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Blessing without boundaries: Reclaiming a Passover ritual

This Passover at the Wall, a white-clad sea of men and, yes, women in prayer shawls will all seek God’s favor

We Jewish women have reclaimed Rosh Hodesh, the first day of each month, as a time for communal prayer and celebration. For 27 years, Jewish women have been gathering in the so-called women’s section of the Kotel to welcome each new month with prayer and song. The successes and challenges of our gatherings have been well documented in these pages.

Yet the advent of Nisan is always unique, for in 15 days, each of us will ready our homes for Passover. Passover is, of course, a holiday for every Jew. Historically, and across the Jewish world, women play a primary role in Passover preparations, going through cupboards to discard unwanted hametz, scouring sinks and ovens and counter-tops, immersing dishes, utensils, and cooking pots, and emptying pockets, backpacks, and purses of family members. And then we purchase the foods and food-stuffs “for Passover use”: matzot, matzah meal, potato starch, wines and juices, and so much more, laying in supplies that will enable us to prepare one or two or more sedarim, and to feed our beloveds throughout the holiday.

Of course, our preparation for Pesach goes beyond our kitchens. Every Jew is encouraged to study the rich texts that explore the essential questions of this holiday: Why do we gather together? What are we remembering? What is freedom? What is slavery? What is justice? How can we respond to injustice in our world, in our countries, in our lives?

The rich seder ritual poses and responds to these questions. This year, women across the world will gather in Nisan to claim another ritual of freedom: the Priestly Blessing. In three simple sentences from Numbers 6:23 that lift the hearts of generations of the faithful, the Holy One gives Moses the words for Aaron to bless the people of Israel. While this blessing is incorporated into daily and Shabbat prayer services, the drama and majesty of its repetition on holidays is unforgettable.

Over the centuries, different communities have developed a range of customs to determine who offers this blessing and how. On holidays, those who offer the blessing prepare by removing their shoes and washing their hands. They return to the congregation and cover their faces with their tallitot, both to support their own concentration and to declare their intention to serve as klei kodesh, vessels for God’s words. Those who gather to receive the blessing may lift their tallitot skyward, raising hands and arms to welcome Divine protection, kindness, and a vision of peace.

There must be many traditions of women blessing one another: mothers blessing daughters, teachers blessing students, loving women friends and family members blessing girls as they become women, as they leave home, as they prepare to enter into marriage. Since ancient times, women have invoked God’s help in preparing for childbirth, and joined in songs of thanks and welcome when new souls enter the community and the world. This Pesach, women across the globe, and at the Kotel, will reclaim the traditions of women blessing women, and repeat the Priestly Blessing as part of our morning prayers during Pesach.

On Sunday morning, April 24, men and women, separated as is the custom of the place, will gather at the Kotel for communal celebrations of Shacharit, the morning prayers. Following tradition, those who lead the prayers will invite particular members of the kahal to initiate the Priestly Blessing. For the first time, the Kotel will become a white, undulating sea, as thousands of Jews, men AND women, wrap themselves in tallitot to receive God’s blessing. For the first time in memory, the entire Western Wall will be awash in waves of blessing, with ancient words that include every individual who seeks God’s favor. This year in Jerusalem: blessing without boundaries, true freedom.

About the Author
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, PhD. Scholar-in-Residence at Washington Hebrew Congregation, spent three decades serving the Reform movement, working with leaders to create and maintain healthy spiritual communities. She is the Editor of Lesbian Rabbis: The First Generation, The Open Door Haggadah, and the award-winning Chapters of the Heart: Jewish Women Sharing the Torah of Our Lives.
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