Three religions are celebrating this month central holidays in their canon. Ramadan, which started last Saturday, will coincide this weekend with Passover and Easter. My Easter lily has just started blooming. Everywhere in the world worshipers of all 3 religions are engaged in preparations for their rituals. These important activities are being undermined. Not by the Coronavirus like last year which prevented people from gathering to celebrate, but by man-made violence and evil. Israel has endured 5 terrorist attacks this month, and 13 people lost their lives. Some have been killed trying to stop the shooters, and many more were wounded. We are urged by the media to donate blood for the wounded and to receive the 4th COVID vaccine. What a combination of messages!
The war in the Ukraine is still going on, with no end in sight. We see every day more and more evidence of atrocities and war crimes. The latest news I received from therapists on-site is of urgent need to provide mental-health aid to women and girls who underwent rape by Russian soldiers. Social media is full of requests to aid refugees that escaped with only the clothing on their backs, and if they were lucky, they managed to gather and carry some personal, emotionally-valuable items. Israel so far has taken in 12,000 refugees from the war zone. Amid all this the scents of blooming redbud and citrus trees are mixed with the scent of spring cleaning. Children are out of school for the Passover holiday vacation, while some people are planning to travel and others are going to work. As if all is normal, the world has not lost control, and we do not live in an insane time.
What kind of freedom do we celebrate this spring? The freedom I will celebrate is the freedom to choose. Freedom of choice is the only freedom each one of us has. We can choose to close our eyes and ears, to close our mouth, and ignore what is happening around us. Or we can choose to act – to use our expertise and abilities actively in order to create change. We can indeed change the world. When we act to help others in even small ways we reconnect to our powers and this enables us to have control over our lives; we exercise our agency. We can grow from the shards and the traumatic experiences and create a better physical and emotional space in ourselves and our world. Viktor Frankl in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning” wrote: “Life cannot be whole without suffering and death.” He continues to say that if there is a meaning to life there must be also a meaning to suffering. We have all experienced in our life the bittersweet feelings of joy mixed with sorrow. We need to find meaning and purpose in our lives, even during the worst periods we experience.
Growing from suffering is possible when we connect to our inner strength and transfer that feeling to an act of doing. We do what we can under the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Some can donate money, others can listen and be there for someone who suffers, and yet others are able to be there physically for the sufferer. As we connect to each other we are connecting to nature and are able to experience the spring in the air. Soon we will sit down to the Seder table and read the Haggadah, the story of leaving bondage and accepting the yoke of freedom – a freedom that means responsibility; responsibility to remember the past and act for the preservation of our values in order to create a future of caring for each other. We read in our Haggadah that all that are needy should join us at our table, so we need to make an effort to look for those we need to include.
This year we again have the joy and the privilege to be able to open our home and include at our table friends and strangers. Sharing and listening to the experiences of our guests mixes sadness and joy. It helps that we need to drink a minimum of 4 full cups of wine. It helps that we first hear the ancient story before we get to sample the symbolic foods on the Seder plate: the greens dipped in salt water symbolizing the tears, the bitter greens for the harsh conditions we experienced, the charoset, a sweet and tangy mix of fruit and nuts steeped in some wine to resemble the mortar of building the pyramids, but also in my opinion the mortar that binds us together. And of course, the matza, the unleavened bread which we consume during the 7 days of the holiday. It is a mixture of flour and water which needs to be baked within 18 minutes of creating the unleavened dough.
There are 3 matzot on the table, and the middle one is split at the very beginning of the ritual Seder. Rabbi Dovid Meisels explains that the splitting of the matza reminds us that, “despite the resplendent holiday meal, we must simultaneously maintain our focus on the spiritual essence of the day.” The larger part is placed in a napkin or a bag and hidden until the end of the meal. This is the afikoman (from the Greek, meaning desert), which is consumed by everyone at the end of the meal. The explanation which I found most interesting and moving for why we use 3 matzot and break the middle one is by Rabbi Helen Plotkin. She writes: “The symbolism of the three stacked matzos taps into deep Jewish imagery. The bottom matzo represents the earthly realm; the top is the heavenly realm. Below, pure physicality; above, pure spirit. The middle matzo represents the human story, straddling above and below. The role of humans is to become the bridge, bringing holiness down into the nitty-gritty stuff of life and, at the same time, elevating the mundane so that it takes on spiritual meaning. When we lift the three matzos on the Seder table, we are holding a schematic model of all reality.”
The broken middle matza is like our broken world which we have been experiencing in our daily lives recently. The suffering in Ukraine, the terror attacks in Israel in the past weeks, the loss of life, and the despair, are tasted in our first bite of the broken matza. As the evening progresses and we are able to enjoy the togetherness and the bounty, our spirits are raised and hope enters the picture. When there are children present, they hunt for the afikoman, without which we can not conclude the meal. There is a tradition that the one who finds the missing piece gets a reward. There are negotiations, and if there are no children around, an adult who finds the hidden matza can drive a hard bargain. One year it was me, and I asked for a microwave. To my surprise, my husband agreed immediately, went to the basement, and brought up a microwave generator… Sometimes a bit of humor and laughter is the perfect antidote to harsh realities, and lets us conclude with hope, joy, and a taste of freedom.
Ramadan Kareem, Happy Easter, and Passover blessings