I know that we’re about to begin the month of Tishrei, the opening of the Jewish year, with Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, but humor me for a bit while I write about Pesah. In the Talmud Yerushalmi, Rabbi Levi says that “anyone who eats matzah on the day before Pesah is like a man who has sex with his fiancée in his father-in-law’s house,” i.e., prior to the marriage. And despite the challenging implicit and explicit gender assumptions in Rabbi Levi’s statement, it is the basis for the practice many have not to eat matzah in the lead-up to Pesah (there are different customs about the length of this prohibition, with some abstaining as early as 30 days before Pesah, and others abstaining for only the day before Pesah).
The motivation for Rabbi Levi’s dramatic statement is presumably an attempt to increase our anticipation for matzah; when we get to the seder, there should be an allure (yes, I know we’re talking about matzah here) to this mitzvah. I’m meant to feel that this is something that I’ve consciously avoided and which now, therefore, feels new and, at least ideally, even exciting. It may even be similar to the custom in various cultures for two partners getting married not to see each other for some amount of time before the wedding — a similarity that brings us back to Rabbi Levi’s bawdy articulation of a Pesah law. And it’s a concern that finds expression in a similar law, this one found in the Mishnah, that one should not eat any sort of meal for the latter part of the day before Pesah, so that when one gets to the seder, you’re hungry enough that you want to eat.
I’ve found myself thinking about Rabbi Levi’s ruling about matzah a lot this year in the lead-up to Rosh Hashanah. The sort of excitement Rabbi Levi is trying to generate for matzah is exactly what many Jews — kids and adults alike — feel as they head to shul on Rosh Hashana. Folks may dread the sermon, or the extended mumbling of prayers, or whatever else it may be, but lots of Jews — dare I say most? — eagerly look forward to hearing the shofar. Whether because of its deep spiritual resonances, its visceral and almost brutal cry or simply the break it provides from what in many places may feel like a dull and extended drone, that first call of the shofar is easily the most anticipated moment in our liturgical calendar.
Yet, for folks who regularly attend weekday synagogue services, that first shofar blast on Rosh Hashana is a bit anticlimactic, because they’ve been hearing the shofar every day, six days a week (every day other than Shabbat), for the whole month of Elul leading up to Rosh Hashana. When those folks get to shul on Rosh Hashana, it will be the 25th day on which they’ve heard the shofar blasts in the last month — not exactly a brand new thing. (We blow shofar 24 times during Elul, not 25, because on the last day of Elul — the day before Rosh Hashana — we do not blow shofar.
The classic reason is so as to confuse Satan, so that he won’t know that Rosh Hashana is coming, but it may well be that this is an attempt to re-create some of that freshness, even as we’ve been blasting away on our shofarot all month.) So why is Rosh Hashana different from Pesah? Why do we strenuously avoid the paradigmatic mitzvah of Pesah in its advance, while we assiduously participate in that of Rosh Hashanah for a full month prior to the real thing?
It seems to me that these two different approaches to the holidays and their practices reflect the deep difference between experiencing redemption and doing teshuvah. Redemption is by its nature surprising, shocking even. To be sure, lots of work and effort goes into the act of redeeming — at least for human acts of redemption. But for the person freed of her shackles, taken out of Egypt, it will invariably feel as if in just one moment everything has changed. In that moment, there is no gradual transition from slave to free, from oppressed to redeemed. I was a slave, and now I’m not. That is the experience we’re trying to recall, to re-create and to create, when we eat matzah while telling and acting out the story of the Exodus on seder night.
But teshuvah is entirely different. When we do teshuvah, we’re not being redeemed; we’re trying to redeem ourselves through our own inner work. And that act of redemption takes serious effort and careful preparation. The shofar blast should not catch us off guard, and it should not be unexpected. Rather, it should be part of a longer process of calling ourselves to attention and thinking about the work we have to do to set ourselves free.
In six months, God willing, when we sit together at the seder, we will have the opportunity to focus on experiencing freedom. But this month that we’re now finishing up, and the one we’re about to begin — this season of repentance and introspection — is a time for us to focus not on our freedom, but on our acts of freeing ourselves. That may make for a less dramatic holiday season than that which we’ll celebrate in the spring, but it is also a prerequisite for making Pesah and its redemption possible.
Let’s get to work.
Rabbi Micha’el Rosenberg is assistant professor of rabbinics at Hebrew College.