Pre-Passover Pausing in the Kitchen Practice

Pre-Passover Pausing in the Kitchen Practice

For those who observe the practice of kashering our kitchens for Passover, this process can induce a lot of excitement, but it can also engender a small or great deal of anxiety for many. Changing over the dishes; removing every scrap or loaf of chametz/ leavened goods from the fridge, the freezer, the pantry; from the floor (tiny crumbs count!); from the oven and the stove; from the seat cushions and at the backs of cabinets and drawers, and more–these physical tasks are not easy nor simple. There are a multitude of rules regarding the physical aspect of cleaning the kitchen for Passover.

There are also the mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of these intensive preparations of turning your kitchen space upside down each spring. How do you mentally and emotionally relate to this work of cleaning, clearing, re-organizing, releasing and throwing away, buying and bringing in kosher for Passover items related to food storage and preparation, and eating?

For me, and perhaps for you, the kitchen in general is a multi-use space in which many multivalent activities take place. Whether you live alone or with a partner, friends, family members, or pets, you might spend more time in the kitchen doing things rather than being quiet and simply resting and sitting still. And those things might be charged with emotions of excitement, anxiety, pleasure, fear, shame, grief, stress, and more.

You might feel obligation: sweep the floor; empty the dishrack or dishwasher; cut the vegetables; clean the drain; put the groceries away….You might feel happiness: the smells, tastes, colors and textures of food and drink you enjoy fill that space. You might feel nothing: rushing to get the thing prepared, eating on the run, throwing the dish towel on the counter and closing the door behind you as you hold the go-mug of coffee in one hand, your work bag and keys in the other. If you experience any food-related allergies or struggle with food and body image issues, addictions, or other emotional stresses centered around food and eating, being in the kitchen may cause mild or serious discomfort.

Whatever they are, there are likely many emotions and activities that we center in the kitchen space. Think of the recent Republican response to the President’s State of the Union address that took place from the speaker’s kitchen, in which she referenced its sacred centrality in the life of her family as a central gathering place for having serious discussions. In the midst of so many ways in which the Passover holiday is filled with emotions, and its preparations too, charged in so many loud and busy ways of doing, it can be hard to slow down, relax, and bring mindful attention and meaning to all of this emotional and physical work. One small act of liberation can be to find freedom from the habituated doing in this space, and practice being, kindly and differently, right there in the presence of the fridge, freezer and stove, as you prepare for Passover.

The following practice can help you slow down and create some space between yourself and the usual business and habituated ways of being in the kitchen in which you need to get or do something. You can prepare yourself to begin your chametz clearing and cleaning from a place of mental and emotional quiet and stillness akin to a Shabbat state of mind:

Before you begin your Passover cleaning, find a comfortable place to sit in your kitchen. After several breaths to feel the floor under your feet and the seat under your bottom, bring awareness to the sense of physical sight. If you are not able to see physically, bring awareness to the senses you recruit to locate yourself in this space.

Let your eyes (or your hearing or hands through touch) begin to just receive the space you are in, just as it is. Let your eyes rest on some object in the room. Just be with this mixer or frying pan. No need to do anything to it or with it. Let the cabinet just be in the present with you as “cabinet”. Just this. Let your eyes scan slowly, taking in and finding your attention focused on, dropping into, as it were, relating to the object in a passive or simply gazing kind of way. You don’t need to do anything to or with it.

Notice physically if you feel the urge to get up and throw something away, or put something back, or if you suddenly feel the impulse to eat the apple or banana or cookie you see on the counter. Try to just notice all the impulses to move and do in this room. Let yourself be a witness to this space as a quiet, still environment where you can just rest in being, right here, right in this kitchen.

Notice your emotions as they arise and pass. Can you be with the energy that a feeling might hold? Pay attention to the thoughts that come and go. You may have a thought: I need to put aluminum foil on those stove burners–aak!–I need to go back to the store to get more foil first. And that thought might immediately be followed by an emotion such as anxiety, or fear or worry, or impatience (forget this contemplation practice, I’ve got to DO stuff now!). Allow yourself to practice staying with the sensations, feelings and thoughts as they come and go, and bring awareness back to simply looking. Simply being with this moment, in this kitchen space.

