Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Making Meaning

Our Framework- Four Glasses of Wine

by Susan Weinberg

As Passover approaches we began our exploration of brokenness by considering Jewish rituals that might incorporate breakage. We had previously discussed the breaking of the glass at a Jewish wedding. While more contemporary meanings have been ascribed to this it is actually based on commemorating the destruction of the temple. As I write that, I realize that it is the first time I’ve thought of the fact that the word commemorating implies community, we Co-memorate, we remember as a community. Hold that thought, we will come back to it. 


Other examples that were suggested including the tearing of a ribbon as a proxy for clothing destruction at a funeral, breaking of routine with a shiva, fasting and then breaking the fast, and the act of circumcision. We talked of tearing apart challah (breaking bread), breaking down a sukkah and the breaking of a marriage through a get. We also talked of the memory of brokenness that is commemorated at Yom HaShoah and the relationship that yahrzeit holds to memory of brokenness. It is in the act of remembering that we create wholeness. Memory is inextricably tied to both brokenness and wholeness, it is the connective tissue.


Dead Sea Scroll Fragments
Breakage creates fragments. Recently there was a discovery of Dead Sea scroll fragments dating back 1900 years. We try to reassemble the pieces of our history. Memory too comes in fragments, each connecting to another, but gaps separate them as well. Memory softens the rough edges of some of those we remember and it allows us to reassemble history with perhaps deeper meaning.

Breaking is also associated with laws as we are commanded to cut off the edges of fields for the poor to glean. Sometimes we require a level of wholeness to proceed such as with a minyan. On a larger scale we talked of the diaspora which broke the Jewish people across nations and how we are reunited through common rituals, if not geography. 


The Exodus itself represented breakage with the parting of the Red Sea. That in turn led us to salt which breaks things down and simultaneously preserves them, turning cucumbers into pickles. And so, we passed through the Red Sea and arrived at Passover and the breaking of the afikomen.


Remember that co-memorating? Passover is a perfect example of how we remember as a community. The Haggadah is based on oral tradition and it invites elaboration, midrash. We are given a framework, four glasses of wine, and we are invited to step into the story with our Pesach gathering, to fill in the framework. That is the work of midrash.


Meryll introduced the role of past, present and future in how we consider the story on which Passover is based. The past is slavery and we commemorate it through the symbolic elements of the meal and with story. The present represents a celebration of freedom. We recline and savor a bounty of food. In the future lies redemption and we do this through the act of remembering. We give charity, we gather food for those less fortunate and we are reminded that we were slaves and are now charged with taking care of those in need.


We turned our attention to the breaking of the afikomen and what it signified to us. Particularly in these unusual times, does it convey a new meaning? It is a pause in the seder, preceded by yachatz, washing of hands. Then we break the matzah in parts, some say half, others note that one portion is smaller. The smaller piece remains and the larger portion is hidden. Later the children go in search of the hidden portion and their reward for its discovery.


We discussed the increased attention on hand washing during this time of covid and the association of each section of the matzah with knowledge. The small perhaps representing what we know or think we know, often the uncertainty of our knowledge, especially in this time of covid. The larger piece represents more complete knowledge in the future, what we are to discover. Children are important to the seder, whether it is in asking the four questions or  in the discovery of the afikomen. We all have played different roles throughout the seders of our lifetime, once children ourselves. What is broken off is not lost, so long as our children remember. The search, memory and ultimate fullness are all connected.


Connectivity seemed to be a theme that many of us discussed. As we face a global pandemic, we appreciate our interrelation to the wholeness of humanity and the need to join together for the benefit of all. Ironically there is a paradox in that we often divide to define who we are, and who we are not. Some group discussions moved from family trees to how trees are connected and communicate through their roots, supporting each other by sending nutrients to those in distress. Trees have a symbiotic relationship with people, exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide, so are an apt metaphor for connectivity.


We left Egypt in haste. We left our home and broke the bonds of slavery, just as we now break matzah, goodbye home, goodbye slavery. In the seder we reintegrate community, we come home as a people. The eating of matzah brings us back physically. The finding of the afikomen by that next generation allows us to continue to transform our home, to keep it alive for the future.