There is a machloket (a rabbinic argument among our sages) as to when Passover really begins. Some suggested the 14th of Nissan and others the 15th, both groups quoting verses from the Hebrew Bible. Of course, the halachah (Jewish law) is clear that Passover is the 15th day of Nissan – but the argument itself is of interest.
If we look at the symbols of the Passover seder, we notice that each of them has a positive and a negative meaning. Take matzah, for example: Matzah can mean the bread of affliction, which we mention only at the beginning of the haggadah in a passage which was likely added at the end of the editing process. But we also learn in the haggadah that matzah is positive because the Israelites were willing to go into the wilderness with no provisions, with just a little bit of matzah, because they trusted God.
The rabbis who said that Passover begins on the 14th day of Nissan stressed the negative. They focused on the horrors of Egypt, the terrible idol worship, the suffering and the bloodshed. They felt, I imagine, that we should discuss and dwell upon the negativity that surrounds us.
Jewish law would suggest that we focus on the positive: on how the Israelites never gave up their belief in God, on how they always believed that things could and would get better.
With our second Passover during the pandemic, this has been a most challenging year. When we are positive about our faith and our God and our community, we are able to persevere through these challenges. Perhaps that is why the rabbis wanted Passover to be on the 15th of Nissan, the day on which we demonstrated our belief in God, the day on which we demonstrated our greatest optimism.
Notice that the haggadah does not begin with a blessing. We are not interested in making a blessing over slavery. We will not remain Jewish by only stressing suffering. We will remain Jewish because, in spite of our suffering, in spite of this difficult year, we still believe.
Spring is beginning. The trees and flowers are blooming. The vaccines are being administered. We live in the greatest, freest country in the world. Let us be grateful.
Rabbi Peter S. Berg is senior rabbi of The Temple.