In “Remembrance of Things Past” Marcel Proust describes the feeling of tasting a long forgotten food – Madeleine cakes – and the rush of memories that came with them:
“But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”
Pesach is my favorite holiday. Yes it is, as all of us can testify, a lot of work, but it is such a special time – such a spiritual time, so emotional.
And one of the appeals of Pesach, for all of us, is tradition. A sense of continuity. A sense of the generations, stretching back, stretching forward.
I don’t know where the contemporary tune for Mah Nishtanah originated. It may not even be that old, but I don’t imagine there is a market for a new one.
There are parts of Pesach, seder night in particular, that are just defined by the way they have always been.
And I think what makes Pesach so beautiful is that however much work it can be (and it is a huge amount of work) when we come to seder night – with grandmother’s Passover dishes, zaide’s hagadah, a favorite aunt’s recipe for charoset, or just reminiscences – the powerful sense of nostalgia, memories, makes it all worth it.
And I say all of this, because that means we might be doing Pesach all wrong.
“B’khol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi-mitzrayim”
“In each generation, each individual must view himself as if he was personally liberated from Egypt.”
This means the opposite of nostalgia. It means having a sense on seder night – not of the familiar, but of the utterly, totally unknown.
כֹּה אָמַר ה’, זָכַרְתִּי לָךְ חֶסֶד נְעוּרַיִךְ, אַהֲבַת כְּלוּלֹתָיִךְ–לֶכְתֵּךְ אַחֲרַי בַּמִּדְבָּר, בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא זְרוּעָה.
Thus said the LORD: I remember for you the kindness of your youth, how you followed after Me in the wilderness, in a land that was not sown.
Yetziat mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt) for the Jewish people was a moment of disorientating rushing – and also an act of huge faith. It was an act of love, chesed Hashem calls it. We followed Him in to the desert, like a young couple, with an unknown future, an uncertain path ahead of them.
They were fleeing everything they knew.
Their leader was unfamiliar to them, their destination unfamiliar, their G-d unfamiliar.
They were not going home to the land they missed. They were not waiting being allowed to practice the religion they had been forbidden from keeping.
Everything for them lay in the future, the unknown. There was nothing familiar or comforting about the first Pesach. Nothing nostalgic – it was a huge leap of faith.
Many commentators are bothered by a seemingly inexplicable fact of the narrative of the book of Shemot (Exodus).
We know we eat matzah on seder night to commemorate the fact that dough of the Jewish people didn’t have to time to rise. Yet in the 12th chapter of Shemot, the Jewish people were commanded to eat matzah the night before they left Egypt, while they were waiting in their homes during the last plague.
At that meal they eat, for the first time, the Korban Pesach (the Pascal sacrifice), commemorating an event. G-ds passing over the house of the Egyptians – that had not happened yet. I think the explanation is as follows:
When we eat matzah (and in the temple, the Korban Pesach) we are trying to recreate the experience of the first time these foods were eaten. And they were not eaten for the first time in the desert, a year later on, as an act of commemoration, of thanksgiving, for coming out of Egypt, celebrating a year of liberty.
They were eaten first by people for whom this was all happening in real time. In confusion, in fear, in faith, in the moment of leaving.
When we taste matzah, maror, korban pesach we are supposed to feel the opposite of the familiar. We are supposed to feel that anything is possible. That events are happening that means that nothing will ever be the same again. That years and centuries of suffering can be overturned in an instant, that hopelessness and resignation can be swept away by miracles and new possibilities. That Hashem, in an instant, can show Himself. That His plan can be made clear, suffering suddenly explained. That we have to be ready to acknowledge that what we thought were the assumptions of the fabric of our daily lives can be swept away in an instant.
Pesach demands from us that we embrace and celebrate not just the very familiar, but be alive and open – indeed yearn – to experience the totally unfamiliar, the earth shattering.
The Maharal of Prague reminds us that matzah is the true symbol of freedom, because being made of the minimum of ingredients, in the minimum of time, it represents independence – the trait of not being dependent – on more things, more time, to be fulfilled.
To be a Jew is to know that certainty and stability are an illusion. Almost every holocaust memoir I have ever read notes the stark fact: In the 1930s, those who could not imagine leaving all that was familiar, did not get out – even when they had a chance.
In my life as a rabbi, I would say that not a week goes by without me meeting a Jew who tells me, in one form or another: I would love to do more, learn more, keep more, move to Israel, change myself – but my circumstances don’t allow it.
Matzah, and all of Pesach, can remind us of many things.
We rejoice in the memories. The tastes, as Proust so eloquently describes, can transport us. The embrace of tradition is more comforting than anything else can be.
But Pesach is supposed to do more than comfort. It is supposed to transport us to the day when we left Egypt, when all was new, all was fresh, when everything was possible. Let us embrace change, and never stop looking for ways for changing ourselves for the better.