In some sense, faith comes rather naturally to me. I grew up a Cleveland Indians fan and, each year, as the weather started to turn and spring training wound down, I needed to muster as much faith as possible to face the beginning of baseball season. I know Chicago Cubs fans can relate to this deep stretch for faith: when your team's last world championship was in 1948, you begin to wonder if the only reason they got that far was because God just happened to be giving out miracles that year. As kids, we never really attended games expecting Cleveland to win, and when they did, our faces probably registered more surprise than delight.
While baseball isn't quite the subject of this commentary, it is somewhat fitting in that opening day coincides with the beginning of Passover for many franchises this year, as the events all mark the coming of spring. However, this year, I feel the need to ask why this opening day is different from all other opening days.
At the first crack of a bat at a home opener, there is a hope that hangs in the crisp air of the early spring evening. This hope has deep roots in a faith nurtured by the history of the greats who breathed the same air we are breathing when perched on the edge of our seats that overlook first base. Even when constructing grand, new stadiums, architects strive to evoke these memories through design and form in an effort to tell the story of historic seasons and championship teams. Witness the new house that Ruth built in New York with its grandeur mirroring the former stadium across the street, and the subtle humility of Citi Field as it echoes the days at Ebbets Field. Baseball intentionally counts on our sense of hope, but its byproduct is a faith nurtured by seventh-inning stretches and the remarkable way that any team name fits seamlessly into "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
So it is more than fitting that as the umpire squats to dust off the first home plate of the season, we begin to clean our homes for Passover. While conventionally referred to as the "festival of freedom," Passover is more appropriately—as the Slonimer Rebbe calls it—the "festival of faith." In his extended commentary on Passover, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovski writes that Passover serves as the source of faith of the children of Israel. But besides the absolute demonstration of faith it took to leave Egypt, what does faith have to do with the Exodus story?
Moments before the children of Israel leave Egypt, we read, "This shall be the first of the months of the year for you" (Exod. 12:2). In this moment, the people are given the mitzvah of recognizing the cycles of the moon and celebrating them each month. This is a curious beginning to the history of a people, and one that Rashi picks up on in his opening comment to the Torah. As he states, it would make perfect sense for the first mitzvah that the children of Israel perform to be the opening of the Torah, but this still begs the question of why celebrating the new moon is the first mitzvah. From this moment before Exodus, we began to count according to the cycle of the moon. The Slonimer shares that like the moon, there are times in the peak of darkness where it is impossible to see any spark of light—yet even at these moments we know that the light will return.
Feeling that even at the peak of darkness, the light will return takes faith.
In another demonstration of faith, this calendar shift directly precedes the celebration of the first Passover. What is amazing is that the first Passover happens in Egypt. We would suppose that the celebration happened after they inhaled the first breaths of freedom, but as we read, "That very day the Lord freed the Israelites from the land of Egypt, troop by troop" (Exod. 12:51), after they celebrated the Passover.
When read side by side (as indeed they appear in the Torah), these two episodes demonstrate that Passover indeed is the festival of faith.
Celebrating freedom while still wearing the shackles of slavery takes faith. Believing that lives connected in the present by misfortune show promise of prosperity in the future takes faith. Demonstrating this faith to God and the world made the Exodus possible, and gave the celebration of Passover an enduring relevance.
It is but a short leap to understand the modern relevance of this Torah. The economic situation that grips our world has impacted each and every one of us—personally, professionally, and philanthropically. It can be difficult to envision a time when we will reach beyond this reality, but the Passover narrative instructs that we must. We must believe in the light that will return and, most important, rejoice now, just as the children of Israel did on the verge of freedom.
There is nothing that can compare to the waft of freshly cut grass that startles you as you emerge from the darkness of the tunnels to the brightness of the field. It evokes memories of greatness and promise, and cultivates your faith in the future.
This year, more than any other, may Passover serve as our festival of faith, in everything to come, both personally and professionally.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.