March 29, 2021
Author(s): Rabbi Michelle Robinson,
March 29, 2021 — 16 Nisan 5781
with Rabbi Michelle Robinson
Temple Emanuel, Newton, MA
How are you? We’re conditioned to answer, “Good,” “Fine,” “Okay,” or, perhaps if you are like me, “Thank God.” When we are in person and someone asks you this question, the response comes automatically – a habit, a construct of polite conversation. But from the comfort of your own home or wherever you are, behind the privacy of a screen, let me ask you again. And let me invite you to pause before you answer. How are you?
For some of us, the answer is, “Never better.” We had great Seders. We finally hugged a grandchild, saw a sister or son in person for the first time in over a year, connected with the community online through song and spirit at the Congregational second night Seder.
Others might say, “A bit tired, but I come with a full heart. This year’s Pesach is not perfect, but it’s what we’ve got and it’s ok.”
Still others might reply, “Frankly, if I’m being honest, not so great. This holiday is hard. This year has been hard. I feel a bit like the Israelites, who even as they are celebrating are holding heartache, the Israelites who have crossed the sea but are still far from freedom.”
For some of us, it is all of that at once. What do we do with the unresolved fears and frustrations of a pandemic year? This holiday gives us a powerful answer – a timely answer, that we may just need right now.
I want to talk about a part of the Seder that we don’t talk about. In fact, in many modern homes we do not even do it. It is in the solid-skip territory, not only for its location late in the Seder, but for its distasteful sentiment.
The whole rest of the Seder is about gratitude, praise, joy, and generosity. We invite “all who are hungry” to “come and eat,” applying the story of our people’s suffering as a curriculum for empathy. We explore the roots of our resilience with the tale of “b’chol dor vador omdim aleinu” and the animosity our ancestors experienced all the way from Jacob’s time through the Exodus until now.
We see the humanity even in those who could not see ours. And we school ourselves to never lose sight of another’s humanity – even that of the Egyptians, who subjected us to hundreds of years of incredible cruelty as slaves. As the rabbinic commentators say, we “lessen our joy” by pouring out one drop of wine as we recite each plague to remember their suffering too. We sing prayers of Hallel and thanksgiving, focused not on the pain we endured but the redemption we received.
And then there’s this out-of-place moment. Right between the wonder of Elijah’s cup and the celebration of Hallel, we linger at our open door and say, “Shfoch chamatcha al hagoyim…” “Pour out your wrath against the nations…may your blazing anger overtake them. Pursue them in wrath and destroy them.”
In a Seder filled with praise and joy, this outlier moment is jarring. What is it doing here? One of my professors in rabbinical school explained this by asking us to think of when the right moment in a Seder would be to open our doors. The right moment, he pointed out, would have been at the very start, when we say, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.”
Our original Seders started with an open door. But then came crusades and blood libels and times throughout our history when it was not safe for us to invite others in. To complete the Seder’s ritual meal, we could not risk opening the door. We could no longer do what we knew we should do.
Shfoch chamatcha is the moment that gives voice to our frustration. It is the moment we let it all out. Generational trauma, let it out. Fear, let it out. Anger, let it out.
Which brings me back to the question – how are you? The reason I ask is that for many of us, even if we have weathered the pandemic with blessing, it has brought with it, at a minimum, a modern equivalent of being forced to move where we can open our door. Last year, we could not open our door. We could not fill our tables with family and friends. Last year, Zoom.
This year, we may have been blessed to have a few more, but our door has not yet swung open wide. This year, a second round of pandemic Seders sits uncomfortably against the core mitzvah we have practiced, generation to generation, for thousands of years.
The Torah commands that each household take a lamb for the Pesach offering, which must be finished that night. The rabbis point out that that is a whole lot of fleischiks for one family. And so they read the next line, “And if there are not enough in one household to finish, you must share.” It’s the Pesach mitzvah – invite others to share your Seder.
So, if you are anything like our ancestors, how do you feel when you cannot share?
I will answer that question with another question. Have you ever heard of a smash room? “Smash It 2” in Worcester was recently profiled on the Here & Now podcast. What is a smash room? It’s “a place where you go to break things. Where you are supposed to bash and crush and pummel.” The podcast follows Danielle Blanchard, who brought with her some household items that did for her the opposite of Marie Kondo’s “sparking joy.” She chooses among several weapons of destruction laid out on the wall and takes a baseball bat to swing with all her might.
Why is she there? Danielle says, “The pandemic – it’s been…a whole year. I’m…done. I have two little kids…and I’ve got to be the good mom that doesn’t flip out. So I can at least flip out [here]…then hopefully I can go home and be the good mom who reads the bedtime stories and makes dinner and doesn’t get upset…”
Lisa Mullins narrates the reflections of the owner, Darcy Cook: “We have healthcare workers come in here all the time who just need a ‘life time out.’” Mullins continues, “There are parents with teenagers, sick of remote learning. Couples even come for date nights.”
Danielle Blanchard reflects, “The pandemic is like, ‘You can’t, you can’t….’ [T]he smashing was like, ‘Yeah, you can! Do it! Do it again!’”
Now most of us are not going to smash rooms, but the gift of the smash room is that it is a place where it is okay not to be okay. That is the gift of Pesach too. We are trained to see our world as a one-way trajectory, m’gnut l’shevach – from disgrace to praise; m’avdut l’cherut – from slavery to freedom, darkness to light, mourning to joy. It’s even chiseled on our shul entrance – “Serve God in Joy.” But to be a full human is to acknowledge that we cannot always occupy that place.
What Shfoch chamatcha tells us is that that is okay. More than okay. It is healthy. If you are frustrated, if you are mourning, if you are angry, you have come to the right place. Because last night’s Seder and today’s Haftarah give us a moment for own personal Jewish smash room.
Where the smash room offers baseball bats and sledgehammers, today offers us a story – a Haftarah brimming with frustration. So much so that the King “took the Asherah out of the house of the Lord to the outside of Jerusalem, the Kidron Valley, and burnt it and pulverized it into dust.” Smash.
But that is not the end of the story – not for the Haftarah and not for us. After the smashing, there comes a new spaciousness that enables a recommitment to the Passover sacrifice, a return to God, to holiness, and wholeheartedness. In other words, frustration is part of the process. Letting it out, giving voice to it, honestly and openly, leads to rebuilding toward redemption again.
Pesach comes to us with an invitation to honestly hold the question, “How are you?” It offers, for our efforts, a primal scream to set our frustrations free.
It is scary to let all that out. But it is so worth doing. As the smash room podcast concludes, Danielle Blanchard leaves, signing her name to the wall, “Happy, Healthy Danielle was here.” So too may it be for us.