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A Passover Blessings Workshop

 

Before the shutdown of all life as we know, I ran another blessings writing workshop at my synagogue, and the rabbi asked me to focus on blessings for the Passover season this time. In the first blessings workshop, I had focused on the basic purpose of blessings, and the possibility that we can create our own blessings to fit our unique perspectives, or tweak existing blessings to adapt them to what we really feel, and what we aspire to. And the workshop went really well. At least, I enjoyed it.

Even though most Passover Seders will be tiny, or run on Zoom, this year, I hope some of these ideas will be helpful, for anyone, Jew or Non-Jew, who needs a little help finding blessings at this point in our lives.

The rabbi had mentioned the possibility of this second workshop while I was running the first one, so while everyone else was free-writing ideas for how to refer to their idea of God, and how to include the bad with the good to create a fuller picture of the blessings in their lives, I was trying to figure out what a Passover blessing might be.

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“We were wondering the same thing.”

Passover is a big holiday for Jews. It commemorates the central event that shaped us as a people, the Exodus from Egypt. The simple goal of the Passover Seder is to remind us that we were slaves once, and that we were freed from slavery (by God, if you believe in God), so, we should be grateful for what we have, and help others to freedom whenever we can. But most people only go to one Seder, instead of the two required of Jews who don’t live in Israel, and they go back to school or work for the rest of the week of Passover, so there’s really not much time to get these messages across and really absorb them. Add to that the fact that Passover, like American Thanksgiving, is a family holiday, where family members who agree on nothing choose to sit at the same table for hours at a time. It’s an opportunity to learn and grow, but a tense one.

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“Do I look tense to you?”

I wanted to create an opportunity for people to plan their Passover season ahead of time, and shape it consciously to fit the lessons they would like to learn, and to teach, this year. There are, of course, all kinds of traditional blessings that already exist for Passover. The first one I wanted to work with is the blessing over the search for Chametz (unleavened bread). You say this after you’ve already cleaned the house from top to bottom, and changed the dishes and utensils, and thrown out, or sold, all of the Chametz left in your house. In elementary school they gave us kits for the special night-before-Passover-Chametz-searching-ritual; with a feather, a candle, and a wooden spoon. After all of the bread had been removed from the house, we had to turn off the lights and place a few saved-for-this-purpose crumbs on the floor to “find” and then burn, while saying the blessing. Our dog found this terrifying every year.

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“Nobody likes the dark. It’s not just me.”

I don’t do this ritual anymore, and I’m inconsistent about removing the Chametz from the apartment, or my diet, at all, for Passover week. But I still wanted something meaningful to come from this Chametz idea, so the first category was: Blessings over the search for Chametz, both literally and figuratively. Maybe, when I am vacuuming under the couch during the big house cleaning, or trying to crawl under the bed to see if my dogs have left a Chametz-laden treat hidden in the dark, I could say a blessing of gratitude for their ingenuity. Or when I find things I’ve lost I can say, I am grateful that among the Chametz I have been able to find lost treasures.

And, if I decided not to do the whole cleaning ritual, maybe instead I could focus on cleaning out my heart and mind, and I could say, Thank you for creating such a fascinating brain, with so many crevices and crawl spaces, so that I will always be surprised by something I find there.

We had a small group for the Passover blessings workshop, but everyone participated and had their own associations to the concept of Chametz and the need to clean something in their life. It was interesting to go back to teaching adults, after the chaos and immediacy of teaching children. The adults who showed up were excited and engaged and willing to share their thoughts, and I didn’t even have to bribe them with candy!

My next category of blessings was inspired by the idea that, just like the search-for-Chametz ritual, with feather, candle and wooden spoon, was made up by someone, our own families have come up with rituals over the years that are just as meaningful, to us. I was kind of hoping that the workshop participants would use this prompt to give me ideas for things to try this year, and someone mentioned that he planned to look through his old family photos, and bring them to the family Seder, so that past celebrations and lost loved ones could be present again, and introduced to the next generation. I thought that was a great idea to steal, because we still have a box filled with old photo albums from my grandmother, via my aunt’s basement, that need to be scanned into an archive before the last relatives who could identify those faces are gone.

