Passover was coming when I first started meeting every Friday with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the brilliant and colorful founder of the Jewish Renewal Movement, to talk about The December Project.
"When you can feel your cells getting tired, and your hard drive is running slow," he said, "what is the spiritual work of this time, and how do we prepare for the mystery?" At 86, he wanted to help people "not freak out about dying," and show them how getting "up close with mortality" quickens our ability to relish every day.
Our weekly conversations went on for two years, but there's one that stands out -- the time I learned how Reb Zalman plans to meet the dying of the light.
When I arrived that morning at his home in Boulder, CO, the rabbi's wife, Eve, was in the kitchen, preparing for Passover by removing "hametz" -- anything containing flour that's risen -- from every drawer, shelf and counter. I walked down to the basement, where Reb Zalman stood up from his computer desk and greeted me with a hug.
"What does Passover feel like in the December years?" I asked, as we settled in chairs facing each other.
"That's such a good question. Give me a moment to go inside." He closed his eyes, waiting to sense what would arise. "When we come to the end of the seder, we open the door for Elijah the prophet. I ask everyone to be silent and think, 'What question would I like to ask the messenger of God?'" He said people reflect on that, sitting quietly while the door is open, and after it's closed, he asks if they'd like to share what they heard.
"Then we come to the place in the ceremony where Elijah asks, 'Are you ready to go?'"
"Go where?" I said.
"Go forth from the seder into the world. But for me it's also, 'Are you ready to go?'"
He gave me the look -- a smile of mischief I'd come to recognize as a signal that a story was on the way.
"When I was a young rabbi in a small congregation in Fall River, Massachusetts," he started, "they couldn't pay me enough to support my family, so I would also go to Providence, Rhode Island, and work as a shochet -- the kosher slaughterer." His name, Schachter, means "slaughterer," and for generations men in his family held that post, which was considered second in honor only to the rabbi.
He began to describe how he was trained to slaughter animals in a quick, merciful way and how the knife must be so sharp and smooth there are no bumps on it.
I had learned by this time that Zalman rarely answers a question directly. He tells a story, digresses to a different subject that reminds him of a memory, then sings a song until I have to strain to remember where the hell we started. I'm skilled at lassoing people back to the question I've posed, but Zalman can't be lassoed. No matter how much I tug, remind him, and cut in, he goes on in a circular pattern.
He proceeded to tell me how he worked in a shed behind the butcher shop in Providence. Most of the farmers, he said, brought in the chickens as if they were merchandise -- they weren't living beings anymore. "I saw the chickens were thirsty, so I gave them water. Then I sent the chicken pluckers -- a group of African-American men -- out of the shed so I could speak to the birds.
I told them, "I'm not here to hurt you or be your enemy, but you have an opportunity to go from the level of animal to the level of human being by becoming food. I will help prepare you for that and try to do it in the most painless and sacred way.'"
I could picture him there in the slaughtering shed back in the 1950s, but how on earth would this tie back to the seder?
Reb Zalman said he called the pluckers back and started dispatching the chickens. "The pluckers were always talking about their exploits the night before -- the drinking, the women. I didn't like that conversation for what I needed to do. So as soon as they started plucking, I began singing spirituals, and they sang along with me."
He sang out, in his strong baritone, "Joshua fit the battle of Jericho, Jericho, Jericho," acting out how the pluckers would pull feathers in time to the beat.
"They taught me a wonderful spiritual," he said, and started to sing "Travelin' Shoes."
Death come a knockin' at my mother's door,
Hey, old woman, is you ready to go?
Reb Zalman sang on, telling the story of how death comes knockin' at different people's doors -- the mother, the father, the preacher -- asking if they're ready to go. Each person says, "Yes, I done my duty, I been redeemed, I got on my travelin' shoes."
I wondered how many verses there were.
Then he sang that death comes knockin' at the sinner's door. The sinner says, "Oh, no, I ain't redeemed, I ain't ready, I ain't got on my travelin' shoes."
Reb Zalman smiled. "That's the song. That's what I'm aiming for."
"I'm not sure what you mean."
"When Elijah asks, 'Are you ready?' I want to be able to say: 'Yes, yes, I'm ready.'"
"Ready to go?"
He stood and began doing some soft-shoe dance moves. "I got on my travelin' shoes."
To learn more about The December Project, visit Saradavidson.com