I just added a track on my music page called “Each Moment is a Universe.”
One of the central ideas of Passover is that we are to see ourselves as having left Egypt. Some say that this means to visualize that we were actually slaves in Egypt, and were freed in the Exodus. It is meant to give us empathy with those who suffered at the hands of the Egyptians.
I think there is another way to make this a more personal experience. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzraiim, which means the narrow place, the place that blocks us. We need to think about what is our personal Mitzraiim, the thing that is holding us back from being the kind of person we want to be.
This requires being really honest with ourselves. We are often comfortable with our most destructive habits, whether anger and temper problems, eating issues, jealousy, or inattentiveness to others. What is important is to figure out what your particular thing is, and work on that. Passover is the six month alert that Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are coming. Now is the time to get to work.
The seder provides a powerful model on how to start the work. The very first seder actually took place during the Hebrew slaves last night in Egypt, not after their liberation. God wanted them to see themselves as already being free. To paraphrase George Clinton, “Free your mind and the rest will follow.”
We should spend a few minutes each day quietly visualizing ourselves as the kind of person we want to be. If we can see it, we can achieve it. Do not expect instant or even quick results. Our destructive habits took a long time to form; they will take a long time to conquer. Look for small changes. You will start noticing them soon and will start feeling better about yourself. Your friends and family will notice, too, and will likely find themselves looking for ways to improve their lives also.
What is your Egypt? You can start leaving it this year.
Traditionally, the youngest at the table says the four questions at the seder. This is one of the highlights of the entire evening, at least for the adults. The person reciting them tends to be relieved when they are over.
Notice I have used the words “says” and “recites,” not “asks” the four questions. One of the ironies of Passover is that we train the children to ask specific questions in advance, and then give them our prepared answers. That is not the original intention.
The purpose of the four questions is to provide a model of what kind of questions might be asked. The beginning is usually translated as “Why is this night different from all other nights?” The actual translation, though, is “What has been transformed?” Most of what we do at the seder was pretty typical of a lavish Roman era meal, with a couple of slight changes. The idea behind many of the rituals of the seder is to do things a little differently from the norm, in order that children on their own will notice the changes and ask about them. We then answer them based on their questions, and not just with our previously prepared responses.
The seder is meant to stimulate critical thinking. It is meant to teach people to ask difficult and sometimes uncomfortable questions, until we reach the truth, or at least strive for it honestly.
We Jews as a people are in an interesting place. In some ways it is the best time ever to be Jewish. There are more opportunities to learn about Judaism than any time in our history. There is an independent Jewish state for the first time in thousands of years. There are great challenges, too. There is conflict between the denominations, and differences in opinions on how to handle the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The best thing you can do is ask the difficult questions, and not settle for easy answers. It is better that people challenge the system instead of walking away. Our survival as a people, our greatness, is that we are not just obligated to teach each generation about Judaism, but how to make it their own.
I hope that Passover this years brings you further on the road to spiritual and intellectual freedom, and that you find joy in your discoveries.
Last week I started discussing the prayer Modeh/Modah Ani, “I am thankful.” It is the prayer that we are supposed to say as soon as the alarm rings, even before we get out of bed. It is about making sure that we begin the day with a sense of optimism. By the way, there is a prayer for nighttime for when things did not work out exactly as planned. I will talk about that in a later entry.
Today, I want to focus on the second Hebrew word of the prayer, “Ani”, or I in English. There is a great story of a rabbi who showed up two hours late for morning services. The people asked him why he was so late. He said, I got to the Ani, the I, of Modeh Ani, and I did not know who the I was. I spent the morning trying figure out who I am.
A lot of us wake up in the morning feeling a little disoriented, and not just because we may not have gotten enough sleep. We have so many roles to play, whether parent, child, partner, employee, employer, friend, or community member. Sometimes these roles are in conflict. Sometimes we do not even know what the individual role even is. We do not feel like a person, but a series of tasks, that if we complete all of them, still make us feel mediocre. There rarely seems time just to be a person.
We may also be wondering where the time went. When I look in the mirror, I see a middle-aged man, someone who looks a lot like my father. I love and admire my father dearly, but it is still sometimes a jolt. Whose life am I living?
The prayer of Modeh/Modah Ani is about taking a moment and thinking about what kind of person you want to be today, what kind of life do you want to live. It does not mean you can do anything you want, because taking care of our responsibilities is important and a privilege. It means, though, that you do not have to live just for others. You are entitled to your own joy and your own definition of a meaningful life.
I am not what you would call a morning person, unless your definition of morning is pretty broad. Ideally I would sleep from around 1 or two in the morning, until I got up, say tennish. This does not happen too often. I think the last time was 1989.
As a result I am not much of a night-time person either, but that is for a different discussion. Let me focus on mornings. I do not think I am the only one in this situation. There is a reason that coffee sales are so high, and why people are willing to drink those less than tasty energy drinks.
Judaism recognizes some of us need a little help easing into our days. It even works for people who bounce out of bed. There is a prayer that we are supposed to say every morning called Modeh Ani for men, and Modah Ani for women. It means, “I am thankful.” These are the very first words we are supposed to say out loud. I know that these are not the words I may have initially said upon waking.
Our tradition understands that the thoughts you wake up with are likely to influence your mood for the rest of the day, and quite likely the mood of those to whom you expressed yourself upon waking.
We should start our day with the recognition that no matter how difficult the day might be that we are facing, we at least woke up to have it, and that we have the potential to do something worthwhile with our day.
I will talk about more of the prayer next week, but a good exercise to do before bed is to concentrate on waking up with the thought “Modeh/Modah Ani, I am grateful and thankful.” It took me about three months, but this is how I wake up (most days).