by Amy Lansky (CJC Ritual Chair)
Passover is my personal favorite Jewish holiday. When I was growing up in Buffalo, my mom spent at least two weeks preparing the house for the holiday. First there was general spring cleaning. Then every surface of the kitchen, including the cabinets, ovens, stove, and fridge, were thoroughly washed. All the cabinets and counters were then lined with brown paper. All the dishes and utensils and pots and pans were removed and stored elsewhere. Then the Passover things were brought out — all new plates and silverware and utensils and pots and pans. All new foods were brought in. This was very exciting for me as a child — but what an ordeal for my mom! After my father passed and as she got older, things relaxed considerably. Today, I can’t even imagine doing what she did…
Still, Passover always does feels like a passage into a new year for me. We are coming out of winter into spring. The world is beginning anew. And it does feel good to do some spring cleaning before Passover — both physically and emotionally. Interestingly, the month of Nisan (Passover begins on the 15th of Nisan) is considered the beginning of the Jewish calendar, and is equated with essential founding of the Jewish people as a nation when they escaped from Egypt. In contrast, Rosh Hashanah is actually celebrated during the seventh month of Tishrei, but is used as the delineator of the year count.
Passover is one of the “shalosh regalim” or “three legs” — the three major festivals when the Jews made a pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem (the other two being Sukkot in the Fall and Shavuot, which will occur in May). Each of these festivals has meaning historically, agriculturally, and spiritually. Obviously, historically, Passover celebrates the exodus from Egypt. On an agricultural or nature-based level, Passover is linked to spring and the reawakening of the fields and trees. On a spiritual level, the key message is liberation. On an outer political level, we focus on liberation from oppression. In the Haggadah we say: “Each person must look upon themself as if they, personally, had come out of Egypt”. We are reminded that God is the redeemer of the oppressed — which was a uniquely Jewish concept in ancient times, when the oppressed were viewed as simply destined for their lot.
Later, the Kabbalists took this theme inward and asked us to focus on our personal spiritual and emotional liberation. Rav Kook wrote, “Authentic freedom is the exalted spirit to which a person and a people as a whole are elevated so that one is faithful to their inner self, to the image of God within them.” The Hebrew word for Egypt, “Mitzrayim” comes from “tzar” which means narrow. Where is your own internal constriction or narrowness, and how can you liberate yourself this Passover?
The details and customs of Passover are so complex and numerous that they could fill a book. But here is an interesting one that I just learned more about. During the seder, we drink four cups of wine, but have a fifth for Elijah. Where did this custom originate? One of the explanations for the four cups (there are several) is that there are four synonymous expressions used for redemption in the torah. However, there is also a fifth expression used, which caused debate about whether a fifth cup should also be added. Maimonides ruled that the fifth cup was optional and, over time, it became dedicated to the Prophet Elijah, because when he reappears to herald the coming of the Messiah, Elijah supposedly will rule on all unanswered halakhic (ritual laws) questions like this one!
As we await that day, please do have a Happy Passover!