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(A Holy) Saturday Story: Passover Pilgrimage and Sacraments of Interruption
Traveling by train to Montana to spend Passover with chosen family, navigating a litany of detours, delays, dashed expectations, unexpected challenges, and pivoting to embrace the grace of Dayeinu.
Holy Saturday is confounding. It is the big liminal space in the narrative that is the Easter story, a day when whatever happened between Jesus’ death and resurrection happens.
Some say Jesus literally spent the day in hell. Some say it was figurative because there is no hell. But that’s a whole different essay. Wherever Jesus was, physically and/or spiritually, back on Earth, the people who loved him most were waiting. Many of them were afraid. None of them was sure what would happen next.
This holy Saturday, I also find myself in an uncomfortable liminal space.
Geographically, I am in Whitefish, Montana, where I am spending Passover with my adopted Jewish parents, Allen and Ina. I arrived here by train early Wednesday morning, a day later than expected because a blizzard in North Dakota on Monday meant that my connecting train from Portland (after I’d trained from Los Angeles to Oregon on Palm Sunday) was cancelled.
No, North Dakota is not between Portland and Whitefish, but the people train that runs that route, the Amtrak train known as the “Empire Builder,” which connects the Pacific Northwest to Chicago, does run through North Dakota and on Monday, because of a blizzard, the tracks were impassible.
So, I had an unexpected overnight in Portland, which I spent holed up in a hotel room doing work on a project I hadn’t been able to do, as intended, on the Los Angeles to Portland train because there was no WiFi available and cellular connectivity was too limited for me to access The Cloud (that of my digital document storage, not The Great one of Unknowing).
Nevertheless, Amtrak and I persisted, and I made it a day late to Whitefish but before Passover began at sunset Wednesday. That evening, Allen and Ina were to host a Seder for six of us in person and a couple more online (from Japan and Israel, respectively). Ina had been cooking literally for a week. The table was set. The brisket smelled divine. My gluten-free matzo came in the mail that morning. We were all set.
A few hours before the Seder was to begin, Ina, who had been to see the doctor several days before for a sore throat and chest congestion and was sent home with the diagnosis of a sinus infection, out of an abundance of caution, took a Covid test.
It was positive.
SHIT. SHIT. SHIT.
This was not the plan.
I had spent several hours unmasked and in close quarters with my beloved, octogenarian Jewish parents (he even had the virus a few weeks ago while out of town) who I’d not seen in almost four years because of said virus. Longtime readers will know I am immunocompromised and have been exceedingly careful about exposure. And I have not had COVID.
“Put your mask on,” mamaleh told me as I backed away slowly out of the kitchen where she was standing surrounded by all the food she’d cooked for the sacred gathering. She didn’t have to tell me twice.
Off to urgent care they went, while I retreated to the guest room and tried to be rational about what had transpired, what it meant for her health and mine, what I should do next, and to make contingency plans without catastrophizing.
There was a time, not too long ago, when such a turn of events would have sent me spinning. But a few years ago, my friend, the Northern Irish author, teller of magical and healing stories Gareth Higgins, used a phrase to describe such unforeseen (and largely unwelcome) detours, distractions, and changes of plans as “sacraments of interruption.” When I began to look at life’s surprises (especially the not-so-great ones) as sacraments to be celebrated rather than curses to be mourned, weathering uncertainty first became easier and then, eventually, something sacred.
Don’t get me wrong, sacraments of interruption can still suck. They can be painful and scary, but they are more than that, too.
When things really go off the rails (sorry for the train metaphor), and I brace myself for the worst, I also try to pivot my stance toward the universe and open to its plans. Something is afoot! It might be awful now but it could be an opportunity for the transcendent to arrive and fill in the cracks like cosmic special sauce — the liquid gold of a spiritual kintsugi.
When things went sideways on Wednesday, we cancelled the Seder. Ina crawled into bed with medication to help mitigate her discomfort. We wore masks, waved, and shouted at each other from a safe distance.
It was, and has been, less than ideal. But at least I can lay eyes on them in person and we’re sharing the same space, even if I’m not curled up in Ina’s lap like a housecat, as I’m wont to do when I visit these beautiful people in this special place.
