He Who Neither Slumbers nor Sleeps

Many of us head into the first days of Pesach having spent the previous couple of weeks cleaning and preparing. We are drained, exhausted.

When I was about 12, our family was in the kosher food business, and we had just opened a second location a few months before Pesach. It was always a busy time in our first store, run by my father, but it was truly insanely busy with our second, which was managed by my mother. She also did most of the cleaning and cooking, with some assistance from me and my siblings, who also helped out in both businesses.

Suffice it to say that as we sat down to the first seder, we were all so tired our heads were drooping into our plates and our Haggadot were too blurry to read even before a single glass of wine. We were all shatteringly tired, especially my mom. So that year, there wasn’t much discussion, argument or even appetite. We finished quickly and saved the dynamic experience for the second seder.

This year, I’ve spoken to many members of our community, and friends across the globe, who describe themselves as ‘sleepwalking’ through the Pesach experience, with a sense of fatigue and being drained before they even started cleaning or cooking. And it is no wonder. The past six months have weighed upon all of us; and it hasn’t been a straight line from terrible to normal either.

As recently as a few days ago we encountered that experiential dread again, even if only for a few hours. So we enter into this holiday, perhaps as never before, experiencing something related to what our forebears experienced. Not only the fatigue of great endeavor and unending work, but also the despair and dread of not having control, or having power and agency ripped from our hands. Not only the feeling that we’ve been abandoned but also that we are seen by too many of those around us as the ‘other’, with all evil and unworthiness ascribed to us.

What relieves me from this heavy but unseen burden is the other part of my experience since 10/7. It is the sense of common purpose, of shared responsibility. It is the consequential nature of what we do for each other revealed and cherished. It is the fundamental change I’ve seen everywhere - from people who had put their Jewish identity low on a long list of elements of their identity now holding it high, to those who chose to step beyond their traditionally less open identity to one which expresses its care and love and concern for Jewish brothers and sisters in ways which are loud and demonstrative, instead of quiet and cloistered.

My friends, this moment comes because of horrible, terrifying, gruesome events - events we never thought to see again. But this moment also calls out to us to seize it, to take it, to marvel at our liberation from Egypt, from Auschwitz, and to pray for the liberation of our precious family from hellish Gaza. It demands that we push back against the despair, dread, and intimidation around us. We are the eternal nation. We survived slavery, and founded a sovereign kingdom. We survived exile and the threat of Haman, and fought back tooth and nail to overcome our enemies. We returned to our land, created the world's first public education system, and structured how a moral society works. We survived the existential threat of the Greeks, and brought the idea of illuminating the darkness to the world. We survived the destruction of our temple, our sovereignty, and the near extinction of us all by the Romans, and built a communal structure that would guide us through millennia of exile. We survived blood libels, persecution, exile, inquisition, pogroms, and the fires of the Shoah, while influencing the founders of this country and all moral thought in the West, innovating and explaining in science, culture, law and society. We have taken every challenge that we encounter and we have overcome it to bring knowledge or joy or responsibility to the world, and we will continue to do so, liberated from our darkest times, drawing strength from each other, and in the words of a Canadian songwriter I used to listen to, “Kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight.”

Think of the slave who woke up after the night of watchfulness and followed her family, her friends, her fellow Jews into a bright new day, where after 210 years they were heading home. Imagine not only the experiences of the split sea, Sinai, and years in the desert, but also the challenge of overcoming a slave mentality and thinking as a free sovereign people. That is our challenge. Think of the freedom we have here and the responsibility it demands. Think of the dedication we must have to our community and our people. Think of the one who took us out of Egypt, and the thanks we give him as we sit down with our families at the Seder. He who neither slumbers nor sleeps is sharing this night of watchfulness with all of us.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher VeSameyach!