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How is this Passover different from all other passovers?

Updated: Apr 13

I begin with four questions. 

How far are you willing to go for the sake of harmony in your family?

How far are you willing to go for the sake of peace in your relationships?

Are there things you are willing to say for the sake of harmony in your relationships?

Are there things you are willing to leave unsaid for the sake of peace in your family?

For me, these questions animate my attempt to wrestle a blessing out of this week’s Torah portion; a portion that we almost cartoonishly reject in our modern context; pinching our noses and holding it out away from ourselves at arms length distance. 

Tazria; a portion concerned with purity, is the quintessential portion for anyone looking to write off the book of Leviticus entirely. 

We don’t live like that anymore, they say! 

We don’t have priests anymore, they say!

And yet, I’m not entirely convinced that we have left all of our Levitical instincts behind. 

Infamously, our Torah portion for this week offers ritual answers for what would seem to us to be medical questions.  God speaks to Moses and Aaron telling them when a member of the community is found to have a skin affliction, tza’raat, which is colloquially understood as leprosy, it will be the job of the priests to examine the one afflicted. What follows from this first examination by the priests, is an ancient system of quarantine and isolation. The one with tza’raat, the one who is afflicted, is sent outside of the camp, away from the rest of B’nai Yisrael. 

Despite any medical practicalities to this isolation, my heart breaks for the one cast out of the camp. Suffering, likely unsure of how they wound up there in the first place; totally cut off from the connections and care that might help them to heal. 

The story is troubling to be sure, but it is up to us whether we hold Torah up and look at it as though it’s a mirror, or as if it's a window. Is this story of isolation and avoidance once that we want to see mirrored in our world today, or do we want it to illuminate another way of being? 

Tonight, the blessing I want to wrestle from this story is not about the story itself— it’s not about the leprous skin afflictions; it’s not about how the seven days of isolation might have been healing, or restorative.  The blessing I want to wrestle out of this week’s Torah portion, is about a commitment to bringing people closer in, rather than casting them out. To do that, we have to imagine another way; to turn the story on its head and see the possibility of another way that our community could respond in moments of difference. 

Over the last six months, I have had so many conversations with members of our community; parents and grandparents of young adults. And the overwhelming thread through these conversations is that talking about Israel, and Gaza, and what it means to be Jewish today is getting harder and harder, across the generations. This generational divide is not new, and it did not appear suddenly on October 7th. But, these last six months have deepened that divide and made it harder to traverse. For so many, there is a sense that their personal beliefs around Israel, make them feel cast out of the camp of their own family; and this is true across the generations. 

An article published in the NY Times this past December highlights the stories of families that are experiencing this very impasse. Young adults who feel like their Jewish upbringing glossed over, ignored, or denied the reality of Palestinian suffering or right to self-actualization; that the older generations’ Zionism is incompatible with Jewish values. Parents and grandparents who are heartbroken  when their children express these views, and who express their fears with questions like“Did we not talk about antisemitism and the Holocaust enough with our children?”.   Across the many families profiled for this article, there is a common thread: neither generation feels like the other “gets it”.  

One of the people interviewed for this piece, Jonathan Taubes (age 30) described feeling torn between wanting to comfort his mother and “feeling uneasy with her exclusive focus on Jewish pain.” 

“I was sort of trying to hold both sides — a progressive left one, and a defensive Jewish one,” he explained. “It’s a feeling of discomfort, like, how do I manage this, how do I bridge this? There’s this feeling of being alienated from the world, but then the added layer of strife and division within our own family. It’s an extra layer of pain.”

It is an extra layer of pain. 

That article, published in early December, encountered these families just weeks before Thanksgiving, as they anticipated being together around holiday dinner tables. And now, we are just weeks away from Pesach; from gathering around Passover tables with our loved ones, and my fear is that the divide has deepened, and in many cases, the avoidance of this fraught topic has hardened into a silence in many families. 

Silence and avoidance are forms of isolation. 

My fear is that with that isolation, we are unwittingly creating a sense of who is in the camp, and who is not. Are we ready to cast our parents and grandparents out of the camp— or to send our children and grandchildren into isolation? It feels like we are dangerously close to  the edge in our Jewish community today. 

In the past, when I would talk about how difficult it can be to talk about Israel, I’ve used the metaphor of not giving up our seat at the table; this year: the stakes are higher. We can’t give up our seats at the Passover table;  and what’s more: we must do everything we can to ensure that there is room at that table for all. 

I am reminded of the work of Dr. Marshall Duke, a psychologist from Emory University who in the mid-1990s, was asked to help explore myth and ritual in American families. Dr. Duke was interested in understanding what made for resilient families, and so, along with his wife, Dr. Sarah Duke and a researcher named Robyn Fivush developed a measure called the “Do You Know?” scale,  that asked children to answer 20 questions about their parents and the generations before. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.