I have known Allen, who is a rabbi, and his bride, Ina, for sixteen years. We met in the late spring of 2007 in Chicago, where they had lived for years before relocating to Montana before we had a chance to meet. But we shared a few common close friends who had told us about each other. We were, they all said, destined to meet.
Allen was (and is) a fairly legendary rabbinical figure. For many years, he was one of the only rabbis in the country (and few in the world) who would celebrate interfaith marriages. And when we met in 2007, he had been the only resident rabbi in the entire state of Montana. Outliers and disruptors of the best kind, Allen and Ina are both tireless workers for justice. As a young rabbi, he was one of the original Freedom Riders in the 1960s, answering Dr. Martin Luther King’s call when he asked the Jewish community for support. They are both artists, writers, and consummate storytellers. Allen and Ina met at Brandeis as classmates in one of the university’s first graduating classes, but they didn’t become romantically involved until much later in life, after many decades, two marriages and five children between them.
Sixteen Passovers ago, we spent a week with their Schnauzer Farfel (who has since been succeeded by their Schnauzer Kugel) driving all over Montana, where “The Lone Rabbi,” as I called him, helped some of the then 1,500 or so Jews who called this vast state home celebrate Seders and Shabbat services, Torah studies and other rituals of spiritual living.
I wrote about my time with the Ina and Allen, which was transformational for all of us and cemented our ties as chosen family, in my 2008 book Sin Boldly.
One of the earliest lessons they taught me is that life rarely goes to plan and when it doesn’t to take a deep breath, check in with your gut, and do the next right — or at least life-giving and good — thing.
This holy Saturday morning, I spent an hour at the local health clinic being tested for COVID. Whether you test at home or at a doc-in-the-box, you have to wait. There is no getting around it in the waiting room, which is whatever room you’re in, even if it’s not a room with bulk hand sanitizer and a sign that says “Waiting Room.”
I waited. And while I waited, I did a little reflecting, which meant, in part, rereading the chapter I’d written about our shared Passover 16 years ago.
Here it is:
(An excerpt from Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace)
My rabbi — yes, I have a rabbi — once told me that I would learn the most about myself from the people I think are the least like me. That is how I came to spend Easter, and all of Passover, traveling around Montana in an SUV with the state's only resident rabbi, his wife, and their Schnauzer.
For five years, Allen Secher was the only rabbi living full-time in Montana, a state with a population of 900,000 and a tiny Jewish community of about 1,100. Allen and his wife, Ina, reside in Whitefish, Montana, in the northwest corner of the state, but for two weeks every month, they hit the road as itinerant clergy, serving a congregation in Bozeman four hours south and traveling wherever else they are beckoned to preside at weddings, bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs, baby-naming ceremonies, funerals, and interfaith events where he usually is the one and only representative of the Jewish community.
I long had heard of Allen in Chicago, where he lived for many years and was something of a legend for being the only rabbi (at least for many years) who would officiate at interfaith weddings, a practice that is still very much taboo in most Jewish circles. His best friend is my favorite Catholic priest, and he is also a dear friend of Reverend Stan, my favorite clergyperson in the world. So when I was thinking about how I might look at grace from perspectives I hadn't seen it from yet and taking my very wise rabbi's advice about encountering my “opposite” as a spiritual exercise, I got a wild hair one day and phoned the Sechers to see if I might spend Passover and Easter with them in Montana, where they had moved from Chicago when Allen retired a few years earlier.
The trip was a leap of faith for all of us, since we'd never met and would be traveling together and living in close quarters for more than a week. Happily, the Sechers, who are in their seventies and way hipper than I ever could hope to be, and I quickly learned that we are kindred spirits, always game for a new adventure. Allen was one of the original Freedom Riders—civil rights activists, summoned by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself, who rode buses into the segregated South and marched in the streets as a means of protesting racist bus policies—and spent more than a few days in jail for his efforts. Both Allen and Ina were among the first graduates of Brandeis University, the only Jewish-founded secular university in the United States, and long have been pioneers of one kind or another. After finishing his rabbinical studies at a Reform seminary, Allen (who had been strictly Orthodox at Brandeis) served congregations in Mexico City and California before growing disillusioned with the rabbinate itself. He left and for twenty years dabbled in radio and acting—documentary film and television (where he eventually earned seven Emmy awards)—before a group of like-minded friends in Chicago essentially drafted him back into the ministry in the early 1990s. He founded an esoteric Jewish Renewal congregation there called Makom Shalom, where congregants worshiped in the round and meditated, and where everyone was included, regardless of gender, age, and even religion. “Sech,” as I came to call him, is a true vanguard, a rebel soul searching for what is real. He's the kind of person I'm drawn to, as the Irish poet Seamus Heaney says, “like well water far down.”
