From Purim to Passover, Seeing Ourselves in the Exodus

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On Monday evening, March 9, Jews around the world will begin to celebrate the festival of Purim. This holiday, which commemorates the events described in the biblical book of Esther, is known mostly for its costume parties and hamentaschen. But Purim is also notable for another reason: it’s when we are supposed to begin preparing for Passover. According to the Talmud (Tractate Pesahim 6a), “we intensively study the laws of Passover thirty days before Passover,” meaning during the month following Purim. 

Why are we instructed to pivot immediately after Purim to spend a whole month preparing for the next holiday? The simple explanation is that, because Passover’s laws are uniquely expansive, complicated, and serious, it makes sense to take the time each year to remind ourselves of them. 

But I think this tradition actually offers something deeper. I think we are told to study during the month leading up to Passover so that we might prepare for the personal and social transformation that the holiday offers to those who engage it seriously. Perhaps the rabbis of the Talmud are challenging us, during the month leading up to the holiday, to probe deeply into the pathways of our master narrative of redemption, so that we might borrow from its insights and walk the ways of the Exodus, the pathways of leaving Egypt in the here and now. 

Consider this: the Haggadah, the liturgical script for the Seder (the ritual meal traditionally held on the first two nights of Passover), instructs, “In every generation a person is obligated to see him or herself as if he or she went out of Egypt.” According to this view, Passover must not simply be seen as a commemoration of the liberation of our ancient ancestors. Rather, we are called upon to see the story as our story; that we, right now, at this moment, are enslaved in some Egypt, and that we, right now, are being offered the possibility of redemption. Our present liberation, according to this tradition, depends on our ability to understand that the Exodus from Egypt is a perpetual and contemporary political and personal reality. The Exodus story is unfolding in the eternal present, both in the world around us, and in the world within us. And redemption is possible if we can see and embrace it. 

The power of reading oneself into the Exodus narrative is undeniable: The story of a band of slaves rising up against history’s most iconic tyrant to demand dignity and freedom has been the master narrative animating movements for justice and liberty throughout history. Would-be Moseses, Aarons, and Miriams have long been inspired by the Exodus story’s vision of building a society that affirms the equal and infinite dignity of all, one that strives for equity and fairness, and that celebrates compassion and kindness. Additionally, identifying with the Israelites’ yearning to break the chains of personal bondage has enabled many to overcome destructive habits, unpleasant circumstances, and unhelpful psychological patterns. 

When we truly see this story as our story, when we fully see ourselves as being woven into the fabric of this complex and rich narrative of faith and fear, hope and despair, struggle and redemption, we can loosen the chains of all that holds us back. With the Passover story as our inspiration and guide, we can become the individuals that God invites us to be, and build the world God beckons us to co-create.

And yet, despite the powerful possibilities inherent in personally identifying with the Exodus narrative, I suspect that most of us experience difficulty really doing it. We may understand on an intellectual level what the Haggadah is asking of us, but how many of us really feel it emotionally or spiritually? 

Jewish tradition believes that this sacred imagining should be life-changing. But for many of us today, the exercise is little more than a quaint annual intellectual exercise. It is difficult and rare indeed to fully view ourselves as active participants in the drama of the Exodus. 

This, I think, is why the rabbis of the Talmud ask us to spend the month leading up to Passover intensively studying the laws of the holiday. It has less to do with reminding ourselves about the particulars of the festival’s laws, and more to do with preparing ourselves to personally leave Egypt. We marinate in the Passover story for thirty days so that, by the onset of the holiday, it will be absorbed all the way to our marrow. Then, we can really see ourselves as leavers of Egypt.

I designed my new book, Thirty Days of Liberation: Pathways for Personal and Social Transformation Inspired by the Book of Exodus, to help readers with that spiritual and moral Passover preparation. The book is comprised of six thematic chapters, each with thirty “bite-sized” meditations on the stories, symbols, and traditions of Passover. My hope is that readers might study one reading per day in the month leading up to Passover in order to attain a true sense of liberation by Passover’s onset, as well as a deeper commitment to be agents of liberation and redemption in the world.

Whether or not you use Thirty Days of Liberation as a companion, I pray we all take seriously the challenge of immersing ourselves in the story, symbols, and traditions of Passover leading up to the holiday. In this way, when the Festival of Freedom arrives, we can truly see ourselves in the Exodus.

About the Author
Author of “Thirty Days of Liberation: Pathways for Personal and Social Transformation Inspired by the Book of Exodus” and named one of “America’s Most Inspiring Rabbis" by The Forward, Michael Knopf is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Richmond, Virginia, and a Rabbis Without Borders fellow.
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