Beit Midrash

  • Shabbat and Holidays
  • Passover - Pesach
To dedicate this lesson

Pesach, A Love Story

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Rabbi Stewart Weiss

This Friday 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 our 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. Pesach is the period of our engagement, when we first "fell in love" with God and committed ourselves to one another. 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 follows her chatan into a new life. Hashem supported and protected us with manifold miracles, with pillars of cloud by day and fire by night; and we believed wholeheartedly in Him no matter how rocky the road or foreboding the forecast.

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 forego our physical needs - represented by Chametz, leaven - and rush 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 for even one extra moment for the dough to rise. We were like those young couples who starve themselves while dating in order to make a good appearance, who are so nervous when apart that they can hardly eat or sleep, and 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 Pesach; 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 the mountain of Sinai, raised over our heads like a Chupa bridal canopy. Our Ketuba was the Torah, read publicly for all to hear. And the two witnesses? Heaven and Earth! And then on Sukkot, the marriage is solemnized. Rings are the legal instrument of Jewish marriage, and so the wedding ceremony begins, in Ashkenazic "circles," when the bride goes 'round her groom seven times. Rings, in the perfect shape of a circle, symbolize symmetry, equality and unending commitment. And so Sukkot, 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 with 7 circular Hakafot on Simchat Torah, in an "unbridled" fashion and fervor that is equaled only at Jewish weddings.

And what of the Sukka, that small hut outside our residence? That is akin to the private Yichud 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 have in each other, following a treasure map we call the Torah.

Pesach is about love, in all its many dimensions. First and foremost, the love we share with our Creator. Our love for Hashem is exemplified by the Matza - the central commandment of this holiday - while His love for us is echoed throughout the Hagada, such as in the recitation of the 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 Bet HaMikdash in Jerusalem, and all the centuries beyond. Indeed, the very last stanza of the very last song in the Hagada - that little ditty known as the "Chad 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 10 Commandments, whenever we recite the Kiddush and throughout our daily prayers - trumps even the 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 Pesach 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 Pesach feast. Indeed, the opening portion of the Hagada begins by proclaiming, in native language, "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 the 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 Hagada 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 Pesach and Seder night so beloved.

To all, a Chag Kasher V'Sameach!
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