Even as we found common ground apart, that is, from our shared natural inclination toward general insubordination, during those first few hours in the car—Allen and I both love Sinatra (he hosts a weekly Old-Blue-Eyes-only show every Sunday night on a Kalispell, Montana, radio station), Ina and I have frighteningly similar taste in books, and Farfel (the Schnauzer) could be the twin of the German terrier I had as a child—I wondered if we would be able to overcome theological differences, even with our open minds, when it came to grace.
As I understood it, there is a concept of grace in the Jewish tradition, but it differs from the theology of grace that is central to Christianity. Before I hit the road with the Sechers, I asked a couple of Jewish theologians how the Christian and Jewish ideas of grace were similar and where they diverged. Grace, they told me, only applies to sins and transgressions that are committed between God and us. When it comes to trespasses against other people, you must first gain the forgiveness of those you wronged before you may seek God's forgiveness. There is, however, a caveat, one rabbi told me. If you ask someone's forgiveness three times, and they don't forgive you, then God will forgive you anyway, and the onus transfers to the person who wouldn't forgive you.
I have a dear friend in Chicago who works for the Jewish Federation. When I write about grace in my weekly column in the Sun-Times, often she calls or writes to talk about it. Invariably she stumbles over the same theological speed bump. She can grasp the kind of grace I talk about until she gets to, as she says, “the Susan Smith problem.” Smith is the South Carolina woman who, in October 1991, murdered her three-year-old and fourteen-month-old sons by driving her car into a lake with the boys strapped in their car seats. “Nope,” my friend says. “That's where grace doesn't work for me. I can't believe that you just get to say ‘I'm sorry’ and God says, ‘OK, you're forgiven.’ I don't think grace covers that kind of sin.”
As the Sechers and I drove through the middle of Montana on a brilliantly sunny spring afternoon, passing swollen streams where the sunlight danced on undulating water like a billion diamonds—like God making “jazz hands” at us, we decided—it became clear that, while we may not have the same technical understanding of grace in relation to sin, we certainly understood in the same way the grace inherent in nature. After a few days on the road, the rabbi took to pointing out circling hawks, rainbows over mountain meadows, or especially beautiful vistas and saying, “Look! Grace!” For the rest of the trip we referred to that particular spiritual practice (and car game) as “gracespotting.” Eventually, the gracespotting extended past natural wonders to the effluvia of everyday living.
Finding a tub of their favorite hummus on sale at Costco? Grace.
Talking their way onto the ski lift at Whitefish Basin for a spectacular ride up the side of the mountain on Easter morning without having to pay? Grace.
Getting the very last reservation at the best steak joint in town after a long day on the road? Grace.
Watching the final season premiere of The Sopranos, bundled together in our jammies on their living room couch? Grace.
Farfel sneaking her way into the guest room to sleep with me the night I was feeling particularly homesick? Grace.
Together, we spotted grace all over the place, a joyful exercise that really brought us together. After a few days we weren't strangers anymore; we were family. And that, too, was grace.
Walking into the Emerson Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Bozeman for the first of three Seders that Allen would lead and we'd attend during the eight days of Passover, the first person to greet us was a Kinky Friedman look-alike wearing a black Stetson and holding a magnum of Australian merlot. He gamely showed us to our table while Allen did a mic check, and Ina quickly put me to work distributing the haggadot—liturgical booklets everyone would follow along with during the meal.