My third category was Blessings over asking and hearing challenging questions, even if they are unanswerable. People usually resent unanswerable questions, or fail to ask them because they don’t want to bother anyone. But what if we could take a moment to bless those questions for their un-answerability, and for the challenge they pose to our equilibrium. Maybe we could even offer a blessing of forgiveness for not having all of the answers. This was, predictably, a rich vein for me, and I filled up a page with my messy handwriting. Thank you, God, for listening to my questions and requiring no answers; thank you God for this opportunity to face the unknowable without feeling hopeless.

Category four was the hardest one for me, and therefore essential to include: Blessings over accepting the things that are good enough for now. There is so much in life that is disappointing, and even more so on family holidays like Passover when we’re expected to feel joy and love and maybe we don’t, or, I don’t. But this is an opportunity to take a breath and say, I don’t yet have what I want, and it hurts, but maybe soon things will change, and until then I will be okay. This topic actually made me think about the little things that I wanted to celebrate, like a blessing over eating the first chocolate-covered jell rings of the season, and a blessing over choosing to pass by the cans of macaroons in the Passover section of the supermarket without buying any. I really hate those coconut macaroons. But these blessings also made me think that maybe I’m not the only one who feels imperfect and not quite there yet, so I wrote, Thank you for this opportunity to face our brokenness together.

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Then there was the big category of blessings to address, the center of the whole endeavor, Blessings over telling our own versions of the exodus story. The telling of the Exodus-from-Egypt story, especially as written in the Hagaddah, can feel rigid and calcified and hard to relate to. But the reality is that we all have Exodus stories, we’ve all felt oppressed in one way or another. This category of blessings could be a way to recognize that each of us has a story, or a thousand stories, that are as important as the Exodus from Egypt, and they don’t always have to be heroic, or even successful.

May we hear all versions of the story, Rashamon style, so that we can experience the escape to freedom from every perspective. Let us hear from Pharaoh, and the slaves, and the courtiers and magicians, from those who were left behind and those who aided in the escape, from those who were afraid and those who were determined despite their fear and everyone in between. Let us hear from the ones who stepped into the Sea of Reeds before the water parted, and those who stepped in after the miracle had already occurred.

My final category of blessings for the workshop was, Blessings over our successes from the past year, and our hopes for the future. Passover marks the original new year of the Jewish people, and conveniently arrives halfway between one Rosh Hashanah and the next Rosh Hashanah. So why not take this moment to assess our progress on our resolutions, and encourage more change for the future? We don’t always remember to acknowledge our successes. We’re used to marking lifecycle events, like marriages and childbirths and deaths, but not necessarily the courage it takes to look for a new job, or to change an unhealthy habit, or to go to the doctor when you really don’t want to.

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“No one wants to go to the doctor. Ever.”

I thought of this category, and put it last, because I really needed the encouragement to be proud of myself for all of my small steps, even when they don’t fit into the obvious categories that everyone knows how to celebrate. So, thank you, community, for allowing me to share my thoughts and teach some of the things I know, because the sharing of it makes me feel more fully myself; And, may we all have these big and small successes to celebrate, all through the year; and, Thank you to all of you for reading this blog post and allowing me to feel connected to so many different, and fascinating, and complex, human beings, and dogs.

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If you haven’t had a chance yet, please check out my Young Adult novel, Yeshiva Girl, on Amazon. And if you feel called to write a review of the book, on Amazon, or anywhere else, I’d be honored.

Yeshiva Girl is about a Jewish teenager on Long Island, named Isabel, though her father calls her Jezebel. Her father has been accused of inappropriate sexual behavior with one of his students, which he denies, but Izzy implicitly believes it’s true. As a result of his problems, her father sends her to a co-ed Orthodox yeshiva for tenth grade, out of the blue, and Izzy and her mother can’t figure out how to prevent it. At Yeshiva, though, Izzy finds that religious people are much more complicated than she had expected. Some, like her father, may use religion as a place to hide, but others search for and find comfort, and community, and even enlightenment. The question is, what will Izzy find?

