Passover, the Jewish people’s annual Spring Break from workaday worry, came especially “late” this year.
Given the cold weather of early spring, at least here in the Northeast, we needed the time. The message of Passover hope works best with the confirming evidence of long-awaited sunshine, warmth, and flowers.
That positive message permeates the Passover readings. Day One (like the Haggada) recalls deliverance from Egypt, and Day Seven has us crossing the sea on dry land — twin biblical examples of unexpected miracles.
But in between we begin counting the Omer, the period between the second day of Passover and Shavuot that tradition treats ominously — like a dark alley in time, with promise at the end but no guarantee of getting that far.
Still, the Omer aside, Passover itself is insistently messianic. Medieval Jews actually expected Elijah to arrive when they flung open their doors on seder eve; and in case he dallied, the eighth-day haftara (Isaiah 10:32-12:6) envisioned a time when “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb,” when human rulers, imbued with wisdom and God’s spirit, would “judge the poor with righteousness.”
But Passover ends with wolves still eating lambs, righteousness in short supply, and Elijah’s wine poured back into the bottle for next year. The Torah narrative that we resume provides crushing evidence that our Spring Break is over. It’s called Aharei Mot, “After the Death,” a reminder that Aaron’s two sons have died. And we’re only half-way through Leviticus — we have to trudge through Numbers and Deuteronomy before getting to the Promised Land.
“April is the cruelest month,” wrote T.S. Eliot. Had he not been an outright anti-Semite, he might have gotten that from Jewish neighbors reflecting on the aborted Passover promise and a return to the normalcy of sons dying young, lambs eaten by lions, and the poor being devoured by the rich.
Had Eliot asked me, I would have championed the message as a measure of Jewish honesty: Passover springtime promise along with counting our careful way through the alley of the Omer: both are real. Eliot also said, “Humankind cannot bear very much reality,” and he was wrong on that one. Humankind has been bearing too much reality since Adam and Eve were forced from the Garden. The question isn’t whether we bear it, but how, and the Jewish calendar incorporates the “how” in its Passover/Omer contradiction.
We bear it by our heroism, but not the classic variety; Jewish heroes inhabit the fullness of life’s dilemma: the Exodus — and Aaron’s sons; the Messiah who hasn’t come yet — and the one that might arrive tomorrow; the governments we have — and the ones we still can hope for. Jewish heroes count the Omer, heading toward Sinai, but wary of the world along the way.
It is no small thing to get up each day with echoes of Passover joy despite the knowledge that we may some day be Aaron, grieving for our children. Elijah’s coming and Isaiah’s visions may not immediately materialize, but they are not gossamer deception; they are the stuff of Jewish heroism, reminders of humanity at its best, the humanity we actually can become, even while doing our daily counting through life’s interminable Omers.