Players gonna play


In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson delves into the imaginative essence of Passover observance, highlighting how a sense of playfulness enriches mindfulness and strengthens connections to Jewish traditions.

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I’m a lousy poker player.

I have a terrible time keeping my face straight, which is essential to bluffing and, thus, to playing poker.

Poker chips (Photo: Wikipedia Commons)

And I’m not really much of an actor, either — I acted in exactly one play after elementary school, and it was written by a college friend who basically guilted me into it. (Sorry, Sara).

But these are exceptions. Generally speaking, I love to play.

I love board games and card games. I love sports — both watching and playing. I love music–playing the piano (badly) and concerts. I love making puns and jokes — especially Dad jokes — that is, playing with words. And since I’m always on brand: every morning I play all the New York Times word games — all of them. Play hard, work hard, that’s my motto.

One of my strongest memories from childhood is the “play” that happened around Passover. There was getting ready for the play — sitting down with my Dad, going through the Haggadah, and helping him figure out who would read which parts of the script.

There was the playing that happened the night before the holiday, when he would put out ten pieces of bread around the house and, with a candle in one hand and a wooden spoon and feather in the other, my brothers and I would search through the house looking for them.

There was the play that happened at the seder itself, when he would hide the afikomen and we’d race to find it. Passover was a playful time.

For the ancient Rabbis who wrote the Haggadah, Passover was a night for wordplay. The Seder was a time to play with the meanings of words — to explore their possibilities, to uncover new understandings, even to make corny dad jokes (or, even worse, Rabbi Dad jokes; ask my kids, it’s painful).

There’s actually a long section of the Haggadah that is all about making this kind of wordplay on a Biblical passage. 

As an adult and a rabbi, I’ve come to appreciate that this emphasis on play at Passover is actually about something much deeper than just having fun.

When you get down to it, playfulness is an expression of freedom — so it’s natural that Passover, our holiday of freedom, features play. Our tradition invites us to rediscover that words don’t have to be locked into only one meaning.

Our experiences don’t have to mean only one thing. There is always a different way to look at it, a new way to understand a word or a text.

Why? Well, allow me to get philosophical for a minute here. I think that when we encounter a word or text, even or especially one we’re really familiar with, we are not the same person we were the last time we had that encounter.

The text may be the same, but we’re different. And that can prompt us to think differently than we thought before. It allows us to play — to try on a word or an idea in a different way, to explore way of understanding.

This applies to everything: The text of the Passover Haggadah; the Declaration of Independence; a favorite poem; a pop song. Think of “Shake It Off,” by Taylor Swift. And no, I won’t sing, don’t worry.

What comes to mind when she sings, “the fakers gonna fake” (or, more on our theme, “the players gonna play”)? I’m guessing if you let yourself think about it, how you think about it might be different than the last time you heard it.

Maybe the last time you listened to it, you heard the line about fakers or players as referring to someone you know; maybe this time, you find it referring to someone else, maybe even yourself.

When that something else comes to mind, you and Taylor are playing together — playing with meaning, playing with possibility.

This is so fundamental to a Jewish understanding of what it means to be a free human being: we get to play with words, play with meaning — and in the process, play with life.

Like kids with play-doh, we get to stretch words and sentences; like legos, we get to connect them in all sorts of cool ways.

Like sports, we can’t play with words so far beyond their meanings that they’re out of bounds; like theater or music, the act of playing with words actually reaffirms that there is, indeed, a basic structure here — and, in the very same breath, it acknowledges that there is freedom in that structure.

I think that’s one of the essential messages of Passover, and I hope it’s one all of us can tap into–this year and every year. To help you do that, I’ll share one playful practice my family and I have done at our Seders for many years. 

You remember how I said that there’s a long section of the Haggadah that does all this Biblical playing?

Let’s be real, often it gets skipped because people are hungry and ready for the meal already. But I actually think it’s amazing. It’s based on a short passage from the Torah, Deuteronomy chapter 26, verses 5 to 8.

In ancient times, this was a passage people would say when they brought their first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem in the springtime. Because they recited it every year, many folks probably knew by heart, and it encapsulates Israelite history very efficiently. These are the words in English: 

“My ancestor was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with small numbers and dwelled there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried out to Hashem, the God of our ancestors, and Hashem heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. Hashem freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and wonders.”

Okay, that’s the history. So here’s the game. You can do this yourself, or you can invite others to do it with you.

Take a word or phrase in this passage and do a google image search for it. You could take “fugitive,” or “oppression.” You could try “cry out” or “mighty hand” or “outstretched arm.”

See what images come up. See if there’s one or two that speak to you, or that make you think differently about what the word could mean. Allow yourself the time and space to sit with the images, and notice what comes up in your mind, heart, and body as you experience them.

At the Seder, go through this passage and have folks share their images and why they chose them — and again, give folks the space to do that noticing.

You could even have a little contest and give out prizes: most mind-opening, most meaningful, most playful, most creative, etc. I’ve done this playful practice for years — in some years it’s the centerpiece of our Seder. And I find that every year it illuminates something new in my experience of freedom at Passover. 

You might have other playful practices of your own — which is great! I’d love to hear about them. Because the larger point is that playfulness is a central part of Jewish mindfulness, a foundational part of Jewish life.

Amidst all the seriousness of the Seder and the problems of the world, our ability to imagine, to not be locked in, to play–it is at the root of what it means to be free.

Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.

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