The research was overwhelmingly clear: families who really knew each others’ stories tended to be the most able to withstand the storms of life.  

Storytelling, it turns out, is a central feature of resilient families. 

Ultimately, Marshall Duke’s research showed that it’s not simply knowing each other’s stories that make for resiliency, but the ways in which listening and learning from our family members helps to create a family narrative. Each family is a universe unto itself, but he suggested that family narratives commonly fall into three categories: an ascending narrative, a descending narrative, and an oscillating narrative. 

The oscillating family narrative is the one that makes space for a wide range of realities: for stories that we are proud of, for stories that are painful, and for stories that reflect our human frailty. In thinking about those oscillating narratives, it highlights for me the insistence on telling the whole story: honoring the stories and insights of our elders, and inviting and connecting to the stories of younger generations. 

What stories might we be able to tell at this years’ Seder tables?

What opinions and worldviews  might we refuse to shy away from?

If these questions resonate with you, you are in good company, as so many of us wrestle with the essential question for this year:

Ma nishtanah haPesach hazeh, mikol ha’Pesachim? 

How is this Passover different from all other Passovers? 

How will the words of the Haggadah land for us this year? 

In some cases, the words of the Haggadah feel more relevant; in others, the Haggadah’s proclamations clash with reality. How can we celebrate a holiday of freedom when over 100 people are still held captive in Gaza? How do we call for all who are hungry to come eat at our tables when so many Israelis are not at their own seder tables and millions of Palestinians are on the brink of famine?

These questions, and many others, weigh heavy on our hearts right now. 

Preparing for Passover is designed to be both a physical and spiritual experience. We clean our homes of chametz, and with each cabinet cleared of cereal, and each bread bin swept of its crumbs, we imagine a spiritual cleansing as well, of that which puffs us up, like the leavening of chametz. Where has our own sense that we are right prevented us from truly listening and hearing others? Where have we become hardened, stale in our thinking? 

In imagining what that looks like in practice, I come back to the image of our Passover tables; beautifully arrayed, a stage set for making meaning of our ancient, oscillating, family narrative. 

My father was a wandering Aramean…but, God reached out with signs and wonders, and the sea parted and we were free! 

But, we are reminded, we do not rejoice at the death of God’s creatures. 

This is the bread of affliction! 

But, dayenu: I am grateful. It would have been enough. 

And still, we pour out a drop of our wine; removing a drop of our joy, as we recall the plagues that fell on Egypt. 

And, still we sing Hallelujah— 

we open the door for Elijah, and fill a cup for Miriam. 

Do we pour out our wrath? 

Do we highlight or muffle the reminder that in every generation, there have been those who have sought the destruction of the Jewish people.  

And then, a most hopeful and painful conclusion: l’shana ha’baah b’Yerushalyim. 

I can imagine more than a few moments in our Passover haggadah that may catch in the throat of some around our seder tables.  

And so I return to those opening questions:

How far are you willing to go for the sake of harmony in your family?

How far are you willing to go for the sake of peace in your relationships?

Ma nishtanah haPesach hazeh, mikol ha’Pesachim? 

How is this Passover different from all other Passovers? 

This Passover is different from other Passovers in ways that are painful. 

It is hard to imagine the arrival of one of our sacred festivals, heralding the arrival of spring, when so many are suffering.  Over the last few days, friends and family in Israel have shared with me how hard it is for them to imagine sitting down to this celebration this year— so many empty chairs at empty tables. Do we skip it, they wonder? Is this the year that it's simply too hollow to celebrate freedom? Or do we double down— do we dig into Passover davka this year;  precisely because  of those empty seats at empty tables? 

And perhaps as we prepare for seder nights that are built around questions— so many questions, we can allow ourselves just one, simple answer: 

This Passover is different from all other Passover’s because we are different. 

Our world has changed, and is changing even as we speak. 

And so we change with it. 

We insist on staying at the table, knowing that the conversations might be hard, and that sometimes, it’s ok for there to be silence.

And we insist that our tables be filled with loved ones and neighbors and strangers because we know that central to the telling of our story is that sacred invitation: let all who are hungry come and eat. 

And like generations of Jews have done before us, we come together to tell the sacred, ancient, oscillating family narrative of our people— praying that each word uttered around our table, will bring us closer to one another, closer to a world redeemed, and closer to a time when it will be true for us to say 

.הָשַּׁתָּא עַבְדֵי, לְשָׁנָה הַבָּאָה בְּנֵי חוֹרִין.

This year we are slaves, next year, may we be free.

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