Historically, it's been suggested, rabbis waxed oratorical and preached to their congregations on only two Sabbaths of the year: Shabbat Shuva and Shabbat Hagadol — the former right before Yom Kippur, the latter before Passover. (Is this what people mean when they say: "Rabbi, how I miss the good old days!")
Why is this week called "The Great Shabbat"? The medieval and classical commentator Rashi opined that on this Shabbat, people stayed to hear the rabbi speak and teach for an extra-long time. (I, too, miss the good old days!)
This entire month of Nissan is one of preparation — a lot of cleaning, eating and celebrating — for, you guessed it, eight days.
In fact, the Talmud plays with the very word of the holiday. The Hebrew word for Passover is Pesach. Peh means "mouth," and sach means "speak." This is the holiday, par excellence, wherein we recite and report, relate and recount the fundamental story of the Jewish people — a story that has literally and profoundly become the fundamental story of the Western world.
A Continuing Story
"Let my people go" has become the liberation tagline for humankind. All subsequent journeys to freedom are really an exegesis on our historical Exodus.
The Jewish story so captured the imagination of the world that when this nation was founded, Benjamin Franklin proposed for the great seal of the United States an image of Moses leading the children of Israel across the Red Sea, while Thomas Jefferson favored an image of a redeemed people of Israel being lead in the desert by Moses.
Ultimately, the image chosen for this seal is one that you will find on the back of a dollar bill. It is a pyramid with a detached triangle above it with an eye at its center. Brian Burrell in hisThe Words We Live By writes that the pyramid was meant to signify Jewish slavery, even as the eye exemplified the redemptive power of the omniscient and all-seeing Providence.
So much did it capture the imagination that when Emma Lazarus was asked about her inspiration for writing the words that appear on the base of the Statue of Liberty — "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free" — she replied, "Though I am not a religious Jewess, the memories of the family Passover seder and its grand message of freedom and human dignity was my inspiration."
So much did it capture the imagination that when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1964, he said: "All over the world, like a fever, the freedom movement is spreading in the widest liberation in history. … The Bible tells us the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh's court centuries ago and cried, 'Let My People Go.' This is kind of an opening chapter in a continuing story."
It is no accident that Passover is the story writ large of the Jewish people. It is no accident that this story has had the most profound impact on subsequent religious, social and political movements throughout the world and through the millennia. It is no accident that we are obligated to engage in "Pe-Sach" — in speaking and commenting on, enunciating and editorializing on, in teaching and transmitting this story and its messages to ourselves and our children. It is no accident that Passover and the seder continue to be the most practiced holiday and ritual on the Jewish calendar.
But let's remember: Passover also serves as a call to action. More than 3,000 years ago, when that call went forth — "Let My People Go, That They May Serve Me" — the journey of a people — our people — began.
May this year bring you closer to your family, your community, your heritage. And may you and your loved ones have a delicious and loquacious holiday.
Rabbi David Gutterman is the executive director of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.