Passover is an opportunity to pass over from a state of divisiveness, disregard and coldness in modern society, to one of unity, care and warmth.
Although the Jewish year formally begins on Rosh Hashanah, there is a more expansive view of the Jewish holidays that shows Passover as the start of the Jewish year. To see it from this perspective, we need to understand the deeper meaning of Passover.
Passover describes an inner process where a period of intensifying division leads to a decision to unite, followed by the discovery of a more unified state. Also, Passover points out what makes the Jewish people unique.
What Makes the Jewish People Unique?
Unlike other nations and races, the Jewish people did not emerge organically from familial offspring or terrestrial closeness. The Jews were originally a gathering of people who became known as “the Jews” when they dedicated themselves to uniting “as one man with one heart,” and accepted the responsibility of being “a light unto nations” (the Hebrew word for “Jew” [Yehudi] comes from the word for “united” [yihudi] [Yaarot Devash, Part 2, Drush no. 2]).
The holiday of Passover explains this transition.
It starts at a time when the people of Israel lived exceptionally well in Egypt. In terms of commonly accepted social values, they had it all: comfort, wealth and success, or as it is written in the Torah, “in Egypt … we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted” (Exodus, 16:3). However, even with all their material abundance, they felt that something was missing.
At this point, let’s zoom out to see the process this describes: Human nature, which is a desire to receive pleasure, constantly urges us to fulfill ourselves. The more we fulfill ourselves, the more we feel empty, and the more we feel a need to seek higher and greater fulfillments time after time. Thus, our desire to enjoy grows, and we evolve through various stages of the desire’s growth. After we satisfy our basic needs for food, sex, shelter and family, our desire grows, and we develop social desires—money, respect, control and knowledge—which we continually try to satisfy.
Then, we encounter a problem.
Like a dog chasing its tail, we chase after all those pleasures, but we keep finding ourselves wanting something more or different than them, without being able to point out what we really want. The Passover story describes this new desire: that when our material desires are quenched, a new desire for positive social connection emerges. This desire is called “Moses.”
Moses had been around the whole time the people of Israel were thriving in Egypt. He grew up in the house of Pharaoh until he himself exhausted the material pursuit of happiness. That is when the Egyptian exile began. Pharaoh, i.e. our ego, refuses to accept unity. It cannot think of anything worse than the idea of living life with a goal to “love your friend as yourself.”
So as the people of Israel prospered in Egypt, they naturally started wanting more than what they had, and the idea of social unification—Moses—started forming among them. Then came the struggle between Moses and Pharaoh. On one hand, Moses pointed the way to unity and love for one another, while Pharaoh insisted that he rule, i.e. that they would continue living and working only for egoistic, material fulfillments. When Pharaoh saw the people of Israel accepting Moses, he became the savage king the Passover story describes.
Through a long process, the people of Israel ultimately stood by Moses, demanded their unity, and triumphed. They united at the foot of Mount Sinai and accepted the law of “love your friend as yourself.” They then proceeded to purify themselves of hametz (leaven), i.e. their ego, and made the transition (i.e. the Passover) from egocentrism to unification, realizing Moses’ idea and guidance.
Since Passover describes a process of overcoming egoism with unity, it is just as relevant today as it ever was. Today’s materialistic culture looks increasingly like the Egypt described in the Passover story: we enjoyed the delights of materialism for quite a while, but more and more people are increasingly feeling that their lives are missing something.
We see this expressed among individuals with increases in depression, stress and loneliness, and in society with intensifying politically-fueled social division, xenophobia and anti-Semitism. All these phenomena show us that we can have all the material abundance we want, but it still won’t fulfill us, and what we really need in order to fulfill our new, bigger desire is unity, positive social connection.
Unlike our material fulfillments, we cannot picture what uniting above our divisions would be like. We see no example of unity that we can fill our media and educational systems with, and so we keep regurgitating and reinventing materialistic ideas, stories and products since we do not see nor know anything else.
As society continually engages in this materialistic pleasure-chasing loop without any other goal in sight, and as problems increasingly burst out from this setup, the more society points the finger of blame at the Jews. Anti-Semitic sentiment thus rises because the Jewish people, in their ancestry, possess the template for realizing the new desire for connection. If the Jewish people fail to aim and work toward unification in a time when not only the Jews, but the world at large, needs unity, then the world subconsciously starts feeling the Jewish people as the cause of their problems.
Our forefathers underwent the process of uniting, saving themselves from ruin in the process. Today, as the finger of blame is on us for all kinds of reasons, it’s up to us to identify the root reason for all that blame—that out of all people, we have been given the keys to unite above all differences, and this is what the world really needs from us. It’s as if the world pays no attention to all the technology, culture and medicine we bring to the world. However, if we do as our forefathers did, then we’ll realize what we were put here to do, and we’ll see how the world’s attitude to the Jews will change to one of respect and appreciation.
I hope that we will start paying attention to the root causes and tendencies behind the world’s problems, and that this Passover, we will make a step toward their ultimate solution—unity.
Featured in The Times of Israel