Last Days of Pesah – 5779

A D’var Torah for the last days of Pesah
By Rabbi Heidi Hoover (’11)

We are coming now to the end of Passover, our joyful spring holiday. At our seders, we asked questions, we learned, we discussed how we were slaves in the land of Egypt, and how we were freed from that degradation and pain by the strong hand and outstretched arm of God, who took us to be God’s people, and who we continue to acknowledge as our God. It is a journey from slavery to freedom, from sadness and despair to rejoicing.

On the last day of Passover, we traditionally read about the crossing of the Reed Sea and the song of celebration the Israelites and Moses sang on the other side. Some Jews, particularly among the Hasidim, have a tradition of pouring water on the floor and singing and dancing to remember the crossing of the sea.[1] But during this same service, we recite Yizkor for our loved ones who have died.

In the midrash[2] some of our rabbis suggest that not all of the Israelites left Egypt in the Exodus—some say one-fifth did not leave, or one in 50, or one in 500, because they died during the plague of darkness. (Rashi and Ibn Ezra, in the JPS Miqraot g’dolot p. 100, say it the other way—only 1/5 or 1/50th or 1/500th of the Israelites left. This seems to me to be a translation issue.) This adds a different element to the Israelites’ flight—they weren’t just leaving slavery and oppression, they were leaving loved ones behind.

This brings to mind another escape we read about in the Torah—Lot and his family’s flight from Sodom and Gomorrah as it is destroyed. Lot and his (unnamed) wife escape with two daughters, and they are warned not to look back. Lot’s wife does look back, and is turned into a pillar of salt. But who could blame her for looking back? They had other daughters who were married, and who did not leave with them. They weren’t just leaving a place full of evil and depravity, they were leaving loved ones behind.

As we go through our lives, we go through changes. Relationships begin and end. Sometimes we are forced to leave people behind because they die, and we live on. Sometimes we are forced to leave people behind because in order for us to live on in a positive way, we must end relationships that are damaging to us. Sometimes circumstances force us to leave people behind even when we don’t want to, but we are not given a choice. And even when there is joy ahead, even when we are better off, there is pain in the change, there is loneliness in being without those whom we have left behind. Even when the relationships have been difficult or damaging, it is difficult to make the transition, because those people have been part of us in positive ways, and sometimes in negative ways too.

When we are children, if we are fortunate, Passover is fun and joyful, maybe kind of boring. The rituals and traditions become a valuable part of the fabric of our lives. It becomes important to do things the same way as last year. My own children look forward to and insist on having the matzobrei they eat for breakfast only during Passover, and my younger daughter makes sure every year that we are going to continue incorporating the Afghani Jewish custom of whipping each other with scallions while singing Dayeinu.

As we grow older, we begin to experience the impact of loss in the midst of our holiday celebrations.

Marge Piercy, a novelist and poet, has written a book called Pesach for the Rest of Us, in which she suggests new rituals and interpretations to incorporate into the Passover seder, encouraging everyone to make the seder their own, which is indeed what our rabbis intended. In her book, Marge Piercy offers this interpretation of the dipping of the karpas, the spring greens, in salt water at the beginning of our seder:

The karpas is a reminder of spring, which renews the earth. But the sparrow that returns may not be the one that left the previous fall. Our lives have rhythms of what returns and what does not return. We come to the seder every year, but we may not all be there. Friends move away, friends die, grandparents die, children leave home. People we cherished can be, one way or another, lost to us. There are empty places not only for Eliyahu, but empty places for those we have lost. We dip the symbol of spring and renewal into the symbol of pain and regret, the salty water that is akin to our blood and our sweat. We are largely made of slightly salty water; it never hurts to remember that.[3]

So we take time on the seventh day of Pesach to remember those whom we are missing, those who were not at our seder table this year, who perhaps have not been at the table for many years, or with whom we never shared a seder, but with whom we have shared our lives and our hearts, and who we look back to even as we go forward in our lives.

We must not allow our looking back at the past to turn us into pillars of salt, paralyzed by what has happened or by what we have lost. Rather, we dip into our salt tears, we allow them to flow, acknowledging their place in our lives, the place of memory, the impact of those who are no longer with us. We recognize that loss is part of life, and that even in times of happiness there can also be sadness. And so, on this day of rejoicing, may we all make the memories of those we love a blessing that sustains and enriches our lives today, tomorrow, and always.

[1] Michael Strassfeld, The Jewish Holidays, p. 27

[2] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, p. 82 of W. David Nelson’s 2006 JPS edition.

[3] Adapted from Marge Piercy, Pesach for the Rest of Us

Rabbi Heidi Hoover (AJR ’11) has taught Conversion at AJR. She is the rabbi of B’ShERT: Beth Shalom v’Emeth Reform Temple in Brooklyn, NY.