In Plain Language: Passover, a love story

As the first holiday in the order of months, Passover sets the tone for all the other holy days of our calendar.

April 2, 2015 17:11
The Priestly Blessing at the Western Wall‏

The Priestly Blessing at the Western Wall‏. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

This evening we will climb the spiral staircase of Jewish history once again to begin our celebration of Passover, the Days of Wine and Matzot.

As the first holiday in the order of months – Nisan having been biblically ordained as the “head of months” – Passover sets the tone for all the other holy days of our calendar. What is the essential message that it sends to us? All the festivals have a marriage motif at their core, celebrating the union between God and the Jewish people. Passover is the period of our engagement, when we first “fell in love” with God and committed ourselves to one another.

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We were totally, passionately devoted to the Almighty, with an intensity unique to the courting period. We were willing to follow God our groom anywhere, even into an unknown, hostile desert – just as a young kalla (bride) follows her hatan (groom) into a new life.

God supported and protected us with manifold miracles, with pillars of clouds by day and fire by night; we believed wholeheartedly in Him no matter how rocky the road or foreboding the forecast.

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This passion is symbolized by the unique food of matza, which we eat throughout the holiday. We were so completely in love with God, so anxious to be close to Him, that we were willing to forgo our physical needs – represented by hametz, leaven – and we rushed to join Him, even if we had to quickly grab the half-baked, unfinished matza. We were prepared to “live on love” and we couldn’t bear to be apart from Him, to wait even one extra moment for the dough to rise.

We were like those young couples who starve themselves while dating in order to maintain a good appearance, who are so nervous when apart that they can hardly eat or sleep, who are willing to live in a tiny and cramped apartment, if only they can be together.

The Talmud succinctly sums it up: “When we were in love, we could fit on the head of a pin.”

It is only fitting that the most intensely passionate book in Tanach – Shir Hashirim, the Song of Songs – is read on Passover; it beautifully expresses the flame of devotion between two lovers, ourselves and God.

On the holiday of Shavuot, the lovers are formally joined in matrimony.

We stood under Mount Sinai, raised over our heads like a huppa. Our ketuba was the Torah, read publicly for all to hear. And the two witnesses? Heaven and Earth! And then on Succot, the marriage is solemnized. Rings are the legal instrument of Jewish marriage, and so the wedding ceremony begins, in Ashkenazi circles, when the bride goes round her groom seven times.

Rings, in the perfect shape of a circle, symbolize symmetry, equality and unending commitment. Succot, too, is characterized by rings: We walk around the synagogue each day with lulav and etrog in hand – seven circuits on Hoshana Raba – and we dance seven circular hakafot on Simhat Torah, with an unbridled fervor that is equaled only at Jewish weddings.

And what of the succa, that small hut outside our residence? That is akin to the yihud room, where the bride and groom traditionally go immediately after the ceremony to be completely alone with one another.

And so, this love affair with God began on Passover. Hand in hand, we embarked together as faithful partners on this magnificent adventure of Judaism, searching for glory down uncharted paths, our only tools the love and trust we had in each other, following a treasure map we call the Torah.

Passover is about love, in all its many dimensions. First and foremost, the love we share with our Creator. Our love for God is exemplified by the matza – the central commandment of this holiday – while His love for us is echoed throughout the Haggada, such as in the recitation of “Dayenu,” a long list of miracles and kindnesses which He performed for us from the moment we were liberated from Egypt until we entered Israel and built the Temple in Jerusalem, and all the centuries beyond.

Indeed, the very last stanza of the very last song in the Haggada – that little ditty known as “Had Gadya” – ends by promising us that the Almighty will vanquish all of our foes throughout history.

He will nurture and guard the “one little kid,” Israel; we may be alternately demonized or desired by the great empires, but we will never be destroyed.

For us, the saga of the Egyptian experience – which we constantly evoke: in the Ten Commandments, whenever we recite kiddush and throughout our daily prayers – trumps even creation. For while creation is a universal phenomenon, the Egyptian liberation focuses on us alone, as God intervened in the state of human affairs to free us from bondage and forge us into a nation.

But there is a lot of love to spread around. And so Passover also displays the love we have for our children, indicated by the tremendous emphasis we place on the younger generation during the Seder, where they play a central role.

We are commanded to tell them the story, to bring them into the fold, to reach out to the scholar and cynic alike in our family, as we welcome them all around our table.

It is also about the love we have for our fellow Jews, whom we bid to share our Passover feast. Indeed, the opening portion of the Haggada begins by proclaiming “All who are hungry, let them come and eat!” And it is also about the love we have for humanity in general. On this holiday alone, we save a special place for Elijah the Prophet, as we pour his cup of wine to overflowing, open the door and bid him enter and join our Seder. Elijah is the herald of the Messiah, who will not only spark our own final redemption but will also usher in an age of peace and harmony for all of mankind, ending millennia of strife and struggle between the nations.

An oft-asked question on Passover is why the biblical mitzva of reciting the Haggada is not preceded by a separate blessing commanding us to enact this ritual, as we do for other mitzvot. While many answers have been offered, I suggest that no blessing is necessary when we perform an act of love – rather than obligation – be it loving God, loving our children or loving our spouse.

The love we have for them is a blessing, and – along with the matza, the maror and the elaborate Seder meal – is the essential ingredient that makes Passover and the Seder night so beloved. To all, a hag kasher v’sameach!

The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; [email protected]

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