Yes, this night is different from all other nights. And that will probably be true for the immediate future. How do we deal with it? Jewish tradition has some suggestions.
The story that is central to Passover and consumes the first part of the Haggadah is the experience of our ancestors in Egypt. In Hebrew, Egypt is מצריים – Mitzrayim. The root of Mitzrayim is TZaR – meaning narrow. Egypt was the “Narrow Space” for us – a constricted space. We felt “boxed in” there. Our bodies ached, and our souls were crushed, and we were not permitted free movement. Sound familiar? Now, we are all in our “narrow spaces” sheltering in place to “flatten the curve.” While we know that restricting our movements will potentially reduce the infection rate, we cannot help but feel constricted and constrained. We long for freedom – freedom to move, freedom to act as we please, freedom to show affection, freedom to interact with others physically. So, the longing of our ancestors to leave Mitzrayim feels very personal. If the real goal of reading the same text year in and year out is for us to internalize the story, so much so that our feet feel the pain of the burning sand of the desert wilderness we traversed for 40 years on the road to redemption – then this year, that goal of feeling ourselves integrally a part of our ancestors plight, is easy – and very, very real.
The roots of the Passover celebration are agrarian in nature. Before there was the story of our people’s enslavement and journey to redemption, there was already a festival that corresponded to the agricultural calendar (upon which our ancestors overlaid the story found in the Torah and explicated by the rabbis). The festival was known as Hag Ha-Aviv – the Spring Festival. After a long and wet winter, with the arrival of Spring, our ancestors would celebrate the first greenery that grew (we find Karpas and Hazeret on our Seder Plates) and the Barley harvest. Barley, a hardy grain comes up early ,was used for the first breads of spring – and without new “starter” (made from mixing flour with water and setting it out to interact with the microbes in the air) the early Spring bread was flat. On the night after Hag Ha-Aviv (or the second night of Passover), we traditionally begin to count the days until the next major harvest: the wheat harvest. The day after forty-nine days have passed, after the barley harvest, there was a festival celebrating wheat (upon which our ancestors overlaid the story of receiving the Law at Sinai – thus creating the festival of Shavuot – which means weeks as it was 7 weeks later, 49 days). On the second night of Passover, we begin the Counting of the Omer (omer was a dry measure of barley that was brought forth to the priests as a sacrificial offering). Each night – at the beginning of a new Hebrew day we say the following prayer:
Baruch Ata Adonai, Elohaynu Melech HaOlam, asher kiddashanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al Sifirat HaOmer.
Blessed are You, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who blessed us with Your mitzvot, and commanded us to count the Omer.
Then one says: This day is the ____ day of the Omer, which is ____ weeks and ____ days. (for example: if it is the 16th of the Omer, it is 2 weeks and 2 days).
The process of counting heightens our expectation of the festival to come. It helps us to focus on new opportunities to taste new foods, to harvest first fruits, to put the capricious weather of early Spring behind us for the anticipation of the warmth of Summer.
Perhaps the Counting of the Omer can take on new meaning for us – as we move closer to the Summer, we pray that the worst of the Covid-19 “plague” will be behind us, we are closer to testing for all, and drugs to treat and vaccines to prevent the further spread. Counting compels us to concentrate on the future – to look beyond where we are today, and hope for a better tomorrow.
Jewish tradition often helps us see our world in a new light. May we all recognize that we are in Mitzrayim – all in our “narrow spaces.” But if we look to the future, in the distance we can see our goal: freedom, and a better place than we find ourselves at the moment. It was that hope that allowed our ancestors to trudge through hot desert sands on a long journey to a land long promised. With that same hope, we can get through the challenges of today.
May your Passover celebration be meaningful and fill you with hope – Next Year in Jerusalem (or at least, not in quarantine)!
With love from our home to yours, Marianne and Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor
A Prelude to Our Seder
The best-known phrase from the celebration of Passover is the simple, yet haunting question, “MAH NISHTANA HALILAH HAZEH MEKOL HALAYLOT?” “WHY IS THIS NIGHT DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHER NIGHTS?” Never before, in our collective memory, have we experienced a Passover like the one we will celebrate tonight.
Our world is wracked with a plague that is as frightening as nine out of the ten plagues we will alliterate later on this evening. It cannot and should not be blamed on any region or people. But the impact of this plague has touched every aspect of our lives. At a time in which we need support and comfort, we are physically separated from one another. A hug or a kiss can have devastating results. Simply being close can determine the difference between sickness and health. How unprecedented is this moment – last experienced over 100 years ago. It is our response to this challenge that is most critical. How we do our part to lessen the spread, how we care for those afflicted, and how we support the countless individuals on the front lines: doctors, nurses, care-givers, lab techs, police, firefighters, utility workers, shop and restaurant owners and workers, delivery folk – this determines how we are judged.
Many years ago, a student asked the anthropologist Margaret Mead what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about hooks, clay pots or whetstones. But she didn’t. Mead said the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thigh bone) that had healed from a break. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You can’t run from danger, go to-the river to drink water or hunt for food – injured animals or humans become fresh meat for predators. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal. A broken femur that healed is evidence that someone cared for the injured, treated the wound, took the person to safety and cared for them until they recovered. Helping someone through difficulty is where civilization begins, said Mead. (thanks to Rabbi Leigh Lerner for sharing this).
So tonight, we recall a moment of our people’s past in which our response allowed us to reach this day. Yes, we were slaves. And Yes, we were redeemed. But the simple act of redemption is NOT what brought us to this day. It is what we did with the opportunity to turn from a slave mentality and create caring societies that brought us here. Our history is littered with our failures – opportunities lost, the pursuit of gain over fairness, the pettiness of judging oneself worthier than others. But our history is also blessed with our triumphs – placing the right and the just over expediency, caring for those less fortunate, tipping the scales of justice towards those who suffered injustice, building communities of honor, striving towards our better selves.
This should be the meaning and message of our Passover. May we learn these lessons well.