One way to experience Pesach (Passover) is: Two nights of Seder, followed by a week of matzah. Two nights of a unique happening – around a table, with people very familiar and/or new to you, part recitation and part roleplaying, with symbolic foods and special foods, detours for discussion, hopefully much singing. Then – a week of just figuring out how to eat.
In fact, Pesach is meant to be so much more expansive. A long, immersive experience of first-time freedom. The Seders are supposed to launch us into a week-long new year festival. We’re intended to continue to read and reflect on the meaning today of our people’s Exodus from Egypt. We’re meant to experience freedom as though these were our first free days and our first free steps.
The Seder scripts the very first steps, just as the Torah says our ancestors were guided step-by-step through the days leading up to and through the first Pesach. But part of freedom for them meant that they didn’t have a simple script for the next days, the first days as a free nation.
And it’s the same for us. It’s on us as Jews to define what those first days of freedom are going to be like. We have special food for the journey – matzah and other Kosher for-Passover things. What will we make out of our freedom?
In the Talmud, the sages Rav and Shmuel argue over what freedom essentially means. Shmuel says the story of the Exodus begins: “We were slaves in Egypt.” Rav says: “Long ago, our ancestors worshipped false gods.”
For Shmuel, the story culminates in the final escape from Pharaoh. For Rav, the story peaks when the Jews arrive at Mt. Sinai, to make a covenant and speak directly with God. Shmuel argues that the Exodus is primarily about physical and political oppression. So Pesach is a celebration of being freed from tyrants and tyrannies.
Rav argues that it’s about spiritual oppression, about being freed as well from the falsehoods of Egypt. So Pesach is about how we get ourselves to Mt. Sinai, how we decide to use our freedom.
This year, we need both a Shmuel perspective and a Rav perspective on our situation as Jews. We should use the whole of Pesach, not just the Seders, to reflect and learn about what it means to be free Jews today, and commit ourselves to some actions as a result.
In a Shmuel perspective, we need to reflect and learn about anti-Semitism, from the murders in Pittsburgh to the slanders of Rep. Omar. Here’s a book to read during Pesach, if not before: Anti-Semitism: Here and Now by Emory University Professor Deborah Lipstadt. Prof. Lipstadt is one of the most sought-out teachers and commentators on the matter. She is a Holocaust scholar, the central figure in a major trial in the U.K. about Holocaust denial, and someone up close to campus anti-Semitism from the left. Read her book or find her writings online.
And if you have been feeling paralyzed by reappearance of anti-Semitism in any or all of its forms – resolve to take some action. If you are within a group that needs to be called out, do that from the inside. If you can be an ambassador for Jews and Judaism, among people who might know very little, do that. Invite someone to services with you, or invite them to coffee with you and if you like with me.
In a Rav perspective, we should remember that true freedom has to be for something, toward something. Pick something new to learn about Judaism. Come to a class, engage with the weekly Torah reading online or with a study partner or with me. Get your own copy (or borrow a child’s copy!) of Rabbi Telushkin’s Book of Jewish Values. While you are eating your matzah, resolve on a way you can strengthen our own Jewish community. In a joyful way, through Shabbat meals or at services or celebrations. Or when we need each other the next time you see an announcement about a house of mourning.
And as you take your first steps from Pesach toward Mt. Sinai, think about the next mitzvah that your soul is begging to focus on. It could be some aspect of tzedakah (giving) or lashon ha-ra (gossip). Maybe you even want to partner up with someone to do it together – create the next Beth Abraham tzedakah collective, or buddy up on a gossip management project and check in each week!
Whatever you do – don’t let Pesach just be about something that happened more than 3000 years ago. Don’t let the days after the Seder slip away without savoring the first moments of freedom and responsibility, without noticing that the way you’ll notice every crumb of matzah in the seat cushions!
Wishing all of you a Zissen (Sweet) and Kosher Pesach,