Double-A Torah: Passover

Each week, our resident Hillel Rabbis (Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan and Rabbi Alex Kress) will comment on the week's parsha. This week, we're breaking down Passover.

Rabbi Aryeh

Over the next 72 hours, we are going to be experiencing a deep dive into Passover and Shabbat. For many, this will be an island in which Zoom classes will be canceled and Instagram stories will be muted to be replaced by seders, lots of holiday foods, and hopefully mental space for meaningful prayer. We begin these three days with seder, and we find a curiosity at the beginning of the Haggadah: it does not start with the prayers for wine or even the blessings for the holiday candles. Instead, it begins with "Before the Seder BURNING OF THE CHAMETZ". Immediately following the burning, we say, "All leaven or anything leavened which is in my possession, whether I have seen it or not, whether I have observed it or not, whether I have removed it or not, shall be considered nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth."

Why do we print this in the Haggadah? After all, once Passover begins, it's too late!

I believe the printers are trying to tell us something fundamental. They are pointing out that the same ingredients flour and water are in matzah and bread; the only difference is time. If the bread and water sit for 18 minutes untouched, it becomes bread or chametz. If the dough is worked over quickly and is baked in under 18 minutes, then the result is matzah. We have to know that our success is our power to harness and make the most of the time we have. Once a year, we remind ourselves of the importance of time by burning and making ownerless a substance that took too long to make and then enjoying a delight that was created while using every minute to highlight to us the power of every single moment.

Rabbi Alex

“We are all Pharaohs or slaves of Pharaohs. It is sad to be a slave of Pharaoh. It is horrible to be a Pharaoh. Daily we should take account and ask: What have I done today to alleviate the anguish, to mitigate the evil, to prevent humiliation? Let there be a grain of prophet in every person!”
-Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

As we find ourselves in unprecedented times, the Passover story will speak differently to us than it has in years past. As we sit in small seders, Zoom seders, or read the haggadah alone, we will be presented with an opportunity for both external reflection on our world and situation, as well as asked how we can shake free the bonds of our inner slaveries. Rabbi Heschel teaches that we are all Pharaohs or slaves in some way and Pesach presents us with the opportunity to wrestle with that paradigm. Are you a slave to the Pharaoh of convenience? Are you a Pharaoh in your inability to follow stay-at-home orders? Are you a slave to the Pharaoh of time? Are you a slave to the Pharaoh of standards for those around you?

Every year, we have 7 or 8 days of eating the bread of affliction to jolt us awake and alert us of the external and internal woes we have been ignoring for too long. The Festival of Unleavened Bread challenges us all to be prophetic both in our vision for ourselves as well as in our ability to help society. What have we done to alleviate our inner anguish, to mitigate the harm of pandemics, to ensure the dignity of our fellow human beings?

Egypt is not just a destination on our yearly pilgrimage through the calendar. Egypt is a mindset – and it is our responsibility to bring about redemption.