People travel over the desert in Egypt on camels

To Rise Above Our Immediate Surroundings: The Meaning of Passover

By Rabbi Josh Beraha

In Spring 2020, we set our seder tables with all the typical accoutrements of the Passover holiday, but that year many of us added something new: a laptop computer opened to Zoom. If the addition of an orange on the seder table stood for women’s liberation, the addition of a computer represented our collective confinement.

Three years later we’re still trying to understand what’s often referred to as “our new reality,” and answer the question–what comes next? Having lived through a world-altering pandemic, how should we approach the future?

A possible answer comes from the story of the Exodus. Imagine the feeling of the Israelite community after the ninth plague. God continues to demonstrate tremendous power, and yet Pharaoh remains obstinate. The Israelites have no reason to believe that freedom is near, and no reason to believe that the newest in a line of plagues will actually change their fate.

In preparation for what we know will be the tenth and final plague, God instructs the Israelites regarding the sacrifice of a lamb and tells them to put blood on the doorposts of their homes.

After this already baffling directive, what God says next must have rankled an already frustrated populace. “This day shall be to you,” God says, “one of remembrance: you shall celebrate it as a festival to me throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time.” (Exodus 12:14)

Celebrate? For all time? If the Israelites still had a slave mentality when they left Egypt and would carry it for years to come, these ideas would have felt as far removed from reality as the Promised Land did to Abraham when God first told him about it generations ago.

Of course, the reader knows that God will split the sea, that the Egyptian army will drown in its waters when they close, and that eventually the Israelites will see the other side of bondage, but for now–how could they possibly comprehend the notion of a celebration, not to mention a celebration for all time?

As if dangling a far-fetched holiday in front of them wasn’t enough, God then asks them to imagine their descendants. “And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is the passover sacrifice to YHVH, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when smiting the Egyptians, but saved our houses.”

But how could the enslaved Hebrews respond to this future-talk with anything other than collective sighs of frustration and despondent skepticism?

As a Jewish community, one of our tasks is to become better people by imitating God. Whether or not we believe in God–that is not the question. As Jack Miles wrote in God: A Biography, “That God created mankind, male and female, in his own image is a matter of faith. That our forebears strove for centuries to perfect themselves in the image of their God is a matter of historical fact.”

Miles is certainly correct. When we read God’s words, “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seedbearing fruit,” (Genesis 1:29) we pursue an answer to the question–what does it mean to be stewards of this planet? When we read God’s words, “be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy,” (Leviticus 19:2) we pursue an answer to the question–what does it mean to be holy?

So, too, when we read God’s words, “This day shall be to you one of remembrance,” even when they are said within the context of seemingly never-ending despair, we pursue an answer to the question: how can we lift our eyes toward a time of future joy and release? More specifically, this year we might pursue an answer to the question–how can we already begin to ritualize the massive changes wrought by the pandemic? How can we prepare ourselves for what our children’s children might ask us one day? The lesson is clear. Even before we reach the Promised Land, and even before we ever start down the road to get there, we’re meant to ask ourselves about the implications of our actions.

Oliver Sacks said it well. “To live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient for human beings; we need to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation; we need to see over-all patterns in our lives. We need hope, the sense of a future. And we need freedom (or, at least, the illusion of freedom) to get beyond ourselves, whether with telescopes and microscopes and our ever-burgeoning technology, or in states of mind that allow us to travel to other worlds, to rise above our immediate surroundings.” (New Yorker, Aug 2012)

To rise above our immediate surroundings–this is the meaning of the Passover holiday. To see farther, today. To imagine an entirely different reality, today. “The future,” said Howard Zinn, “is an infinite succession of presents,” and so we should “live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us.”

Chag sameach, friends, and may your seder tables be full of life, and most importantly, hope for a better tomorrow.

This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2023 issue of the Vine.

Skip to content