On this sparkling day in Nissan, it is easy to imagine the joy that people must have felt at this time of year in ancient Israel as they made their way on camels and donkeys and foot toward the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate the pilgrimage festival of Pesach.
While I don’t miss the animal sacrifices, I am sorry we don’t have a similar communal gathering place today to provide the kind of comfort that was available in ancient times. Because there was a wisdom built in to the temple’s sacred choreography that would address the kind of comfort many of us need today.
In Ancient times, it was no secret that a decline in financial status was like a death. In fact in the Temple the path designated for mourners invited people who were facing challenges in the material world to join others confronting various losses as they entered the Temple. We can project the contemporary situation onto the Talmud’s description of The Mourner’s Path,
Who are they who circle to the left? A mourner, an excommunicant, one who has someone s ick at home, and one concerned about a lost object” (Minor Tractate of Talmud: Semahot).
In today’s terms that means that those who walked the path included not only the bereaved, but also those suffering economic reverses, personal illness, relocation, and the illness of someone close. When I think of how many people fit into those categories, I have to wonder who would be left to welcome this collection of mourners as they walked The Mourner’s Path and came face to face with all the other members of the community, who greeted them with the blessing, “May the One who dwells in this place comfort you. May you find God–HaMakom–the Holy place of comfort.”
Those walking in the opposite direction, former mourners who had made it through, affirmed by their presence the possibility of healing. Looking into their experienced eyes, the mourners found comfort in the knowledge that one does not walk the mourner’s path forever. Those who had once walked the path, looked into the suffering faces and were awe stuck by the miracle of their own healing.
Those who had never walked the Mourner’s Path looked into the face of grief and learned that death and loss are part of life. Knowing that someday they too would walk this path, they could prepare themselves for that eventuality. They realized also that, when that day came, they would not be alone; they would walk in the company of others and receive the blessing of the previously initiated.
I remember an old Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy was complaining. “I don’t like it that things are always going up and down and up and down,” she whined. “I just want them to go up and up and up.” I think that we can all identify with Lucy in wanting to cling to the promises of the good times and deny the inevitability of the other part of the cycle. Certainly our economy, in the years before the crash, tried to fulfill Lucy’s wish by promoting the pretense of endless expansion.
Pesach promises us that there will be liberation from our suffering. But it also asks us to do some soul-searching before the promise is fulfilled. The first thing that we do is to search out the chumutz. This substance, which inflates yeast, causing bread to rise, can be a metaphor for our artificially pumped up economy. Traditionally, we prepare for Pesach by searching the dark corners of our homes with a candle and a feather seeking the tiniest residue of chumutz that may be hidden and must be removed.
Many in our community have been forced to examine their lives and rid them of every bit of excess that their lifestyles have permitted. Others have had to cut even deeper, letting go not just of the chumutz in their budget, but cutting into the water and flour of their unleavened lives as well.
In preparation for Pesach, The Board of Rabbis of Southern California held a “Hunger Summit.” The theme of the program was “Let all who are not hungry come and act,” a play on the Hagada’s first line, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” We learned the stunning statistics regarding hunger in America, extending to our own community. We spoke of actions we might take, ranging from mounting political pressure to supporting food banks. We formed a committee to provide resources for members of our community to turn their lawns into vegetable gardens, which will provide healthy produce to pantries that feed the hungry. The projects by-products will reach beyond the obvious acts of tzeduka and have an impact on our families, health, and the environment.
This Passover, as we scrutinize our lives with a candle and a feather, may those of us who still have excess in our lives and do not currently walk The Mourners’ Path, find ways that we can meet those who suffer face-to-face and provide them with the blessing they need. And let us remember the teaching that “for the hungry, God is a piece of bread.” And for those who suffer, know, that you are worthy of blessing.
Hag samayach v’tzadik.