Passover is just 9 weeks from Monday night. Who can think about Passover at the beginning of February? But today’s Torah portion tells the Passover story of the Exodus and the 1st Seder celebration. Let me ask you, when did the 1st Passover take place?
Most people take it for granted that the 1st Seder took place after the Jews left Egypt. This is perfectly understandable since it’s logical that this festival of freedom be 1st celebrated after the Jews were freed. So it is with all our festive days: Chanukah was instituted after we emerged victorious from battle, Purim after the destruction of Haman and his followers; and in our time, Jerusalem Day after the Holy City was miraculously liberated 50 years ago.
No doubt those ancient Jews were filled with a shivering sense of dread in the night. To slaughter a lamb was to slaughter an Egyptian Gd, and there was no telling what the Egyptian masses would do when they saw the blood and realized we had been destroying their gods. There could have been a pogrom. The persecution might well have been intensified.
Indeed, the Talmud (Pesachim 116b) notes that we eat the matzah of freedom not because we were redeemed from Egypt but rather because we were redeemed in Egypt.
What does that mean? It means that our Seders are mostly a celebration of our trust and faith in Gd. The 1st Seder was not so much about the actual Redemption as it was about our trust that Gd will keep His promise and redeemed us. That’s why Passover is not a holiday of Redemption as much as it is a holiday of faith in redemption. The afikoman, or matzah of redemption—which the Holy Zohar calls, “the bread of faithfulness”—is, therefore, eaten before midnight because midnight is when the Exodus began.
There’s a famous story of a mystic who was about to die and who saw his whole life passing before him. He saw his soul’s sojourn in this world as a journey through a vast desert, and at every milestone of his life—his birth, his brit, his Bar Mitzvah, his wedding, his major accomplishments as an adult—he saw 2 sets of footprints in the sand, which he understood to be his and Gd’s. But at many times in his life, the most tragic moments—sickness, abandonment, the moments of heartbreak and despair—only one set of footprints was visible.
This really tortured him and he questioned Gd: “Ribono Shel Olam, Master of the Universe, once you promised that if I was faithful to You, You’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times of my life, there was only one set of footprints in the sand. I don’t understand why when I needed you most, you would abandon me?”
Responded Gd: “My precious child, I love you and would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering when you saw only one set of footprints, it was I that was carrying you!”
Even when it seems like Gd is not present because life is so hard, and we ask, “Where is Gd?” it is Gd that is really carrying us. So we must have faith even before we are redeemed, even before things get better that Gd is with us and will redeem us.
This helps us answer the question of how the Jews could celebrate Passover, the festival of Redemption, while they were still slaves? Mordechai Eliav, in his book, Ani Ma’amin, describes how, during the last Passover of World War II inside the Vaihingen concentration camp, he was able to create a real Passover:
A few days before the start of the holiday, an SS man ordered Eliav, who worked in the foundry, to prepare targets for rifle practice. An idea seized him. In order to make the targets, he'd need paste, which he could prepare from flour. The SS man was able to get 15 kilos, and Eliav knew that a miracle had taken place. With the extra flour, Eliav and his fellow prisoners could bake matzah inside a secret Passover oven. Prisoners who heard about the acquisition suddenly had a new will to live.
So several days later, in the middle of a German concentration camp, where there could be no greater crime than being born a Jew, they were able to sit down with real matzah—20th century Marranos. Instead of wine, they drank sweetened water. A bit of radish was found for the horseradish (maror), some potato for the karpas, and there was no problem with water and salt.
When they chanted: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” and described the unleavened bread as the bread of affliction, I imagine this Seder was imbued with the same kind of dread and hope that the ancient Israelites felt in Egypt. Dread because the SS might discover the Jews eating the German “god”—paste for rifle targets. And hope, because who would have believed that, in the middle of this hell, Jews could still escape their oppressors? And Passover is after all not so much a celebration of Redemption achieved; it is rather a celebration of Redemption anticipated.
To understand the feeling in the hearts of the Israelites during the night of the 1st Passover, all we have to do is go to people like Mordechai Eliav and his cell mates who, without intending to, created a living testimony of faith in Gd—a testimony every bit as powerful as those ancient Israelites.
And if that’s how Eliav felt in 1945 when he was still in a camp, imagine his next Passover, when his faith was rewarded with freedom, and years later when he recently celebrated the Bar Mitzvah of one grandson and the circumcision of another in Israel.
My friends, no matter how dark our lives may seem at times, let us always remember that Gd loves us and it is He that carries us. As we say at the end of the Adon Olam prayer, Hashem li v’lo ira, “Gd is with me, I have nothing to fear!”
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis