I love Pesach — once I’m sitting at the seder, that is. Until that point, the rush and the panic are so difficult to handle. Is it just me? Why does our tradition have such stressful ritual as part of its modus operandi?
You are not alone, but you know that. Surely you’ve chatted with family and friends and know intellectually that we are all in the same demanding dash toward the holiday that ironically marks our freedom from slavery.
I deeply believe that there are no accidents in Jewish practice; that even the most seemingly commonplace convention holds within it a transcendent loftiness and a message of meaning. That is the profound nature of our tradition. There must be something more to this rush than meets the eye. We all experience a haste like no other before this holiday begins. Though all of the holidays present their own unique panic quotient, this one has its own particular, deeply felt ontological rush.
What is the genesis of this rush? Let me take you back to the very first Pesach, often referred to as “Pesach Mitzrayim” — the Egyptian Passover. Moshe sets forth meticulous instructions for the evening’s rituals. Every detail is connected to this haste, this existential alacrity, if you will.
“And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; with bitter herbs they shall eat it. Eat not of it raw, nor sodden at all with water, but roast with fire; its head with its legs and with the inwards thereof. And you shall let nothing of it remain until the morning; but that which remains of it until the morning you shall burn with fire. And so shall ye eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste — it is the Lord’s Passover.
This is nothing if not the description of the original “fast food” menu. The matzoh is the bread that will necessitate no time to rise. We ate matzoh on the night of Passover in anticipation of the dash of deliverance that is yet to come. There is not putting up of bread to rise for this meal. The plans for the evening call for unleavened flatbread — we’ve got a freedom train to catch. The main course? Meat for which there will be no long cooking time — no slow braising, no meat that falls off the bone with the patience of the slow simmer.
The setting is no elegant restaurant with white tablecloths delivering the leisurely meal of courses and hours. Here the attire is utilitarian, inelegant travel wear. The sign might stipulate, “No staff on hand — No service. No doggy bags, no leftovers — we will not be around for it and we cannot take it with us.” This is the original eat and run. The consumption is in “haste” — the hurriedness of the evening is clear. But we are not the only ones in a rush. The Holy One is swiftly swooping in on the Egyptian firstborns, passing over.
What’s the rush? Two ancient rabbinic views:
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah says: “What is meant by haste? The haste of the Egyptians.”
But Rabbi Akiva says: “It is the haste of Israel.”
The argument: Who is the author of this great acceleration of the redemption? Does it emanate from our enemy, “And the Egyptians were urgent upon the people, to send them out of the land in haste,” or is this a self-constructed quickness to extricate ourselves from the bonds of slavery? Our sages’ argument is a weighty dispute. Do the people of Israel determine their destiny or are we forever at the mercy of the persecutor du jour? Rabbi Akiva staunchly contends that we own our liberation — though the Egyptians pressured us to exit immediately — we will not leave until the morning. We own this rush.
Maimonides introduced a preliminary statement about the acceleration of our forefathers into his Haggadah: “Ha lacham anya, this is the bread of our affliction,” to be recited before the opening paragraph. He inserted this short phrase for us to proclaim: “With a sudden haste we left Egypt.” This is a dramatic innovation for the otherwise scripted traditional text of the Haggadah.
Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik asked why this aspect of haste, chipazon, is so important to Maimonides. Why did it become the focal point of the evening? Chipazon, he explains, means “time consciousness” — the excitement of hurrying, of trying to catch up, of making sure that one is in a position to act when the opportunity next presents itself. Chipazon is the attempt to cover distance, to move forward quickly.
This is the manifestation of the concept of living time. For the Israelite slaves, this newly acquired control of time was the essence of their freedom. It was only then that they regained the concept of time, that they became free — free to be in a rush.
For the newly freed slave, time is everything. For this reason, Judaism is very much centered on holiness in time. Time matters. We were freed in the nick of time. Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his celebrated work, “The Sabbath,” writes poetically that we Jews “build cathedrals in time.” Our time is precious here on earth, and once free, we have no time to waste in our serving of the Lord.
This fresh liaison between the people of Israel and their God is characterized by this rush of love — an elopement if you will. Rabbi Berlin writes that this chipazon is the eminent Presence of God, metaphorically alluded to in the Song of Songs,: “The voice of my Beloved! Here He comes! Leaping over the mountains, skipping over the hills…”
Dr. Avivah Zornberg conceptualizes it this way: “God acts in a mode of passionate syncopation, disregarding the conventions, overlooking the normal rhythms of history. Some acceleration of events… must happen if they are to be redeemed.”
This, we sense, is a deep and ancient hurry. So, if you are rushing to get ready for Pesach, it’s a good thing. It’s all about feeling as if we ourselves were redeemed and share in the existential rush of our People. We lean luxuriously on seder night and try so hard to imagine slavery — while our ancestors sat impatiently with staff in hand, loins girded, rushed and ready, dreaming of freedom.