Longing for Liberation
Rabbi Naomi Steinberg
One of the most deeply religious feelings we can experience is longing – longing for closeness with God, longing to be on good terms with the Cosmos, longing to love and be loved. The longing for union with the Divine Beloved is exquisitely expressed in the songs of the poet-saints of the Bhakti tradition in Hinduism and the Sufi tradition in Islam.
In our Jewish tradition, the longing for spiritual intimacy comes out in the poetry of Kabbalat Shabbat, the Friday evening service that welcomes the coming of the Sabbath. In the glow of Shabbat candles we sing romantic verses from the Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs: “My beloved is mine, and I am my beloved’s!” In verses attributed to 16th century poet-Rabbi Eliezar Azikri we sing, “Yedid Nefesh, Beloved of the Soul, my spirit is lovesick with longing for you! I am yearning, yearning to see the beauty of your power!”
On Passover we have another experience of spiritual longing; we long not only to be loved but to be free, to break through the bonds that hold us back, to be liberated, and to share our experience of liberation with others. Coming at the full moon in springtime, Pesach is redolent with the fragrance of fruit trees, flowers, and romantic images with which we celebrate both earthly and more-than-earthly love. The Song of Songs is read in its entirety on a Shabbat falling in the festival and many contemporary editors have included selections of Shir HaShirim in beautifully illustrated Haggadot.
In their great wisdom, the rabbis of the Talmud married this springtime holiday with our sacred story of liberation – the Exodus from Egypt. In the Haggadah we read, “In every generation, each of us should feel as though we ourselves had gone forth from Egypt, as it is written: ‘And you shall explain to your child on that day, it is because of what the Eternal did for me when I, myself, went forth from Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8)
For the ancient authors, the Exodus story was history and they instructed us to take history personally. We have learned this lesson well; Jewish communities are deeply involved in the study of 3,000 years of Jewish history. (For a discussion of the historicity of the Exodus, see archaeologist William Dever’s Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? – https://books.google.com/books?id=A_ByXkpofAgC)
We are fortunate to live in a time when we can acknowledge and celebrate the fact that we all have multiple identities; how we think about ourselves determines how we embody our tradition.
As Jewish Americans, we can to pause at Passover to reflect on some of the great moments in two and a half centuries of effort to liberate the oppressed: the Declaration of Independence in 1776; the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which liberated more than three million people; the Civil Rights Act of 1964; the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which extended our concern for freedom to the more-than-human world; the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990; the Affordable Care Act of 2010. Let us hope that the list will go on to legislation that will eradicate the enslavement of poverty!
As Jewish citizens of Planet Earth, we can reflect on the breathtaking events of our own geological time scale spanning four and a half billion years. (For an overview, see the iconic “clock” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geologic_time_scale.) A fifth question for the Seder might be: why among all the planets did ours develop “the elegant balance necessary for life and mind to emerge”? (Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story) Let us contemplate the astounding complexity of processes required to bring a sprig of parsley and a piece of matzah to our plates and to our awareness!
As Jewish souls in the Universe, we can gaze all the way back some fifteen billion years to the Big Bang that Swimme and Berry poetically name the “Primordial Flaring Forth.” How can we begin to fathom the astounding energy of cosmogenesis that brought about everything there is, including our own longings? How do we express our personal gratitude for this great existence that makes our own existence possible? Perhaps it’s time to compose a Song of the Universe to sing at our Seders!
Families and communities each have their own cherished Passover customs and recipes. Part of the magic of ritual is that the more personal we make it, the more universal it becomes – and the more we focus on the universal, the more personally meaningful it becomes. In the words of the great modern mystic Rav Abraham Isaac Kook:
“We must liberate ourselves from confinement within our private concerns…This reduces us to the worst kind of smallness, and brings upon us endless physical and spiritual distress. It is necessary for us to raise our thought and will and our basic preoccupations toward universality, to the inclusion of all, to the whole world, to humankind, to the Jewish people, to all existence…The firmer our vision of universality, the greater joy we will experience and the more we will merit divine illumination.”
Orot HaKodesh- 3:147, translated by Rabbi Itzchak Marmorstein
For a beautiful Rav Kook teaching on Pesach, see Rabbi Marmorstein’s blog:
May the loving intimacy of our Seder tables extend to all the family of life!
13 Nisan 5775
April 21, 2016