Why This Firstborn Will Go Silent Before Passover: The Social Justice Ta’anit Dibbur

 

Among Passover’s many customs, the fast of the firstborn (ta’anit bechorot) fell into disuse.  This ritual fast, commemorating Egypt’s victims of the Tenth Plague’s death of the firstborn, finds little traction among modern liberal Jews.  Even most traditionalists arrange a ritual joyous reason to avoid the pre-Passover fast.

The day before Passover, however, this particular firstborn of Israel will fast – not just from food but also from speech.  I will go silent – I will observe a total fast from speech (ta’anit dibbur) – and I will decline any excuse that might absolve me.

The reason isn’t virtue signaling.  Rather, it’s to remind myself, and invite others to consider, that words and privilege can be as enslaving as iron shackles.  It’s to renew my commitment to make space for the voices of all who feel excluded or diminished, whose identities or experiences have denied them privileges I enjoy – including the very privilege to write these words.

A Pre-Passover Fast from Food (Ta’anit Bechorot)

There are many reasons to fast before Passover – and not just make room for matzah!  One reason is to mourn the too-high price of freedom. Talmud famously teaches that when angels rejoiced during the Exodus drowning of Egyptian soldiers in the Sea of Reeds, God rebuked them saying, “My children are drowning and you sing Me praises?” (Megillah 10b, Pesachim 64b).  If Egypt’s first-born and soldiers died for Israelite liberation, their deaths are not less tragic.  If angels had to learn that lesson, then so might we. Just as we spill drops of wine for each plague during the Seder (we can’t drink a full cup of joy at another’s expense), we can fast in poignant memory of the tragically high cost of freedom.

Another reason is to connect with today’s captives of body, heart or spirit.  Until all are free, all are unfree. So taught Dr. Martin Luther King from his Birmingham jail cell: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  We can fast, as I wrote elsewhere, to spiritually purge for every time co-religionists ever sung praises for another’s degradation.  We can fast to rededicate ourselves to bringing Passover’s global message of freedom to the whole globe.

A third reason is to honor this year’s calendrical confluence with Good Friday.  Jews need not understand the Jesus of faith as Christians might, but we can understand suffering, grace and redemption in common cause with our Christian cousins as they commemorate their own ritual descent and ascent rooted in Passover.  

A Pre-Passover Fast From Speech (Ta’anit Dibbur)

The idea of a ta’anit dibbur (fast from speech) traces from the wisdom of Proverbs 18:21: “Life and death are in the hand of the tongue.” We fast from speech as a practice of purification.  By ritually controlling the incessant drive to speak, we can refine the inner impulses they voice.

All the more so before Passover.  Mystics re-read Passover (pesach) as the speaking mouth (peh sach), the spiritual liberation that could heal both Moses’ impaired speech and our own.  Understood this way, the creative impulse that Jewish mysticism understood as speech – God’s speech, and our speech – can be healed and channeled to liberate the sacred in our world.

Consider the countless injustices and shacklings expressed as speech.  Consider the enormous power of words to include or exclude, create or destroy, empower or enfeeble, uplift or suppress, liberate or enslave.  Words can wound, or words can heal. Understood this way, any Passover worth its weight in matzah must focus intently on the power of words to help purify our words.

What does this have to do with the firstborn?  In its day, primogeniture stood for privilege and societal power dynamics that locked privilege into the day’s reality map.  By dint of gender and birth order, the firstborn male held special status legally, politically and ritually. Others were at best second best.  And as for the individual, so too the collective: God told Moses to call Israel “God’s firstborn” before Pharaoh (Exodus 4:22).  Later, liturgy attributed to Rav Kook, Israel’s first chief rabbi, transformed Israel into reishit tzmichat ge’ulateinu, “the first flowering of our collective redemption.”

We’ve come far since primogeniture’s days, but Passover becomes a mere tasty relic if we rest on past laurels.  A living Passover means bringing freedom and equality to all in the flowering of collective redemption. A living Passover means pushing boundaries outward until they include everyone, and feeling deeply wherever boundaries or the call to expand them feels tight.  Those tight spots are our meitzarim, our “narrow places” – literally our “Egypt,” the frontiers of today’s Passover ongoing call to liberation.

