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Rabbi Yael Levy

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Taking the Lamb: A Pre-Passover Ritual Re-imagined

Posted: 04/ 2/2012 10:29 am

The first ritual the Israelites ever enacted, the rite of passage that prepared them to leave bondage in Egypt, is one that can be re-imagined every year to guide us in discovering who we are and who we might become.

In Exodus, 12:3: God says to Moses, "Speak to the whole Israelite community and say to them on the 10th day of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household."

Under the light of a waxing moon the Israelites chose a lamb -- a young lamb they prized and loved. And they spent four full days guarding this lamb. Never was the lamb left alone. Every moment, someone in the household cared for the lamb, watched the lamb, stayed by its side.

On the 14th of the month, the whole community gathered at the center of the camp, each family with its lamb. At dusk -- that time in-between when it is neither day or night -- every household, at the same moment, slaughtered its lamb. Each family dipped a finger in the still-warm body and gathered blood to put on its doorpost.

Each family roasted the lamb over an open fire, eating it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. The Israelites ate with haste, readying themselves to leave everything they had known. And in the morning, before the sun had risen, they began their journey out of Mitzrayim, out of the land of constriction and oppression, and into the wilderness: who they were, and who they would become, a complete unknown.

This ritual of taking the lamb has not disappeared. The taking of the lamb is a hukat olam, an eternal practice meant to guide us in the experience of personal and spiritual liberation. Tradition teaches that at the Passover seder, when we take the very first bite of matzah, we are enacting this ritual of communal sacrifice and offering. We return to this ancient practice each year to remember the continual journey toward freedom and to open our hearts to the expanse of possibility.

For many years now, I have taken on the ritual of taking and guarding the lamb, and have shared this teaching with my students and congregants. Four days before the first seder (this year, it is Monday night, April 2) while I am in the midst of the physical preparations for Passover, I begin to imagine the lamb. I see its face, smell its wool; I can hear the sounds it makes as it moves, as it stands in the field. I keep this lamb with me returning my attention to it as I go about my day. I guard the lamb, keeping it safe and close.

The first year I took on this ritual, I noticed how attached I got to the lamb. It was my companion, my friend. I enjoyed its company. I liked bringing my attention to it during my workday and in the evening. I noticed how much I began to care about this lamb. At the seder that year, I felt the strong sensation of holding the lamb close as I drank the wine, dipped the parsley in salt water and sang the familiar songs.

Then the moment of taking the first bite of matzah arrived and I hesitated. I was not ready to let go. But the seder was moving and it was time. I took a piece of matzah and ate it slowly, releasing my connection to the lamb, feeling its life force ebb. By doing so, I allowed myself to be called into a new and unknown place.

I was surprised by the waves of sadness that washed over me. Late that night, I marveled at the attachment that had grown between me and this imagined being that I had cultivated and cared for. The deep loss I felt made me wonder about the continuous cycle of holding on and letting go. I wondered about the stories and rituals that guide us in discovering who we are and who we might become.

Not so surprisingly, I was still mourning the lamb the next day as I made my way to Passover morning services. We gathered at the home of a friend, sang songs and gave thanks as we readied ourselves for the Shema. Then, out of a deep silence we called out the prayer together. In that moment the lamb returned. Its presence rose up inside of me, full and strong. It said, "Do not be scared to let go. Letting go is a way to move toward freedom. Everything that is true will return."

"Have faith," it said, "I am always present." And then it was gone. In its wake it left pure, unconditional love.

This year you might consider taking on the ritual of guarding the lamb. Let your imagination roam freely. Choose a lamb from among your herd, hold it close, feel its life. For the four days preceding the seder, make it a mindfulness practice to keep returning your attention to the lamb as you go about your work and your preparations for Passover.

Then, at the seder, as you are about to take the first bite of matzah, take a moment and again hold the lamb close. As you bite into the unleavened bread, release your connection to the lamb -- feel its life force leaving and notice the gifts it bestows.

Engaging the imagination, breaking through the constraints of the rational mind, is another avenue to discovery and freedom. The Passover story provides many opportunities to leave the narrow places we have created in our minds, spirits and lives. This Passover, may we touch a sense of liberation and release, and by doing so may we help bring forth healing and peace.