There is so very much to be said about the religious significance of Passover: indeed, the event we mark during the festival, יציאת מצרים / y'tziyat mitzrayim / leaving Egypt, is such a core concept that we recall this moment of redemption at services every single day.
We pray that God will reach out and replicate that ultimate moment of redemption which saved us from Egyptian slavery and made possible the moment at Sinai during which we entered into the still in force covenant/brit that informs our daily relationship with God and with each other.
The seder experience reaches so deeply into the Jewish soul that everyone, secular, religious, affiliated and not affiliated, all seem to find themselves at the seder table. It is telling that the secular kibbutz movement has its own Haggadah, it's own source book for the seder night that reflects the significance of the journey from Egypt to the wilderness, from slavery to freedom, from the ideologically driven approach that there are Jews and there is no God. Search "haggadah" on Amazon and you'll find a bewildering variety of offerings: contemporary and traditional, feminist and interfaith and for kids and for scholars. Everyone has an investment in making the seder their own.
Jews who are far from their families, or who have lost their loved ones and are alone, find Passover particularly difficult, much more so than Hanukah or even Yom Kippur. We are all meant to be gathered around a table with the generations of our family to be sharing the story of who we are, how we came to be and hopefully, with children at the table, where we are going. It can be isolating to be a lone Jew on the eve of Passover.
Observant or not, the conclusion of Purim, a month before Passover, launches of flurry of seder placement activity: who is doing the inviting? who is being invited? who needs a seat at a table? It's like a game of musical chairs except that, God willing, there is a chair for everyone who needs one.
The principle of revisiting and re-experiencing that journey from slavery to freedom is compelling and the seder is brilliant because it is so experiential: we dab away the tears of slavery brought to our eyes by the bitter herb, we contemplate the cement-like charoset that, in its sweetness, hints at the promise of redemption, we chew the dry matzah and are humbled by the plenty that surrounds us and that little that so many others survive on.
But I think that what brings us to the seder table year after year is the need to touch base with who we are, to find that deeply-buried core of Jewish soul that needs nourishment once a year. I have attended and led seders in Israel and in the States, with family and with friends and as part of communal experiences, but if you say "seder" to me in a word association sort of exercise, the only place I will go is back to our family seder growing up. Listening to my grandfather sweetly chant the text of the Haggadah (which I try to replicate in at least one passage at every seder I go to), watching my grandmother toggle between the kitchen and my grandfather's side, the tiny little silver kiddush cups kept especially for my brother and me for the seder night . . . I need to revisit those seders to restore my soul.
Most of us have cherished seder recipes and aromas and melodies and stories that we bring to the table. And if we don't, then may we come together this year at seder to start creating them. The seder is a touchstone experience for us as Jews, a Jewish-soul-confirming journey that moves us to the core whether we are observant or affiliated or secular or engaged.
"The Song at the Sea"
The Shabbat immediately preceding Passover is referred to, in the Jewish calendar, as Shabbat HaGadol / the Great Shabbat.
With so much time and energy devoted to preparation for Passover, one might wonder why we need a Great Shabbat right now. What makes this Shabbat so great?
Historically, when the role of the community rabbi was conceived differently, Shabbat HaGadol was one of very few Sabbaths during which the rabbi would give a major D'var Torah, a major sermon. The subject for this particular Shabbat was meant to be the ins and outs of Passover observance, in order to ensure that there would be no chametz found anywhere within the defined boundaries of the community.
Today, a Great Shabbat might be one in which the rabbi does not give a major D'var Torah! Sermon or no, I suggest that there is still something Great about this Shabbat.
Many of us are engaged in preparing for Passover. We're finishing up the crackers and vacuuming behind the couch. Those of us who are hosting seders are polishing the silver and hunting out last year's hit recipes.
All of this physical preparation is very absorbing, and it's pretty easy to get fixated on the small details of cleaning, shopping, switching out dishes and cooking. The huge spiritual gift that is Passover can easily get lost among the kugels.
This is why Shabbat HaGadol is Gadol, this is the greatness of the Great Shabbat: the essence of Shabbat as a day of rest provides us with a well-deserved hiatus from the shopping and chopping. Shabbat HaGadol is a day to anticipate the spiritual high of the seder. Anyone who has planned a wedding or a bat mitzvah or a fiftieth wedding anniversary party knows that the profound simchah at the heart of the celebration can easily get lost as we focus on the logistics.