Understood this way, the “fast of the firstborn” is a radical and evolving call to name and invert today’s social structures that hold people back.  The “fast of the firstborn” isn’t mainly about the “firstborn” but rather about the privilege that primogeniture wrongly symbolizes. It’s strikingly beautiful that Judaism can honor Passover – a defining experience of peoplehood and liberation – with this internal hedge against its own imperfect realization of this sacred calling.

Now let’s get personal.  I seem like the personification of privilege.  I’m the firstborn child – and a son at that. I’m straight and cis-gendered.  I hold two graduate degrees, from Harvard, plus a rabbinic ordination. I’m honored with a judicial role and a pulpit.  I teach in seminary and I’ve led spiritual nonprofits. I have seemingly unfettered opportunities to speak, write and teach.  I’m not just a man; euphemistically I’m The Man!  And most who know me know that I can have much to say.  

That’s exactly why I and people like me should go silent before Passover – to remind ourselves of the marginalization and subjugation that others experience daily, to make space for them, and to recommit ourselves to that cause as a way of life for all time.

To be sure, I wasn’t born on third base thinking that I’d hit a triple.  I’m the son of an immigrant. I did not grow up affluent. I’m the first in my family to graduate from college.  I faced and overcame many obstacles both personal and familial along the way. But such is the American experience and, often, the Jewish experience.  All the more reason for me to make space for tomorrow’s “me” – whoever and however they may come.

I think of my own mom and countless other moms denied a Jewish education or countless other opportunities on the basis of sex.  I think of LGBTQI friends still fighting whether in or out of the closet, denied their rights at tragic costs to themselves and society.  I think of people of color, of all backgrounds, whose lives as visible minorities still are fraught 50 years after Dr. King was assassinated.  I think of talented people of all ages and stages blocked from leadership by crusty, recalcitrant power dynamics that cling to their own false solidity.  I think of Jewish life’s virulent allergy to wise succession planning that shortsightedly robs institutions of healthy and vibrant futures.  And I think of many leaders who undoubtedly think they’re doing leadership right but who wield emotional or spiritual authority in ways that are pervasively self-perpetuating.

That’s why I will go silent before this Passover.  I will reclaim the ta’anit dibbur as a deliberate space-making practice both within and without.  I hope all firstborns, whether literally first out of the womb or metaphorical firsts of privilege, will consider doing likewise.  Let’s make space for others starting with one day, then one week, then for a lifetime, for all Jewish life and for all life. Let’s make space to heal speech, to heal power, to heal the world.

When we break our ta’anit dibbur at the start of the Seder, let our first word be Baruch: ”Blessed.”  Let that flow of blessing be the purpose of our speech and all speech.  And in that merit, may we, all of us, experience a truly liberating and sweet Pesach.

 

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By Rabbi David Markus.

Bedikat Chametz: Readying to Build Anew

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Everyone in Jewish life is called to be a builder: that’s Bayit’s guiding principle. As Passover approaches, we’re called to take a long hard look at our tools and our stuff, discerning what needs to be discarded. Enter the ritual of bedikat chametz, searching for leaven.

Bedikat chametz is a ritual of hiding pieces of leaven around the home on the eve of Passover, searching by candle-light, declaring any remaining chametz to be ownerless, and burning the chametz: an offering-up (both literal and symbolic) of home and hearth’s old crumbs.

In one understanding (drawn from Hasidic tradition) chametz can mean not only literal leaven but also the puffery of ego and the sourness of old ideas: the spiritual equivalent of the Tupperware left too long at the back of the fridge. For we who frame our Judaism around the core imperative of building, chametz could also mean old blueprints for projects that never got off the ground, or tools that don’t meet the spiritual needs of tomorrow, or the stories we tell ourselves about why we don’t have what it takes to build vibrant, authentic spiritual life.

The original matzah of the Exodus story is waybread baked in haste. It reminds us that the only way to reach liberation is to stop dilly-dallying, to grab what we can carry and start walking. How can we train ourselves to relive that urgency? How can we teach ourselves to leap into the unknown, certain that the Jewish future demands our risk-taking and our willingness to (in the words of Magic Schoolbus’ heroic Ms. Frizzle) “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy”?

