“The Final Days of Passover: A Call For Modesty in Jewish Life”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

The Midrash, in Shemot Rabba 23:5, speaks of a purported conversation between G-d and Israel as Moses and the Israelites sang out to G-d when they crossed the Red Sea.

The Midrash states,

Az ya’sheer Moshe,” Then Moses sang. This is a reference to the verse in Song of Songs 4:8, that G-d called out to His people: “ Ee’tee me’l’vah’nohn kallah, ee’tee me’l’vah’nohn tah’voh’ee,” Come with Me from Lebanon, My bride, with Me from Lebanon.

Rabbi Levi said,

The custom of the world is that only after the bride is bedecked in her finest and bathed in perfumes is she led to the bridal canopy. But the Al-mighty did not do so. Instead He beckoned the people of Israel, “Come with Me from Lebanon, My bride, with Me from Lebanon. I took you directly from the mortar and bricks, and made you into a bride.” [The word Lebanon is similar to the Hebrew word, L’vay’nah, a brick.]

The Midrash emphasizes that G-d’s love for Israel is not dependent upon the people’s comeliness, their attractive vestments or sensuous perfumes. G-d took the Jewish people to Him directly from their enslavement, from the mortar and the bricks, before they were able to bathe or clean themselves, while they were still dirty and unkempt. And yet, G-d says to His people, “Come with Me, My bride, from the midst of the muck and the mud. My love for you is so profound, that I am oblivious of the foul odors and your ragged garments.”

The G-d of Israel is not impressed with Armani suits or luxurious designer gowns. As we know from the prophet Samuel (I Samuel 16:7), “For it is not as man sees; for a man looks on the outward appearance, but the L-rd looks at the heart.” G-d sees beyond the exterior and looks deeply into the interior of each person, whether famed scholar or lowly knave.

Over the past few weeks, the observant Jewish community has been the subject of a number of public articles, describing, to my mind, rather discomforting instances of overt conspicuous consumption. The first article, which appeared in the Wall Street Journal , describes the “Kiddush wars,” and the competition between various synagogues to outdo one another, serving lavish buffets following the services that cost many thousands of dollars, and which, of course, are accompanied by only the most expensive liquors.

The second article, authored by the columnist David Brooks of the New York Times , appeared in the OpEd section and described how positively impressed Brooks was during his visit to Pomegranate supermarket, a very upscale “Whole Foods” type of supermarket in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. Extolling the moral value of traditional Jews, he refers to an Orthodox “surge factor,” and predicts that the Orthodox Jews will become the largest and strongest Jewish denomination in America. Of course, he fails to mention the large pockets of poverty in the Brooklyn Jewish community, and that most of these impoverished Jews could hardly afford to buy the items sold in Pomegranate.

The third article also appeared in the New York Times on Sunday, March 17th and was a character study of a Japanese hairstylist, who has become the hairdresser of choice for well-off Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jewish women. It reports that her prices for styling a wig start at $450 and that some women have paid as much as $7,000 for her handmade European virgin undyed wigs.

As Passover comes to a close, there is always a fear that the final days will be a letdown, as the wonderful festival concludes. But, the last days of Passover can also be the peak of our joy, where the wonderful holiday experiences, foods and celebrations all come together, as we recall the Crossing of the Sea and the true exodus from Egypt, which actually occurred on the 7th day of Passover.

The concept of “Hiddur Mitzvah” is well entrenched in Judaism. Throughout Jewish history, Jews have spared little effort to make each mitzvah as beautiful as possible. New clothes are purchased for Passover and other holidays, and the most beautiful china and silver are used to serve the richest foods, in order to fully celebrate this holiday, the festival of freedom and redemption.

And yet while we celebrate, we dare not forget that the matzah that we eat on this holiday is known as “lechem oni,” the bread of affliction, and that regular, rich bread is forbidden on Passover. We dare not forget to invite needy guests into our home for Passover.

As we celebrate Passover with a surfeit of joy and happiness, it is easy to forget the slavery and persecution that our ancestors endured in Egypt. Focusing simply on the redemption and the great miracles of G-d, we can easily lose perspective regarding our own reality. Although we like to consider ourselves today to be thoroughly worthy people, the Midrash states clearly that when G-d chose the Jewish people, we were covered with mortar and bricks, cement and muck. Yet, He brought us to the bridal canopy, not necessarily because we were worthy, but more because of His special concern and love for us.

Recalling the song of Moses and Israel as they crossed the sea on the last days of Passover, should serve as a call to G-d’s people to humble themselves, to be more modest and toned down in their lifestyle. It is precisely at this time of great abundance and pleasure that we are bidden to remember that there are many Jews, and non-Jews, who barely have food to eat or clothes to wear. We need to limit our desires for bigger, better and more, and bear in mind that there others who have recently lost their jobs, and even more who have been out of work for months. It is hard to believe that more than 15% of the Jewish community in the New York Metropolitan area live in poverty or near poverty, that many Jewish schools can hardly afford to pay their teachers a living wage, resulting in teachers walking away from educating Jewish children.

The Al-mighty’s message must resonate deeply as we sing the Shira , the song of Moses and the people Crossing the Red Sea. “ Ee’tee mil’vah’nohn kallah, I have chosen you, from Lebanon, from mortar and bricks, and brought you under the bridal canopy. Only in humility are you worthy of betrothal.”

Wishing you all a very Happy and Healthy Passover.

May you be blessed.

The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Sunday night, March 31st , and continue through Monday and Tuesday, April 1st and 2nd . For more information see NJOP’s website.