With gratitude to Beyn Kodesh l’Chol “Learning for Liberation” Bet Midrash for deepening my understanding of this text.
As Passover approaches, many of us are creating or editing haggadot, figuring out if and how we want to engage in virtual seders, making shopping lists, and otherwise preparing for the holiday. An exploration of one of the most foundational stories of our tradition, Passover invites us to experience the Exodus from Egypt as if we were coming out of Egypt ourselves. The story of the Exodus becomes a framework for our personal journeys, asking each of us to consider where we are coming from and, if we are lucky, where we are going. While the story of the Exodus doesn’t change, we change and grow, reflecting and carrying different aspects of this story and history with us in different moments.
The Passover Haggadah teaches “וְכָל הַמַּרְבֶּה לְסַפֵּר בִּיצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם הֲרֵי זֶה מְשֻׁבָּח / …and all who increase in their telling of Yetziyat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, behold they are praiseworthy.” It is in the increase, the embellishment, the sinking in to the story, the feeling, the experience of liberation that brings us to the deep identification the Haggadah desires. We are not only to recall the Exodus but to experience it as if we were there, as if we are there now. Immediately following this teaching, the Haggadah offers examples of this injunction (how do we increase our telling of this story?), and lifts up a teaching from the Mishnah in Masechet Berakhot.
מַזְכִּירִין יְצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם בַּלֵּילוֹת
We are obligated to mention the Exodus from Egypt at night (Mishnah Berakhot 1:5)
This mishnah appears in the midst of a discussion about the recitation of the Shema, specifically the third paragraph, which mentions both tzitzit (ritual fringes) and the Exodus from Egypt. Assuming we wouldn’t mention tzitzit at night because we can’t see them, this mishnah comes to teach us that we are still obligated to recite this paragraph in the nighttime because even though we need not mention tzitzit, we must recall the Exodus at night.
My chevruta Eddie once told me a story that I’ll never forget. It’s a story his father told him. And, now, it’s a story I’d like to tell you. When Eddie’s father Jay was a teenager, he got a job as a camp counselor at a sleepaway camp. He was assigned to a bunk of first-time campers, boys seven and eight years old. On the first day of camp, the young campers were warmly greeted as they got off the bus, led to a welcome-to-camp gathering, met their counselors and bunkmates, and were then shown to their cabins to unpack their clothes and get settled. After the kids had unpacked, Jay noticed one little boy sitting on his bed, crying. Jay tried to find out what was wrong, but the boy just kept crying and wouldn’t talk. “Did you forget something at home?” He shook his head no. “Do you miss your family?” Again, still crying, he shook his head no. After several more failed guesses, the boy was finally able to eke out a few words through the tears: “I don’t know what comes next.”
I’ve been thinking about this story a lot lately because it names so viscerally and accurately an emotional state that really doesn’t have an adequate name. “Uncertainty” is probably the best we’ve got, but it hardly gets at the depth of what is actually a very real and profound trauma: not knowing what comes next.
We’re programmed, I think, to feel more comfortable when we “know the schedule,” when we can anticipate what tomorrow will bring, when we can figure out what we’ll find when we “get there,” and what we’ll be called upon to do. Not knowing what comes next is deeply distressing, and it’s real. Read More
This week, as we all navigate a constantly shifting landscape of change, uncertainty, and global pandemic, SVARA began convening a daily Mishna Collective. It has been incredibly grounding to plug in daily to the diasporic SVARA learning community during such an overwhelming time. The opportunity to move slowly and methodically through a rabbinic text, aka Talmud Torah as a spiritual practice, has been an anchor in this storm.
We opened with the beginning of the sixth chapter of Pirkei Avot, which explores the merits of studying Torah. We learned beautiful and hyperbolic things, for example that, according to Rabbi Meir, “every person who is involved in the practice of learning Torah… is deserving of the entire world,” and that Torah study makes one into “an ever-flowing spring, like a stream that never ceases.” From where we sit today, the claims the rabbis make in this text about the merits and benefits of Torah study might feel obvious to us. I mean… duh! Torah study is one of the most essential and valued elements of Judaism. What’s so compelling about finding out from Pirkei Avot that studying Torah distances us from wrongdoing, increases our strength and wisdom, or even gladdens the Holy One? I would have assumed as much from our ancient texts.
“They were replacing the logics of sacrifice with the logics of study, and embedding the DNA of Judaism with a new set of practices and priorities, to help us survive as our best, most spiritually and morally resourced selves in the generations to come.”
However, considering the Mishna’s historical context reveals just how bold its claims actually are.