The right time for the “first time”

A girl soon celebrating her Bat Mitzvah learns to don the tallit and tefillin and recite the blessings. A grandmother pauses in the Tel Aviv heat to learn about the water in Miriam’s Cup. A college student engages in meaningful exchanges with other Jewish women about the orange on the Seder plate. An average Friday morning at the market, no?

In anticipation of Pesach, Women of the Wall showed up at Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market to meet local women and share with them new customs for incorporating women’s narratives into Seder rituals. Additionally, we offered women the chance to wrap tallit and lay tefillin – a first for many we met.

There are links in our tradition between Passover, the holiday of liberation (Chag HaHerut) and its springtime backdrop (Chag Ha’Aviv). At the moment the Israelites are freed, beginning a new era, nature also blooms freely, renewed and full of vitality. Inspired by liberation and blossoming, Pesach carries a feeling of renewal, inviting fresh energy, “newness,” into our lives.

I am reminded of this springtime “newness” when I reflect on my recent trip to the Carmel Market. Watching women grasp oranges, an intangible spirit of renewal uplifted our ancient traditions. Yes, they declared, I will bring something new to this Seder. I will bring myself and the legacies of the strong and righteous women who came before me.

One emotional moment I witnessed at our booth last Friday was when we offered one woman the chance to wrap in a tallit or lay tefillin; she politely declined, but requested that we explain to her seven year-old daughter that it is certainly permissible for her to have the same access to these rituals as men – that it is her undeniable right to pray freely. She smiled supportively at her daughter and accepted an orange she plans to display proudly on her Seder plate.

There is no “correct” age to lay tefillin or wrap in a tallit for the first time. The joy in the eyes of an older woman who is wrapping tefillin or receiving an Aliyah to the Torah for the first time radiates a refreshing look of newness. The teenage girl who ascends the bimah or wraps herself in a tallit for the first time displays a look of hopeful passion. Each time a woman claims her rightful place in her tradition – whether at the Seder table, synagogue, or the Kotel – we are all transformed.

While different versions of the “origin story” of the orange on the Seder plate pervade modern Jewish folklore, one explanation is that the orange represents this “newness” which is at the core of Pesach; serving as a conversation piece, prompting attention to its bright color and fragrant scent. Unlike the mythical rabbi’s claim that “a woman on the bimah is akin to bread on the Seder plate,” a woman’s involvement does not counter the spirit of our tradition; rather, like an orange on the Seder plate, her presence adds new vibrance to timeless rituals.

Similarly, Miriam’s Cup corresponds to the well of fresh water that traveled alongside the Israelites in the desert, sustaining them, and which stopped completely after Miriam’s death. Like the life-giving force of water, women’s contributions to Jewish life keep our tradition flowing, never stagnant.

A revolution is just spring cleaning well overdue. Like discovering a misplaced treasure while decluttering the closet, each “first time”, when a woman uses her voice to connect with tradition, a new season emerges and its potential is revealed. May we keep growing newer and stronger.

About the Author
Lesley Sachs is the 2014 recipient of the NCJW Jewel Bellush Outstanding Israeli Feminist award and was one of the founding members of “Isha L’isha – Haifa’s Feminist Center” and worked for 10 years in the Israel Women’s Network. Lesley served as executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), vice president of the World Union For Progressive Judaism and founding director of Project, Kesher Israel. She is currently working as the executive director of Women of the Wall. She served on the board of directors for the Jerusalem Women’s Shelter, board of directors for the JNF-KKL and currently she is chair of the pre-army mechina Michmanim in Jaffa.