Pesach, patient and impatient

Nisan, the Hebrew month which coincides with spring’s beginning, comes wobbling into my hemisphere like an old buggy with loose wheels. The mid-March wind is still blowing around here. The tilted earth is creaking into just the right angles and distances for warm weather, in its orbit around the sun. The temperature is rising with grinding slowness, the hours of daily sunlight grow steadily longer, ice and snow melt away, yet leave stubborn frozen patches in corners of our front yards. We feel ourselves shedding the cold carapace of winter that is like the sloughing skin of a snake.

When spring arrives, I like to walk past or through the woods that fill a nearby pond. Appreciated from a distance, the new buds on the tree branches and vines look like someone brushed them wildly with the brightest green. I imagine Jackson Pollock, the great modern artist, going crazy and spilling buckets of molten emeralds over the world’s surface.

Our rabbinic ancestors spent plenty of time outdoors, getting drunk on the beauty flowing in waves throughout God’s world. At the first signs of budding trees in the middle eastern Spring, they would shout out a berakhah, a prayer poem of wonder:

Barukh attah Adonai, Eloheinu Melekh ha-olam, she-lo hissar be-olamo kelum, u-vara vo briot tovot, v’ilanot tovim lei-hanot ba-hem b’nei adam.

You are Praised, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, Who has not withheld anything from His world, but has created in it beautiful creatures and beautiful trees for human beings to enjoy!

The rabbis declared, “Once a year, in the days of Nisan, when you go out into the world and look at the budding trees, say this blessing.”

And why not? The winter is almost over, we are starting to swim in green, nature is reawakening. Such wonder! She-lo hissar be-olamo kelum, God withholds nothing from God’s extravagantly beautiful planet.

However, recall that I live in the northern hemisphere, and spring is wobbling into our area, not skipping. Last Shabbat, as I walked home from services with a couple of friends, I looked out at the woods of the pond. No green, no buds, no reason to say that blessing, not yet. Those same rabbis once taught, kol ha-dochek et ha-shaah, shaah dochakto: try to push things to happen before their time and time will push back on you. That is, let things unfold as they will. I was having none of it, patience be damned. “I am so tired of the cold, the snow patches, the rain. Nothing is growing in the woods yet,” I whined to my walking partners. “Don’t you know that there’s a blessing you’re supposed to say when you see the first buds of spring?”

One of my friends, not given to profuse overreactions of seriousness, stopped walking, looked at me, and said, “You want to say the blessing over the first buds of spring? Let me get two cans of Budweiser, we can sit outside, say the blessing and have a drink!”

I get it. Spring’s green is not coming around on my time table; the tree buds are not responding to any of my eviction notices. If anything, the berakhah for the first buds of Spring is all about patience: we let the world work at its own pace, while our job is to wait quietly for its transformations, allowing ourselves to be surprised with amazement and gratitude on any random day, as we walk in the woods and our eyes are rattled by explosions of spring color.

In my defense, my impatience is not only motivated by my disgust with winter. Pesach is less than a week away. The themes of nature’s rebirth and the Jewish people’s renewal that connect the season with the holiday are tremendously significant for me. Nonetheless, there is nothing I can reasonably do to make nature move any faster, so I check the woods day after day, looking for those first splotches. I wait with simultaneous patience and impatience for spring’s first signs of color, as the night of the seder draws ever closer.

Living in patience and impatience sounds like a hopelessly illogical contradiction in terms. How can one possibly be and do both at the same time? In fact, living out this contradiction is at the heart of the Pesach celebration. Some examples: we Jews lived in and with Egyptian slavery for 430 years. The peculiar institution of our servitude that fueled the ancient Egyptian economy and the oppressor’s power structures must have looked to us and the Egyptians like it would never be dismantled. Then suddenly, we packed our belongings, including our bread, on our shoulders, stripped the Egyptian oppressor of his gold and silver, and we were gone, just gone.

Another example: we gradually clean away all hametz, leavened goods, from our homes, over an extended period of time; we draw down the presence of all that bloating, fermented food to the tiniest areas within our sight, before putting it out of our sight altogether. If you have ever done any koshering and cleaning for Pesach, you know this takes patience. Yet when we bake matzah, we rush impatiently, as if we were running for our lives. To bake matzah you must, according to Jewish law, mix flour and water and place it in an oven within a mere 18 minutes. Even a fraction of a second more than eighteen minutes, and the entire mixture becomes hametz and useless for Pesach.

A final example, one that our teacher Dr. Erica Brown has called the art of order and chaos: the seder is what its name suggests, order. The seder night and ritual are highly organized, requiring that we proceed patiently in an orderly fashion from ritual to ritual, station to station. No sooner do we begin with slow, methodical order, than we suddenly rush about in a torrent of quick and impatient chaos. Anticipated answers about the Exodus are shunted aside for questions and more questions; we jump back and forth between the fragments of two stories about slavery and freedom, between the story itself and stories about people who told the story; we prepare our homes and tables with such organized beauty only to throw it all away as we spin joyously, crazily out of control from drinking four cups of wine and making a mess of the dining room as we impatiently grab our food at the long awaited meal.

To live patiently and impatiently is the very essence of Pesach because it is the very essence of the quest for individual and collective freedom. The sad truth is that no struggle to be free of oppression happens in the blink of an eye. Whether you are a person wrestling with your demons or a nation wrestling with a dictator, your self-awareness and dignity have to evolve and ripen. This is not fair, it is most often the result of profound oppression, and it is the way of the world. Yet when the emotional, spiritual and political ripenings have unfolded and the window of opportunity is quickly closing, you don’t wait to weigh options. You stick your feet into the splitting Red Sea, you make that life change that sets you free, you say goodbye to Egypt, no matter how loudly the oppressor calls to you, “You cannot survive without me.”

On the morning of Pesach eve, I will take a moment from my preparations to look for the buds on the trees. If I see them I will shout, “She-lo hissar be-olamo kelum!” Thank You, God, for leaving nothing absent from Your world, including my ability to be wait patiently for the joyous moments of freedom and rebirth I impatiently await.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (Jewish Publication Society, 2020.)