Today is Erev Pesach, the eve of the Passover festival. Beginning at sundown this evening, observant Jews will begin an eight-day abstention from breadstuffs of all kind, a commemoration of the hurried departure of the Israelites from Egypt.
Just as some of our Christian friends bid a temporary farewell to meat at the beginning of Lent - the term “Carnival” or “Carnevale” literally means “Goodbye, Meat” - we eschew bread for the duration of Passover. Which means today is Panevale.
Pesach celebrates the singular event that defined the Jewish people as a nation, the journey from slavery to freedom. Later, the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai would provide the religious underpinnings of the nation - the brain, if you will - but it is the Exodus that gave us our heart.
We are admonished in the Torah (Exodus 23:9) that “...you must not oppress a stranger; you know the soul of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” It should be no surprise that Jews have been champions of social justice for millennia, for our historical experience uniquely positions us to have rachmones - compassion - for the downtrodden.
It is a tradition that firstborn males fast today on account of having been spared from suffering the fate of the firstborn Egyptians who were struck down in the tenth plague. To avoid this requirement, one must attend a study session during which a complete tractate of Talmud is completed, a Siyyum, an occasion that is celebrated with a meal. Our rabbi conveniently tacks on a Siyyum to the end of morning services for this purpose.
Today’s tractate was Masekhet Keritot, six chapters dealing with commandments for which the penalty is karet (spiritual excision) as well as the sacrifices associated with their (mostly unwitting) transgression. The specifics concerning sacrifices are still meaningful despite the absence of a Temple and its associated sacrificial cult, mainly because they speak to degrees of culpability: If you do wrong deliberately, the penalty is more severe than if you do wrong unwittingly. Nevertheless, there is a certain Monty Pythonesque element to some of these rabbinic formulations, and even our rabbi acknowledged having had a few good laughs while preparing for the day’s study session.
To our Jewish friends, a sweet Pesach - and to our Christian neighbors and friends, happy Easter.