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.

The Spiritual Life is Lonely

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“A Foggy Passage” Simon Kingsworth

The farther you progress in the spiritual life, the lonelier it gets.

The topics that used to consume you may now only arouse faint interest. (How many books did I read about “the future of the church” in my late twenties and early thirties? Hundreds. How many have I read since we moved to the island three years ago? None.)

The dichotomies that used to agonize you now all seem like artificial constructions that obscure a deeper Truth. (Is this an outward work? An inward work? Is this love of God or love of neighbor? How do you balance work with rest? Anger with forgiveness?)

The conversations that used to energize you all deflate like sad little balloons, without enough hot air to keep them afloat anymore. (In my case, denominational politics, theological esoterica, and the over-earnest discussion of “what does it mean to be the church?”)

Instead, you find that your gaze turns inwards: to the places of deepest unspoken hurt, to the deeper comprehension of self, to the wrenching, painful work of giving up all those external attachments that you thought were You.

In the process, you also discover loneliness.

I’ve discovered that there are precious few people who are able to have those conversations about matters like this, much less engage in this work with the necessary degree of maniacal consistency.

After all, it is a journey that their friends will not encourage them to take, because it can strip them of the unspoken tribal prejudices and previously energizing interests upon which friendships are based.

After all, it is a journey which our society, built upon superficial urgency and the frantic pursuit of novelty, is designed to prevent. (Don’t believe me? How many times did you check your smartphone today? And how many of times did you check it because you grew uncomfortable, bored, upset, or disturbed with something which you would prefer be left unnamed?)

After all, it is a journey which their churches, which institutionally depend on busy people highly invested in externals, simply do not have the capacity to imagine.

And the journey is hard, because the road is terrifying. From the comfortable ruts of life, you emerge into a dangerous, dark wilderness of spirit, filled with monsters of your own making. The road ahead seems like no more than a vague trail (pray to God for something as clear as a vague trail!) with the road behind always clear as day, beckoning for you to come back to safer ground.

My experience? Most people, if they don’t have journey companions, will take a few steps on that terrifying trail, and then retreat back to the comfortable territory of their familiar existence, filled with friends and jobs, religious observances and books, momentary bursts of passion brought on by the novelty of a new spiritual idea, and the steady, familiar rhythm of prejudices and interests that were formed in childhood.

The problem is that God (and by God I most specifically the Love that birthed the universe, that birthed each of us, and that lies at the truest center of our being,) can only be encountered fully in that dark wilderness of spirit.

Ideally, our spiritual communities exist so that people can find companions and guides for exactly this journey; but maintaining that communal ethos requires spiritual vigilance and produces very few institutional returns. This is why the communities that call themselves churches have turned instead to peddling a hyper-commodified mass market version of themselves, so that people may learn to possess God rather than learning to let God possess them. (This may be true for other religious and a-religious traditions, but I’ll let them speak for themselves on this count.)

I’m thankful that I’ve found a community, albeit a temporary one, that has helped me take my first full steps into the wilderness of my own soul. I also hear an echo of loneliness, sometimes even terror, knowing that soon that community will come to an end, and it is not a given that I will find other people to journey with me.

I don’t have any reassurances for me, but I do have advice for you if who have heard God’s call to walk a deeper path, even if that call is heard only in whispers.

First, step out the door on that new road, even if all you have is a backpack full of questions.

Second, find some people. Be wary of the good church people. Look for the pones hovering around the edges (or the comfortably self-differentiated ones in the middle.) Look for the ones who talk more about God and about people and less about “church”. Look for the ones who have a smiling, self-deprecatory honesty. Look for the ones who seem like actual humans, not religious facsimiles of themselves.

Finally, ask them to join you on the journey. Some will look at you oddly. Some will say “no”; or say “yes” but actually mean “no” when they realize what is involved. But remember, God is gracious, and if God is pulling you into the wilderness, then God will send you a couple of people who might dare to say “yes” along with you: people who will pick you up when you stumble, or get lost, and point you back into the darkness and say “keep going”.

Because, in the end, this is really the only journey ultimately worth taking.

It is just as the great Quaker mystic, Thomas Kelly, says,

Out in front of us is the drama of [people] and of nations, struggling, laboring, dying. Upon this tragic drama in these days our eyes are all set in anxious watchfulness and in prayer. But within the silences of the souls of [people] an eternal drama is ever being enacted, in these days as well as in others. And on the outcome of this inner drama rests, ultimately, the outer pageant of history.

It is the drama of the Hound of Heaven baying relentlessly upon the track of [humans]. Is the drama of the lost sheep wandering in the wilderness, restless and lonely, feebly searching, while over the hill comes the wiser Shepherd. For His is a shepherd’s heart, and He is restless until He holds His sheep in His arms. it is the drama of the Eternal Father drawing the prodigal home unto Himself, where there is bread enough and to spare…And always its chief is – the Eternal God of Love.

THOMAS KELLY. A TESTAMENT OF DEVOTION. 1941.

 

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By Ben Yosua-Davis. Reposted with permission from A Glorious Mess.