Passover (Pesach in Hebrew) is one of the most popular holidays in the Jewish calendar. In 1990, my teacher, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, visited the Dalai Lama, who asked for the secret of Jewish survival. Reb Zalman answered, “the Seder.”
The seder is family/communal gathering, feast, tribal history (her-story), ritual and songfest all in one. The seder is the communal re-telling – the communal re-living – of who we Jews are. The “secret” to Jewish survival is that our history is not only past, over and done: our history is alive. We carry it in our hearts, wherever we go. Our history – our wandering, even the memory of the taskmaster’s whip – can offer us strength, direction and meaning.
We re-tell the Passover story each year because God freed not only our ancestors from Egypt but also us along with them. For each of us today, Passover is a time to take our own liberation personally: “I do this because of what God did for me when I came out of Egypt” (Ex. 13:8).
Passover’s call to take liberation personally, combined with Seder customs that are interactive and engaging for adults as well as children, make it a powerful and successful model for celebration. The seder is fun, but it’s also a rich symbol of freedom. Seder customs have evolved over the centuries and between cultures of the world, but the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nisan remains a highlight of the Jewish year. Passover’s honored place in the Jewish heart perhaps was pre-ordained in Torah (Ex. 12:14):
“And this day will become a memorial for you, and you will observe it as a festival for God, for your generations, as an eternal decree….”
Passover’s “living memorial” is not only a freedom festival, however. Passover asks us to rejoice, and to remember that our freedom has a purpose. Passover marks the re-birth and re-dedication of the Jewish people. Speaking for God, Moses told Pharaoh: “Let My people go that they may serve Me” (Ex. 10:3). Passover is not only a freedom from slavery, but a freedom to serve Divine intention.
At his recent bar mitzvah, my grandson, Ben, made a noteworthy point. He said, “It is interesting that there is no Jewish holiday celebrating a man. Like, there is no Saint Moses day. That is because in Judaism no person is perfect, and no one person to be worshipped.” Although Moses brought us out of Egypt, it is God whom we celebrate and follow.
Passover reminds us that the experience of bondage and liberation was for a holy purpose: to cultivate a people of ethics and morality, a people commanded to help the stranger, the needy, the widow and the orphan. After all, who better than a former slave knows the heart of the stranger, the needy, the widow and the orphan? That is our holy role in the world.
As one physical symbol of this role, we clean our homes of chametz (yeasty foods) in preparation for Passover. We do this partly to recall that our ancestors were ejected from Egypt in haste, having no time for bread to rise. Sometimes there’s no “getting ready”: had we waited until we were ready, we might still be in Egypt! But we also clean our homes of chametz as a physical reflection of cleaning from our hearts the habits and emotions of things that rise, like unhealthy forms of anger and ego. What habits and motions need a cleaning so that we can feel lighter, feel freer, feel more fully the Sacred presence in our lives? How can we feel more freely part of our community of family and friends, our Jewish community, and the community of the world? Now is the time – not when we say we’re ready, but right now.
May this journey towards Passover bring a breath of fresh air into our lungs and our lives. May the seder joyfully re-dedicate us to serving each other, God, and the world with fuller hearts and wider smiles.