Passover is the Jewish People’s annual Spring Break from workaday worry, and it came especially late this year.
The issue is our Jewish calendar, which measures months by the moon but years by the sun. Since 12 lunar months (at 29.5 days each) are about 11 days short of the 365¼-day solar year, Passover (always the same in lunar time) arrives earlier and earlier (in solar time). When it threatens to be here before Spring, we add the extra winter month of Adar II to delay it.
Given our recent cold weather, at least here in New York, we needed the time. The shining message of Passover hope works best with the confirming evidence of long-awaited sunshine, warmth and flowers.
That positive message permeates the appointed Passover readings. Day One (like the Haggadah the night before) recalls deliverance from Egypt, and Day Seven has us crossing of the Sea on dry land – the twin biblical examples of unexpected miracles.
But in between Days One and Seven we strike a negative note: we begin counting the Omer, the name we give to the period between the second day of Passover and Shavuot. Tradition treats the Omer ominously – like a dark alley in time, with promise at the end but no guarantee of getting that far. It’s a Jewish obsession, perhaps: never let your guard down.
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 8th-day Haftarah (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 until next year. The ongoing Torah narrative that we then resume provides crushing evidence that our Spring Break is over. It’s called Acharei 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 all of Numbers and Deuteronomy before getting to the Promised Land.
“April is the cruelest month,” said T.S. Eliot. Had he not been an outright anti-Semite, he might have gotten that from Jewish neighbors reflecting on 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: they are both real. T.S. 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 going all the way from Achilles and Odysseus to Batman and Superman. 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 someday be Aaron, grieving for our children. Elijah’s coming and Isaiah’s visions may not immediately materialize, but they are not just 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.