You can practice bringing kind attention to these waves of internal stimulation, and just allowing yourself to rest quietly, in relative stillness, in this kitchen, with nothing that you need to clean, produce, fix, throw away, clear out, wipe down, tape up, or otherwise change. Just bring your awareness to the colors, shadows and light, the “thingness” of the things around you and of yourself in this space.

After seven to ten minutes of awareness practice in your kitchen, notice if you sense any shift in your being. When I practice this each year before beginning Passover cleaning, I usually note some greater ease, sometimes even peacefulness, and a rush of compassion for our humanity as Jews who undertake in our various ways this aspiration-for-liberation-inspired-kitchen-makeover each spring. See what you notice.

And if, after beginning or at any point during the intensive doing that you immerse in as you prepare your kitchen for Passover, you can notice if the heart rate is increasing and your mind is wandering or if your anxiety is rising; know you can pause. Take that seat again, and simply stop the doing. Return your eyes or hands or ears to awareness of yourself in this space that is inherently ok just as it is, and so are you.

Perhaps this kind of pausing practice is a taste of liberatory consciousness that you can bring to this moment, and every moment, taking a seat in whatever “kitchen” you find yourself in. Simply be in it, just as it is; letting your breathing, and sitting, and the space itself be enough without more potchkying (technical word meaning fussing or messing with something more than necessary, trying to improve it). And perhaps, into this kind of spacious awareness, you can taste awareness of the sacredness of this moment, this activity, this season, just as you are. So may it be!

Turn, and Be Turned: A Mercy Unique and Unpredictable

Turn, and Be Turned: A Mercy Unique and Unpredictable

When my son, who has autism, was young, I took him to synagogue on Rosh HaShanah so he could hear the shofar blasts. Listening to the shofar being blown was a physical, sacred focal point on this High Holy Day, and I wanted him to feel included in this regal, ritual re-enactment of the birthday of the world. And I wanted to share these meaningful moments together. As soon as we entered, though, my son said he wanted to leave. It was too loud for him!

No sooner had we stepped outside than he saw a “guy”–my son’s honorific title for men on construction vehicles or lawn mowers–mowing the lawn of a building next door.

“Mommy look: a Guy!” my son beamed, as I faintly heard the Rabbi call “Tekiah Gedolah!” from the synagogue next door.

My son ran ahead to the Guy. He loved the rhythmic whirls of engines, no matter how loud. Unlike the shrill blasts of the shofar, engine noises soothed and engaged him. Before I knew it, this man got off his seated mower and took my son into the equipment shed. They found a tennis ball, and the two of them began playing catch on the lawn.

I had gone to synagogue that morning wanting to share with my son what I anticipated would be a meaningful experience, even a sacred one. Sometimes when I close my eyes on Rosh HaShanah and listen to the shofar, the vibrations of those blasts transport me to a timeless realm into which I meld utterly, somehow touching Eternity in the awakening of Becoming Anew.

I had hoped to share something of this sacred experience with my son, to enfold him in this immersive and soulful, ancient Jewish experience. It didn’t turn out that way exactly. An awakening of a different kind sounded its clarion call and I was being tuned to an epiphany of another sort. Different and, yet, to me, also utterly, sacred.

The sounds of the ball slicing the air, and my son’s delighted shouts were as sacred to me as the shofar blasts. The lawn we were standing on, though hiding in plain sight, was holy ground. Sometimes we are awakened in expected ways. And sometimes revelation happens off the beaten path, with a mercy unique and unpredictable.

Towards the beginning of Exodus, we find Moses busy tending sheep when he sees a thorn bush that is burning. He turns aside to look deeply at that bush and sees that it isn’t being consumed. God calls to Moses from the bush and says, “Do not come closer! Take your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground!”

The Hebrew word for shoe, na’al, in verb form means “lock”. The Hebrew word for foot, regel, contains the same letters used for the word for “habit”. So, “Take your shoes off your feet” can also be understood as “Take the locks off your habits”.

