How many Jews does it take to change a light bulb? Change?!
Ah, spring (or is it summer?) is in the air! And with it comes change. In Jewish households all over the world, preholiday activity is entering semi-panic mode: Houses are being immaculately cleaned and cleansed; dishes are being changed over; kosher for Passover food, enough to fill entire cupboards, is being purchased and prepared. In short, Jewish life is about to get its annual makeover.
Why all the fuss? Why must we depart from our ordinary, everyday routine – particularly in terms of our cuisine, an area in which we Jews so traditionally excel? The requirement to rid our homes of leaven is a challenging task unparalleled in the Hebrew calendar. So daunting is it that some families have separate kitchens for Passover; some even move into special “Passover homes” for the week! I suggest that the underlying reason for this intense requirement to change is… change itself. That is, we are being taught and trained, throughout our entire history, how to handle change.
Both on a national level – for how many countless times have we Jews been forced to change our addresses from Diaspora to Diaspora? – as well as on an individual, personal level, Passover is our annual training exercise in the art of change.
WHEN MOSES is first tasked with liberating the Israelites – a job he tried mightily to avoid, and can you blame him? – he asks God for help in convincing the slaves to go along with him in his holy mission. And so God gives Moses three “pocket miracles” with which to impress his people: He can turn water into blood; his staff becomes a snake; and his hand first turns leprous and then reverts to healthy flesh. What is the common denominator between these acts? They all symbolize change. You can change! Moses is showing his downtrodden brethren.
No matter how low you have been brought, no matter how deficient your sense of self-esteem, you can rise to once again become a great nation. You can change your fate, as surely as a wooden stick can come to life! Passover, say the Rabbis, must always occur in the spring. For spring is the season of change, when dormant vegetation comes to life again, when rains and snow end, and the citizenry emerge from their homes to new and refreshed activity in the world at large. For this reason, our months are intercalated, adding seven “leap months” of a second Adar no fewer than seven times within each 19 years. This way, Passover will always stay smack in the midst of spring.
In fact, the very word hodesh, “month,” is directly connected to hadash, “new.”
We operate under the system of a lunar, rather than a solar, calendar. For while the sun moves inexorably in a straight line from birth to death, the moon waxes and wanes throughout the month.
In like fashion, the Jewish nation undulates; at times we seem to almost disappear, but always, inevitably, we come back to strength and bright light, at full-moon time, the 15th of the month, when – not coincidentally – the holidays of Passover and Succot begin.
We are hardwired, programmed as a people to change. We have to constantly recreate ourselves, adapting to radically new circumstances and challenges. This has been borne out all through our wanderings, and perhaps most dramatically in our re-entrance into modern Israel.
We came to a land with few, if any, natural resources, a largely desert and swamp terrain, surrounded by hostile elements.
And yet we learned – at super-speed – how to make the desert bloom, and how to defend ourselves with ingenuity, creativity and courage. Of late, we have morphed into the “Start-up Nation,” riding – steering would be a better term – the wave of hi-tech into the horizon of wealth and world influence. New crises will undoubtedly confront us in the years ahead, yet I have no doubt that we will find inventive ways to deal with these, as well.
OUR RABBIS teach that each of our holidays has a “mirror image.” Purim, for example, matches up with Yom Kippur. On one we fast then eat, on the other we eat then fast; on one we pamper our physical self, on the other we focus on our spiritual component.
Passover, for its part, is the alter ego of Rosh Hashana. They come six months apart, each one being a first (the world was created on Rosh Hashana; our nation was created on Passover). On both holidays, we commit to change, reaffirming our devotion to God and a Jewish way of life. Rosh Hashana cleanses our souls, as we plead for forgiveness and a new, clean slate; Passover cleanses our bodies, as we redirect our diet and remove the hametz – the arrogance and conceit – from within. Symbolically, we wear a pure-white kittel robe on both the New Year and at the Seder.
Matza, that unique holiday fare that is almost as tasty as the box it comes in, is the perfect paradigm of change. For matza has, if you will, two distinct sides to it. One side is the “bread of affliction,” the “poor bread” we ate in Egypt when, as slaves, we could afford nothing better.
At the same time, matza is the symbol of a passionate desire to connect to the Almighty, as we rushed to exit Egypt and follow God in such a hurry that we could not even wait for the bread to rise. To accentuate this dichotomy, we split the matza in half at the Seder – indicating how the destitute will settle for even a broken piece of bread – and yet we lean to the side when eating it, as we do when drinking the wine or partaking of the festive meal, in a gesture of royal behavior.
As individuals, and as a society, we are far from perfect. We have to conquer the many ills that still afflict our nation, from disunity to improper discourse to the unequal distribution of wealth. At the same time, we are required to work on our selves, from the inside out, molding our character to befit our status as marvelous creations of God who utilize our freedom to perfect our souls.
Passover is the perfect time to start this process anew. That mandate is implicit in the most famous phrase of the Passover Haggada – if we know how to read it correctly:Ma? What? Nishtana? Change?! Halaila hazeh
– yes, tonight!
Good luck and hag kasher v’same’ah! The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana and a member of the Ra’anana City Council.