Passover is about storytelling. Specifically, it's about retelling the story of how God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and, eventually, into the Promised Land. The Passover haggadah takes Seder-goers through the story of the exodus, step-by-step, with accompanying prayers, songs, food—dishes that each have spiritual significance—and drink. Each table has a Seder plate that contains (traditionally) six items: maror (usually horseradish), symbolizing the bitterness of slavery; charoset (a sweet mixture, typically, of apples, honey, and nuts), meant to represent the mortar used by the Jewish slaves to build storehouses for their Egyptian masters; karpas (bitter herbs such as parsley) that are dipped in salt water to symbolize tears shed; z'roa (traditionally it's a roasted lamb shank bone) representing the Passover (Pesach) sacrifice; and the beitzah (a roasted, not boiled, egg) that also symbolizes sacrifice as well as mourning for the destruction of the temple. An egg is typically the first thing served to mourners after a funeral.
None of this was new to me. As a religion journalist I'd attended a few Seders over the years. But through my adventure with the roving rabbi wandering the wilderness of western Montana, I came to understand Passover and the exodus in a life-changing kind of way.
During that first Seder in Bozeman, the Lone Rabbi, if you will, in his rainbow-colored yarmulke, began by explaining the basic story of the exodus, with an added twist I'd never before heard. In Hebrew, the word for Egypt is mitzrayim, which means “the narrow place.” Just as God delivered the Jews out of their “narrow place,” God is waiting to lead each of us out of our narrow places, with mercy and grace.
“Where are the narrow places in your life that you need to pass out of, that you need to be delivered from?” Allen asked. I began to think, sitting there at the rabbi's table in the middle of a couple hundred Jewish strangers. What had me backed into a corner? Where did I feel trapped, enslaved? Was it, despite priding myself on having an open mind, a narrow mind that was keeping me from walking into freedom? Do my expectations of others and myself keep me stuck in a narrow, confined place? Or is it my pathological need to control things—even transcendent experiences, how I perceive the movement of the Holy, of the Spirit—that keeps me shackled in the chains of my own fear and self-consciousness?
I needed to be delivered from myself.
That realization was my Passover miracle.
I didn't need God to part the Red Sea; I just needed my narrow mind opened a crack. What more appropriate place to pass out of my narrow place than in Montana, a true “wider place,” one that's called, appropriately, “Big Sky Country.” As I followed along in the haggadah, we came to the part where those gathered remember God's graciousness in specific blessing in a litany called the “Dayeinu”:
Had God brought us out of Egypt and not divided the sea for us … Dayeinu!
Had God divided the sea and not permitted us to cross to dry land … Dayeinu!
Had God permitted us to cross the sea on dry land and not sustained us for forty years in the desert … Dayeinu!
Had God sustained us for forty years in the desert and not fed us with manna … Dayeinu!
Had God fed us with manna and not given us the Sabbath … Dayeinu!
Had God led us into the land of Israel and not built for us the temple … Dayeinu!
Had God built for us the temple and not sent us prophets of truth … Dayeinu!
Had God sent us prophets of truth and not made us a holy people … Dayeinu!
“Dayeinu,” Allen explained, means “it's enough.” In other words, if God had done just one of those things, it would be enough. For me, the crack in my consciousness was enough. Dayeinu, indeed!
Several days after that first Seder in Bozeman, I went with the Sechers to a Friday night Shabbat service at the synagogue. It was, for me, Good Friday, which is usually the most maudlin, contemplative day of my year. It is the day in the Christian calendar when we recall the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It's usually the day I spend recalling what a crappy Christian I am and how I didn't deserve by any stretch of the imagination having an incarnate God sacrifice himself on the cross in my place. What I usually have a hard time remembering on Good Friday is the grace portion of the event. That Jesus died willingly as a grace for me and the rest of the world. That even if I were as perfect as a human being can be—in heart, mind, and body—still I wouldn't be able to deserve such a sacrifice. And that's the point. That's grace.
Sitting there in the synagogue for Shabbat service with about a dozen other congregants, I wasn't dwelling on my usual Good Friday badness. When it came time to read from the Torah—handwritten scrolls containing the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures that are kept in a special ark in every synagogue—something happened on that April night in Montana that I'd never seen or experienced before. The Torah scrolls, kept in a blue velvet cover with gold embroidery, were taken down and passed to the congregation. I'd seen men in synagogue hold the scrolls, but I'd never seen them passed this way, from person to person, like the collection basket or the little trays of wine or bread in some of the churches I'd attended over the years.
