The story of Pesach is one of renewal. Originally it seems that there were two festivals to do with the Spring – there was Pesach which was a celebration of the new lambs, and there was Chag HaMatzah, a holiday which celebrated the first grain harvest of the year and the using up of the old. At some point, (maybe around 1250 BCE when the Exodus is said to have taken place), the two Spring festivals became one. The verb ‘pasach’ means to jump over (the way that lambs jump about in the fields) so it became used to describe how God passed over the houses of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and did not kill the first-born people inside. The word Matzah came to be understood as the unleavened bread that was eaten because of the haste of the departure of the Hebrews from Egypt. As ever, Judaism is adept at taking what already exists in the ritual lexicon and reinterpreting it, renewing it in order to bring about a different significance and meaning.
Pesach was a primarily a festival which rejoices in the Springtime and the hope of renewal and revitalisation it brings. It is also now an historical festival, marking the real beginnings of the Jewish people, something that will find its culmination in Shavuot. And Pesach is also a festival dedicated to ideological and the spiritual renewal– it is a festival of freedom, a promise and foretaste of ultimate redemption.
With Pesach and the Spring we are at a new beginning. The physical world is waking up and there is a sense of possibility. As Pesach approaches we deep clean our homes, removing the hametz – the old and fermented goods. The process symbolises a kind of spiritual new beginning, the removal of the stale from our lives and the opportunity to start again.
Preparation for Pesach is a very physical activity, from Purim onwards we carry on an extreme version of spring cleaning, doing what used to called in my Yorkshire childhood ‘bottoming’ (as in I’ll get to the bottom of that wardrobe / pile of papers / overstuffed kitchen drawer). The sheer upheaval is enough to make one tired, yet it also forces a sort of internal reflection. While making free with the bleach and the various cleansers the mind can sort of disengage and has time to think. In fact it is not unlike the way prayer works – as the mouth and body follow the prescribed words and choreography of the siddur, the mind finds itself free to range further.
But Pesach isn’t only about the physical renewal nor the spiritual replenishment it brings – Pesach requires us to locate ourselves in our ancient narrative, to tell our story once more and place ourselves within it. To make certain our children are also listening and hearing it and taking it for themselves. Hence the rituals around the Seder, many of which are designed to attract the children, to pique their interest and draw them in. Without the telling of the story and the conversation about it that follows, Pesach is simply a Springtime ritual in order to celebrate the new agricultural year that follows the cold and forbidding winters. Without the discussion and dialogue about what the story is teaching us about freedom then and now, we are simply following an empty ritual.
A gloss on the word Pesach teaches that besides being the verb for jumping over, it can be divided into two Hebrew words – ‘peh’ meaning mouth, and ‘sach’ meaning talking or conversation. The whole point of Pesach is to talk, to tell, to sing, to describe, to discuss, to argue examine and consider what the meaning is for us now. If we celebrate only with ritual, if we simply plonk ourselves down at the nearest Seder and work our way through the haggadah, we will be doing this most powerful of festivals a disservice. Pesach, the preparation time leading up to it, and the Seder itself all sanction conversation between the generations – to tell the story again and again, to understand what it means in our day and age. So as we prepare the ritual items for Seder, we invite friends and family to join us in the retelling of the haggadah , and merge the stories of springtime lambing and first grains with the stories of exodus from Egypt and God’s dramatic re-entry into our history. We ask ourselves the contemporary meaning of our story. We talk to each other about what we each think about freedom, what we see in the world, and we consider what we can do about what we see. That is surely worth all the work in preparation for the festival, and it gives us our work for the year to come.