August 22, 2019

Passover Is the Beginning of the Journey

Hagalah the process of washing plates, pots and utensils for Passover.

Passover begins the evening of Friday, April 19. Thousands of Jews throughout the world will gather around their tables to share a seder, the ceremonial meal characterized by questions, stories, songs and rituals.

It is the first of three important holy days, (including Shavuot and Sukkot), which are called Shalosh Regalim, literally the three walking festivals. Torah instructs the “men” to travel to Jerusalem to bring offerings to the Temple. “Three pilgrimage festivals shall you celebrate for Me … Festival of Matzot … Festival of the Harvest … and the Festival of the Ingathering … the choicest first fruit of your land shall you bring to the House of HaShem.” 

After the Temple was destroyed, the rabbis maintained these three essential holy days and gave them new meaning. Judaism, sans a sacrificial cult, needed to be redefined — the purpose of Jewish life, core principles and new customs and rituals — to ensure its future. With Torah at the center, and prayer, study and new rituals replacing the offerings, we inherited a dynamic and rich tradition that supports and encourages multiple interpretations of how to understand God’s words and our path to expressing tradition.

Passover essentially celebrates our liberation from slavery. And yet it is profoundly connected, seven weeks later, to Shavuot; one leads to the other. The goal of the gift of our freedom is to direct us toward Mount Sinai, where we received Torah and formed a covenant with HaShem. Passover lasts eight days but on the second night, we begin to prepare ourselves to stand “as if” we were at Mount Sinai ready to receive Torah. These seven weeks are called Counting the Omer.

The operative word is pilgrimage. It is no longer to the Holy Temple but a journey of shared memory and reinterpretation and inner exploration. We hear the call and we gather to confront, with family and friends, our past and what it means for our future. What is our responsibility, as receivers of the gift of freedom, to others who are still enslaved? We are reminded by the taste of maror (strong horseradish) of the bitterness once in our lives, but for some, life is bitter today. There may be health issues, grief, ugly divorces, psychological or financial challenges, or political realities. Can we sweeten them, the way we add Charoset (apples, nuts and wine) to the maror?

We place a shank bone, symbol of the Temple offering, on the seder plate, yet what are the offerings we are willing to make today, the gifts to express our gratitude to the Holy One for our good fortune? We eat the matzo, the remembrance of both our burdens and our liberation, but do we see it as a metaphor for simpler times and purer spirit when we purge ourselves of unused and unwanted items, or when our egos are in check and better understood?

When we see Elijah’s Cup, do we question what our role is in bringing redemption? For those who haven’t really paid attention, isn’t it time to question where are the women, so essential to the Exodus story that Talmud states, “Israel’s deliverance was in reward for the righteous women”? Or have a cup of water on the table for Miriam, remembering, because of her merit, there was a well of water that followed the people in the desert? 

As we face so many worldwide crises and watch as hate, lies, corruption and power run rampant, perhaps our seders should focus on what freedom really means, the responsibility it brings and how to ensure it continues. With the current onslaught of anti-Semitism, how do we navigate being Jewish in the most secure home in our history when it, too, begins to feel unsafe? Is Egypt truly a thing of the past?

A pilgrimage is a holy journey, a search of moral and spiritual significance. Each holiday is an opportunity to travel deeper into the past, yet elevate the conversation for the present. Passover begins in shared memory and conversation; the second night, we count the Omer, a personal exploration, a way to bring healing and wholeness.

May you have a sweet and uplifting Passover.

Eva Robbins is a rabbi, cantor, artist and author.