The Talmud teaches that, during the 30 days before Passover, we should learn about matters related to the holiday. In that spirit, I composed a brief message for each of the previous 30 days, drawing from the wisdom Passover imparts. I hope you find these messages meaningful and inspiring, and if you do, feel free to share any or all of them far and wide.
Tradition teaches that one should begin reviewing the laws of Passover 30 days before the holiday. The thing most likely to lead us astray is ignorance. True of ritual observance, and also of life. What we don’t know can hurt us, and can cause us to hurt others. Let us be aware of our unawareness and earnest in our striving to reveal the concealed.
Alongside the tradition of reviewing Passover’s laws 30 days before the festival is the custom of buying wheat or flour for the poor so that they too can enjoy the holiday. Having the time and resources that enable extra study is privilege, and, if Passover teaches nothing else, it’s that privilege demands responsibility for those less fortunate.
The practice of giving wheat and/or flour to the poor beginning a month before Passover was so prevalent in some Jewish communities that people in need became hooked on it. But rather than calling for an end to the practice – support an addiction to welfare?! – Jewish law doubles down, teaching that the dependency exacerbates both the need for aid and the community’s responsibility. It is a sin to avert one’s eyes from the suffering of the poor and hungry, even and especially when they have come to rely upon your help.
According to Jewish Law, Ma’ot Hittim (donations of wheat and/or flour – or money to be used to purchase those items – for the poor in advance of Passover) is not charity. It’s a tax. In general, tradition views feeding the hungry as an obligation, not a voluntary act of kindness. There is forced redistribution of wealth in order to support the needs of the poor. But we might have considered kosher-for-Passover wheat and/or flour a luxury. It’s more expensive; and while a religious requirement, it’s not strictly necessary for survival. The laws of Ma’ot Hittim thus teach that the poor are as entitled to luxuries as the rest of us, and we are required to provide more than the bare necessities.
The Exodus story opens with an act of forgetting: Pharaoh forgets, perhaps deliberately, about the contributions of the Israelite Joseph who had saved Egypt (1:8). This assault on memory serves to justify Pharaoh’s plot against the Israelites. It’s a common authoritarian strategy: “Who controls the past controls the future,” as George Orwell put it in his classic 1984. Ultimately, memory – truth – is our only defense against oppression.
Pharaoh, fearful of the growing Israelite immigrant population in Egypt, plots to subjugate them. But he knows he can’t do it alone, or even with the help of the agents of the state. Rather, he knows he will need the participation of the Egyptian people. That’s why he speaks directly to them about the perceived Israelite threat (1:9), fomenting their nativist resentment, signaling to them what good patriots would do. The aspiring authoritarian needs more than personal power. Even the quiet acquiescence of the moderate populace isn’t enough. Authoritarians rely upon active participation from the people themselves. It is the Egyptian people, not Pharaoh or his ministers, who oppress the Israelites with taskmasters and forced labor. And it is thus the Egyptian people who had the power to prevent Pharaoh’s atrocities.
According to the Bible, the first question a human being asks of God is “Am I my brother’s keeper?” God’s answer is doubtlessly yes. But the definition of “brother” is possibly more debatable. Certainly, a case can be made for a literal understanding. The Exodus story, however, shatters that illusion. Redemption depends on non-Israelites standing up for them; the Egyptian midwives, Pharaoh’s daughter, and Jethro all rise to protect endangered Hebrews. Liberation depends on seeing our fate as intertwined with the fate the other, having no patience for their persecution or their suffering, taking responsibility for their welfare, and standing up with and for them. My brother is everyone. I am their keeper, as they are mine.
“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph.” Many commentators wonder how it was possible for the new king not to know Joseph, the man responsible for saving Egypt from famine just a generation earlier. Perhaps it was that the new king didn’t know everything about Joseph, only the bad. After all, during the famine Joseph enslaved the Egyptian people and seized their property (Gen. 47:20-21). Could it be that the oppression of the Israelites and the ultimate devastation of Egypt is a result of Pharaoh’s negativity bias, a focus on the bad and a neglect of the good? Could it be that our own psychological tendency to allow negative things to outweigh the positive similarly leads us to harmful decisions?
Why were there no rebellions against Pharaoh? Because, if nothing else, authoritarians are uniquely skilled at holding on to power. They create systems, structures, and norms designed to render revolution nearly impossible. But just because you can’t overthrow a despot doesn’t mean you can’t resist. In her extraordinary work on resistance during the Holocaust, Nechama Tec points out that, in general, resistance wasn’t about toppling Hitler. That would have been unattainable. Rather, it was about noncooperation and saving lives. While ultimately Hitler could only be deposed through foreign military force, there was throughout his rule successful widespread resistance to his policies within his borders. Similarly, while ultimately only God could defeat Pharaoh, the actions of brave figures like Shifra, Pu’ah, Yokheved, Miriam, Pharaoh’s daughter, Moses, and Jethro show that just because a ruler has a firm grip on power, it doesn’t mean he has total control. We always have a choice about whether we will capitulate to cruelty or resist it however we can. Resistance is not futile. More than merely being all we have, in some crucial ways, it works.