Bedikat chametz is one of tradition’s tools for this task. Begin on the eve of the day that will become Pesach. Whether or not you’ve cleansed your home of the five “leavenable grains,” hide a few crackers or crusts of bread.  Before beginning the search, recite the blessing:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יהו׳׳ה אֱלֹהֵינוּ, מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אָשֶר קִדְשָנו בְמִצְותָו, וְצִוָנו עַל בִעור חָמֵץ.

Baruch atah, יהו׳׳ה Eloheinu, melech ha’olam, asher kid’shanu bemitzvotav, vetsivanu al bi’ur chametz.

Blessed are You, יהו׳׳ה our God, Source of all being: You make us holy in connecting-command, and enjoin us to remove chametz.

Pause for a few minutes of silence. (Maybe set a bell-timer on your phone, and give yourself some minutes of silence in the darkness.) Imagine your heart, your inner world, as a house with different rooms. Imagine yourself walking into each room of your heart, with a whisk broom and dustpan, and cleaning out the chametz you find there. Maybe you’ll find the chametz of old narratives that no longer serve. Maybe you’ll find the chametz of old plans that were never fulfilled, or broken relationships never wholly mourned. Maybe you’ll find the chametz of an antiquated God-concept that doesn’t connect you with the Source of Holiness any longer.

When you’re ready, open your eyes, light a candle, and go gather the chametz you purposefully hid. After the search is complete, say:

If there is any chametz I do not know about, that I have not seen or removed, I disown it. I declare it to be nothing—as ownerless as the dust of the earth.

The next morning, take it outside — I recommend doing this on your barbecue grill, if you have such a thing, though you’ll know best how to safely kindle a fire where you live — and burn it.

I have a longstanding custom of saving my lulav, the branches of palm and myrtle and willow from Sukkot, and using that as kindling to start my fire: an embodied connection between the old fall and the coming spring. Branches that were green and fragrant back in September or October have dried to a rattling husk now. Like the old ideas and plans and stories that once held life but didn’t get used to their full potential. Time to use them to catalyze something new.

As the branches and your chametz become ash, as smoke rises toward heaven, take a deep breath. Relax your shoulders. Let the old become ash, and resolve to let the ash fertilize the new growth of spring, the new building of your Judaism that is yet to be.
RB

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.

Seder for the Seventh Night, by Rabbi Evan J. Krame

New from founding builder Rabbi Evan J. Krame comes a haggadah — not for the first or second night of Pesach, but for the seventh night. Rabbi Evan writes:

The seventh night of Passover – Shevi’i Pesach – is said to be the time when the Israelites crossed the Red Sea. In Kabbalistic and in Hasidic circles, there is a custom to have a Seder and focus on the meaning of Shevi’i Pesach. The night would be spent in prayer and study, exploring the theme of divine revelation at Kriyat Yam Suf, the parting of the Red Sea. And in the Kabbalistic and Hasidic mystical communities, participants were open to the possibility of ongoing revelation and divine intervention.

The liturgy of the Seventh Night of Pesach may be called a “Tikkun” – a text that combines passages from a variety of sources including Torah, Talmud, and Midrash. Supplementing traditional texts are modern commentary, poetry, and humor. This Haggadah (retelling) for the seventh night of Pesach is an attempt to find deeper meaning and greater relevance in the mythic story of the crossing of the Red Sea…

To instigate learning and exploration, seven themes will be presented. Each will relate to a part of the body. The student of kabbalah is encouraged to link these seven with the lower sephirot. We will offer seven blessings relating to the meal and consider the seven clouds of Glory God sent to protect the people in the dessert. What other sevens can you relate to Shevi’i Pesach?

The Seventh Day Passover Seder/Order:

Kol/Voice – Beginning

Ntilat Yadayim/ Washing

Raglayim/Feet – Leaping

Eynaim/Eyes – Receiving

Oznayim/Ears – Believing

Peh/Mouth – Satisfying and

Lev/Heart – Loving

 

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Seventh Night Seder – Krame [pdf]

Healing from the affliction of separation

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Part of a yearlong series on Torah’s wisdom about spiritual building and builders.

The Talmud teaches (Megillah 31b): “If old men advise you to demolish, and children [advise you] to build, then demolish and do not build, because the demolishing of old men is [as constructive as] building and the building of children is demolishing.” In other words: wise elders can help us see when it’s time to demolish old structures, practices, and ideas that no longer serve — so that the demolishing becomes the first step toward building something new.

