Passover’s Uniqueness Among Our Holidays

Passover is unique among our holidays in that it brings us together, as extended families and communities, to worship and to learn and to eat and to enjoy the kids – all highlighted in one extraordinary evening at one large dinner table.

Some of our holidays, like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, center primarily around public worship.  Some holidays focus on learning, as when we devote Shavuot night to Torah study.  Some focus on eating, as with Sukkot and its outdoor meals or Chanukah and its fried foods.  And some focus on the kids, as with Purim and its costumes, megillah hubbub, and exchanging of food gifts.  But Passover encompasses and embraces it all.

Passover encompasses so much because it keynotes our year.  Tishrei and Rosh Hashanah is everyone else’s New Year, and we are part of that sea of humanity so participate in “yom harat olam.”  But, for us as a nation, Pesach’s month of Nisan is our New Year, the first of the Biblical months.  It marks the emergence of a free Jewish people, unshackled from human slavery’s bonds, and called to engage G-d the Creator at Mount Sinai.  It marks the formal transformation of “The Hebrews” — an extended family descending from Avraham and Sarah, Yitzchak and Rivkah, Yaakov and Leah and Rachel – into a Chosen People called to a new plateau of greatness, embraced and newly defined by G-d’s commandments. That greatness does not come easy.  To become Chosen, we not only embraced G-d the Creator and His Torah but accepted the responsibility to live by His laws and embody their spirit.

Strangely, most Jews don’t really know the story.  Mohammed called us “The People of The Book.”  He revered that part of our nationhood.  Yet, so many of us don’t know The Book.  We seem to leave that to the Protestants – to know the difference between Isaiah and Isaiah Thomas, between Jeremiah and a bullfrog, between Ezekiel the prophet and Ezekiel the bread.

Passover endeavors to keynote a new approach for a new year.  Thus, the Seder is about learning.  At its heart is the Haggadah’s “Maggid” recounting the march to freedom, the plagues by which G-d the Creator liberated us from being slaves to Pharaoh to become “slaves of G-d” (“ovdei Hashem”), and the gratitude to G-d who granted for us so much more than we could have sought.  If He only had taken us out of Egypt, that would have been enough.  If He only had brought us to Sinai to receive the Torah, that would have sufficed.  If He only had given us the laws and observance of the Shabbat, that would have been enough. Dayenu.

As the Haggadah reminds us, we were freed to serve G-d the Creator in lieu of genuflecting to a petty tyrant in Mesopotamia. We therefore thank Hashem by reciting a series of blessings throughout the night  — the brachot before each of the four cups of wine, after all the wine, before dipping the karpas vegetable in the salt, before washing our hands the second time, before eating thematza, before eating the maror bitter herbs, after eating the main meal.  That is the keynote: to recognize and acknowledge G-d the Creator for everything that comes on our plate – for what seems sweet and for what seems bitter, for dry crackly food we bake in haste and for the multi-course banquet at Shulkhan Orach. At the same time, we affirm a commitment never to stop learning Torah and the ways of the mitzvot – never to stop learning, never to stop teaching our children and our neighbors, never to deem a night or a food table as a place only for night or only for food.  Thus we end our Pesach night with that subtle message as we begin counting the seven weeks of days that link the Seder with the day we received the Torah at Mount Sinai – highlighting that we must invite Torah learning into our homes, define our friendships and the guests at our tables by Torah, and bring Torah with us when we are invited to others.