One of the most surprising and overlooked themes of the Exodus story is that of names. Even the Hebrew title of the story is actually, literally, “Names.” Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg points out that the story equates namelessness with silence. Someone with a name has a voice, and someone with a voice has a name. Our distinctiveness and our power comes from what we choose to express; in silence we forfeit our identity and our influence, even over our own lives.
The Exodus story begins with a list of names, and names are a recurring theme; the biblical book is even entitled “Names.” Names are statements of personal identity and group affiliation. A Midrash teaches that the Children of Israel were able to withstand the lure of assimilation into Egyptian society through upholding the tradition of giving their children Hebrew names. Think about that. Without those names, there would have been no redemption, since there would have been no distinct people to redeem. The story thus invites us to ask ourselves: Who are we, fundamentally? To whom do we primarily belong? Who, when push comes to shove, are our people? And what responsibilities do we have – for ourselves, for our children, for others – depending on our answers to those questions?
While on the surface the Exodus story seems grand and national, at its heart is an intimate and personal story about providing homes for the homeless and families for the parentless. It’s the story of Moses’ adoption: first, by Pharaoh’s daughter, then by Jethro. And it’s the story of God adopting a people, giving them a home when they had none of their own. Redemption may be big, but it’s built on personal acts of love; even small kindnesses can have a heroic impact.
Why does God choose Moses? He doesn’t seem to be anything special. He struggles with self-confidence. He is not a good public speaker. But he repeatedly stands up against injustice, championing the cause of the victim against the oppressor. First he kills an Egyptian who is ruthlessly beating a Hebrew slave. Then he intervenes when he sees a Hebrew picking a fight with a fellow slave. And finally he rises to the defense of Midianite girls who are being harassed by shepherds. Moses is chosen not because he is great, but because he is good.
The Israelites paint the lintels of their doors with lamb’s blood so God would pass over their houses. But the blood wasn’t merely a sign. Rather, it was a tool to keep God out. Want proof? A few chapters earlier, Moses’ wife, Zipporah uses blood to stop God from killing their first-born son, Gershom (4:24-26). Taken together, these stories evoke the biblical principle that God cannot enter a place where blood is shed (Num. 35:33). Godliness requires peace.
What is the root of hate? According to the Bible, it’s an outgrowth of our revenge instinct. So we are taught, “Do not hate an Egyptian” (Deut. 23:8). We might naturally abhor Egyptians because of what they did to us. But the Egyptians didn’t hate the Israelites; after all, we did nothing to them. Their actions are rooted in fear, not hatred. At the heart of Passover is thus the lesson that fear of “the other” is no less pernicious than hate.
One of the most curious Passover traditions is “selling” one’s hametz, leavened food items. Biblical law forbids Jews from owning any hametz during Passover. But since destroying or disposing all hametz is often costly and/or wasteful, Jewish law created a legal fiction in which a non-Jew buys a Jew’s hametz before the onset of the festival, owns it during the holiday, and returns it afterward, even as the hametz never actually leaves the Jew’s premises. This temporary legal fiction symbolizes a deep and eternal truth: nothing in our possession is truly owned by us. We may have things, but they aren’t, strictly speaking, ours. Judaism teaches that all belongs to God, a principle that reminds us not to worship our things, to be able to let go easily, to distribute resources equally, and to freely share with those who have less. Selling hametz may seem silly, but relinquishing ownership of our things even as we continue to possess them is as serious a spiritual and moral practice as they come.
Today is the beginning of the Hebrew month of Nissan, the month in which we celebrate Passover. According to tradition, the whole month is sacred because Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle, the Israelites’ portable wilderness sanctuary, on the 1st of Nissan in the year after the Exodus (Num. 7:1). It’s important to remember that, without the Tabernacle, there would have been no more Passovers, since the Torah, given to the Israelites 7 weeks after the Exodus, prescribed that Passover had to be observed in a state of ritual purity. Such a state could not have been achieved without a Tabernacle and its officiating priests and Levites. The month-long celebration, incorporating Passover and the New Month, reminds us that freedom cannot survive without law, that law is meaningless without a community that invests it with authority, and that a community cannot endure without the rites and norms that bind them together.
It may seem strange that the holiday celebrating freedom has the most rigid, stringent, and restrictive set of rules. Even its central ritual is called a “seder,” the Hebrew word for order. But liberty and law are opponents, not adversaries. Both are necessary for a moral society. Without liberty, there is no agency or progress. Without law, there are no shared expectations or values. In the absence of either, there is only oppression. Passover invites us to embrace the creative tension between liberty and law, for only in that embrace can we flourish.
At the Seder, before we retell the Passover story, we break the middle of the three ceremonial pieces of matzah. The two whole pieces conceal the broken piece as we remember the journey from darkness to light. This is us: harboring flaws, pains, and struggles underneath a veneer of perfection. But so long as we ignore the brokenness within, we cannot be redeemed.
