Reaching for Meaning

I’m delighted to share with you a program I’ve created that offers a variety of ways into the themes of Pesach - three poems, a prose piece by Bryan Stevenson, and accompanying questions. I invite you to use them as writing prompts or as foci for reflection as you prepare for Pesach, to use them to spark conversation at your Seders, to reflect on them during the course of the holiday. I hope these materials enrich your encounter with Pesach this year and that the journey of the week leads you on nourishing and fruitful paths. Please feel free to contact me with questions, comments, stories from your seder that flowed from these offerings.

May your Pesach celebrations bring joy and meaning!
Merle

 

I –

Leaving Egypt

The night is so dark
and I am afraid.
I see nothing, smell nothing,
the only reality –
I am holding my mother’s hand. 

And as we walk
I hear the sounds
of a multitude in motion –
in front, behind,
all around,
a multitude in motion. 

I have no thought of tomorrow,
now, in the darkness,
there is only motion
and my mother’s hand. 

© Merle Feld Finding Words www.merlefeld.com

 

This “leaving Egypt” is experienced entirely through the senses. Close your eyes and let the poem lead you into a sensory experience of leaving Egypt – What do you see? What are you experiencing? Who are you in the multitude, and who are you with, or are you solitary? (Perhaps the poet is imagining herself leaving Egypt as a child, though I’ve heard some interpret this poem as referring to an adult sojourner solicitously guiding an aged parent.)

 How might you imaginatively locate yourself in the “going out” story this year? Feel free to play with multiple personae, multiple versions of your own “going out” story… Tell the story, either writing it down as you prepare for the Seder or sharing it orally around the Seder table.

 What is hard for you about transitions, liminal moments? Who/what do you hold onto for support?  What is exciting, enlivening about such moments? What gifts do such times of life offer? 

 

II -

Passover miracle
     for Kara 

that we find our spring selves again,
shed the thick protective layers of winter
that shield but separate us
from the world out there. 

We sit at the seder table
tired, yes, from all the work of preparation,
but hoping to be refreshed,
hoping in spirit to be refreshed.

 Sitting at the seder table
we encounter
our younger selves,
wide-eyed, asking questions. 

We become each year once again
the four sons, child-like,
spring-like, ready each year once again
to go out from Egypt 

with nothing
but a pack on our back,
ready to walk once again
out into the wilderness 

in search of our freedom
and our God. 

© Merle Feld Finding Words www.merlefeld.com

 

What is your “spring self” like? Is it hard for you to find your “spring self?” What allows that self to come forth and shine? In what ways has this winter been hard for you?

 How do you “shield” yourself, “separate” yourself, from “the world out there?” What threatens you, frightens you? What protections would you like to shed/feel ready to shed?

 What do we traditionally think of as “the Passover miracles”? What are the miracles suggested here? What constitutes a miracle for you? What are the miracles you’ll be celebrating this Pesach?

 Can you remember what questions your “younger self” asked? How are your questions different now?

 What might constitute the particular “freedom” you are searching for in the wilderness? What might it mean to search for your God? What are you in search of this year? 

 

III –

A crucial component of the Seder is to help us as those who were once slaves and suffered, to heighten our awareness of those who suffer right now in this world, to push us to partner in the fight for social justice. As Rabbi Karen Bender taught us to ask in a session on Seder prep in 1999 for the Women’s Rabbinic Network, “What are we going to change tonight?” I offer this teaching from Bryan Stevenson as a starting point:

 

Get proximate to the problem.
Get close to the things that matter,
get close to the places
where there is inequality and suffering,
get close to the spaces
where people feel oppressed,
burdened, and abused…
See what it does
to your capacity
to make a difference,
see what it does to you.

© Bryan Stevenson, founder and Executive Director of Equal Justice Initiative, and most recently initiator of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery AL

 

When have you gotten “proximate to the problem”?  What was “the problem”?  What qualities of yours allowed you to get close?  What happened – were you able to foster some change?  How did you change, grow?

When have you felt an impulse to get “close to a problem” but didn’t feel able to do so? What were the obstacles? Notice if there’s a punishing or judgmental tone – can you tell the story from the place of compassion?

Consider the range of local, national and global problems. What are your particular strengths and how might you creatively harness them to contribute to tikkun olam in one of these areas of concern?

I doubt that efforts to address societal problems can meet with much success when undertaken solo – With what admired friend[s] or mentor[s] would you like to stand “shoulder to shoulder” in tikkun olam work? Are any of them sitting around the Seder table with you? What might you hope to do with them?


IV –
Broken Matzah

On the New Jersey transit train
I pulled my particularity
out of a brown paper bag:
one of four broken pieces
of buttered matzah.
Slowly, delicately
I proceeded with my dinner. 

The young man across the aisle
in his dark business suit,
pale skin, wavy black hair,
looked to me Italian
but I admit I’m not good at that. 

He seemed uncomfortable,
not so much with the chremzel
I carefully dipped
into a little puddle of sour cream,
nor even with my public
consumption of food –
probably I was brought up
to know better, but I was brought up
so long ago I’ve misplaced
some of my mother’s niceties – 

no, I think it was the matzah
that did it, it was the matzah
that singled me out,
the unmistakable display
of my particularity:
four broken pieces of buttered matzah. 

Or maybe he didn’t care at all,
didn’t notice,
maybe his breathing didn’t
become slightly irregular,
maybe it was all
my imagination,
or my breathing
becoming slightly irregular. 

How like my mother I am, after all,
who trained us in our largely
Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood
not to wear our old playclothes
outside on Sundays
so as not to offend our Christian
neighbors on their way home from church. 

In those days I took her at her word;
now I wonder as the train
pulls into Penn Station
if Marie Brady who lived across the street
ever noticed us in our Sunday finery,
ever thought it curious
that we dressed up on her Sabbath,
ever questioned our carefully guarded
particularity, ever saw close up
a buttered piece of matzah.

 chremzel – a fried cheese pancake, an Eastern European delicacy

© Merle Feld A Spiritual Life: Exploring the Heart and Jewish Tradition www.merlefeld.com

 

What is this poem about? What feelings, thoughts, questions does it evoke for you? What’s the significance of her “breathing becoming slightly irregular?”

Why be self-conscious eating matzah and other ethnic food on the train? Why the mother’s caution about offending Christian neighbors – might there have been latent memories of Jewish difference being dangerous? (The matzah itself is a symbol of ancient oppression and threat; the reference to an Eastern European delicacy also calls up memories of a lost world, Jewish life savaged.)

Do you think you are easily identifiable as being Jewish? How? What are your own “particularities,” your own fault lines, between your Jewish identity and your American identity? Under what circumstances do you feel self-conscious or misunderstood or concerned or discriminated against or threatened as a Jew in America?  How have you addressed, how might you address your layered identity as a Jewish American/an American Jew?