I'm not Jewish, and in that little gathering of a dozen or so people, I think everyone there knew it. Still, when the scrolls got to me, the woman next to me, without a moment's hesitation, placed them gently in my arms, like a newborn baby. I've yet to conjure up the words to describe how that moment of inclusion felt. Sacred, yes. Grace-filled, absolutely. But also ancient—tying me to a whole history of a people whom I'd never before thought of as “mine.” But they are. The Sechers are. The other people at the Bozeman synagogue were. The strangers at the supermarket where we bought matzo and wine were. The people who are reading these words are. I've never felt so alive or connected, before or since. But I'm hopeful that I'll get there again, closer now in the retelling of my story.
The Torah portion that Friday night was from the biblical book of Exodus, chapter 34, which tells the story of Moses going up on the mountain to get the tablets of the Law—the Ten Commandments—from God. This was the second set, mind you. In a fit of anger brought on by the idolatry and general nastiness of the Israelites after God had given him the first set of tablets, Moses smashed them. God beckoned him to Mount Sinai, where God gave Moses a second set, which seemed to take.
“We're all great creatures of second chances,” Sech told the congregation. We expend too much energy beating ourselves up for our mistakes, screwups, and shortcomings. Fixating on them can lead to “internalized oppression,” the rabbi said. “Let it go!”
Deliver yourself from your narrow, sorrowful place, he said, adding that the word for “sorrow” in Hebrew also means “narrow” and that, seeing as how it was Passover, we might want to think of that spiritual self-imprisonment as something we have to “pass through.”
“Bust out into freedom,” he said. “You wanna be free? Work on it!”
Each time I eat sushi now and get a little too much wasabi on my piece of ebi maki, bringing tears to my eyes and that fiery rush through my sinuses, it brings me back to the Seder table in Montana and that first taste of maror. And my eyes water for an entirely different reason, remembering my Passover miracle, passing over, passing through the narrow places and emerging, a free woman in Big Sky.
The Dude: Yeah, well, the Dude abides.
The Stranger: “The Dude abides.” I don't know about you, but I take comfort in that. It's good knowin' he's out there. The Dude—takin' 'er easy for all us sinners.
—The Big Lebowski, 1998
Shortly before noon today, Holy Saturday 2023 and the fourth day of Passover, my COVID test came back negative.
I still have a sore throat and extreme fatigue and a cough, so the doctor advises I should retest tomorrow (especially if I feel worse), and again in a few more days just to be uber-careful. Ina, who still feels lousy, and I are still wearing our masks and keeping our distance. But at least we’re together.
My return trip home is postponed until I feel better and if I do test positive in the coming days, I will push it back farther and start the course of Paxlovid that is waiting for me if I need it.
The only thing better than brisket and roasted potatoes, matzo ball soup and charoset rom a Seder meal is leftover brisket and roasted potatoes, matzo balls soup and charoset. And here up in the woods in Whitefish, we have enough to last us a week.
I planned on finishing up a long-gestating writing project about fear on the train, but there was no WiFi so I couldn’t reliably save my work. So, instead, I watched the scenery out the berth window and let awe wash over me. The opposite of fear is love, but so is awe.
Tomorrow is Easter and I will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth with my two favorite Jews. We will have more Seder leftovers and laugh through our masks and watch a movie and some golf and flirt with Kugel and give thanks for sacraments of interruption.
My brother-from-another-mother Jonathan Martin included a poem about Holy Saturday in his new (and wonderful, you really should get it immediately) new book The Road Away from God.
I will leave you with his beautiful words.
There is grace this Holy Saturday for all kinds of in-between spaces. There is grace this Holy Saturday for not being who you were, but not yet being who you are to become. There is grace this Holy Saturday for those in the liminal, shadowy place between crucifixion and resurrection. There is grace this Holy Saturday for those in between sleeping and waking, grieving and dancing, heartbreak and hope. There is grace this Holy Saturday for not knowing, for holding tension, for being unsure, for making a bed in the belly of a whale. There is grace this Holy Saturday to rest, be still, and know, or not know, because resurrection doesn’t depend on you or need your permission. From The Road Away from God: How Love Finds Us Even as We Walk Away
On this Holy day and on every holy day (and they’re all holy), may we be brave and kind.
Don’t forget, dear ones, that you haven’t met yet everyone you will love and you haven’t met yet everyone who will love you.
Much love from me,