 

About rachelmankowitz

I am a fiction writer, a writing coach, and an obsessive chronicler of my dogs' lives.

82 responses »

  1. Great post. The past few years, when my husband and I weren’t able to travel to family, (All out of state) we’ve had friends over. Some are Jewish and some aren’t, but we all have a great time. Not sure how things will play out this year, but we probably won’t have a house full of guests as several are high risk. I’m going to miss that. We may be doing the seder via Skype this year.

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  2. Rachel what a beautiful post to help prepare for such a meaningful holiday! I especially liked the 3rd blessing, and also the idea of cleaning out our hearts and minds. It is a gift that we can chase our thoughts through our minds and never run out of things to explore! 🙂 Great post! I hope you have a wonderfully meaningful Passover!

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  3. I loved reading this and learning something new.

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  4. What a lovely post and so interesting to learn about the blessings. A practical exercise to focus on blessings is such a great idea for reflection and a useful ritual for our lives.

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  5. Thank you for the beautiful post. We will sadly be alone this Passover. My aunt is 94 and relocated recently to a more “care” establishment for her well being. My spouse will not be traveling for hours on end to get her and take her back. My daughter and grands cannot visit with my being “at risk” in many ways.
    We have adapted our meal over the years depending on who came. We have had the 6 hour glorious evening and the half hour kids version. I have made hagaddahs that fit our needs. I have made plague bags for the grandkids. I have found songs to keep the grands involved. I have many wonderful memories. I love the idea of bringing out the pictures from Passover.
    What a blessing to share your wonderful ideas. This will truly be a Passover like no other. Hopefully, G-d willing we will all be back to normal next Passover.

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  6. Excellent post. Is the African Grey Parrot yours?

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  7. This is absolutely beautiful and so appropriate right now. Thank you for sharing your life, and your journey, and especially your dogs, over the years. You are a blessing in my life.

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  8. Rachel–thank you so much for your posts every week. I count on my blogging community and worry if someone doesn’t ‘show up.’ I love that we get to visit every Saturday night. Take care. Oh, and my girls know you meant to say you like feeling connected to cats. I told them absolutely you meant cats…. 😀

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  9. Very interesting! This is the first time I am learning about the Chametz tradition. I am a little bit familiar with some of the Seder traditions – I went to Catholic school for a long time, but we learned about certain Jewish traditions in the context of “this is what Jesus would have done.” I know several Christian families who even practice a slightly altered Seder meal the week before Easter. Apparently, interfaith Seders are also practiced some places. Do you think that is a good practice that ties people together, or does it seem like people are stealing something that belongs to the Jewish tradition?

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    • I love the idea of interfaith seders, as long as the customs of the Seder are respected. And it’s fun to share all of the silly things we all do to make sense of our lives, and the serious ones.

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  10. Honestly you write such powerful blog posts. We all have our Exodus stories… we do. I just realized sometimes I am not grateful enough. Thank you.

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    • I strongly believe that the value of writing our own blessings is the chance to say exactly where we are at that moment, and to honor that. Whatever you are and wherever you are right now is enough.

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  11. “And, if I decided not to do the whole cleaning ritual, maybe instead I could focus on cleaning out my heart and mind, and I could say, Thank you for creating such a fascinating brain, with so many crevices and crawl spaces, so that I will always be surprised by something I find there.” ~ I like that!

    “Thank you for this opportunity to face our brokenness together.” ~ Beautiful!

    “..the reality is that we all have Exodus stories, we’ve all felt oppressed in one way or another. This category of blessings could be a way to recognize that each of us has a story, or a thousand stories, that are as important as the Exodus from Egypt, and they don’t always have to be heroic, or even successful.” ~ I LOVE this!

