Pesach: Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jig
By Jean Gerber
We know Rosh Hashanah, literally the “head of the year,” as the Jewish New Year. But it comes at the start of the Tishrei, the seventh month of our calendar. Pesach comes in Nisan, the “beginning of the months.” So, the beginning is different from the head. And there are other holidays that mark different new years. We’ll tackle that in a separate article about the Jewish calendar.
For now, let’s just enjoy thinking about Pesach. During the seder, we actually become actors on a stage. By re-enacting the exodus from slavery to freedom, we become part of that mighty crowd of disheveled slaves and hangers-on (the eruv rav) who sling a sack of matzah over their shoulders and head happily east towards their ancestral home.
Or do they? And what are they thinking after so many years of bondage? Happy to be on the road? Or casting fearful glances back to when, however bad things were, at least they could count on a few certainties. And who is this Moses, anyway? How can we trust him?
It seems appropriate to begin with slavery. As in the seder, we begin by singing Avadim hayinu, “We were slaves.”
You may recall the animated film from years ago, Prince of Egypt. It begins with two boys rollicking around the palace—Moses, who grows up to be, well, Moses, and the son of Pharaoh, who will grow up to be Rameses, Pharaoh of the Exodus. They are clearly best buddies. So how do they become archenemies? In this small relationship and its aftermath, when both are now grown up and grown far, far apart, we can glimpse the larger relationship between master and slave.
What is it like for a civilization to rest its prosperity, art, and culture, on slavery? For one thing, it means that master and slave have had a long and intimate relationship with each other. Each knows—in every sense—the other. Masters have raped and abused their slaves; slaves have had their sense of self erased by this abuse. A unique and unhappy bond has grown between them. No wonder that over and over Israel is later reminded to “remember that you were slaves in Egypt.” We are commanded not to create a permanent class of slaves, that they must, in a prescribed time, be granted their freedom. Otherwise, masters become like gods, and slaves lose all sense of agency over their lives.
This last issue becomes evident when the Israelites begin their whining, almost before they get to the Sea of Reeds, at the realization that Pharaoh has not given up and is chasing them down.
In the film, Pharaoh calls out to Moses, friend of his youth, to try and coax him back. How will Egypt function without its slaves? How will Moses’ boyhood friend be able to square that relationship with this sudden and terrible loss?
And how will these newly released slaves face their sudden freedom? They are skittering out of Egypt, leaving thousands of dead children behind them who have been struck by the tenth and most awe-full plague, the death of the first-born. (Later we will write about that and its meanings.) Liberation, as we of the twenty-first century know, is not won without bloodshed, quite often that of the most innocent.
Well, Israelites do not deal well with their sudden freedom. Bad as slavery is, it still means that they have food—however meagre it may be—water, houses, and no responsibility for anything except their labour. Suddenly, they must assume those individual responsibilities that they had yearned after. And they take them on slowly and with bad grace.
The movie ends with everyone singing the Song of Miriam. But our seder will take us much further into both darkness and light. For now, we are at the first part—eating the bread of slavery, halachma anya, the bread of affliction. Matzah is both that and also a symbol of freedom. So, let’s leave Israel poised at the edge of the sea, not yet ready to understand what freedom means.
Robert Alter writes that the stories in the Torah are “a discourse on God’s purpose in history.” At Pesach we become part of that discourse.