Passover Insights

By Hershel Allerhand

Based on the writings of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik (the memory of the righteous is a blessing).

Time: Freedom, Holiness and Responsibility 

The first commandment given to the Jews in Egypt before the exodus was to create a calendar by designating the first day of each month, in effect to control their time. The difference between a free man and a slave is not how hard or long they work, a free man frequently works harder than a slave, but in the control of their time. A free man decides when to begin and end work; a slave’s time belongs to his owner. Designating the new moon also meant that the Jews decided when the festivals would be celebrated, in effect when they would meet with God (e.g., Passover falls on the fourteenth day of the month). The Sabbath, by contrast, was elevated by God who “blessed the seventh day and declared it holy” (Genesis 2:5). The blessings over the wine emphasize the difference: The Sabbath blessing concludes with “blessed are you, Lord who sanctifies the Sabbath”; the blessing over the wine at festivals concludes with “blessed are you, Lord who sanctifies Israel and the festivals.” Our sages believe that God sanctifies Israel and we in turn sanctify the festivals, therefore, when a festival falls on Shabbat, Shabbat takes priority. The sanctity of Shabbat is of a higher order. Control over our time comes with the responsibility not to waste it. “Each moment of the conscious existence is a divine gift out of which the summons to the services of God emerges. Judaism believes that each person has a fixed place in creation. If I find myself thrust in here and now, it is because God thinks I can act here and now efficiently… God wills me to act right here and now. (Rabbi Soloveitchik, Out of the Whirlwind) 

Freedom and Sharing 

At the beginning of the Seder, we name and display the (middle) matzo and proclaim, “This is the bread of oppression our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come in and eat; let all who are in need come and join us for the Pesach.” (Haggadah) What transforms the bread of oppression into the bread of freedom is the willingness to share it with others. Primo Levi, writing about his experience in Auschwitz, tells of the time when the Nazis fleeing from the Russians left the prisoners, too weak to walk, to die. He and two others repaired the stove and broken window. “Then the stove began to spread its heat something seemed to relax in everyone. And [someone] proposed that each of them offer a slice of bread to us three who had been working. … a day before [that] would have been inconceivable. The law of the Lager (concentration camp) said “eat your own bread, and if you can that of your neighbor.” There was no room for gratitude.” Sharing food is the first act through which slaves become free human beings; one who fears tomorrow does not offer his bread to others. (Rabbi Sacks’s Haggadah).

The Story We Tell 

“And you shall tell your child on that day.” (Exodus 13:8) We must not only tell the story of the exodus; we must feel it. “Each person must see himself as if he himself had come out of Egypt.” (Haggadah) Rabbi Soloveitchik points out that the verb of the Haggadah ‘to tell’ is the same word used to describe what a witness can testify to in halachic jurisprudence as to what he himself saw. 

What we tell our children at the Seder should be with the immediacy of memory (something that happened to us), not history (something that happened to someone else). (Rabbi Sacks). Telling includes doing as well as speaking. Eating the matzah and the bitter herbs, drinking the wine, etc. fulfills a separate obligation. 

Our sages point out that we tell two stories at the Seder. One for the children that emphasizes the plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea and the physical liberation. The story we tell ourselves, as adults, is more nuanced. The physical liberation was only the first step; still to be accomplished is the spiritual liberation from the Egyptian or contemporary culture. The exodus led to Mount Sinai and receiving the Torah which has commandments for our body and emotions implicitly stating that both can be under our control. “The only one who is free is one who is involved in Torah. (Avos 6:2) Our sages were not naive. They recognize that this is a lifetime struggle. “If a Jew never has to say a ‘taku’ (‘taku’ is a talmudic expression which means the answer is unknown) about unresolved questions in his life; if all life’s questions are answered, he is nothing more than a fool. At the same time, the need to face unsolved questions should not change our guiding principles (Rabbi Soloveitchik). 

Moral maturity invokes our ability to live with complex situations and emotions. One of the glories of Judaism is that it reflects the complexity of the moral life without retreating into skepticism or relativism. We can make moral judgments; grey does not refute the existence of black and white. (Rabbi Sacks) 

No Schadenfreude 

At one point in the Seder we flick drops of wine: there are many explanations – the one Rabbi Sacks likes best is that the drops of wine represent tears for the pursuing Egyptians who drowned in the sea. 

A passage in the Talmud states that when the waters covered the Egyptian soldiers the angels wished to sing. God silenced them by saying ‘my creatures are drowning in the sea and you wish to sing a song.” “You shall not despise the Egyptians because you were a stranger in his land.” (Deuteronomy 23:8) Rabbi Soloveitchik is harsher; he sees the drowning as measure for measure. The first holocaust in our history took place when an earlier pharaoh ordered all newborn Jewish boys be thrown into the sea. (Exodus 1:22) 

Passover and Identify 

“The wicked son, what does he say? What is this service to you? To you, not to him, when he set himself apart from the community he denies the very core of our beliefs.” (Haggadah) Pesach has been linked by the Torah with chavurah – community to such an extent that one sage is of the opinion that an individual cannot offer the pascal lamb, only a group may do so. The Pesach differs from all other sacrifices because it is a symbol of freedom. Freedom is expressed in the realm of family, of community, of being together. (Rabbi Soloveitchik, Festival of Freedom, p. 43).

“Korban Pesach (pascal lamb sacrifice) and circumcision are the only positive commandments whose violation are subject to the punishment of ‘kares’… this seems to indicate that Korban Pesach and circumcision are fundamental aspects of Jewish identity. (Rabbi Soloveitchik, Exalted Evening) Kares or cutting off often refers to severance from the community of Israel. Judaism equates the termination of existence with cutting off the self from community for the individual strikes roots in eternity only by abiding within its confines. (Rabbi Soloveitchik, Family Redeemed).

We no longer have the pascal lamb sacrifice but the Seder and afikomen (the matzo which is eaten at the end of the meal symbolizing eating of the sacrifice) takes its place as identity markers. When we sit at the Seder we identify with the countless number of Jews who have celebrated Passover for over three thousand years and with contemporary Jewry who celebrate with us. We have our differences but we are one family. 

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