April 14, 2024
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Pesach: The Birth of a Nation

Pesach begins on the night of the 15th day of the month of Nissan and lasts for eight days. This holiday commemorates the departure of the nation of Israel from Egypt. Pesach marks the birth of the Jewish people as a nation led by Moshe over 3,000 years ago. This is a as much a celebration of our spiritual freedom as the physical liberation from slavery.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin tells us that Pesach is the most popularly observed Jewish holiday, followed by Yom Kippur and Chanukah. The Talmud (Pesachim 64a) tells us that this holiday was very popular even in the time of the Second Temple. King Agrippa (27-100 CE) once counted 1.2 million Passover lambs that were sacrificed in his time. Each lamb was sufficient to feed at least 10 people. This meant that at least 12 million people celebrated Pesach in the City of Jerusalem. Why is this holiday so popular? What is it meant to represent to the families and children who look forward every year to this special occasion?

Of course there are many explanations as to the symbolism of the holiday, and especially the way the Seder is conducted. The Mah Nishtana starts with the four questions that one of the younger children at the Seder are supposed to ask. The Malbim points out that the first two questions deal with matzah and maror, representing slavery and freedom. The last two questions deal with dipping and reclining, representing the symbols of nobility. We note how we started out as slaves, gained our freedom in one night, and are now grateful that we can enjoy a lavish meal acting as noblemen.

We also engage the children right from the start. We invite family and friends to the festive Seder. We sing special songs. We have unusual customs, ask the four questions and hide the Afikomen, which will later be redeemed for prizes. We speak of the four sons and recall how all children, whether wise, wicked, simple or ignorant, are valued participants and how every child has a role to play in the telling of the Pesach story.

We also appreciate how the hundreds of years of the Egyptian experience melded us into a unified nation. One Midrash relates that during our 210-year “sojourn” in Egypt we did not change our Jewish names, nor our Jewish language, nor our Jewish style of clothing, and we practiced kind deeds (Gemilut Chasadim).

One of the Dayanus that we recite relates that we would have been satisfied if Hashem brought us to Mount Sinai, even if he did not give us the Torah. The Vilna Gaon asked: What good would it have done us if we walked away empty-handed from Mount Sinai with no Torah? He answers that it would have been worthwhile, in and of itself, because the Jewish nation experienced “achdut,” togetherness, which was unprecedented until that time. Rashi commented that, while there may have been as many as 3 million Jews at the time, the Torah emphasized that we were like one man with one heart, meaning that we had achieved total peace and unity.

Another midrash teaches us that when God split the sea and the Jews crossed the waters, each tribe had their own route created within which to cross. Accordingly, there were 12 pathways to cross the Red Sea. Normally, one would consider that Hashem would use this opportunity to teach the lesson of harmony and create only one common path. Instead, 12 pathways were created, one for each tribe. Why was this done?

One explanation was that this was meant to teach us a lesson in diversity. As Jews, we all do not need to follow the same exact rigid pattern. Some of us may be Hasidic, some of us may be Zionistic, some of us may be Orthodox. Others are Reform or Conservative, and even more are not observant at all. However, what unites us all is that all of our paths point in the same direction and we all reach a common destination, i.e., the worship of Hashem and the furtherance of our heritage and Torah traditions. We can experience achdut at the Pesach Seder just as the original Jewish nation did at Mount Sinai. Perhaps this is one of many reasons why this holiday is so popular among all factions and flavors of Jews.

May Hashem bless us this Pesach so that we appreciate the many lessons that the Seder is meant to teach us. May we value the various customs and traditions with the same level of enthusiasm and wonder as our children bring to bear. Finally, may we as a people appreciate our diversity and yet come to a common destination, celebrating the Pesach Seder in the same manner as we have for the past thousands of years.


Rabbi Dr. Avi Kuperberg is a forensic, clinical psychologist and a member of the American Psychology-Law Society. He is acting president of the Chai Riders Motorcycle Club of NY/NJ. He is the coordinator of bikur cholim/chesed at Congregation Torah Ohr in Boca Raton, Florida. He can be reached at [email protected].

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