The simchah of Passover is much too important; Shabbat HaGadol helps us shift our focus back to the reason for all the preparations: the simchah we celebrate on Passover is the unique, momentous moment of "yitziat mitzrayim." God, "with an outstretched arm" reached across the borders of the ancient world to scoop us up out of slavery and set us down on the safe side of the Sea of Reeds. We looked back and, like the young couple in the painting above, we rejoiced. We sang, we danced, we thanked God for this profound act of love.
When we gather this week at the seder table, amid the shining kiddush cups and the steaming matzah balls, we will, God willing, revel in the love around the table shared with our family and friends . . . and we will, because God willed it, sing and rejoice and remember that the core of our identity as a people is rooted in God's love.
Parashat Aharei Mot Torah Reading: Leviticus 16:1-18:30
I had a wonderful rabbi when I was a little girl. Rabbi Avraham Soltes was charismatic, passionate about tradition, Jewish music, and Jewish scholarship. I was only aware of some of these qualities when I was a child.
It is only recently that I discovered that he had published a small volume of prayers he had written himself. From my perspective as a rabbi, as well as a young person drawn to Judaism by my rabbi, I am deeply moved by these prayers written by my first spiritual leader.
A traditional name for Passover is "Chag Ha'Aviv", "The Spring Festival." I offer Rabbi Soltes' original prayer "Rebirth" as a Passover gift to you . . . perhaps as a special reading to add to your seder, perhaps as a private meditation that will enrich your own journey into spring.
O God of the fragrant flower
and the flickering leaf:We call upon Thy Name,
at this renascent season,
when Thy life-giving spiritquickens the silent earth,and our cold, slumbering world
is born anew
in the golden glory
of jonquils an forsythia.
the humble denizens
of this earth,
to find rebirth of hope and meaning
in our lives,
at this season,
to see the world with new-born eyes
,to believe deeply
that life and rapture
can begin again
for those whose faith
matches their need.
is not this,
Thy first commandmentto us,
the Children of Israel:
"I am the Lord,
Thy God,Who brought thee
out of the land of Egypt,
out of the house
If our fathers,
sunken in the mire of Egyptian slavery
for four hundred years
the strength and the inspiration
to cast off the maiming manacles
that slashed their wrists and ankles
and surge forth to freedom
on that memorable spring night
thirty two hundred years ago,
no creature is so lowly,
no lot so hopeless,
that we cannot,
with Thy help,
find in it
and new cause for adoration.
Open our eyes,
to Thy wondrous works,
that we may discern Thee in our lives
and behold the world,
and burgeoning with hope
as it was to Noah and his clan
after weeks of endless storm,
when the sun smiled over the
in a golden dawn.
Praised be Thou,
who bringest forth
the bread of life
from the dust
of the languid earth.
Rabbi Avraham Soltes
Invocation: A Sheaf of Prayers, 1959
Parashat Tzav Torah Reading: Leviticus 6:1-8:36
Think for a moment of an episode in your life that terrified you but from which you survived, overcame, emerged stronger. Do you revisit that moment in your mind? Has that moment become one of those iconic stories of your life that you tell to people who are beginning to get to know you?
In just a few short days, we will join Jews all over the world in re-enacting just such a moment in the life of our people. "Yitziyat mitzrayaim," the Exodus from Egypt, is such a powerful, iconic moment for us that our liturgy brings us back to that moment every single day in the morning recitation of "Shirat haYam," the Song at the Sea, sung by the Israelites at the far bank, the safe bank, of the Sea of Reeds. "Ozi v'zimrat yah," "My Strength is God to whom I sing."
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, a Masorti/Conservative rabbi in Great Britain, writes: All people seek the secret of their own continuity. This is the power of the seder night: it lights up the past as the full moon illumines the path in the forest. The light of where we come from shines into the uncertainty of who we are. For where we come from is always at the heart of who we are, and until we understand the greater journey of our family and people we cannot recognize the direction of our own life.
The Eternal Journey: Meditations on the Jewish Year
The first millennium rabbis who shaped our seder experience through their innovative Haggadah . . . which we read to this very day . . . understood very well the essential role of the Exodus story. They instruct us: "In every generation all of us are obligated to see ourselves as if we left Egypt." The seder night is meant to be more than a recounting of the story . . . it is meant to be a journey to freedom that we take together as a family, as friends, as a community and as a people every year.
It is the story of where we have been and where we are going.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.