In ancient times, Pesach was one of three pilgrimage holidays, the others being Sukkot and Shavuot. According to the the Torah, Israelite men were required to travel to Jerusalem to bring offerings to the temple. Supposedly, this reconnected these Israelites to their religion, to each other and to the deity. Participating in these pilgrimages brought about a deeper sense of community. In short, three times a year, Jerusalem became a home away from home.
What an interesting and quite awful definition of home: a male-only community focused on slaughtering animals to atone for sins. Did ancient Israelites think that this religious obligation actually created a better home than where they lived most of the year? Or, was it just a religious obligation? Did anyone bemoan the massacre of the animals? In a related fashion, was Pesach alienating for women and children? Did the ancient Israelite home become less important during these festivals? Did women and children feel left out of their own religious traditions if they didn’t live in Jerusalem? What did they do for Pesach?
Even before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE by the Romans, Jewish prophets questioned the efficacy of such celebrations. Amos shunned the animal slaughtering preferring to focus on justice and righteousness instead (Amos 5:22-24). Micah protested (6:6) and surmised similarly. “What does the L-rd require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d,” (6:8). Even Isaiah had such a message. Speaking from G-d’s perspective, Isaiah said, “What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the L-rd; I have had enough of burnt offerings… cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescued the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow,” (1:11-17).
While the temple stood, such messages seemed to fall on deaf ears. However, when the Romans destroyed it in 70 CE and exiled many Jews, everything changed. Post-temple Rabbinical wisdom keyed into the ideas of the Prophets and altered the festival. Pesach became a holiday about a story, a story of slavery and freedom, hardship and blessing, misery and comfort, and insecurity and stability. It became a story to pass on to children and children play a central role in its telling.
The story begins in Egypt when the Israelites were slaves, oppressed ruthlessly by Egyptian taskmasters. They were freed only to spend the next 40 years wandering in the uncertainty and instability of the desert. Eventually, the Israelites accepted the Torah and a closer relationship with G-d . This new relationship would eventually bless them with comfort, stability and a new home, the Promised Land.
Nowadays, we tell this story during a ritual meal: the Seder, which was first developed during Rabbinical times. One of the oldest known parts of the Seder is the song, Ma nishtana, in which children play a central role. The earliest versions of it are found in the mishnah and Talmud. The song highlights Pesach occurring within a physical space that is comfortable, peaceful and relaxing, so that one can rejoice in freedom and spend time in reflection and conversation after having once been slaves. In other words, it was important for the Rabbis that the Seder takes place in the home, a place of security, stability, freedom and blessing.
Yet, tradition also developed the idea that this ritual meal happens only once each Pesach. (The diaspora get two nights of such comfort.) After the ritual meal of teaching, rejoicing, lively discussions, and relaxing, we spend the rest of the holiday eating unleavened bread and going about our lives as normal. It is as if the previous night was only an illusion. Once again, we find ourselves somewhere between slavery and freedom, hardship and blessing, misery and comfort, and insecurity and stability. In other words, we find ourselves wandering.
It is not so surprising that events in our own history have put us in this predicament more times than one can count. Neither it is surprising that we recreate time and again such predicaments in our rituals like the Seder. They remind us that the struggle for liberation is long and arduous.
But, the Seder also teaches that we can’t wander forever. We need a home. Everyone does. Without home, liberation is incomplete.
Chag Pesach Sameach.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D. is feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University and Anglo-American University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies and Ecofeminist courses.