November 18, 2018

The inner dimensions of Passover and spiritual liberation

I do two types of Passover seders — the public ones and a private one.

The public ones are the first two nights of Passover — the first night with as many people as will fit into a given room in our house, and the second night with as many as will fit into our snug synagogue. The goal of the public ones is to enjoy, with some degree of seriousness about the spiritual meanings.

The private one happens sporadically. Sometimes when I am preparing for a class, I turn my teachings inward. Sometimes when my wife and I are planning a bit of the serious side of the public seders, we contemplate the deeper dimensions together. Sometimes with students and study partners, we move from mastery of text to mastery of the inner life. In these sporadic seders, which take place a few weeks before the public ritual, personal insights, insights from spiritually oriented commentaries and other texts that shed light on the inner dimension of the haggadah are brought to bear. In these seders, I weave my own path of liberation for the year, based on the spiritual work in which I am engaged.

The seder, like all Jewish holy days and traditions, runs on four levels:

• The historical background: What happened in our history that created this tradition?

• The ritual background: How do we observe this tradition?

• The metaphoric background: What are the deeper, poetic meanings rooted in this history and these rituals?

• The personal application: How does this inner poetry, presented by the ritual and the history, help me to transform my life right now?

The haggadah, like all our holy texts and practices, is filled with subtexts, deeper worlds and opportunities for metaphoric and poetic openings that can help us make our own private transformative journeys and liberate us from lives that seem settled with a gray kind of mediocrity. Our tradition lays claim to our inner lives, not just our ritual practices or moral passions. Our texts and practices guide inner exploration and inner work.

Here are a couple of examples of how the metaphoric dimension of the haggadah can prompt this work.

There are two sets of four questions. The first set of questions asks: Why do the rituals of this night differ from other nights? An answer is given: Avadim hayinu — we were slaves, and now we are free. Added to that answer is: We have to talk about it all night. And no matter how smart we get or think we are, we still have to talk about it.

We can take this idea of questioning and the metaphor of slavery, and turn it inward. Maybe, on a metaphoric level, we are still slaves today because we are not asking questions, because we are not grappling with these things all night (at least now and then).

There is a basic rule of the spiritual life: If you don’t confront the existential questions of your life directly, they will haunt you and express themselves in clumsy ways.

I ask myself aloud the questions that are particular to me at this point in my life and that I can tell are resting right under my conscious self. Questions that come, perhaps, from being 55 years old, being a husband, a dad, a rabbi, a teacher, many other things. I ponder. Certain kinds of questions arise.

My physical body is showing the signs of age and wear — infirmity and illness are bound to come. Will those maladies define me, hold me captive, or will I define myself in some deeper way?

How can I move to yet another level of wisdom for love, in my marriage and with my family, as I enter the last third of my life? How do I let go of certain people and things, aspirations and ideas that are not healthy for me? What are the aspirations and ideas that should now gain sharper focus in my life? How do I let go of old attachments and old wounds? What should I be doing with my time and energy, as I see time and energy misspent from a shrinking account? How do I work through the sadness and loss that have accompanied me far longer than I thought they would? How can I shape my life around dreams and drives that have defined me since I was a young man and not push them off any longer? What fills me with joy and meaning at this point in my life? What in life prompts in me the deepest feelings of gratitude? I ask myself, what should I be talking about with my congregation that really matters to me and to them? I think of my students at the Academy for Jewish Religion, training to be rabbis, cantors and chaplains: Whatever the curriculum for the class is, what should I really be teaching to prepare them to care for the souls others?