The weeklong Festival of Pesakh (with an 8th Diaspora day) is a powerful way to start a year. Beginning with the metaphor of becoming, as our ancestors experience what the rabbis called the “birth pangs” of Egyptian suffering and then transitioning through the “birth canal” of the parted waters of the Sea, we find ourselves on these final days of Pesakh just beginning to open our eyes and look around.
The primary learning of the Passover experience is about what it takes to be born. There is travail, there is struggle, and there is difficulty – and there is community. Mark Twain famously said that “a self-made man is about as possible as a self-laid egg,” and it’s no mistake that much of the theology around our birth as a people sees that which births us as mothering energy.
The Passover story as told in Exodus emphasizes mothers, midwives and nurses, and the people of Israel are depicted as children who need to learn how to become. One of the first lessons we have to learn is that which every preschool mandates: hold hands, and walk forward together.
This is the central mandate of Passover unto this day. No one is to be alone for the Seder if we can possibly help it. Our special Passover Torah reading develops the theme: everyone is to attend the Passover celebration together. No one of the vulnerable categories of ancient Israelite life is left out: the Levite, the stranger, the orphan, the widow, the needy.
Consider what the Torah indicates to be the most important aspect of our celebration:
שָׁל֣וֹשׁ פְּעָמִ֣ים ׀ בַּשָּׁנָ֡ה יֵרָאֶ֨ה כׇל־זְכוּרְךָ֜ אֶת־פְּנֵ֣י ׀ ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֗יךָ בַּמָּקוֹם֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִבְחָ֔ר בְּחַ֧ג הַמַּצּ֛וֹת וּבְחַ֥ג הַשָּׁבֻע֖וֹת וּבְחַ֣ג הַסֻּכּ֑וֹת וְלֹ֧א יֵרָאֶ֛ה אֶת־פְּנֵ֥י ה’ רֵיקָֽם׃
Three times a year—on the Feast of Unleavened Bread, on the Feast of Weeks, and on the Feast of Booths—all your zakhur shall appear before ‘ה in the chosen place. Do not appear before ‘ה empty-handed (Deuteronomy 16:16)
I have deliberately left the word זכור zakhur untranslated because I dispute the typical translation (“males”). To me, the form of the word suggests a much more intriguing possibility: a parallelism with the name HaShem gave Moshe at their first meeting:
וַיֹּאמֶר֩ ע֨וֹד אֱלֹ-ים אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֗ה כֹּֽה־תֹאמַר֮ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒ ה’ אֱלֹהֵ֣י אֲבֹתֵיכֶ֗ם אֱלֹהֵ֨י אַבְרָהָ֜ם אֱלֹהֵ֥י יִצְחָ֛ק וֵאלֹהֵ֥י יַעֲקֹ֖ב שְׁלָחַ֣נִי אֲלֵיכֶ֑ם:
HaShem declared to Moses, “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: ‘ה the God of your fathers’ [house]—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you:
This shall be My name forever,
זֶ֥ה זִכְרִ֖י לְדֹ֥ר דֹּֽר
This My zikhri for all eternity. (Exodus 3.15)
The eternal Name of that which we seek is referred to here as zikhri, memory. In our Torah reading for this Shabbat of the last day of Pesakh, we are reminded that we must bring our zakhur, that which has marked us in memory, if we are to find that which we seek – and not show up empty-handed.
If we are to obey the command to see ourselves all together in this journey, we must be more willing to challenge any understanding of the sacred text that seems to leave any of us out as contrary to the will of all that is holy.
We are to arrive in the chosen place together, just as we started the journey when we left Egypt. The command to stay together, to journey together, to refuse to leave anyone behind, is an existential obligation – which is the only way to understand the real meaning of mitzvah. Any mitzvah that does not imply what Emmanuel Levinas called “the sovereign Other” is incomplete.
To remember this is vital. To remember where you came from, and that you were not alone: someone other than you birthed you, someone other than you raised you, someone other than you was your companion and your guide. To remember this as a people is to know this as part and parcel of one’s personal spiritual journey. We did not come out of Egypt alone, and we do not add our link to the Jewish chain of being alone.
To translate zakhur as “memory” is to discern that bringing your memory to the moment is the only way to suffuse it with holiness – with wholeness. And who can remember everything? Memory is not complete unless all of us, every one of us, is helped to be there, so that our story can be remembered as fully as possible.
Shabbat Shalom and hag sameakh!
“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember . . . You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.” ― Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères