By Lori Lefkovitz.
I saw a sort-of joke on Twitter (maybe too real to be funny): 30 days hath September, April, June, and etc….except for March, which has 8,000. I am interested in time, and especially in Jewish conceptualizations of time, including how our holiday cycles flow into one another, acknowledging seasonal rhythms, and telling one long story. In August, classically, every day of Elul includes the Shofar blast, preparing communities who live the fullness of these seasons with a daily call to conscience, reminding people to do the preparatory work for the New Year. Then, Rosh Hashanah, ten more days to repent, fasting leading to freedom and feasting, the harvest celebrated, prayers for rain, and preparations for winter. We are now, in this surreal existence, in the anticipatory time before Passover, the spring festivals, honored the world over with eggs and lambs, symbols of birth and renewal, mirroring nature in our hemisphere, as buds slowly dot the tree limbs. The story of slavery to liberation—winter to spring—is the founding myth of Judaism and has been read as a biography of the people Israel, birthed through narrow straits (Mitsraim—Egypt); through the parted waters of the Red Sea; babyhood with gifted manna; the Bar mitzvah of assuming responsibility at Sinai. You get the idea. And accordingly, since it is one long story, after Passover, we count the days in grain measures until the holiday of the giving of the Law, Shavuot, 49 days of walking the desert, from freedom to responsibility. It is that counting that is called the Omer. Because of the particular childhood I had, I have long thought of the time between Purim and Passover, the time we are in now, as a an alternative Omer, a women’s Omer.
In spring of 1997, I reflected on this time for what had been Sh’ma magazine. I dug that little essay up, and offer these thoughts from my younger self, as a meditation on time that we might translate for our own experience, as our own moment too closely mirrors the myth: in the biblical story the plagues precede the liberation, and Moses warns the people to celebrate that first Passover in social isolation, their doors locked, and with blood on their doorposts as a request to the angel of death to please pass over their homes.
Attending to details: a Pesaḥ meditation on God, grandmothers, and gratitude
Originally published in Sh’ma, April 1997
The time between Purim and Pesah is anticipatory, designed in various ways to heighten expectation. When I was growing up, conversation about Passover food shopping and cleaning began at Purim. My grandmother, until her last days, schlepped cartons of Pesah dishes up from the basement and assigned us all our Pesah duties. She was terribly exacting, and she religiously supervised our going through our coat pockets for gum wrappers.
The Seders were, of course, the main-event, but as an adult, I now realize how much those family experiences around the dining room table felt important precisely because there was so much anticipatory preparation. The readying behind the scenes, the cooking, and the learning for the Seders in the weeks before created the necessary atmosphere for a momentous week. The Seders loom large in my memory now because the devoted labors of advanced planning—like the planning before a bat mitzvah or a wedding—sanctify the occasion and make it awesome.
Often it is the behind-the-scenes work, which we are likely to take for granted, that is especially important. The cliché tells us that God is in the details. At no season is that more apparent than in spring, and Passover is the holiday of spring. It is now, when we see the crocuses determinedly rising from ground so recently snow covered, when we see buds on the branches and we know that we are in transition between winter’s barren landscape and what will soon be a lush green world, that we are most inclined to be hopeful, to believe in a power for good in the world, a generous life-giving force, a force that liberates Nature from the cold and human beings from slavery.
God and grandmothers have a good deal in common
All of which is to say that God and grandmothers have a good deal in common. Their work is often done so reliably that unless we pause to take notice we might forget to appreciate the greatness in the details. If we have been lucky in our lives, we have found comfort in an infinity of detailed loving attentions, from mittens to hot lunches, blessings that are blessings precisely because they were given naturally and unconditionally.
Moses is the main actor of the season, and Moses, Aaron, and the priesthood are the principle characters of the Torah readings of these weeks. But I like to think of the weeks between Purim and Pesah as Miriam’s time because behind the central liberation myth of our people, the drama of Moses pleading with Pharaoh, the plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, and the fulfillment of the dream of nationhood in the Promised Land, is the story of the bravery of a slave mother and her daughter, and an Egyptian Princess who was moved by the sight of a slave baby in a basket.
At an even earlier moment, we are told that though the Pharaoh ordered the midwives to see to it that there would be no male babies, Shifra and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, defied these orders and bravely did their work.
In these small ways, the Passover story recognizes the significance of women’s work and courage. The Talmud, too, acknowledges the centrality of midwives, mothers, and sisters in this liberation story. One tradition insists that it is because of the merit of the women that God freed us from bondage. This story elaborates that it was women’s faith and hopefulness that allowed the miracles to occur. When the Hebrew men, desperate because of Pharaoh’s order to destroy their sons, decided it would be better not to have children at all, their wives and daughters, tradition tells us, maintained their attractiveness and persuaded them to change their minds and not give up on the Jewish future. When it came time to construct the Tabernacle, Moses was ready to reject the jewelry and mirrors of women as gifts out of which to make holy ritual items because he worried that they symbolized vanity. But he was prevailed upon to accept these items, and it turned out that they were particularly pleasing to God because they were the signs of the vitality and hope of the people.
These Jews, who gave up everything they had, risked it all to bake matzoh
Every year at my family Seder we make my mother tell us about Passover when she was a little girl in Siberia. My mother’s family are hasidim, and when she was a child, and Hitler was invading Poland, her family, along with many others (but tragically not with enough others) willingly abandoned their possessions, were packed into cattle cars, and were deported to Siberia to live out the war years in the safety of Stalinist Russia. Though practicing religion was forbidden, the first thing they did when they got to Siberia was reconstruct from memory the Jewish calendar. These Jews, who gave up everything they had, risked it all to bake matzoh. My mother remembers that they made matzoh in the middle of the night and that the children stood watch to sound warning in case someone might be coming. As in the Exodus of old, in Russia in the 1940s, the courage of women and children was intimately connected to the preservation of a Jewish way of life. What is moving here are the Jewish priorities. They saved their lives before their things but understood that it was only worth it if they did not lose themselves in the process. Jewish tradition, in saying that it is because of the merit of women that the people were freed, hints at an understanding of the value of the intricate work behind the scenes and the importance of details in aJewish life and community. Pesaḥ especially invites us to take notice of every crumb. Such attention makes us mindful of and grateful for not only the grand miracles of liberation but also for the small miracles of our everyday lives.