Sometimes life asks us to unlock our habituated ways so that we can know we stand on the holy ground where sacred encounter occurs. What might you need to unlock today, that you might feel the holy ground beneath your feet? What is calling you to awaken?

Looking with the Eyes of Our Hearts

Looking with the Eyes of Our Hearts

The first word of the Torah portion we read as Elul begins is “Look!”–”Re’eh!” Look, really see, that before you today, this day, is a blessing and a curse. Choose life!, we are told in this parasha (Torah portion). It is right here before you, in the life you are living now.

The core practice this month is to practice looking with the eyes of our hearts at what is before us and inside us, this life in its complexities and contradictions, its messiness and its authenticity.

Rabbi Alan Lew of blessed memory writes in This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: “Pay attention to your life. Every moment in it is profoundly mixed. Every moment contains a blessing and a curse. Everything depends on our beholding our lives with clear eyes, seeing the potential blessing in each moment as well as the potential curse, choosing the former, forswearing the latter.”

Elul calls to us with daily shofar blasts to help us wake up, to hear and behold ourselves more clearly, to engage in the practice of cheshbon hanefesh–a spiritual accounting–in order to help us better discern how to make choices that are life-affirming blessings.

It’s not necessarily obvious how you and I are to do this work of looking deeply and open-heartedly into the life we have been living, or not living, this year, in order to choose the life-giving path of blessing going forward. Alan Lew suggests three practices to help us to see ourselves more clearly and with greater perspective: prayer, meditation, and/or, focusing on one thing.

Lew writes that “the Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah. The infinitive form of this verb is l’hitpalel-to pray-a reflexive form denoting action that one performs on oneself”, and in this way, it can be a way we come to know ourselves more deeply and clearly. For me, prayer is a need that my soul has. Just as my body has the need to drink in order to hydrate, the soul within has a need to pray for spiritual hydration, for being nourished by reaching inward and outward to the Ineffable Mystery by which I am born into each new moment. The practice of praying–liturgically or otherwise–can help you return to the Self of your self, to touch the deep core of your existence, and perhaps in that way to loosen the grips that shame, bias, doubt and the like might have upon you and enable you to get down to the work of teshuva that Elul is about.

During Elul, you can set an intention to devote time each day to rest in the quiet awareness of breath and sensation. You can choose a focal point for your attention, such as breath, or sound, or a visual anchor like a candle flame or a flower. Let yourself drop into the present moment, and pay attention to all that arises and passes in your awareness. Saturating your attention in the present moment of your life, Lew writes, can help you see yourself more clearly. Meditation can help you to “see that [you] are something larger than yourself. This is an essential aspect of Rosh HaShanah–seeing [yourself] as not just a discrete ego, but as part of a great flow of being.”

Focus on one thing:
Truth be told, for some of us, prayer and meditation may not be helpful tools; the resistance to engaging them is too great. Lew writes that many of us “will never get over finding the daily prayer service tedious and opaque. Many others will always either be frightened to death or bored to tears by the prospect of meditation.” For some of us who have experienced trauma (including religious trauma), prayer and meditation may for now harm more than help. The simple practice of focusing on one thing in your life may be a more helpful way to see your life more clearly.

You can choose to practice focusing on just one thing for this month of Elul. Lew suggests that you focus on one fundamental and simple aspect of your life, and “commit yourself to being totally conscious and honest about it for the thirty days of Elul”. Since everything we do is an expression of the entire truth of our lives, paying attention to one thing–like when we go to sleep, or eating, or how we engage on our cell phones through the day–we can begin to see our patterns, aversions, desires, and the like more clearly. Focusing on one thing in our life this month can help us see ourselves more clearly and help us wake up.

Lew writes, “So we can pray, we can meditate. Or we can simply choose one thing in our life and live that one small aspect in truth, and then watch in amazement as the larger truth of our life begins to emerge. The truth is, every moment of our life carries with it the possibility of a great blessing and a great curse, a blessing if we live in truth, a curse if we do not…All that’s required of you is to see what’s in front of your face and to choose the blessing in it.”

