Pesach and Beyond—Towards Shavuot

Hopefully, we have experienced sweet, beautiful and enjoyable seders with our friends and loved ones and through the days of Pesach this week, we have found much joy amid our matza.  This Monday and Tuesday, these last Festival days of Pesach, we gather in our newly formed freedom and together, leave the narrow places of Egypt (Mitzrayim), through the split sea.  During our celebrations of our s’darim (seders), we are encouraged to place ourselves in the story of the Exodus—to literally make it our own.  And now, even though there is not a seder at the end of Pesach, we continue in our telling—we place ourselves in the journey towards freedom and together we experience the miracle of the parting of the sea, as we walk on dry ground, between the waves.

Indeed, on these ending days of our Festival, our story is not over—in fact, it has barely begun.  In our traversing from slavery to freedom, we have taken an accounting of our physical selves—we have removed ourselves from hazard—from the lurking dangers of constant slavery—and now in this period of time between Pesach and Shavuot, we have an opportunity to concentrate on our spiritual selves—our thoughts, motivations, and character. In not eating chametz, it is not about inconvenience- - instead, we open ourselves up to new and other possibilities - we have new places inside of us that we have never before recognized - so we can reenter back into our lives with renewed freshness and verve.

At the same time, it’s not as if we don’t recognize our constant exile—but we can move beyond it, always seeking redemption, come what may. An illustration: one day the sultan of Egypt told Maimonides, his court  physician—”as I am a well man, I have not had the opportunity to test your medical skills.” Maimonides answered him—”the greatness of a doctor consists of preventing a patient from becoming ill, rather than in healing a person who is already ill.” May it too be for us - may we always look to God for help and guidance as we continue to protect our body and craft our soul as we walk everyday, from slavery to freedom.

One of the centerpieces of seder night is the eating of matzah, the unleavened bread. And while matzah reminds us of the haste in which the Israelites departed from the land of Egypt, it contains in it another compelling message. The evening of the Passover seder, we are required to eat not just any piece of matzah, but what is known as “guarded matzah.” (This matzah is often called shmurah matzah in North America, and it is special because, from the time the wheat is harvested in the field through baking, there is an additional measure of vigilance to be sure that at no point in the process does the wheat turn into leaven.) The reason that we eat this particular matzah is to call to mind the nature of the event described in Exodus 12:42: “That was for the Lord a night of vigil to bring them out of the Land of Egypt; that same night is the Lord’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages.” When the Torah tells us that seder evening was “a night of vigil” (leyl shimurim) for both God and the children of Israel, what is the precise meaning of the term shimurim (watching or vigil), and how does it affect the way we understand the matzah?

While many commentators, including Abraham Ibn Ezra, believe that “a night of watching” refers to God’s act of vigilance in guarding the homes of the Israelites from the Angel of Death, Ramban offers us a very different perspective. Arguing that the expression is deeply connected to the act of the Israelites for all generations, Nahmanides contends that it is quintessentially “a night of watching” for the Israelites. He writes, “it means that the Israelites are to observe Pesah by worshipping God through the eating of the Passover-offering, the remembering of the miracles, and the recitation of praise and thanksgiving.” In other words, it is a night of observance for the Israelites. The Israelites are commanded to observe the Passover ritual in every generation. In this way, it becomes an evening that is devoted wholly to God. Plugging Ramban’s exegesis back into the text (Exod. 12:42) would lead us to read the opening of this verse in this fashion: “It is a night of observance dedicated to the Lord.”

Ramban’s reading compels us to both understand and eat the shmurah matzah in a different way. According to Ramban, this ritual is about sacredness; that is to say, directing our hearts and minds to God on this very special evening. The essential act of the night involves our celebration of God—an event that is timeless, spreading across all generations. Quite beautifully, Ramban links our past, present, and future in this annual commemoration of the Jewish journey toward freedom.
A Commentary by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Director of Israel Programs, JTS


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