(Originally delivered on Shabbat morning at Temple Israel, April 16, 2011.)
This is one of the more frantic periods of the Jewish year, a time of scrubbing, cooking, preparing, searching, burning, and so forth. And then comes the parade of relatives, the fabulous dinners, the new Maxwell House haggadah (did anybody here find it?), birkat kohanim at Temple Israel, and of course the 2nd Night Seder downstairs led by yours truly, and then seven more days of gastronomic mediocrity.
But the spring cleaning mandated by Pesah is not just about cleaning. There is, I am certain, a higher purpose. And that purpose is what makes Judaism and Jewish life continue to speak to us, continue to draw people to synagogues such as this one, and will continue to make Conservative Judaism in particular a viable option in the future. American Jewry will always have a need for synagogues that are traditional yet open, non-judgmental, and non-coercive; places where they may seek meaning and holiness and yes, spiritual purity.
Before we address this, let’s take a moment to compare Pesah to another holiday, one that is almost precisely half a year away: Yom Kippur, about which we read in today's parashah, Aharei Mot. These two occasions stand in opposition to each other across the circle of months, and yet share so many traditions and objectives:
1. Both require forms of physical denial related to eating.
2. Both invoke themes of redemption.
3. There are purification customs that are common to both: some immerse themselves in a miqveh prior to both YK and Pesah; some wear the kittel, the traditional white garment that symbolizes purity, on both festivals.
4. Pesah begins on the 15th day of the month of Nisan, which is the first month of the year; Yom Kippur falls on the 10th day of Tishrei, which is the seventh month, but the first month that falls in the new year.
And so forth. Put another way, Pesah is the reflection of Yom Kippur. Call it Hag Ha-Aviv, the festival of spring, or Hag Ha-Herut, the festival of freedom, or even Hag Ha-Matzot, the festival of unleavened bread, but its deeper meaning may be found in the requirement to cleanse.
And that cleansing is not merely physical - it is also spiritual. The external requirement to clean thoroughly one’s home reflects an inner struggle for purification for internal spring cleaning as well.
Cleaning our homes, kashering our kitchens, these are all things over which we have real control. Our minds, our bodies, and our lives, sometimes less so. But going through the annual ritual in preparation for Pesah is something like the Stanislavski method for acting - the physical act elicits a certain emotional response.
On some level, I think, we all want to be pure. And we want our children, our parents, our friends to be pure as well.
But life is not pure; life is complicated and messy. Yes, there are happy moments: celebrations, holidays, small victories, and so forth. But there are unhappy, ugly moments as well. I don’t have to name them - we all know what they are. And no matter how happy we are, no matter how satisfying or complete or joyous one’s life is, we all eventually hit stumbling blocks. And those stumbling blocks are the sources of tum’ah, of spiritual impurity in our lives. Most of us want to be rid of that.
The eternal possibility of purity, of clean, unbesmirched souls in the face of so many opportunities for the opposite is one reason that many of us keep coming back to synagogue, keep participating in Jewish traditions. What are the three most-observed Jewish holidays? Attending a Pesah seder is the second (after lighting Hanukkah candles); the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000 indicated that two-thirds of us go to a seder annually, more than fast on Yom Kippur and more than three times as many of us who keep kosher at home.
These are three holidays that work well for American Jewry (unlike, say, Shabbat: only 28 percent of American Jews light Shabbat candles regularly, and fewer still attend synagogue on Shabbat). I’m not in a position to tease out all the possible reasons for this, but still it is unique that two of these top three have to do with spiritual cleansing.
We have, I think, a deep-seated desire to seek purity - clean hearts, clean minds, clean bodies.
* * *
Last Shabbat, we had about 150 visitors to our community. Teenagers and staff from all over Nassau County came to the USY Chazak Division Spring Kinnus (convention), which we held over at the Youth House. There were, over the course of the roughly 44 hours that they were here, a number of holy moments. Imagine 150 young Jewish women and men singing together the words of Qabbalat Shabbat, welcoming Shabbat in unison. Picture those same teenagers learning Jewish text together. If you listen, you might still hear the echoes of raucous Shabbat songs with ruah, with spirit, in the USY tradition.
USY is an institution that works, where the older kids lead the younger kids in tefillah, in learning, in doing. I was lurking in the back of the room, mostly unseen, which is really a true pleasure for a rabbi: to be in a room full of Jews and NOT be needed.
What was particularly inspiring, however, was the willingness of these children to lead each other - that there were high school students in the room that stepped forward to be in charge, Jewishly, to take the red heifer by the horns and forge ahead and make Judaism happen. On Sunday morning, decked out in tallitot and tefillin, we were treated to a Shaharit (morning) service that was seasoned with video snippets from the movie Shrek, arguably one of the most surreptitiously Jewish animated movies of recent years. Not my cup of tea, exactly, but it was outside the box, and the kids were captivated by tefillah.
Now, I’m not suggesting that teens are necessarily coming to USY events because they are in search of purity. (Actually, more likely it’s quite the opposite.) I am, however, pointing to the fact that USY works. It brings young people from Conservative communities together, and not just for social reasons.
We need to focus on what works. The need for purity, spiritual cleanliness may appeal to many of us. But it has to be available, it has to be accessible and understandable and delivered through simple, meaningful rituals. As one of my colleagues in the Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles has been stating publicly for some time now, what we promote has to fit on a bumper sticker.
Some of you might know that I recently started using Twitter. For those of you who are not familiar with this new medium, let me explain: you can post, or “tweet,” as frequently as you want, and people who are “following” you can read what you write. The catch is that a tweet cannot exceed 140 characters. So you have to be succinct, even to the detriment of proper grammar and spelling.
The guys who created Twitter understood that the future consists of many small chunks of data. I know I sound cynical, but I’m fairly certain that 140 characters is about the limit of what most people will willingly read without too much investment, in today’s world of infinite technological switchability.
I bring this to your attention because the popularity of Twitter is yet another sign that we are undergoing a major paradigm shift in how we relate to each other. Judaism, and in particular Conservative Judaism is subject to the same social trends as all of our other lifestyle choices. (And involvement in Jewish life is more of a choice than it has ever been.)
It is no coincidence that the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism has just published a new strategic plan, one that defines the mission of our movement as follows:
• To transform and strengthen our kehillot (congregations) in their effort to:
o inspire meaningful prayer
o sustain a culture of lifelong Jewish learning
o nurture religious and spiritual growth
o promote excellence in kehillah leadership
(By the way, that’s 235 characters, and that’s less than half of the new mission statement.) They did not mention spiritual purity, per se, but I think it falls under at least two of those bullet points.
If the movement is indeed to continue, it must find new ways to do all of the above - to bring the themes of Judaism into people’s lives, to help them seek spiritual cleansing on Pesah and Yom Kippur, given the current cultural and technological milieu. We must take what works and emphasize those programs and institutions, and develop new ones that work for today. And if that means that the traditional synagogue model is replaced by something else, something that can be served in 140-character chunks, so be it.
USY works. The Ramah camps work. The Twitter model? Not yet. Regardless, the fundamental search for purity, or holiness, or meaning, is what we need to focus on as a congregation, as a kehillah, and indeed as a movement, as we boldly sail into the future.
Shabbat shalom, and hag kasher ve-sameah.