Pesach: Live It!
Merely remembering the pivotal events of Jewish history or reading about them occasionally is not sufficient to imbue ourselves with these messages. God established Pesach and the other festivals as interludes in time designed to focus our attention and pick up on specific ideas and values that the ordinary activities of life usually prevent us from contemplating. They are times when we are totally immersed in a specific concept basic to Judaism. We study the concept, experience it through the observances of the festival, talk about it in our prayers and try to internalize its meaning.
The very name of the holiday conveys an important concept in Jewish thought. Pesach is the English translation of the Hebrew word pesach, which means to skip over. It is derived from the last of the Ten Plagues, in which God struck the Egyptian firstborn in every house, but “skipped over” the houses of the Jews. This skipping over was a clear demonstration of God’s Divine Providence, His omniscience and His power over existence itself.
Pesach is the classic example of a festival in which we eat, drink and live the ideas that it represents. We modify our home environment by removing all leavened products, we change our diet to eat matzah and avoid all leavened foods. Our prayers are different for this entire week; we refrain from working, and we transform a festive meal into a high-impact, super-charged educational experience — the Seder.
There is no doubt that had the Torah merely commanded us to simply think about the Exodus for one week a year, no one today would have heard of the Exodus from Egypt. The Torah took the Exodus – the story, the history, the philosophy and the significance — and crystallized it into a multitude of actions, words, foods, songs and prayers. Making the festival experiential, not merely conceptual, ensured the transmission of this vital story from generation to generation and embedded these ideas within the very essence of the Jewish people.
Pesach is always observed in spring, on the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Nissan (around March or April). The Torah describes the month in which Pesach falls as the first month, and emphasizes several times that Pesach occurs in the springtime. In terms of the creation of the Jewish people as a nation, it is counted as the first month of the year:
God said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying: This month shall be for you the beginning of the months; it shall be for you the first of the months of the year… …You shall observe the Festival of Matzot; seven days shall you eat matzot, as I have commanded you, at the appointed time of the month of springtime, for in it you left Egypt…
Jewish festivals are not mere commemorations of past events. They enable us to access the spirituality inherent in a particular time of year. From the time of Creation, the month of Nissan was designated as a time of beginning, birth and renewal (In the Torah, Nissan is the “first month”).
The physical manifestation of that spiritual energy is springtime, when the ice and snow thaw and when trees and flowers blossom and when many animals give birth to their young. The historical manifestation of that energy was the Jewish people’s Exodus and redemption from Egypt, their entry into the Land of Israel in the time of Joshua16 and their return to Israel after seventy years in the Babylonian Exile.
That energy is manifested in the Torah through the festival of Pesach. When we observe the festival in its appropriate time and fulfill its commandments we are actually tapping into the spiritual energy beneath the surface of the physical world.
A unique blessing which is said during the month of Nissan when one sees a blossoming fruit tree, offers us another way of getting “in-sync” with springtime and recognizing God’s handiwork in nature. Through all these observances we are able to recapture that revelation of Godliness which our ancestors experienced at this time of year thousands of years ago.
One reason Pesach is associated with spring is because it is the time of the physical birth of the Jewish nation. Just as the soil produces a new crop in the spring and the first buds blossom on the trees, so too, the Jewish nation was born in the spring. The Jews were slaves, considered by society as sub-human, and continually engaged in hard manual labor. They were under constant pressure, and even their time was not their own. In this sense, the Jews as a people were in a state of non-existence in Egypt. Pesach celebrates our redemption from that state, our physical coming into being as a nation. (This was followed closely by the beginning of our spiritual nationhood when we accepted the Torah at Mount Sinai on Shavuot.) Pesach therefore occurs in the spring, the time of birth and creation in nature.
These ideas are alluded to in the Song of Songs, in a beautiful verse:
My beloved spoke up and said to me: Arise, my beloved, my fair one, and come away. For behold, the winter has passed, the rain is over and has gone away. The blossoms have appeared in the land, the time of singing has arrived, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.
The Sages explain this passage as a call from God to the Jewish people in Egypt:
The Holy One, blessed be He, said to the Jewish people in Egypt: Arise My beloved, the month of spring is here, and the time of redemption has arrived.