Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, of blessed memory, once stated, “Pesach is the story of the defeat of probability by the force of possibility. It defines what it is to be a Jew: a living symbol of hope.” This quote so resonated with me. I believe that hope is part of our DNA and a contributing factor to our survival.
Passover is a holiday when we commemorate the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. After decades of backbreaking labor as slaves, G-d sent Moses to Pharoah with a message: “Send forth My people, so that they may serve Me.” But despite numerous warnings demonstrated through the plagues, Pharoah refused to heed G-d’s command. It wasn’t until the tenth plaque, killing all the Egyptians’ firstborn, that Pharoah’s resistance broke. G-d spared the children of Israel, “passing over” their homes – hence the name of the holiday.
I read an interesting article on Chabad.org that discussed why Passover, celebrating the greatest series of miracles ever experience in history, is so important. It states that Passover is “a time to reach above nature to the miraculous.” An explanation for how miracles are achieved is that “like the matzah, flat and unflavored, it embodies humility. Through ridding ourselves of inflated egos, we are able to tap into the miraculous well of divine energy we all have within our souls.”
I would venture that this divine energy is what propelled many of us through the dark times of COVID. This disease has humbled us all. It touched each of us in different ways no matter our age, ethnicity, race, education, or life choices. Our deep reservoir of belief and hope as a people has given us the energy, fortitude, and perseverance to get through the challenging times in our life. Because of this, we are able to “defeat the probability by the force of possibility.”
A way that we do this is by embracing our differences. Our celebration of Passover is a perfect example of this. I looked into the customs of Sephardic Jews (those from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Morocco and other parts of the Mediterranean and the Middle East) and Ashkenazi Jews (Jews from Germany, Poland and Russia) around their Seder and holiday practices. Within the group of Sephardic Jews there is a group known as Anousim. Anousim are Jews whose roots include having been forced into Christian practice - called “marranos” – or those who took their Jewish practice into hiding – “crypto Jews.”
Some examples of differences between these groups include adding rice to the Seder table. Sephardi Jews include ‘kitniyot’ (legumes) which are considered kosher for Passover like corn, millet, string beans green peas, lentils split peas, soybeans and chickpeas. Also, charoset for Anousim or oppressed Jews like those in Cuba, is a mixture made of matzah, honey, cinnamon and wine as fruits are often not available.
A tradition practiced at the Seder table in Italy is where each person receives a green onion with long stems which they use to ‘whip’ on the wrist of the person next to him/her/they, during the singing of Dayenu. Similar versions of this are also done in Iran, Afghanistan, and Iraq.
In another ceremony, Yemenite Jews follow a custom of pouring a little bit of wine from the leader’s cup into a tin can as each plague is said aloud. When all the plagues have been repeated the matriarch of the family takes the tin can out into the farthest part of the yard, pours the wine into the ground and says, “May this go to all of our enemies and haters. May they create no suffering for us or for themselves. Amen!” In Greece, this same ceremony is done with vinegar poured into a can.
There are innumerable customs and differences between the way Jews celebrate Passover but one thing is for sure, when one sits at a Seder one feels the familiarity of the observance. The same is true when worshiping in any synagogue around the world. There is more that binds us than divides us. Our sages tell us that, from a halachic perspective, “any custom accepted by a community over a significant period of time carries great weight.” So there are no wrong ways of doing things and we should embrace our differences as they enhance us all.
It is more than time, as we broaden Jewish continuity and identity, that we are more inclusive of others who may do things differently. For example, include a goblet of water on your holiday table (Cup of Miriam) to honor Miriam, the sister of Moses who played a critical role on the history of our people. Or, add an orange to the Seder plate as a symbol of inclusion of the LGBTQ+ community and others who have felt marginalized in Jewish life.
If we’ve learned anything from this pandemic, it is that every life is precious. In the blink of an eye or the fleeting of a moment, life can change. Don’t put off what you can do today. Let’s “tap into our well of divine energy” and make a difference in the lives of others. It is more than time.
I will end where I began, with a quote from the late Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Za'l 1948-2020: “When we move from the politics of me to the politics of all of us together, we rediscover those beautiful, counterintuitive truths: that a nation is strong when it cares for the weak, that it becomes rich when it cares for the poor, it becomes invulnerable when it cares about the vulnerable. That is what makes great nations."