Monday, April 10, 2017


She was a young white woman, who had recently adopted a newborn baby, a black boy. Concerned about the ongoing police shootings, she wondered how she - a white Jewish woman - would tell her son about race, prejudice, and staying safe. She told her rabbi that she asked a black male colleague, a vice-president of her company, for advice. He told her to teach her son to smile, because people are scared of angry black men. But he warned that her son can’t smile too widely because black men, who look too happy, may look suspicious. With tears, she asked her rabbi, “How do I teach my child to have a half smile?” 1 

I shared this story several years ago, in the context of the ongoing conversations about racial injustice in our society. The image has stayed with me, the question of how you learn to have half a smile. And tonight, on Shabbat HaGadol, mere days before the Passover seder begins in gnut, in degradation and ends in shevach, in praise—I wonder if it is something all of us learn, in different ways, throughout our journeys. 

Rabbi Zoe Klein wrote a beautiful poem, meant as a kavannah, an intention for the Mi Chamocha, the prayer of redemption. I think it can also serve as an intention for our Passover preparations, for the seder itself. She writes: 

           There are three regions in each of our souls,  
           There is Egypt, there is the Desert, and there is the Promised  
Many of us have glimpsed our Egypt,             
Or perhaps some are still there,             
Wearing the chains,             
Bearing the burdens of fear, insecurity,             
Doubt, and weakness,             
Mustering the strength to clamber up . . .  
Still fewer of us have glimpsed our Promised Land,                         
Our destiny,                         
Fulfillment of dreams,                         
Our fruitfulness, our blossoming,                         
Our purpose,             

We talk of Egypt often . . .             
Every holiday, every prayer service,             
Mentions we once were slaves,             
Recalls our hardships under Pharaoh.                         

We talk of the Promised Land often,                         
Every holiday, every prayer service,                         
Longs for Israel,                         
For the Voice to come forth from Zion,                         
We turn to the east,                         
Reminisce Jerusalem.             

But rarely do we talk of, or pray about, the Desert . . .             
Yet that is the region in which most of us are,             
Pushing forward in the wilderness,             
Dragging our footsteps across that forty year stretch             
Of pristine, barren, moonscape,                         
It is there we encounter truth,                         
It is there we encounter miracle…  

Because here’s the thing about Passover---like the Torah itself, and perhaps like our lives, it is an unfinished story. While we move from slavery to freedom, the Haggadah, like the Torah, ends in the wilderness—not the promised land. And yet, the seder concludes with Hallel—the psalms of praise and of joy, of celebration and song. This is an act of courage; it is a statement of faith and resistance. To sing the songs of Hallel in the desert is, perhaps, to have half a smile. It is to look around the wilderness, the imperfect world, our imperfect lives—and still say: Halleluyah 

This week’s parasha, Tzav, picks up where the gripping details of VaYikra left off. As we continue to meet and understand the sacrificial system, Tzav comes along with incredible specificity, detailing each type of sacrifice, its relative import, and the mechanisms by which it must be offered. Amidst the burnt offering and the meal offering, the sin offering and the peace offering, our sages call attention to one in particular. In future times, the rabbis teach, the observance of the sacrifices will be nullified, with the exception of the Thanksgiving offering which will never be nullified. All of the prayers will be nullified, with the exception of the prayer of gratitude, which will never be nullified. There will never be a time, our tradition seems to understand—be it a time of great joy or great sorrow—in which there won’t be the space to say Halleluyah. And so, on this Shabbat HaGadol, we ask: 

Can we offer praise, even as we stand—globally, communally, personally—in the wilderness, unsure of the future ahead? 

Can we offer praise, even holding the image of a father cradling his dying toddlers in his arms, murdered by the "leader" of his own country? 

Can we offer praise, holding the image of the millions of people searching not even for a promised land, but simply for one they can call home? 

Can we offer praise, even in the midst of a divorce, fertility treatment, hospitalization 

Perhaps the answer lies in the question that Amanda asked about raising her black child in a world that punishes them: Can we learn to smile with half a smile? Can we offer, in the words of Leonard Cohen, another sage of blessed memory, a cold and a broken Halleluyah? I think that if we are to sing Hallel at all, if we are to offer up praise and gratitude—it must always be a little bit broken, because we are. Because the world is. And God wants our truth; God wants the messiness and the brokenness, our tears as well as our joy. As Leonard Cohen also says: There's ablaze of light, in every wordIt doesn't matter which you heard--The holy or the broken Hallelujah In fact, I might emend his words to say the holy is the broken Halleluyah.

The Hallel recited during the seder is different from Hallel at any other time. It is recited without a blessing. It is recited sitting down. It is recited at night. And, it is recited in 2 parts. We recite 2 of the psalms of Hallel before the meal, before we have even crossed the sea. We sing it in fear and anxiety, but also perhaps in anticipation. And then, after the meal, after the sea, on dry land and with a path forward—we recite the other 4 psalms of Hallel. We recite them with hope. We recite them with fear. We recite them, as I recently read, to remind us to help those who struggle to follow in our footsteps—to raise them up and show them that there is a path forward, even if it is circuitous or unsure. We recite them to remind us of who we are and where we have come from, what we have survived—to remind us of our strengths and God’s. And we recite them to remind us of our highest ideals, of what the Promised Land might look like, of what it feels like to smile with a whole smile, with our whole selves.  

But for now, for tonight, for this Passover—let’s be brave. 
In Sephardic tradition, we are meant to ask: Where are we coming from? Where are we going? And what are we bringing with us? Can we do that?  

Let’s sit around our Seder tables and talk about the wilderness, about what it means to be unsure and unsettled.  

Let’s open the door for Elijah, praying that other doors be open to us, and to those in desperate need of an open door. 

Let’s imagine the Promised Land, even as we are not sure what it looks like, or where it is, or how exactly we are going to get there. 

And then, let’s open up our lips—that our mouths might sing God’s praise. With everything in our hearts—the holy and the broken, the fear and the joy, the hope and the failure. And nothing on our tongues but: 


And a smile.

1 Story shared with permission of Rabbi Asher Knight.