The two most common Jewish practices are: attending a Seder (Passover holiday) and fasting (Yom Kippur or Day of Atonement). At the Seder, we eat matzoh which is called the “Bread of Affliction.” On Yom Kippur, we afflict both our body and soul by fasting for twenty-five hours. Yom Kippur marks a new year and Passover is about the halfway point of the Jewish calendar; the holidays are at the 12 and 6 o’clock positions on a clock. There is an intimate connection between Passover and Yom Kippur; Passover celebrates the Israelites’ redemption and liberation from enslavement in Egypt but gets us ready for Yom Kippur by teaching us two important lessons.
Passover’s two major lessons are humility and gratitude. These qualities are needed to approach, get close to, and atone to God at Yom Kippur. The process of atonement includes Teshuvah which is a (re)turn to God and a turning away from sin. To return to God, you must get close to God. Moses was very close to God and was the only prophet in the Old Testament to speak “face to face” with God. Passover teaches us how to approach God…through humility and gratitude.
Preparation for Passover focuses on an exhaustive search in your home for chometz (unleavened bread). This process is known as “Kashering the house.” We get down on our hands and knees to search our homes for bread. We use a candle and feather to find and to eliminate all bread hiding in the corners and recesses of our homes. Before the holiday starts, we burn this chometz and recite a prayer nullifying the chometz and declaring it as ownerless as “the dust on the earth.” My father performed this ritual with me in Coney Island where I grew up. I performed this ritual with my children in New York City where they grew up. God willing, they will do this with their children; L’Dor V’Dor, from generation to generation.
Is it really that important to rid our homes of breadcrumbs? Probably not. But the process of getting down on your hands and knees is a lesson in humility. You must perform this hunt for chometz yourself, not with a proxy. You must personally rid your home of chometz. The Rabbis are teaching us to “Kasher our souls” by getting rid of our inflated egos. Both bread and matzoh are made from the same ingredients: water and flour. The bread, baked without a timetable, has risen (arrogance) while the matzoh, baked in haste, remains flat (humble). The hunt for and elimination of chometz is a metaphor for the personal introspection needed to rid ourselves of hubris. The negation of hubris is the beginning of humility.
At the end of the Torah, Deuteronomy 34:10, states “And there was no other prophet who arose in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face…” Moses was the greatest prophet and was the only prophet to communicate with God face to face. What characteristics distinguished Moses from other prophets in the Bible? In Numbers 12:3 we learn the answer: “Now this man Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth.” Moses was the humblest man and was able to speak with God face to face. Humility is an important theme in Judaism.
The Passover Seder is an expression of Gratitude to God for freeing us from slavery in Egypt. This gratitude is displayed in the song of Passover: Dayeinu, It Would Have Been Enough. Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove at Park Avenue Synagogue teaches that “If God had only done this one thing, it would have been enough, Dayeinu.” If only these miracles had occurred and not others, it would have been enough, Dayeinu. We are grateful to God for liberating us from slavery in Egypt and for bringing us to the land of Israel and providing us with Torah. Three hundred and sixty- five days per year we wake up with gratitude to say “Modeh Ani,” “I give thanks to God for returning my soul to me” after a night of sleep. We express our gratitude to God for permitting us to experience another new day of life. Gratitude is another important theme in Judaism.
So, the two qualities to learn between Passover and Yom Kippur are humility and gratitude: Matzoh, Moses, and Dayeinu. Rabbi Ethan Witkovsky, of Park Avenue Synagogue, tells of a beautiful Hasidic teaching attributed to Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Poland. It was said that he carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one he wrote: “For my sake the world was created.” On the other he wrote: “I am but dust and ashes.” He would take out each slip of paper as necessary, as a reminder to himself of gratitude and humility.
Feelings of arrogance and self-righteousness are negated by the humility of “I am bust dust and ashes.” I am mortal, and death is the great equalizer. Feelings of worthlessness and depression are treated with the gratitude of “For my sake the world was created.” God gave me the gift of Life. Humility and gratitude teach us that there is more to life than “me.” Humility and Gratitude result in” Thank You” to God for placing us in this world.
We approach God with humility and gratitude and speak with God through the vector of prayer. Prayer to God can be structured as in the Siddur or Prayer Book. These prayers usually begin with praise and thank God for all the good things in our lives but also petition Him for our continued sustenance and health. Personal additions can be added throughout these prayers. Prayer encourages a conversation both with God and with our inner selves.
The late neurologist and author Oliver Sacks addressed those who aren’t sure about God or don’t believe: “Who cares if there is really any Being to pray to? What matters is the sense of giving thanks and praise, the feeling of a humble and grateful heart.” As God used the power of His words to create, we can use the power of our words to connect with Him, and our inner selves, through prayer. Prayer helps the finite approach the infinite.
In Deuteronomy 10:16 God tells us to “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart and be no longer stubborn.” He is telling us to cut away the barriers that block us from getting closer to Him: hubris, stubbornness, self-indulgence, etc. and to approach Him with gratitude and humility.
The Rabbis of Kabbalah (Jewish Mysticism) inform us that God’s first act after Creation was to contract his Infinite Self to make room for everything He had created. This contraction is called Tzimtzum and results in space for both the physical and spiritual realms. When God took this step “back” after creation, it was to teach us humility. God teaches us by His example; humility is a necessary part of life. We emulate God and practice our personal Tzimtzum by diminishing our egos so that we may approach, and get closer to, the Divine.
At Yom Kippur we return to God by acknowledging our sins: sins between ourselves and other people and transgressions between ourselves and God. We recite confessionals to remind ourselves of our foibles and shortcomings. We pray that we will do better in the coming year. We approach God with gratitude and humility, in our finiteness, asking for another opportunity to live life. We petition that our return to God’s ways (Teshuvah), charity (Tzedakah), and prayer (Tefillah) will cause God to grant us more life and more opportunities to be better people.
The New Testament, Jeremiah 31: 34 states: “No longer will they need to teach one another and say to one another, “Heed the LORD”; for all of them, from the least of them to the greatest, shall heed Me—declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquities And remember their sins no more.” God wants every person, from the poorest to the most accomplished, to know Him. And we know that Humility and Gratitude are important steps in the path towards God. Passover teaches us to kasher our souls for Yom Kippur.