Anticipating Liberation: Thoughts on Passover
In the cycle of our years, Jewish tradition provides us with many opportunities to mark moments of reflection and celebration, with which we give meaning to our lives.
One point in the cycle is marked as the beginning of the year and that is, perhaps surprisingly to some, the first day of the month of Nissan – two weeks prior to the holiday of Passover, with its many rituals and traditions reminding us about the transition from slavery to freedom. “This month is to be for you the first month, the first month of your year,” says the text in Exodus. Interestingly our tradition chooses the month of Nissan as the beginning of the year over, let’s say, the first day of Tishrei, in which tradition invites us to remember the creation of the world and of humankind, or during the month of Sivan, in which Shavuot falls, where we commemorate the receiving of the Torah.
In that very text mentioned above, the inception of the yearly cycle in the month of Nissan is followed by the divine instruction to the Israelites to slaughter a lamb on the 14th day of that month and to mark the doorposts of their dwelling places with its blood, so that the fatal final plague, the one that costs the lives of all male Egyptian firstborns, will “know” which houses to “pass over.” It’s the plague that finally results in Pharaoh releasing the Israelites from slavery.
I am intrigued by the possible message that lies in placing the beginning of the Jewish yearly cycle only two weeks prior to the action the Israelites are instructed to take. Nissan as the first month of the year begins not with an action, but rather with a state containing a vague premonition that something extraordinary is about to happen.
What’s there to do in that state? What must the Israelites have felt then, in that space between the new year and their divine assignment of slaughtering a lamb to mark their homes? What must have gone through their heads after so many plagues that caused wonders and suffering but not the release from slavery? Was there a notion that something really big was about to happen that would actually allow the Israelites to leave Egypt once and for all? How must it have been to get ready for the possibility of leaving the painful yet familiar and venture out into the complete unknown? What were the Israelites thinking about taking with them? What would they leave behind? Were they afraid of being displaced?
In the answers lie the memories and stories by individuals who lived in this liminal space between a new year and an action that took place 14 days later, in which we share each year around the seder table. It is perhaps in those memories and stories that the sense of a future formative journey toward liberation as a people was imprinted in the consciousness of the Israelites – a sense that might have helped them face the events that would unfold later on in the Exodus story. Like the generations that came before us, we too can start the new Jewish yearly cycle by asking ourselves the same questions the Israelites asked. Before we take action and mark our doors, we might want to begin by noticing what it would be like to leave the painful yet familiar.
While our Passover night might look different from that first night in Egypt, we too are being provided with the opportunity to think and feel and prepare for our journey toward liberation. Like the Israelites, we are asked to begin the new year by looking around and noticing what’s been enslaving us, exhausting us and no longer serving us. We’re asked to begin Nissan by taking in the injustice around us, our own suffering and the suffering of others, and start to think what it would be like if we got permission to separate ourselves from the shackles of our own slavery, however we understand it.
Like the Israelites, we’re in this in community, depending on each other and being present for each other. May this year’s Passover bring us all a step closer toward our personal and communal liberation for the benefit of all who surround us.