Erev Pesah means literally the night before Passover. But all over Israel, ‘erev Pesah’ extends back, for some a full month earlier, when wishes for ‘A Kosher and Happy Passover’ are already exchanged. ‘Kosher,’ not in any other holiday greeting, precedes ‘happy’: for in remembrance of the haste in which the people of Israel left Egypt, Jews today eat unleavened bread or matza for seven days, and also scrupulously rid their homes of any trace of leaven. In my neighborhood, as I write this, erev Pesah – a full five days before the holiday – cavernous vats of boiling water line the streets for cleaning of pots, blow-torches are publically-wielded on oven grates, and refrigerators, even sometimes whole apartments, are emptied, cleaned and cleaned again.
For all the physical labor entailed in the preparations for the holiday, Passover, in marking the beginning of Jewish nationhood, is what the prophet Elijah describes as ‘the great and awesome day,’ the transcendental experience of God taking the Jewish people out of Egypt. But matching the efforts before the holiday, thoughts of Jews on Passover night are not just transcendental. When families sit down to festival meals, sanctifying wine, they do not invoke God who created the heavens and the earth, but God who took the people of Israel out of Egypt. In doing so, they elicit not just a transcendental consciousness, but a collective experience of lived history – from Egyptian slavery to redemption – commemorated in the seder of Passover night.
The Bible relates, ‘And you shall tell your children … what I have wrought in Egypt that you may know that I am the Lord.’ Not metaphysical rituals or mystical devotions, the central activity of Passover night is mothers and fathers telling their children a story. But the Passover hagada, not just a story, is a set of stage directions for a performance, enacting the redemption. ‘In every generation, each person should show himself as if he were leaving Egypt,’ reads one version of the hagada, stressing the performance of the Exodus, for oneself and others. The Passover seder dramatizes the redemption: eating bitter herbs – horseradish and leaves of romaine lettuce in our house – to recall the affliction of Egypt, drinking four cups of wine, and then eating matza, reclining on pillows in the manner of free men and women. So interested are the Talmudic sages in the drama that they provide recipes: for example, for the making of the haroset, the mixture of sweet wine, walnuts, dates and apples to elicit a consciousness of slavery and redemption. ‘Make sure that you pound it thick’ – to commemorate the hardship of slavery; and ‘add lots of wine and apples to make it sweet’ – to recall the eventual redemption.
The seder is full of props for performance, though always fun to innovate, as my children do, where red dye stands in for the blood of the ten plagues, mini-marshmallows for hail, and matzos are carried around the table on shoulders, in imitation of the departure from Egypt. But for all the drama, the central part of the seder remains speech. To the oft-asked question, ‘what is man?’, the sixteenth-century Maharal of Prague answers: ‘man is the creature who speaks.’ Not just spiritual, man is a hybrid, composed of the dust of the earth and the divine breath which inspirited him. For Maharal, body and soul come together in an unlikely place: the seat of speech, the tongue. Though Jewish tradition relates that even the most humble of Israel experienced in leaving Egypt, a vision more powerful than that of the prophet Ezekiel, on Passover night, the turn is primarily to words. For hearing in the Jewish tradition is linked to kabala – not to what Madonna refers, but literally receiving or internalizing. The children of Israel experienced what some today might call the ‘visuals’ on their way out of Egypt, but not long after, they worshipped the golden calf. Story-telling – the inter-generational dialogue and drama that begins with the youngest child singing out the ‘Four Questions’ at the seder – renders the Exodus memorable and real.
The story-telling on Passover night recounts the shared past of Israel while giving voice to future, more inclusive, aspirations as well. Before the hard-boiled eggs and gefilte fish, my children sing, ‘dayenu’ – it would have been enough! – punctuating a long list of divine kindnesses. ‘Had God taken us out of Egypt and not split the Sea for us, it would have been enough!’ ‘Had God saved us from the Egyptians, but not sustained us in the desert, it would have been enough!’ But as the hagada nurtures gratitude for the past, even independent of endings, encouraging us to inhabit the current moment of our personal stories as well – dayenu! – it ends, forward-looking with the proclamation, past midnight in our Jerusalem home: ‘Next Year in Jerusalem!’ Paradoxical, but the hopes expressed at the end of the seder are not fulfilled through merely booking a plane ticket, or even the establishment of a political reality (though of that too, we might add dayenu!). But our hopes are more universal, making Passover a time for both satisfaction and striving, for a story in which gratitude for past redemptions and anticipations of a more perfect future – a Jerusalem of Peace – are expressed together.
Passover is not the time for cool objectivity and disengagement – what a contemporary psychologist calls our modern pathology – but a night for engaged story-telling, sharing in a chain of connections that goes back millennia. So I don’t care much when archaeologists, as they sometimes claim, unearth ‘finds’ either questioning or confirming the veracity of Biblical accounts. For me and those who tell – and re-tell – the Passover story heard from parents and grandparents to our children and grandchildren, it is the story, refined over generations, to adopt Hamlet’s words, that is the thing.
So after all the blow-torching, scrubbing and boiling are over, there remains the labor on Passover night of telling that complex story: ‘one who expands on the story,’ the hagada relates, ‘is to be praised.’ An active and vibrant story-telling meant to elicit a new kind of consciousness of past, present and future: a knowledge that makes the abstract real, in which spiritual and physical are joined, and the transcendental is brought down to earth – every year, around the dining room table.