It’s always when I take my first bite of matzah that I want bread more than any other time during Passover. That moment when I look at the tan speckled cracker and think: “here we go.” Don’t get me wrong, I love the seder, I love the holiday, but I always have such a hard time with not eating bread. By the second day I start to wonder if I’m going to survive, until I remember that I’ve done this every year, and yes, despite the desperate yearnings of my tastebuds, I make it. But that experience is visceral. As Jews we don’t just talk about what it means to be slaves, we take that pain, we take the constriction of that experience, and we place it directly in our mouths. Slavery standing boldly on our tongues. That is because we know that we learn the important things in our lives by experience. We can imbibe all the information we want, inserting facts into our minds but in order to discover compassion, in order to honestly know love, in order to hold all the elements of wisdom, we have to deposit them in our souls with time, we have to experience them. And so we take it on ourselves to live with a small taste of bondage for a week. Because we know that the steps we take to bettering our world come from a relationship to our own feelings. And so all the more so that at the end of our observance, when I feel about ready to burst for something as simple as a slice of bread, the moment of freedom is amplified to a volume so greatly impacted by its contrast to my self-denial that wheat bread becomes decadent cake. Joy often comes when we take the steps to eradicate oppression. And so we rehearse that removal every year.
When it comes down to it, there is no more important thing that we do as Jews, than work to bring joy into the world. Our teachers knew this. The Ba’al Shem Tov was a rabbi in 18th century Eastern Europe. I love the image of him traveling from town to town, hawking his wisdom the way a peddler might sell a set of buttons, or a perfectly good coat. The Ba’al Shem, would travel to a village, and draw in the members of the community by telling stories. He would then bring everyone together in song, humming a melody that was infectious. A group of people huddled around once arguing, and now joined together in the evening dark, the fire of the song of their souls braided together and rising like a havdallah flame, bringing light to a dark time. With the sun the next morning, the Ba’al Shem would awake, and make his way to the next village. And repeat this routine over and over, bringing as much joy as he could to as many people as possible. He decided that rather than approach the many injunctions in our tradition with a hope of fulfilling each one like checking boxes on an endless sheet of paper, he would focus on one, only one, and delve as deeply as he could into that holy instruction. The mitzvah that he chose, was joy. And so he spread as much joy as he could, embodying the value of chidur mitzvah, taking greater delight in a mitzvah.
Many others followed in his footsteps. Still today in Israel you can see the followers of the long since deceased Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, the great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, dancing in the streets, their long distinctive sidelocks bouncing in counterpoint to the movement of their bodies. The followers themselves hoisting a cheesy boom-box with the latest in an appropriation of good modern music, doubtlessly poked out on someone’s PC, blasting from the plastic speakers brought to the limits of their two inch diameters. Think Daft Punk remixed by an Atari, or house music without the melody. I’ve heard claims that they will sometimes jump out of the car at red lights to dance in the free space between halted traffic, diving back into the car when the lights flash to green.
Our modern day Ba’al Shem, or Nachman, the teacher that points us in the direction of beautiful, powerful, transformative joy is doubtlessly Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. A man who himself was the descendant of rabbis who taught in the chassidic tradition that was founded by the Ba’al Shem. Heir to a dynasty that he left behind because of his thirst for knowledge and his prodigious mind. Heschel studied in a German university and was drawn out from the fires of the Second World War by an invitation to be a guest lecturer at our movement’s rabbinical school. A political device that was employed to save a number of Jews from a violent fate. I learned recently that he wrote his books one paragraph at a time, finding inspiration for his words and ideas at any time of the day or night, and jotting down his thoughts on index cards that were later typed up into full works by his students and secretaries. All of Heschel’s theology can be summed up into one word: wonder. For Heschel, our world is full of joy, if only we could maintain the wonder we would need to recognize it all. Our most profound moments are those filled with that wonder.
So I invite us to take a moment.
- Favorite outdoor space
- What are the scents and sounds
- Favorite part?
- What memories are in that space?
- Who gave it meaning?
- Yourself at an important time?
- Loved ones who are now lost?
- What are the colors? Greens, Purples?
- How often do we take the time to appreciate even a color?
- How beautiful is this place!
This is a moment of wonder. All of the working days of the week, all of the chemistry in history, and everything we have ever done. Bringing us to this moment. A time to reflect and say with wonder how much beauty we find in our lives. I invite you to open your eyes.
Tonight we celebrate the freedom that comes at the end of our holiday. The moment that the Israelites leave the land of Egypt, that place of conscription. And make their way to a place where they can be free. We know this freedom. We feel it in our bodies, we know it in our minds. This is the freedom that comes with every moment that we are aware of the beauty that is all around us, the beauty that allows us to know that even with something as simple, something as everyday, as a piece of bread, there lies within it the highest heights of what it means to be alive, the sweetness of joy, right there in our mouths.