Passover: Looking back and moving on

Passover asks us to confront evil in the world and consider how to combat it.

Passover Seder. (photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
Passover Seder.
(photo credit: NATI SHOHAT/FLASH90)
 The Sedarim are done, but Passover is still with us. What is the message of the continued holiday?
Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev notes that we have two names for the holiday – Pesach and Hag Hamatzot. He taught that it illustrates the partnership of God and human beings. Pesach is what God did – skipping over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt. And matzot are what the Israelites did, by baking matzot in their homes before departure. Each has an essential role to play in redemption. As the Passover holiday wanes, that message endures. Every day we are encouraged to hope for redemption bimhaira b’yameinu – speedily and in our day. But b’yameinu can also mean “with our days.” Each of us is charged to use our days to help bring redemption into the world.
Passover asks us to confront evil in the world and consider how to combat it. Moses uses persuasion, plagues, fleeing, praying. We have symbolized this reality of evil at the Seder by breaking the matzah. The broken matzah represents the brokenness of the world, and then we hide the piece away, as though we wish not to see the brokenness. In our world we look away from pain, anguish and sadness, averting our eyes. It is a natural reaction that we must grow beyond.
That is why the matzah is brought back to us at the end of the meal, because shelemut, wholeness, is a response to evil. It is found by children, for they are the harbingers of a better time. If our children have taken away from the holiday both the reality of evil and each individual’s responsibility to combat it, then Passover will have sunk into their souls. Passover is not only about fighting evil but also about changing people’s approaches and ideas. As the Kotzker says about shfoch chamatcha, pour out your wrath, it can also be read as pour out your chom, your warmth – make the hearts of the wicked less cold and cruel. 
We rose from the Seder and now have begun the counting of the omer. We begin counting from one – it is not a countdown but a count up. Israel as it left Egypt had no idea how long it would take before they reached their destination. This kind of counting, as Rabbi Soloveitchik observed, is the essence of the biblical conception of faith. Abraham is told simply to go “to a place that I will show you.” He cannot know where but journeys nonetheless. Faith does not depend on a specific goal; it is not guaranteed a timetable and location – it is a trust and a hope. 
 Now we know that we will count the 50 days of the omer. The omer is tied to the barley harvest, barley being what the Talmud calls “the food of beasts.” But barley is offered in the Temple because the elevation of the animal in us to a plane of sanctity is the Passover message as well. Slavery is dehumanizing – the work of slaves is done by equally by animals. Yet a slave is a human being, an image of God, and everything that human beings feel and experience can be raised to a level of holiness. 
 As the holiday draws to a close, the journey to Sinai begins. The Israelites will still yearn to return to the safety of slavery. They complain and wish to go back to Egypt. One 19th century rabbi said that when the Torah reads that God liberated us with “a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” the hand was to take us out and the arm was to keep us from going back! But there is no turning back.
We conclude the holiday with Yizkor. And although the Yizkor remembers those who have died, the word yizkor is in the future tense. We remember the past but move through the desert toward the future. Enough with Egypt. On to the Promised Land.■
The writer is Max Webb Senior Rabbi at Sinai Temple, Los Angeles, and author of David and the Divided Heart. On Twitter: @rabbiwolpe.