What Does Passover Mean to Us?
A Review of As If We Were There by Rabbi Gidon Rothstein, Jewish Press, March 31
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik famously said ein kedushah b’li hachanah– there is no holiness without preparation. This is an idea that lies at the heart of Judaism, and really at the heart of everything we intend to do well. Unfortunately, our hectic lives often leave little time to spiritually prepare Jewish festivals. This may be no truer than for the holiday of Passover, which requires so many physical preparations, that we sometimes forget – or have little time left over – for the spiritual preparation that is also required of us all.
To the rescue is Rabbi Gidon Rothstein’s new book, As If We Were There: Readings for a Transformative Passover Experience, which facilitates the spiritual development and preparation into and during the holiday of Passover. It is a series of 21 daily readings, from Rosh Chodesh Nisan until acharon shel Pesach, which inspire and challenge us to envision ourselves as if we have departed from Egypt. Rabbi Rothstein enables us to properly fulfill the imperative that bechol dor va-dor chayiv adam lirot atzmo ke’ilu hu yatza mi-Mitzraim – in each and every generation man is obligated to see himself as having left Egypt. It’s sequential and structured format is also reminiscent of the great Mesillat Yesharim.
Each entry asks a specific question and provides strategies to answer those questions, mostly based on traditional Rishonim. For example, Rabbi Rothstein asks if we would have seen God’s providence in Egypt, especially in times of despair and oppression (Day 2). He asks if we would have responded like the Jews in Egypt did, or if we would have fared better or worse than them (Day 9). He also asks if we would have fostered the human-divine relationship that is expected of us (Day 4).
Although the exodus from Egypt was a one-time event, its reverberations continue throughout the pages of history and in our daily lives. This is echoed not just in the text of the Haggadah itself, but also in many of the rituals that define Jewish worship in the modern day. To this effect, Rabbi Rothstein does a masterful job relating many of our daily observances, like tefillin and tzitzit, to the Exodus (Day 14), suggesting that our recognition greatly enhances the practical element of those mitzvot.
He also explores how certain commandments which we might not associate with the Exodus are actually tied to that historical event. Specifically, he asks why the requirement for honest weights and measures, the prohibition on usury, the requirement to give gifts to the poor, and the prohibition to eat insects are tied to the Exodus (Day 20). He explores each of these commandments in light of the Exodus, but the broader thesis is that the life of a Jew is constantly infused with the memory of the bondage of Egypt, not just at the Passover Seder, or even when we recite the Shema, but throughout our lives at all times and at all moments. Even when a Jew avoids charging interest, or turns down unkosher food, he is affirming that God rescued him from Egypt. Whenever a Jew enjoys his freedom from oppression, he remembers the source of that freedom.
The second part of the book is a personal memoir of how Rabbi Rothstein’s father conducted his own Seder, and the impact that that had on the author’s life. At first, this is a surprise pairing, but this inclusion serves quite well to complement the book. The first part is about our current and future experiences and mindsets, while the second half is a tender and poignant look back at his own origins, and how those experiences shaped him into the person he is today. It also serves as the prooftext for his earlier arguments. Following the Kuzari, he recognizes that he only knows about the Exodus from Egypt because his father told him, whose father told him, whose father told him, tracing their historical knowledge back to the Exodus itself, that monumental historical event that continues to impact our lives on a day to day basis.
Rabbi Gidon Rothstein’s book provides a remarkable opportunity for us to harness the days preceding and during Passover for their ultimate intention: to utilize that time, and the various commandments related to the Exodus from Egypt, to improve our observance of the commandments, our spiritual awareness, and our outlook on the world.