Passover Edition 5782: Don’t Pass-Over This!
Passover (first day) (Exodus 12:21-51 )
GOOD MORNING! This upcoming Friday evening (April 15th), Jews all over the world will begin to celebrate the holiday of Passover. This holiday doesn’t just memorialize the miracles that God performed in Egypt for the Jewish people; it commemorates the birth of the Jewish nation – when we transitioned from a clan of familial relationships to a society with a national identity.
Interestingly enough, the first person in the Torah to note this transition from familial interconnectivity to nationhood was Pharaoh (who saw this new entity as a threat to the Egyptians), “And he said to his people: Behold, the nation of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we” (Exodus 1:9). Given the fact that Passover celebrates the birth of the Jewish nation, it should not be surprising to learn that the Passover Seder is a key Jewish “life cycle” observance.
According to the Pew Research Center, almost 8 out of 10 people who identify as Jews participate in a Seder. Of this same group, only about 5 out of 10 fast (at least partially) on Yom Kippur and only about 2 out of 10 light Shabbat candles regularly. Surprisingly, more than 4 out of 10 Jews who don’t have any religious affiliation whatsoever (defined as those who acknowledge some Jewish parentage but identify as atheists or agnostics) also participated in a Seder.
What is a Passover Seder? The Hebrew word “seder” (pronounced “say-dehr”) translates to “order” in English. This refers to the fifteen rituals that are performed in a very specific order during the Passover holiday meal. The order of the Seder is presented in the Haggadah, which is the special Passover booklet containing the liturgy and instructions for the night’s many rituals.
There are many, many details to a Passover Seder and, in general, to Passover itself. As an example, during the rest of year if a small piece of not kosher meat inadvertently falls into a big pot of soup (where the volume of the soup is sixty-times said piece of meat), in most cases, the soup is still considered kosher. However, on Passover we are much stricter: If a tiny piece of a bread crouton falls into five gallons of soup, the entire soup is considered chometz, not kosher for Passover, and must be immediately discarded. Without getting into a litany of specifics, there are many other laws related to Passover that are incredibly detail oriented.
In general, those who follow a more “orthodox” approach are super careful to fulfill every law, detail, and stringency to the best of their ability. Because a Passover Seder is often shared with those who are less religiously inclined, the following question is often posed: “Does God really care if you fulfill every minutiae of every law and every custom?” This is a compelling question, and one that is often posed to Orthodox Jews – and not just on Passover.
There are two underlying premises to this question: 1) Why are the minute and seemingly insignificant details of laws and customs so important to follow? 2) Does the fulfillment of them really make any difference to the Almighty?
I am reminded of the story of a software development team that was working on a new program for almost two years. As they went through the beta versions and debugging processes, which required some changes to the source code, the program suddenly crashed and no longer worked. There were tens of thousands of lines of coding to review, and for weeks the entire team labored furiously to find the problem. Try as they might, they couldn’t figure it out.
Finally, after weeks of intense combing through every line of the source code, one of the developers discovered a teensy tiny mistake. He found that one of the “full stops” (otherwise known as a period), had been entered in the wrong font. That one tiny and inadvertent mistake crashed the entire source code, completely shutting down the program and rendering it inoperable.
Why should a tiny dot entered in the wrong font have such monumental importance? Honestly, I have no idea, and on the face of it, I don’t understand why it would make any difference. But whether or not I understand it is not important. What is important is to understand that the details are there for a reason and that yes, they really do matter.
In regards to the Almighty, we perceive Him to care about such minutiae because the closeness of relationships is determined by the details, not the big picture. For example, if there is a large scale emergency situation, such as an accident with children trapped in a school bus on the side of the road, most caring people will quickly try to help. An emergency is a “big picture” event and one does not necessarily require a personal relationship to intervene and offer assistance.
Now imagine for a moment the following scenario: At 3 AM you are awakened by a phone call from a friend who informs you that his wife is pregnant and has a craving for ice cream and pickles. Your friend says, “I don’t really feel like going out right now, can you please go to 7-11 to pick some up for her?” Aside from questioning the mental health of your friend, you will most likely reconsider the long term viability of this “friendship.”
On the other hand, a person’s pregnant wife will have no qualms about sending her husband to 7-11 at 3 AM because she has an intense craving for ice cream and pickles. And you know what? Whether it’s reasonable or not isn’t the point, the closeness of their loving relationship demands that the husband does what he can to show that he cares and loves her and wants to take care of her.
So too is our relationship with the Almighty. Anybody can (and should) obey the big picture commandments of don’t kill, don’t steal, etc. But it’s the fulfillment of the minutiae that is the ultimate indicator of our closeness to the Almighty. The smaller and seemingly more insignificant the request, the more significant an indication it is of the closeness of the relationship.
Thus, the tiniest and seemingly insignificant details of the laws and customs of the Torah are actually a personal affirmation on the closeness one feels to the Almighty. It is through the fulfillment of these minute details that we express the depth of our love and commitment to God. So of course, when seen in this light, it is going to make a difference to God, because the ultimate purpose of creation is the achievement of a closeness with the Almighty. Thus, the details are indeed very important!
Because the Passover Seder experience is so universally observed and fundamental to Judaism, I am presenting a basic understanding and outlining the holiday and the Seder (those who wish for a more advanced understanding of the Seder night, plus material to discuss at one’s Seder, please visit our website here).
Q & A: What is Passover and how is it celebrated?
There are five mitzvot (commandments) for the Passover Seder; two from the Torah and three from our sages. The two mitzvot from the Torah are to eat matza (“In the evening you shall eat unleavened bread” – Exodus 12:18) and to tell the story of our exodus from Egypt (“And you shall relate to your son [the story of the exodus] on this day” – Exodus 13:9). The rabbis added the mitzvot of drinking the four cups of wine, eating marror (bitter herbs), and reciting Hallel (Psalms of praise for the Almighty). During the times of the Temple in Jerusalem, there were 16 additional mitzvot associated with the Pascal lamb and the holiday offering (called chagiga).
These mitzvot correlate to the experiences of affliction and redemption. The commandments are meant to help us re-experience the exodus as well as feel and strengthen our sense of freedom.
The matza is called “lechem ani – the bread of the poor man” and “lechem oni – the bread of affliction.” It has the dual symbolism of representing our affliction (we ate it as slaves) and our redemption (we hastily made matza to eat when we left Egypt).
The four cups of wine represent the four different terms for our redemption in the Torah (Exodus 6:6-7). Wine is the drink of free men! Bitter herbs are affliction (just look at the faces of those eating horseradish!) and Hallel is our thanks to the Almighty for our redemption and freedom.
During all eight days of Pesach we are forbidden to own or eat chometz (leavened bread – i.e. virtually any flour product not specially produced for Pesach) or have it in our possession (Exodus 13:7). Why the emphasis on being chometz-free? Chometz represents arrogance (“puffing up”). The only thing that stands between you and God ... is you. To come close to the Almighty, which is the ultimate pleasure in life and the opportunity of every mitzvah and holiday, one must remove his own personal barriers. The external act brings the internal appreciation – we remove chometz from our homes and likewise work on the character trait of humility.
For those who have yet to sell their chometz and would like to, please click here. This service is absolutely free (though you can make a small donation, if you desire).
Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail.
— Leonardo da Vinci