembrance. And each year--Halvai!--we remember differently, we experience differently, we are different. And although each year is different, some year stand out so that we say:
Ma-nishtanah--How different it is! How different is this year from all the other years!


Because, Pesach is about freeing oneself and allowing oneself to be redeemed. And when routines and way of being change, whether due to external or internal forces, we are called by the Eternal to come forth and to meet the future with all of our hearts, minds and strength of being.

Whatever that newness might be. For whether it be good in our eyes, or bad, whether we confront good or evil in the world, the Holy times separate us out from that, and give us the time to meet it with joy and purpose. For we do not control the times we are born to, but we do control what we might do with the times we are given.

In my Bat Mitzvah Torah portion, Shabbat Chol-ha-Moed Pesach, Moshe makes anew the broken covenant with the Eternal, going up the mountain once again with tablets he carved himself, asking for the the black fire of the ten words to be inscribed there anew. And Moshe worries about the enormity of the task he has been given, to take this stiff-necked people on the journey from slavery to freedom, and he says to the Eternal, there on Sinai:

Moses said to HaShem: "Look, You say to me: 'Bring this people up!' But You have not informed me whom You will send with me. And You said: 'I have known you by name and you have also found favor in My eyes.'
And now, if I have indeed found favor in Your eyes, pray let me know Your ways, so that I may know You, so that I may find favor in Your eyes; and consider that this nation is Your people."
So He said, "My Shechinah--my Presence--will go, and I will give you rest."

--Shemot 33:12 -14

This year, I am--like many Jews before me--caught unready for the great passing-over from chametz to matzah, from slavery to freedom. But ready or not, the birth waters will part, and we will once again cross over, to encounter once again the meaning of our freedom, to come face-to-face with the stark choice: shall we be slaves to Pharaoh, and all that entails, or shall we choose service to the One who cherishes our freedom?

The task is enormous. And the way ahead and all its dangers and opportunities is unknown to us. We know only one thing about what lies ahead: the Eternal Shechinah--that part of the Eternal that dwells among us--will go with us.

I am going, like my sisters before me, this year that is not like all other years; this Pesach that is so different than all other Pesachim.
I am going, unready as I am, because:
Ready or not, here comes Freedom!