In another time in our national life, in the time of our Holy Temple, the hills and valleys outside our home were a destination in the days before Passover. Thirty-five kilometers (nearly 22 miles) away from the Temple Mount, it is here, in Modi’in, that the caravans of traveling pilgrims would converge — from the North, from the Sea and from the Coastal Plains.
If I lived at that time, I would have opened my windows to the melody of a recurring refrain, mingled voices of the old and young, looking upward and eastward exclaiming “just beyond these hills fairest of sites, joy of all the earth is the Mount of Zion” (Psalm: 48). In our markets, the pilgrims would have paused for an hour or two – shopping for new earthenware upon which to eat their Paschal offering or perhaps a gift for their Jerusalem host. Then they would leave and become dancing dots mingling with the colorful spring flowers in the hills cascading towards Jerusalem. And, I and my family, would quickly pack, rushing to become a part of the mosaic of color and sound – lending our voice to the song heralding our arrival to Jerusalem.
And, in this year 5782, at this time in our national life, the Passover pilgrimage continues. We may not all be traveling to Jerusalem but there is most definitely an Aliyah LaRegel, by foot, and LaRechev, by car. It takes place on the walkways and roadways of this Land — everyone traveling to home and to family. Motivated, it seems, not solely by religious fervor, but by the desire to find a brief refuge from life through connection, through friendship and through time to focus on the good.
From the vantage point of my eighth-floor porch, on my very first Passover as a citizen of this Land, I observed the modern-day caravans of traveling pilgrims: the choreography of cars jockeying for a parking space and the diversity of guests who emerged from them to attend my neighbors’ Seders. I might have imagined it, but it seemed that on this night, everyone seemed to be treading a bit lighter buoyed by knowing that they had been invited and belonged. I saw the jaunt in the step of a man proudly carrying an enormous bouquet of flowers; a grandmother holding aloft a huge steaming pot of what I assumed was the cherished chicken soup with kneidelach; and a little boy sprinting ahead to Seder tangled in the leash of the family dog.
I also noted that the guests were all wearing white, fresh shirts and flowing linen dresses, vision of purity and light – the color you wear on vacation when you know that life is not going to sully your clothes. And everywhere I looked there were pictures being taken. There were the snapshots taken on the porches that were the Seder destination. They captured the brief oasis in time where multiple generations blessedly found themselves together. Then there were the snapshots taken by those on the way to Ashkelon, or Petach Tikva or Jerusalem, young moms and dads capturing the fleeting moments when their children were freshly bathed and the outfits their grandparents had bought them were still clean.
To my neighbors, I apologize for being so observant but I have been in quarantine over Passover missing my own multi-generational, very large, very energetic Seder abroad. The quiet of this unusual Passover has allowed me to reflect on the pull of the festival pilgrimage which has transcended the passage of time and the destruction of its original location.
In the waning days of the Second Temple, Philo, a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher, wrote these words upon observing the festival pilgrimage. Remarkably his words penned more than two thousand years ago still explain the hold the pilgrimage ritual has on our national psyche:
Thousands of people, from thousands of cities, some by land, some by sea…would come each festival to the Beit HaMikdash to a joint refuge, a sheltered port from the storms of life…they came to find within [this time and place] quiet, to separate themselves from worry…to rest and to spend the time in friendship and with joy. With hearts full of hope for the good, they would do this vacation from life, with holiness and the giving of respect to G-d…making connections and friendship. And over the pairing of heart and sacrifice, finding the proof of the unity of their thoughts. (On the Special Laws, 1:69-70)
Interestingly, Philo’s suggestion was that the primary impetus for Aliyah LaRegel, the festival pilgrimage, was not religious fervor and the desire to encounter G-d in his holy space. Rather, it was about the opportunity the pilgrimage afforded to take a vacation from the complexities of life, by allowing for a quiet space to focus on the good, to gather with friends and to find the threads that unite.
And I think to this day, the hold that the pilgrimage festival has on us is the same. We seek the solace found in a change in space and the way we use our time. We journey not to the courtyard of the Holy Temple with new earthenware, but rather to the sheltered ports of family and friends with large pots of soup. We discover the joy that emerges from a heart filled by the hope provided by the future that travels with us, our young children scampering ahead to beat us to the Seder meal. Eventually the festival does end and we return back to the realities of our life. But having taken the time to separate ourselves from worry by finding refuge in what is known and familiar, we travelers return with renewed strength to confront the challenges of the present.
So grasp on to the gift that G-d has given us. Take a festival pilgrimage. Take a journey away from the storms of life. Find the people and the places that help you quiet your worries and replace them with joy. Walk with a heart filled with hope for the good. And, then, may it be G-d’s will that the time we all return to after Passover be one of comfort and of peace.