May you choose blessing in your life as this year begins to draw to a close, and may we together know the blessing of wise discernments and loving hearts.

How Spiritual Practices Impacted my Bearing Witness Outside the Glynn County, GA Courthouse

How Spiritual Practices Impacted my Bearing Witness Outside the Glynn County, GA Courthouse

On Thursday November 18, 2021 I traveled to Brunswick, GA along with eleven other Jewish clergy to bear witness and offer support to the Black pastors, the community and family members gathering at the Glynn County courthouse during the trial for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Arbery, 25, was shot while going for a run in a suburban neighborhood. The chase and shooting were caught on video footage. Local rabbi and IJS Hevraya (alumni) member Rachael Bregman invited Jewish clergy to join her in Brunswick to bring spiritual comfort, solidarity, and to support the local community.

When I heard the call, my immediate response was YES. I don’t live there now, but I grew up in Georgia. While there are many parts of my upbringing in the South that I appreciate, I also find that when I walk on Georgia earth, I feel horror that any large tree I see might have borne “strange fruit”, a phrase referring to the 1937 song likening the many Black people lynched in the south to fruits hanging from trees. When I learned of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, I became nauseous. The same nausea I feel when the stirrings of “strange fruit” move through my body when I am on Georgia soil.

Reflecting now, I ask myself: what motivated my discernment to participate in this action? What enabled me to stand with others for the long hot hours, awaiting Reverend Sharpton’s arrival for the prayers and calls for justice? And what inspires me now, looking ahead? I noted several things.

First, years of regular spiritual practice have shaped my heart, mind, and my nervous system so that my soul and my body could move in sync throughout this journey after my initial response was to participate.

Additionally, years of contemplative daily prayer have forged in me the language for feeling myself part of something larger than my individual body and ego mind. The injustice around me is an affront to the God Who lives in me and in all of us. There is no difference between me and another human soul. This clarity strengthened my conviction to study and learn about the history and prevalence of racism in the USA, and further forged in me the clarity that I cannot stand idly by and look away from the suffering around me.

Likewise, regular mindfulness meditation practice helps me pay attention to emotions, thoughts, sensations, be they pleasant or unpleasant, and bear witness to them with less reactivity. No doubt, the years sitting in meditation helped me stand steady and more open, as strong emotions such as grief, rage, and the physical discomforts of thirst and heat were blazing all around on the courthouse lawn and steps.

Years of yoga and somatic practices enabled me to stay grounded in my body, and to center my attention on the bodies around me. When I noticed that many Black pastors and others crowding together in the hot sun, were sweating and seemed to be suffering in the heat, I registered that in my consciousness–rather than pass over that recognition as I focused on “important” matters. Because I noticed, I could enlist colleagues and together we located cartons of water bottles (that would have been discarded), and carried them to the courthouse steps where we distributed the hydration to Arbery family members, Rev. Jesse Jackson, and others. Had I not been transformed through years of body-centered spiritual practice, I would not likely have paid attention and been able to help serve those I prayed to be of support to on that day.

Lastly, twenty years of practice in spiritual direction have formed in me the desire to look for God’s presence in whatever is unfolding around and inside me. Pausing to listen for the sacred in the chants or see the sacred in the signage or in the faces of those I looked upon, and to listen to the stirrings in my own spirit as I moved through the day, I could better sustain an intention of remembrance: remember I am bearing witness to God’s presence here today, in every human being I encounter. Seeking the face of the divine, my heart remained more open and less at the mercy of my own preferences, judgments and opinions in that volatile and fractured situation.

Looking ahead, though I am wary about the implications of this and other trials, I believe even more strongly that spiritual practices can help bring clarity, insight, and strength as well as the capacity to remain soft and open, willing, more hopeful, and to bear witness from loving intention. The practices also cultivate the potential to stand our ground, and to notice where suffering might be attended to. Perhaps you, too, might take stock of how your spiritual practices equip you to meet the present moments in your life when you might feel called to respond and engage.

May we each be empowered through our practices to meet what is ours to meet, so that together we might bring blessing and love, advocacy and change, right where, when, and how it is needed most.