JWR Outlook

Jewish World Review April 16, 2003 / 14 Nissan, 5763

Passover: Birth and rebirth

By Rabbi Pinchas Stolper

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | Two unique moments of high emotional intensity punctuate the Jewish year: Neilah, the last prayer service of Yom Kippur, and Kiddush at the beginning of the Passover Seder.

To the spiritually sensitive person, no other moments of the year compare to these special experiences in sheer depth and overwhelming emotion. Each of these moments arrives only after we have invested great emotional effort and significant preparation. Neilah is spiritual and personal. We achieve spiritual and emotional inspiration thanks to the cleansing effect of Neilah, the result of our long effort to achieve teshuvah, repentance.

The Seder, too, comes after much physical exertion --- the intense weeks of pre-Passover cleaning, planning and preparation. Here too, we hope to have allowed the significance of the many enactments of Passover to sink in and to affect our thoughts, our psyche, our mood and our spiritual state. Passover is experienced through the Hagaddah, which dramatizes the birth of our Nation and its escape from the imprisoning tomb of the Egyptian slave state. At the Seder we experience this sense of exhilaration.

The intensity of Neilah is mostly personal in nature: I stand before G-d, I repent, I attempt to change my ways. Just days later, after Succos (Tabernacles) has passed, we confront the long, dark, cold winter which symbolizes alienation from G-d: failure, sin and exile.

The winter months teach that the quest for human completeness and happiness cannot be entrusted to the individual alone. When operating in isolation to overcome evil, alienation and exile, most individuals fail. The human being requires a support system of family, friends, teachers, society and nation in order to direct, inspire and motivate his efforts.

In recognition of the inability of the individual to banish loneliness and failure, G-d gave mankind the gift of a new mechanism, a new structure with which to fight the battle of life --- the Torah (Bible). Family creativity and national unity are at its foundation.

The first book of the Torah -- Genesis -- relates many incidents that describe how, despite initial successes, individuals working in isolation failed to change the course of history or transform humanity. These individuals, who lived prior to Abraham, proved incapable of bringing about the Messianic order. G-d, therefore, taught our ancestors how to create a new entity, to which he entrusted the responsibility for creating the new humanity --- the Jewish Nation. The core and central structure of the Jewish Nation is the Jewish family.

With the advent of spring, human hope is reborn. Nissan, the month of spring, is the first month of the Jewish Nation's year heralding the festival, Passover, the holiday of birth, freedom and renewal. Passover is the celebration of the birth of the Jewish Nation --- a sacred collective of Jewish families.

Therefore, in ancient times, the paschal sacrifice, the core of the Seder celebration, was a family event. Today, of course, we no longer have the Passover sacrifice, but the Seder remains intact as an annual family event.

The great preparatory efforts that culminate at the Seder Kiddush create within each of us a deep emotional awareness of transformation and birth. Kiddush is the very first act in the first dramatic moments of the Seder. The Seder marks our rededication to our responsibilities as free men and women. No longer are we slaves to Pharaoh: We are now free to serve G-d.

The Seder recalls the first great act of Divine intervention in human history, the dramatic overthrow of the world's most powerful and advanced kingdom by force of the Divine Will --- a singular, spectacular event which paved the way for the birth of G-d's own nation.

At Passover, we feel G-d's "hand" operating in history. It is the first occasion when G-d revealed Himself before all of mankind as the controlling force of nature, as the master of history. Our sages teach that Passover contains within it the four hinge periods of life: the birth of the Jewish People as G-d's Chosen Nation; the conversion of each Jew to his new spiritual status as a member of Am Yisrael; the marriage of an eternal and indestructible nation to G-d and His agenda; and the creation of a unique spiritual society that would be dedicated to the worship and service of G-d.

In the opening act of the Seder, G-d is revealed as the master of nature and history, the father of the Jewish Nation, the protector of the slave and the oppressed, the Creator of justice, human order and of a new spiritual society.

The father of each family stands at the head of the Seder table with the Kiddush cup in hand, in full realization that he is about to reenact and relive the historic moments of the Exodus. He looks at the gleaming Seder table and at the expectant faces of his wife, children and guests and senses that he is a witness to and a participant in the foundation of a new spiritual reality. He recalls that Kiddush means "sanctity," reminding us that throughout hundreds of years of slavery, Jews maintained the integrity of the marital bond and resisted the contamination of Egypt's sexual depravity and licentiousness.

Each of us feels, "I, too, was just freed from Egyptian bondage." This emotion brings with it a sense of the stocktaking of the family. Much as each individual is scrutinized on Yom Kippur, so too is the family scrutinized on Passover.

The fundamental concept of Passover is areivus, responsibility: the realization that salvation, geulah, (Messianic Redemption) cannot be realized through the individual alone but requires the collective efforts of the am, the nation.

The Hebrew word am is a word that implies with, together, i.e. a collective. Am describes a unique concept, a sacred collective held together not by blood, language, culture, geography and dependence alone, but also by shared goals, ideals and teachings. The family is a mystical, spiritual entity. It exists in a covenantal relationship with G-d. Communal responsibility begins with the family and is founded on the familial bond. It is in the context of family that one learns that each individual is responsible for more than himself.

Why the intense preparations for Passover? Why are there so many laws and stringencies that strive for perfection and 100% removal of chametz, leavened products? This intensity, this striving for totality, is a reenactment of the Passover travail of the birth of a new revolutionary entity, Am Yisrael, Jewry. This entity contains within itself the potential for human perfection and harmony.

From the moment of the recital of the Kiddush, we put behind us the bleak, dark, cold night of winter. Suddenly warmth and sun break through, bringing life, hope and redemption. The Hebrew word aviv, spring, is rooted in av, meaning father. Aim, meaning mother, is similar to am, nation. From slavery, to family, to nation, we experience the presence of our new heightened status and spiritual reality.

Contrast the elevated Jewish family with the Egyptian failure to preserve family life. In the Torah, there are numerous references to the depravity and immorality of the ancient Egyptians. The Seder is a celebration of children and family, of the sacred bond that unites father, mother, children, parents and grandparents. Our children make it possible to extend the past into the future.

Our children are links in a golden chain that reaches back to the Patriarchs, to the Exodus, and stretches forward as it reaches the Messiah. The emphasis of the Seder is therefore on education, on children, on the children asking the Four Questions, on the search for the Afikomen, on the empowerment of our children, on the gradual transmission of the tasks, values, burdens, ideals and hopes set forth by our Torah to them. We are no longer slaves because a slave has no family.

By casting off the filth of Egyptian decadence, Israel was not only born, it also carried the seeds and the potential for eternal life. Our Sages teach that by the time they reached Mount Sinai, the Children of Israel overcame the depravity of Egypt and was restored to man's ideal status "prior to the sin of Adam." But this time, the New Mankind is born through the realization that perfection can only come about through tikkun olam --- by reaching out to all of mankind in the creation of the Kingdom of G-d. Passover, therefore, marks the creation of that fruit-giving seed from which will grow human destiny, perfection and Redemption.

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Rabbi Pinchas Stolper is the author, most recently, of Living Beyond Time The Mystery and Meaning of the Jewish Festivals, from where this essay was adapted. (To purchase a copy, click on the link. Sales help fund JWR.) To comment, please click here.


© 2003, Mesorah Publications, Ltd.