A Passover Message – Epistle from the Romans
Di dove sei?
I write from Rome, as I enjoy the first half of my Sabbatical here. Meeting fellow students in my Language School, attending interfaith forums, praying in Roman Synagogues on Shabbat, visiting tourist sites, the first questions from Romans always include “Di dove sei?”
Where are you from?
The question also rings through the rituals and texts of Pesach. The Haggadah, in its central Maggid section, is first fixed on determining origin, where, when, and how we began. For example:.
- Mitchila ov’dei chochavim hayu avotei’nu, — At first our ancestors were idol worshippers.
- Tzei ul’mad! Go and learn! – Laban the Aramean wanted to destroy Jacob….so we went down to Egypt, at first in small numbers.
- Anus all pi HaDibur – We first came to Egypt compelled by the command of G-d.
Curiously, the Biblical text gives little evidence for these three claims of the Haggadah.
There is no description of idol worship in the land of Abraham and Sarah’s birth, and there is no evidence that Laban wanted to destroy Jacob. Later, Jacob moves to Egypt of his own free will, to re-unite with his beloved son Joseph, not because of compulsion by the Holy One.
Why do the authors of the Haggadah want us to re-visit our origins, not in their glory or innocence, but in their fear, sinfulness and desperation?
In the tenth chapter of the Talmudic tracate of Pesachim, we are taught that at the Seder one should “matchil bignut, um’samyeim b’she’vach….v’choteim big’ulah,” “begin with degradation, conclude with praise… and seal it with redemption.”
We re-visit the “dregs” of our origins because only after then can we experience gratitude and praise. For we overcame. And after we describe our ignoble beginnings, we cover the Matzot, dramatically raise the cup of wine and recite, “V’Hi She’amda. And She stood up for our ancestors and for us…because in every generation they try to exterminate us but the Blessed Holy One saves us from their hand.”
In traditional Jewish liturgy, the use of the feminine pronoun to refer to G-d is extremely unusual. Why here? Rabbi Arthur Green offers an explanation from Kabbalah. The “She” of this Haggadic praise refers to the Sephira, or divine emanation of Binah, or discernment. In the paradigm of the Ten Sephirot, Binah is the “mother Sephira” of the seven lower Sephirot (kindness, restraint, beauty, endurance, splendor, coherence, and sovereignty) whose powers are most accessible to mortals. Binah is also identified with teshuva/repentance and so with re-birth. Y’tzi’at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt was a collective, social re-birth and so it is identified in Kabbalah with Binah. Individual Teshuva is also associated with Binah. Binah is the feminine, mothering aspect of G-d, active in the soul, giving us the possibility of renewed clarity, motivation and life as Jews.
This re-awakening is the magic of the Seder nights. At the Seder, the banquet is open for all Jews, whether learned or unschooled, pious or skeptical, observant or assimilated. Tzei Ulmad, go and learn! Everyone can find or re-discover Jewish pride, devotion, innocence, and potentiality.
Here in Rome, the school where I study Italian every weekday morning is very international and my classes so far have included men and women from Columbia, Chile, Brazil, Israel, Belgium, Turkey, Russia, the US, Canada, Germany, Sweden, India and South Korea. All (minus the Israelis) are non-Jews, and they have very little experience of Jews or Judaism. They are very curious about me, a New York Jew and –for them even more exceptionally– a Rabbi. I am aware that it is not my personal biography which intrigues them, but what I stand for. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whose influence on Jewish-Catholic relations, especially in Rome, was immense, once wrote that “the world never sees the Jew as an individual but rather as representative of a whole tradition, of a whole people. A Jew is never alone.”
Who is a Jew? A person who understands that it is much easier to detest and blame than to understand and appreciate. A person who knows that her faith and her history can be loved or hated, appreciated or maligned, but never met with apathy or detachment. A Jew is a person who despises mirma, falsehood, e.g. stereotypes, over-simplification and prejudice. She has a passion for justice and the courage to be different. She sanctifies her time, begins each day with gratitude and ends each day with self-reflection and anticipates with joy the arrival of Friday night. She supports peace and security in the Holy Land, v’choteim big’ulah, seals her prayers with redemption, keeping hope in the ethical transformation of the world.
On the Seder night, we restore our relationship to that identity through shared texts, songs, rituals, and honest discussion across different generations and different ideologies. It is all carried forward by wonderment, by questions:
First, as we begin the Maggid, di dove sei, where are you from?
Later, as we point to and explain Pesach, Matzah, and Marror, why are you here now?
Finally, through the chanting of Hallel and concluding prayers, where will you go? What direction should your spiritual practice, your life take?
These are questions we all face on the Seder nights, and the answers are unique to each person.
Chag Kasher V’samei’ach,
A Happy, Kosher and fulfilling Pesach