Half of the piece of matzah we break before retelling the Passover story at the Seder is hidden away, to be eaten at the end of the meal. A piece of matzah, once broken, can’t be repaired, of course. So we accept what cannot be fixed and discover the next best step. Redemption is not about repairing brokenness so much as it is about finding a way forward despite it.
Breaking one of the ceremonial pieces of matzah at the Seder means we fulfill our obligation to eat matzah with both a broken and a whole loaf. The broken piece represents poverty: in the ancient world, it was presumed that poor people couldn’t afford full loaves of bread. The whole piece represents prosperity. We fulfill our obligation by “placing the broken piece inside the full one,” remembering in our prosperity where we came from, and who we remain responsible for supporting.
We actually tell two different liberation stories at the Seder: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” and “In the beginning, our ancestors were idol worshippers.” When we think of Passover, most of us likely think of the first story. But the second is equally, if not more, important. The first is about freedom of body. The second is about freedom of mind. And while the former is obviously critical, there can be no true freedom without the latter.
Eating matzah on Passover makes sense. But why the strict ban on hametz generally? Any leavened foodstuff, in any quantity, is forbidden all week. According to legend, hametz, which occurs when humble grains puff themselves up, symbolizes the ego, which inflates our sense of distinctiveness and importance. Passover is about forsaking all other masters beside God. And our biggest, most tenacious master is our own ego, which separates us from each other, and from God. That’s why hametz was outlawed in ancient sacrificial worship, because when our selves take up so much space, there’s no room for God – or others – to enter. And as we recommit ourselves to God and each other on Passover, the ban on hametz reminds us to make room.
While Jewish law is very strict about Passover’s dietary laws, the rules are actually not as stringent as most people presume. Many toil to cleanse items and areas of hametz that actually don’t need to be cleansed, and many items bear kosher-for-Passover certification but actually don’t require it. Most people assume that the more Jewish knowledge one has, the stricter s/he will be. Not so: when one has intimate knowledge of the finer points of Jewish law, s/he is better able to discern what the law actually requires, and what represents unnecessary stringency. Pesah thus becomes the perfect teachable moment for the old adage, “Knowledge is power.” Indeed, it is liberation
Did you ever notice that the dramatic climax of the Exodus story – the Splitting of the Sea – is actually unnecessary? The story could have simply ended with the Israelites leaving Egypt. What does the miracle story add, especially for those of us who are generally skeptical of miracles? Maimonides teaches that miracles aren’t suspensions or violations of natural law. Rather, they simply expand upon our definition of the possible. It was built into the sea’s nature to split; Israel just didn’t know it could until it did. In this sense, miracles happen all the time, even now. Whenever something novel happens, it’s a miracle: something that was always possible, but that we presume is impossible before it happens. Such a definition calls for awareness and humility. Just because something hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it can’t happen at all. And that’s why we need the Sea as the Exodus’ climax: Liberation requires openness to possibility.
The famous “four questions” from the Haggadah are actually not questions at all. They’re exclamations: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” is better translated “How different this night is from all other nights!” and each successive phrase is not an inquiry but, rather, an awe-struck observation. Passover thus begins not with inquiry but with wonder. Appropriate, because so does the Exodus: “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight” says Moses upon seeing a bush ablaze but not consumed. Heschel wrote, “Wonder rather than doubt is the root of all knowledge.” It’s also the root of liberation. Only when we are awake and aware, only when we embrace our not-knowing and take no thing for granted, can we truly be free to the possibilities of being.
“How different this night is from all other nights!” That’s how we begin to tell our story at the Seder. Of course, this exclamation isn’t only true of Seder night. Indeed, every night is different from every other night, if we are sensitive enough to notice. Maybe the Haggadah is teaching us a secret of liberation: To the one enslaved to the finite and material, every day is “unvaried, iterative, homogeneous” (Heschel). All hours are alike. But to the one attached to the infinite, “there are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.”
After telling the story of the Exodus, we sing a song of joy, “Dayyenu.” Literally, “it would have been enough for us,” as in, “If you had only taken us out of Egypt and not executed justice on the Egyptians, it would have been enough for us…” What an incredible sentiment! How many of us perpetually want more and more, never satisfied with what we have? How many of us focus on all the things we haven’t achieved, never appreciating all we’ve actually accomplished. How many of us fixate on our flaws, and never celebrate our strengths? Dissatisfaction has its place, but liberation also requires appreciation.
For all the drama and fireworks of the Exodus story, it sure seems like the Children of Israel end up right back where they started. When they migrate to Egypt, they are refugees, and when they leave Egypt, they are refugees. The narrative is bookended by landlessness, as if to remind us that, in God’s world, all of us are ultimately landless: “The land is Mine; you are but sojourners resident with Me” (Lev. 25:23). To live in such a reality calls for kindness, generosity, and radical welcome.
At the start of the Exodus narrative, the Children of Israel are sojourners, and at the end, they are once again sojourners. The only time they are ever settled, they are enslaved. Stability is seductive for its security. Moving from place to place is always scarier, more uncertain. Who knows where we’ll end up or whether we’ll be ok? But it’s pernicious, luring us to complacency and stagnation. Liberation requires taking new steps, however precarious they may be.