    “..thank you, community, for allowing me to share my thoughts and teach some of the things I know, because the sharing of it makes me feel more fully myself; And, may we all have these big and small successes to celebrate, all through the year; and, Thank you to all of you for reading this blog post and allowing me to feel connected to so many different, and fascinating, and complex, human beings, and dogs.” ~ Awww. Tears.

    I love your posts, Rachel. ❤❤
    But why did you have to remind me about my boxes of old photographs… 😀

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  12. lovely post and some great pictures. keep safe.

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  13. Thank you! That was so interesting.

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  14. Pretty and I participated in Passover without even knowing it. Since we are self quarantined (or at least I am by Pretty) we began a series of at-home projects to do our first spring cleaning in, well, ever. We could have been looking for the Chametz while we were cleaning, but we’ll have to add that today. Thank you so much for your insightful self-revelations which belong to all of us. In cyberspace or out.

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    • I love the image of the two of you, and dogs, traipsing through the house searching for chametz. Cricket thinks I should leave the whole thing to her superior sniffing abilities. She’s probably right.

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  15. This is such a beautiful Rachel. Thank you for sharing. I am counting all my blessings and will not be taking the small ones for granted. Thank you again.xox

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  16. I love this! Gratitude is the root of joy, not the other way around, so finding the blessings, acknowledging them and thanking God is healthy for us, not just spiritually but also mentally, physically and emotionally. I love how you fleshed out what COULD be dry traditions and made them something alive and nourishing—as they were undoubtedly meant to be. Also, as a Catholic, I love this glimpse into the traditions of Judaism, from which many of our own traditions derive. Thank you for a lovely, thought-provoking article. And for the dogs. 🙂

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  17. I love the work you continue to do, Rachel. And the dog pics. Always the dog pics. So stinkin’ cute!

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  18. Thank you for reaching out and sharing these blessings with us…a good time to reflect on our lives for sure.

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  19. Very interesting! Don’t know much about Chametz but I recall as kids searching the house for Grand Dad’s bottle of Mogen David. We all knew he had one stashed away but he was sly and we never cracked the case, or bottle. Hope you, Mom, doggos and the bird all stay safe!

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  20. Shalom with Peace and Love to you Rachel.

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  21. I trust you to share my story and my dogs, as you trust me to share yours. May the Passover season fill you with both peace and a sense of accomplishment.

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  22. Rachel, you are a blessing in and to my life. Thank you.

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  23. Always fascinating to read about your culture. Being religious is so complicated!
    Best wishes, Pete.

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  24. Once again I waited until I had read this deeply before responding. I read it when it came out, again yesterday and then today. I especially appreciated contemplating the Exodus story from the points of view of all parties. Of course, as you know, I am partial to the Jews, not the Egyptians. I hope that you have the opportunity to use this material with some adults. And hope about a Zoom seder. You could “leave the meeting” if the discussion got too heated!

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  25. You have given me so much to contemplate. Thank you!

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  26. Rachel, thanks for sharing this. What I focused on was the third category of asking challenging and unanswerable questions. People do not like unanswered questions and will accept an easy made up one and move on. I call them “bumper sticker solutions.” Yet, most of our problems are complex having a multitude of causes and requiring a multi-faceted solution.

    And, sometimes the answer is “I don’t know.”

    Thanks, Keith

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  27. Thanks. Lots to meditate on.

    Stay well

    Regards Thom

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  28. Thank you for sharing each time the thoughts and preparations that go into your spiritual journey through the year.

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  29. Counting blessings! Just the nicest thing to do right now. Thank you.

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  30. Thank you for sharing! Now I understand better this tradition.

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  31. Happy Passover Rachel.. my human mama celebrates it too she did the Matzoh shallot…

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  32. Happy Passover! Next year I am praying that my family will be together for Passover once again!

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  33. Really, quite special, Rachel.

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  34. I love the idea of “Blessings over accepting the things that are good enough for now.” Life is never perfect, and accepting what we have now is equivalent to starting each day with a grateful heart and seeing what we DO have.

    Reply

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