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Thursday, August 21, 2014

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Pesach lessons all year long

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The holiday of Pesach is a standalone Jewish holiday. In other words, we keep it in isolation from the rest of the year.

Unlike Rosh Hashanah, for example, the themes of Pesach don’t often continue to inform us beyond the holiday. I don’t eat matzah any other time, nor am I dipping vegetables into bitter herbs or concocting food that looks like clay mortar. Feelings of redemption are hoped for throughout the year, but I’m not told to re-experience Egypt and the redemption from it every time I sit down to eat.

Most of the other Jewish holidays inform me in a way that will continue to bring me Jewish connection throughout the year. Sukkot is the time the world is judged for water amounts, so if I encounter a dry season or a flood, I can connect back to Sukkot. Chanukah always reminds me of Jewish pride and autonomy, while Purim teaches me of the precarious position of Jews in exile.

Yet somehow I manage to isolate Pesach and experience Pesach immersion for one week, and when I pack up the Pesach dishes, I also pack up the Pesach meaning.

But this is an artificial disconnect. The meanings of Pesach aren’t meant to be isolated from the rest of my life. I should be identifying “Pesach moments” the rest of the year and reinvigorating the meaning of the holiday.

One of the major themes of Pesach is the idea of seizing the opportunity. Miriam teaches us this meaning most effectively when she watches over her baby brother, Moses, and seizes the opportunity to bring mother and son together by suggesting she bring a Hebrew nursemaid for the baby.

Moses seizes the opportunity to save an innocent slave when he defends him from an Egyptian taskmaster, even to the point of death. There are many more examples that we could ask our guests to identify during the seder. The next step of course would be to re-examine moments in our lives when we seized an opportunity that ended well or not so well.

Another main theme is one of redemption, a word many of us don’t quite understand. When we redeem an article, we retrieve something that was once ours but has been kept away from us. Likewise, redeeming ourselves is to identify what part of our true selves have we been burying inside, away from the access that we need to retrieve back into our lives.

Of course, one of the things that matzah signifies is our commitment to end suffering. The Torah tells us that as long as we remain in Egypt, the plagues will continue. Once we’re told to leave, we grab our bread, not yet leavened, and we rush out. The matzah symbolizes how quickly we left, since the sooner we leave, the sooner the last plague stops.

The sages in the midrash have noted that we are told to “observe the feast of the matzot” just as we are commanded to “observe the mitzvot.” The Hebrew letters of both “matzot” and “mitzvot” are identical, and from this we learn that just as we can’t be slow in baking our matzah or it will leaven, so we must not be slow in seizing the opportunity to do a commandment. The themes of Pesach are brought together and made meaningful to the other 51 weeks of our year.

The stressfulness of Pesach can tempt us to create an isolationist attitude toward the holiday. Ironically, we would then miss the opportunity to seize the moment and teach ourselves to hurry toward acts of loving kindness and ultimate redemption.

Why would we want to do that?

Rachael Turkienicz is director of rachaelscentre.org

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