Passover Traditions

By Rabbi Bill Kuhn

Passover and Yom Kippur are the same holiday.  Well, maybe there is a little difference, but they share many of the same themes.  It’s all about renewal, rebirth, starting over and second chances.  Passover takes place in the spring of the year for a reason.  All of nature appears to die in the winter, although we know it is only in a dormant state, and the gentle spring rains and sunshine will cause the earth to reawaken.  Trees blossom, flowers bloom, grass reappears and the natural world seems to come back to life.  All is reborn.

            When our Israelite ancestors were slaves in Egypt, the religion of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Rachel and Leah, and Joseph and his brothers appeared to be dead.  In Egypt for four hundred years, there was very little contact with Adonai, the God of Israel.  As much as the Israelites had forgotten about Adonai, so too did it appear that God had forgotten about our people.  In fact, in the Book of Exodus, Chapter 6: Verse 5, when the Israelites were in slavery in Egypt, God says, “I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, and I have remembered My covenant with them.”

            Up to that point, Judaism appeared to be dead, although we know it was in a dormant state, much like nature is in the long, cold winter.  But the fresh sunshine of God’s spirit came to thaw the hardened hearts of the Israelites, and their spirits reawakened, and blossomed in the sweetness of renewal.  The people were reborn.  Judaism was reborn.

            That reawakening of the spirit of our people came in the form of God’s four-part promise to bring the Israelites out of Egypt, to deliver them from bondage, to redeem them with an outstretched arm, and to take them to the Promised Land.  With God’s help, the people moved from slavery to freedom, from degradation to salvation, from darkness to light. 

            Many times throughout the Passover Seder are we reminded of this transformation from the darkness of winter when all of nature seems dead, to the light and promise of springtime.  Karpas, “greens,” (parsley, lettuce or any green herb) symbolizes the rebirth of spring, as does the roasted egg, another symbol of the promise of a better life.

            For the symbolism of Pesach to be truly meaningful, we must look deeper to understand the relevance of this amazing holiday.  If the metaphor of moving from winter into spring has historical meaning for the rebirth of the people of Israel, what does it mean for us today, thousands of years later?

             As we struggle with our daily lives, looking for lasting value and meaning in our thoughts and our deeds, we may find profound hope in the message of Pesach.  Our ancestors moved from Egypt to the Promised Land.  In Hebrew, the word for Egypt is Mitzayim, which comes from the word meaning “narrow places.”  Each of us experiences our own narrow places in life, in the form of challenges, struggles, problems posed by daily existence.  Seeking to find ways to cope, we may turn to the beauty of Judaism, and the depth of wisdom and guidance provided by our tradition.  Passover teaches us the true meaning of freedom, and this formula has been with us for thousands of years.  By the way we live our lives, as good Jews, according to the values taught us by our tradition, by the way we treat those around us, our loved ones and friends, we can live on in their hearts long after we have gone.

             This is the connection between Passover and the High Holy Days.  On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we search our souls and examine our lives and try to think about what we can do to improve ourselves and to correct our shortcomings.  Judaism teaches us that we should do this every day of our lives, actually.  Through the process of tshuva, “repentance,” we hope that we can emerge from the Ten Days of Awe from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur as better people, inspired to dedicate our efforts to becoming the best we can be.  Tshuva is a process of transformation from darkness into light.  So too is Pesach.

             Nature transforms from darkness into light, from dormancy into new life.  The people of Israel emerged from the dark and narrow place of Egypt into the light of the Promised Land.  May we also emerge from our own narrow places on this Pesach, and may we be transformed from darkness into light, from desolation into hope.  On this Pesach, let us resolve to search our souls to think about what we can do to become better people.  Not only to think about it, but to actually get up and do something about it.  May God give us the strength and the courage to change, to act the way we know we should, and to understand the true purpose and meaning of our freedom.  And may our spirits soar as we think of the limitless possibilities of the kind of world we can build, if we will only try.

 Chag Sameach,