Pesach and Moral Transformation

April 6th: Last Day of Passover
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Passover is full of messages. In addition to all the lessons in the Haggadah, there are also traditional Torah readings assigned for the first and second days AND the seventh and eighth days AND the Sabbath in the middle (if there is one). In other words, the ancient Rabbis putting together the Seder texts and the schedule of Torah and Haftarah readings were working with lots of possible lessons. It is interesting to see which lessons they decided to include.

For the end of Passover, we are bidden to return to Passover’s most important theme: concern for others. Since we are supposed to be in the mindset of someone who experienced both the slavery in Egypt and the redemption, it should not be too difficult to see ourselves in the situation of those who are poor or oppressed or alienated. As we read in our Haggadah: “This holy experience can effect within our hearts and our minds a moral transformation: we pledge not to be oppressors and to do our best to set the oppressed free.”

 So, our Torah portion (Deuteronomy 14.22-16.17) gives us a kind of ethical to-do list of good and righteous things:
(1)   Save the best of your resources for a major festival to God.
(2)   Share these choice foods with the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.
(3)   Forgive debts that are more than six years old.
(4)   Be kind-hearted in collecting money due you from poor people.
(5)   If people serve you to pay off their debts, release them after six years and give them resources when they leave—so they won’t be reduced to debt-slavery again. 
(6)   Give honor to God Who is the source of all your blessings—and your freedom.
(7)   Remember and observe all of God’s festivals—for God’s blessings are with you all year.

One of the most striking things about Jewish law is the way it appeals to the heart. Oh, yes, there are plenty of regulations and rules. But, there is also an essence of sympathy and empathy at the base of it all. Notice, the basic lesson from Passover as it is stated in Exodus 23: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

And, note the way the ancient Sage Hillel summarized the entirety of the Torah: “Once a heathen came before Shammai and said to him, ‘I will be converted if you teach me the entire Torah, all of it, while I stand on one foot.’  Shammai instantly drove him away with the builder’s measure he had in his hand.  The same man came before Hillel.  ‘I will be converted if you teach me all the Torah while I stand on one foot.’  Hillel converted him. He said to him: ‘What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.  That is the whole Torah.  All the rest is commentary.  Now, go and study.’” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31A)

When we think about how we feel—and project our feelings onto the people around us, we realize their value and our own—and the importance of behaving righteously and with kindness.