I just returned from a trip to the United States / Mexico border co-sponsored by HIAS and T’ruah: the Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. We visited the Otero County Processing Center, which houses over 1000 migrants who have been separated from their families. The refugees housed there have not committed any crime, but the warden referred to them as “inmates.” They wore colored jumpsuits, and slept 50 to a room behind bars. These family separations are connected with the affliction described in this week’s paresha — and in Torah’s cure for that affliction, we can find tools to heal and to build.

In this week’s paresha, Metzora, we learn that Torah’s cure for the affliction called tzaras (sometimes translated as leprosy) begins with sacrificing birds.  Rashi writes, on Leviticus 14:4, “since the affliction [of tzaras] comes about because of lashon ha-ra (malicious speech) which is an act of verbal twittering, therefore for purification Torah requires birds that constantly twitter.” Tzaras isn’t (just) a skin condition: it’s a moral condition, rooted in the sin of malicious speech.

In another interpretation, the Talmud (Arakhin 15b) explains that the word “metzora” (a person with tzaras) can be understood in the language of “motzi ra,”  giving off evil. Metzora is when a person’s essence becomes so twisted that whatever that person says or does is bad. The Torah this week provides a roadmap both to the depths of that impurity and the path towards purity.

Our rabbis also say that this affliction of tzaras comes from arrogance. For this reason, Rashi explains, Torah prescribes a cure of cedarwood, crimson wool, and hyssop. “What is the remedy so that one should be cured? He should lower himself from his arrogance like a worm [תולעת / tolaat means both wool and worm] and like hyssop [which grows low to the ground].” And why cedar? According to the medresh (Tanchuma 3) the cedar’s tall magnificence reminds us that the sinner thought of themselves as glorious (and needs to adjust their self-image a bit).

In Talmud (Sotah 5a) we learn that G-d separates from us when we are arrogant —  something that doesn’t happen with any other character trait. Our purpose in life is to see G-d as the source of all, and not fill space with the fake reality that we are somehow better than any other person created by G-d.  When we are arrogant, G-d pulls away from us. When our eyes are open, we recognize that in our connectedness with each other, we experience connectedness with G-d… and when we separate from each other, we separate from G-d.

The family separations that I witnessed on the border are a profound case of separating from each other. Not only are parents and children separated from each other, but all who take part in creating and enforcing that separation are maintaining a system that separates us from G-d.

The rehabilitation of the metzora, as described in Torah, involves experiencing a temporary separation from community (Leviticus 14:3). We can see that as a kind of sensitivity training. If tzaras is (as Rashi and Talmud teach) an affliction of arrogance and malicious speech, the metzora needs time away from community to do their own work so that they can return with a sense of the communal responsibility that must be at the core of all spiritual practice. Every sin between people creates separation between us and G-d. We need to build in a way that heals that separation — and heals our illusory sense of separateness from each other, too.

As builders of the Jewish future, we must turn away from lashon ha-ra (wicked speech). We must turn away from the temptation of arrogance or holding ourselves to be separate from or better than others. All of these are today’s tzaras — a word that shares its root with tzuris, suffering. Wicked speech, arrogance, and separating ourselves from each other (which means separating ourselves from G-d) are our tzaras and our tzuris — and these are no way to build.

The rabbis opine that the two birds slaughtered at the start of this week’s paresha (Lev. 14:4) can represent two approaches to building a more humble and human society. One approach is to first focus on the greatness of G-d and all of G-d’s wonders, which helps us more accurately calibrate our own greatness. Alternatively, we can start by looking at the loneliness of the human experience. What’s behind our capacity as a people to create terrible separations like those unfolding at the US/Mexico border? Examining that, we should see clearly that the places and policies that come out of lashon ha-ra, arrogance, and separation need to be demolished.

Torah gives us tools: tackling our twittering (let spring’s birdsong remind us to sing the greatness of G-d, not to speak wickedness or untruths), cultivating humility (hinted-at by the wool and the low-growing hyssop), and recalibrating our sense of awe (remembering the majestic cedar). With these we can demolish old structures that serve to separate, and we can build something better in their place.
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By Rabbi Mike Moskowtz. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.