Weekly Message 4-3-09

3 April 2009 
9 Nisan 5769 

Shalom Chaverim, 

As we get ready to leave for Passover break, we also say l’hitraot (goodbye) to our friends from the Ironi Hey High School in Haifa, 22 students and 2 teachers, who have spent the past week in Boston and at Gann. Our students have had many opportunities to learn and interact with their Israeli peers: the Ironi Hey students made a multimedia presentation to the entire school on Tuesday morning about captured Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit; yesterday I led a pluralism workshop for a combined group of Gann and Ironi Hey students; and, this morning they will say goodbye to us with a song at the end of our shiur clali (community-wide Torah learning session). I also had the pleasure this week of facilitating a meeting between a small group of Ironi Hey students, Gann seniors and one of our school’s most passionate and committed founding supporters. He asked the Ironi Hey students how their Gann educational experience seems different from their education in Israel and I was struck by one comment in particular. “All of your teachers are so passionate and work hard to engage every student in the class,” one girl observed. It was encouraging and affirming that even in their short visit, our Israeli friends were able to see, feel and appreciate the challenging, nurturing and inspiring culture of learning at Gann. We wish the students and teachers from Ironi Hey a safe return to Israel and we look forward to continuing and strengthening the relationship and collaboration between our two schools.  

As Pesach approaches, it is easy to be consumed by the physical preparations of shopping, cooking, cleaning, preparing for guests or preparing to travel. While I was driving my son to school yesterday he asked an innocent six-year-old question that reminded me of the spiritual dimensions of Pesach preparation, in particular bedikat chametz (the search for any products containing leavened grain that might be left in our house before Pesach) and biyur chametz (the burning, destruction, removal or nullification of this chametz). We were discussing what he was learning about Pesach in kindergarten and somehow, as conversations with six-year-olds are wont to do, the conversation turned to a seemingly unrelated topic. My son explained that the Israelites built a golden calf and that when Moses came down the mountain, he made them burn it up. We briefly discussed why they might have built this calf, when suddenly my son said, “they burned the golden calf just like we burn chametz.” At first, I wondered if he had learned a midrash (Rabbinic commentary or story) in school of which I was unaware, that linked the two. He had not, but rather made an innocent association that sometimes only a child can make, and that creates possibilities for discovering new meaning behind common texts or rituals.  

While the only parallel my son could think of between chametz and the golden calf was that perhaps some chametz is gold (his six year old mind had returned to the concrete!), I have not stopped thinking about the connections between Pesach and the story of the golden calf or the human impulse toward idolatry. On a textual level, one section of the haggadah, “mitchilah ovdei avodah zarah hayu avoteinu – in the beginning our ancestors were idol worshippers” reminds us that our story is more than the journey from physical or political slavery to redemption; it is also a story of spiritual liberation, beginning with Abraham’s rejection of his father’s idols and culminating with the Israelites’ redemption from Egypt in order to be in relationship with and service to God alone.  

On a symbolic level, chametz can represent the spiritual and emotional clutter that we are obligated to clean out for at least one week a year. We are instructed by the Mishnah to search every corner of our house by candlelight, which parallels the thorough and careful process of teshuvah, of scanning our lives and looking inside ourselves. What idols have we built this year? By what are we spiritually or emotionally enslaved? Like the burning of the golden calf, the burning of our chametz can represent a purging of those things in our lives or in ourselves that we worship inappropriately or that spiritually oppress us. 

As we prepare to tell the story of our birth as a people, so too do we have the opportunity for personal rebirth. May our preparation be both physically and spiritually fruitful, and may we work toward and discover the many layers of liberation and the possibilities for new beginnings that the Passover story so beautifully represents.  

Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Kasher v’Samaeach (Happy Passover), 

Rabbi Marc Baker 

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