Passover as an Initiation

Passover this year begins the evening of April 19, 2008.

This year, as I prepare for Pesach/Passover, the holiday of freedom, spring has just come to my neighborhood. The warm winds have finally come, and flowers are blooming. Yet instead of relaxing, my family and I are cleaning! When we’re done cleaning, we’ll start cooking. When we’re done cooking, we’ll sit down to a ritual storytelling event, the seder, that lasts well into the night.

What is the meaning of this ritual? Or, more traditionally, why is this night different from all other nights? The pesach or Passover offering was offered by the Hebrew slaves on the night they were to become free. That’s what we are told in the Exodus story. Yet the ritual may have originated in an ancient Hebrew shepherd’s festival thanking the Divine for the new flocks born in spring. The matzah, on the other hand, was offered by the farmer in gratitude for his crop. Passover, or Pesach, brought these two groups together to celebrate.

Pesach is more than a thanksgiving feast, though. It is an initiatory rite. Eating of a Passover sacrifice means that you are part of the Israelite (and later, the Jewish) community. Pesach begins the spring, describing the birth of a nation out of a narrow and death-filled place. It is a rebirth ritual, defining the moment when, together with our tribe, we begin life again. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that the first of Nisan (two weeks before Pesach) is the new year for time itself: "Four New Years are there: on the first of Nisan is the New Year for kings and holidays."

According to the anthropologist Michael Meade, there are three stages in a tribal initiation. First, one becomes isolated or separated from the known world. Second, one experiences an ordeal, or a brush with death. Third, one is welcomed back as a person with a new identity, a fully initiated person.
During Passover, we actually go through all three stages. We identify ourselves as slaves. We clean our houses, ridding ourselves of chametz (leaven). This is a kind of symbolic separation: we remove ourselves from our normal diet and our daily life through the process of preparing our houses. We then symbolically go through the ordeal of slavery by telling the story of Egypt. We drink four cups representing the progression from escape (which is external) to true liberation (which is internal). In the end, we take up a new identity as free people, children of our ancestors. We sing praises, reliving the joy of freedom. We prepare to meet the future, opening the door for Elijah, who brings messianic hopes of peace and justice.

This initiatory rite is not individual but communal. Jews do have individual initiation rites, such as bar/bat mitzvah (where the ordeal is learning one’s Torah reading, and the new identity is young adulthood), and conversion (where the ordeal is presenting oneself before the rabbinic court, and the new identity is one’s Jewish self. Yet the initiation rite we live through again and again is a tribal one, including every member of the community. How powerful, to be reborn together year after year! It is no wonder that Jews who celebrate very few Jewish rituals still attend a seder. The seder is our most ancient communal rite of belonging.

This rebirth ritual leads us into the spring changed, re-formed, re-made. As we move into the season of life, may we commit ourselves to being part of a community with all living things. Our seder connects us to the tribe, that is true. But, through the egg and parsley rituals that symbolize plant and animal life, and the salt water that represents the sea, it should also connect us to the larger tribe of Planet Earth. I wish everyone a deeply liberating Pesach and a wonderful spring.

Rabbi Jill Hammer is the Director of Tel Shemesh, the Director of Spiritual Education at the Academy for Jewish Religion, and the author of The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons.

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