The Power of Pesach
by Rabbi Henry Jay Karp
Over 30 years ago, I read an article which reported a statistical study of Jewish observances. The big news in that article was that while many Jews assumed that the most observed Jewish holiday of the year is Yom Kippur, the statistics indicated that by a wide margin it is not Yom Kippur but rather Pesach (Passover). Just the other day I did some online searching to see if this is still the case. While I could not find any current statistical data, what I did find was article after article, from diverse Jewish sources, that continue to claim that Pesach is the most celebrated of all Jewish holidays.
Why is that the case?
Of course one reason that is commonly held is that Pesach is such a family affair. Traditionally, the centerpiece of its celebration – the Seder – takes place in the home. It is not uncommon for family members to travel great distances so that they can share the Seder with their loved ones. But is family togetherness a sufficient enough explanation for the overwhelming popularity of this celebration? While it is certainly a significant contributing factor, by itself this explanation is not sufficient. After all, there are many important opportunities for family gatherings. If coming together with family is such a driving factor then how come we do not necessarily see this happening on such major family occasions as birthdays and anniversaries? On those occasions, relatives living at a distance are quite content to fulfill their familial obligations with a phone call or a card, and maybe even sending a present. Even when relatives are local, they can find themselves struggling to come to agreement upon a date and time for such a celebration. The drive for family togetherness just does not seem equal to the power of the commanding voice of our personal schedules.
While the desire for family togetherness is important on Pesach, there has to be something more which lifts this holiday above all others on the Jewish calendar.
Could it be the rituals? There is no question but that Jews love the powerful symbolism that are at the heart of Seder rituals. Personally for me, the most powerful is when we take wine out of our cup as we recite each of the Ten Plagues, thereby symbolically diminishing our joy because the sweetness of our freedom was acquired at the price of the suffering of the Egyptians. But as powerful as the Seder rituals are, they alone cannot be the driving force behind the enormous popularity of Pesach. For if it truly were the rituals, that indeed would be ironic, considering how so many American Jews have come to almost completely ignore the rituals of Shabbat. If the need for rituals is so compelling, then why do our people cast aside the opportunity to immerse themselves in the rituals of our faith which are available to us on a weekly basis, not even to mention those that are daily available to us?
Perhaps the factor that carries Pesach over the top is history, for this is a holiday which seriously connects us with our Jewish past. It strives to imaginatively bring us back to Egypt; to help us sense, even if just a little, what it might have been like to be a Jew living in slavery and then miraculously tasting the sweetness of freedom. It reminds us of where we came from; our roots. We need to connect with our history for it empowers us to better understand and appreciate how and why we came to be the people and the Jews we are today; to a better understanding of ourselves. Deep in our hearts, whether or not we wish to openly admit it, we know that we are more than just this moment in time. We are who we are today, not just because of what we are doing today with our lives, but also – significantly also – because we are the product of generations of our families – of Jews – who have struggled to reconcile their lives with the world in which they have found themselves, and often doing so by viewing their lives through the lens of Judaism. Passover reminds us that as Jews, we are on a journey which began long before we were born and will continue long after we are gone.
In order for us to derive the fullest benefit of this Pesach encounter with the past, we should not limit our reflections solely to the ancient history of our people. Rather, we should take this Pesach opportunity to reconnect and reflect upon our very own personal and family histories. We need to confront not just the historical Jewish journey of the our people but also the personal Jewish journeys on which each and every one of us have been engaged. As we sit at the Seder table we need to ask ourselves many personal questions: How did we come to this point in our Jewish lives? What were the contributing factors that have helped to make us the Jews we are today? Who were those special people that had a hand in helping us to mold our Jewish selves? How have we expressed our gratitude for this legacy we have received? How have we worked to pass on these gifts to others? How will we mold our Jewish future in such a way as to render due homage to our Jewish past? As we recall the journey of our ancient ancestors from slavery to freedom, let us also ponder the Jewish journey of our own lives.
Have a joyful, reflective, and inspiring Pesach!
Rabbi Henry Jay Karp is the rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Davenport, Iowa.
Originally posted on Reflections of an Iowa Rabbi