Elijah at the door (Daf Yomi Pesachim 96)

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“You shall safeguard it.”

We have been on a journey since the start of this Tractate through the specifics of Passover preparations at the time when the temple stood in Jerusalem. We have learned about the exact hours when the sweep of leaven from one’s home should occur, the selection, allocation and roasting of the Paschal lamb, and the seating arrangement at the seder table. We even learned about the proper wood to use for the occasion.

At the heart of the myriad rules is the opportunity for a do-over a month later and a second Pesah, if you are traveling or simply forgot about the holiday. Yesterday we learned that the obligations associated with the second chance Pesah differed somewhat from the first and did not include the singing of psalms during the consumption of the meat or the restriction against leavened bread. The recitation over the past week of all the obligations associated with the roasting of the Paschal lamb almost seem as endless as the reading of the Haggadah by my grandfather, while I sat in anticipation of being able to partake in my grandmother’s brisket.

Today, the text reaches all the way back to Egypt in order to understand the legacy of the Passover story, which in America has come to represent freedom from slavery and injustice. Was there ever a more heroic but very human figure than Moses who led his people out of the land of misery and servitude? He had his heart broken when they turned to the golden calf after he climbed Mount Sinai to receive on their behalf the most sacred gift – the stone tablets with the covenant from God.

Moses broke those tablets out of anger when he realized how his people had betrayed him.  But he climbed back up the mountain and received a second set of the tablets. God gave Moses another chance when he gave him that second set. In turn, after Moses climbed down the mountain a second time with those tablets, he gave his people a second chance as well. The Exodus story is rife with second chances and redemption. And there is also the promise of a second chance in the ability to make up for missed obligations and observe the ritual of the Paschal lamb a second time around.

The eating of matzah and roasting of the Paschal lamb, which must be consumed in one night emanate from the Exodus story in Egypt. But there are customs that changed between that time and the period of the temple. In Egypt, there were no alters and lines of priests in white robes holding gold and silver bowls waiting for their turn to paint the temple alter with sacrificial blood. In Egypt, the blood was sprinkled on doorposts. Later on, there was no need to eat the meat in great haste because there was no imminent chase by the Egyptians.

The practices and obligations associated with Passover have continued to evolve from the time of temple. We no longer sacrifice the Paschal lamb and roast it over an open fire. Instead of lamb, my grandmother would serve brisket, matzo ball soup, gefilte fish, and always with everything, a noodle kugel. We would finish the meal after a very long reading of the Haggadah with coconut and chocolate macaroons. There was no sacrifice of the lamb, but there was the memory in our very bones of our difficult history.

In many ways, although the Exodus story belongs to the world, it is an American story. My family escaped hardships in Eastern Europe and came to America for a new life. When they landed on Ellis Island and saw the Statute of Liberty in New York Harbor, it must have felt like the waters of the Red Sea had parted before them. And they were the lucky ones, because those who stayed behind were subjected to unimaginable atrocities a few decades later.

My favorite part when I was a child of the Passover seder, was at the end of the meal when we poured a glass of wine for Elijah and opened the door to allow him to enter our home. I believed in Elijah. In opening the door to the prophet, there was the possibility of a second chance. And with Passover occurring around the time of the start of the spring season with the rebirth of the earth after a long, dreary winter, there is hope for a new start and a second chance.

We are a year into coping with the virus that changed the world and has created so much pain and suffering in its wake. We are now in a race of time to vaccinate as many people as we can as we are being chased by the coronavirus which continues to mutate and create further havoc on our global society. The image of a vaccine being administered to someone – everyone’s – arm is the modern-day version of the Red Sea parting. With the availability in such rapid time of a vaccine, there is an Elijah at our door as we head toward spring and the second Passover since the onset of the pandemic.


About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at https://brokentabletsfrompennycagan.me
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