Celebrating the Jewish Nation on the Last Day of Pesach
by Rabbi Reuven Spolter, Director of OTS Amiel BaKehila
After our youngest son was born in the United States, the nurses brought a number of forms for my wife to fill out, including a social security form. They asked her to fill out some demographic information that she preferred to omit. Eventually a nurse came and asked if it would be alright for her to help fill out the form. Sure, she said.
The first column was for race. The nurse didn’t even ask. She took one look at our fair-haired little boy and checked off “Caucasian.” Easy enough. The next question was about “nationality.”
“Nationality?” my wife wondered. “What does that mean?”
“Well, are you from Russian descent, or Polish descent or something like that…what are your ancestors?”
“Well, I’m Jewish. That’s my nationality. “Sure,” she thought, “my ancestors might have come from Poland. But they weren’t Polish, because they only came from somewhere else. So put my nationality as Jewish.”
“Oh,” the nurse told her. “We don’t consider Judaism a nationality. To us it’s a religion.”
Jews in the Diaspora like to think that the Eighth Day is the last day of Pesach. It is, but it’s not. It happens that this week the eighth day falls on Shabbat, so Israelis will also enjoy a two-day Yom Tov. But in reality, Pesach ends after the seventh day, followed by a normal Shabbat.
The last day of Yom Tov is not a universal value; it’s the holiday for Jews in the Diaspora. What message did our Sages want to convey to us and about on the second day of Yom Tov? One way to answer that question is to look at the Torah reading that they established for each and every second day of Yom Tov, whether it’s Pesach, Sukkos or Shavuot.
The Torah reading for the last day of Yom Tov (Devarim 15:19 – 16:17) focuses naturally on the three major holidays of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. But if we look carefully at the text, it places special emphasis on one particular aspect of the celebration of these days. We read about the prohibition of eating chametz on Pesach the obligation to count the Omer before Shavuot. But on each of these holidays and in the summary at the end we learn that the only way to really celebrate the holiday is to enjoy it together, as a nation, in God’s house.
If you want to truly celebrate Pesach, you can only do that with the Paschal Lamb – which could only be offered in one place. לא תוכל לזבח את הפסח באחד שעריך – “You may not sacrifice the Passover-offering within any of your gates which the Lord your God gives you”; כי אל המקום אשר יבחר ה’ לשכן שמו שם תזבח את הפסח – “but at the place which the Lord your God shall choose to cause His name to dwell in, there you shall sacrifice the Passover-offering.”
You cannot properly party on Pesach in a vacuum, as an individual. You can only celebrate together, as a people, in Jerusalem, God’s holy city. The same rule applies to Sukkot and Shavuot as well. The Torah obligate us to celebrate the joy of Shavuot. But that celebration takes place together with our families and servants and the Levite, במקום אשר יבחר ה’ לשכן שמו – “in the place that God will choose to dwell His name.” On Sukkot as well we note the specific location to celebrate the holiday: במקום אשר יבחר – “in God’s chosen place.” And, if we have not by now gotten the point, the Torah sums it up again for us a fourth time.שלש פעמים בשנה יראה כל זכורך את פני ה’ אלקיך – “three times a year, every male must be seen by God.” Where must he be seen? Again, במקום אשר יבחר ה” – “in the place which [God] shall choose.”
By choosing this particular Torah portion for the final day of the Three Festivals, our Sages convey a clear message: Yes, we must mark a second day of Yom Tov. At the same time, remember that when Jewish people really want to observe a holiday, the full sense of the holiday comes when they celebrate it not on their own in their specific communities, but instead as a nation, together. Pesach and Shavuot and Sukkot cannot just be about the matzoh and receiving the Torah and sitting in the Sukkah. Those commandments carry so much more meaning when we celebrate them not as individual Jews, but as a nation as a whole.
Judaism as a nationality lies at the heart of who we are as a people, not just in through our national identity, but through our religious expression as well. No holiday illustrates this idea better than Pesach. The very first Pesach combined the formation of a nation and a political body and the first Jewish army with the rituals of Mitzvot along with a code of ethics. On the very same night that we became a people, we also performed the mitzvah of offering and consuming the Korban Pesach, and found personal salvation from the Plague of the Firstborn. Every mitzvah that the Torah mandates carries both religious significance and national overtones, from the matzoh that we eat on Pesach to the commandment to establish a court system and appoint a king. It’s not a question of one or the other – Jews are really both.
All too often, we fail to recognize this critical aspect of Jewish observance. Do we consider putting on tefillin to be an act of national pride, like reciting the “Pledge of Allegiance” in America? Do we see those tefillin as badges of our national identity, proudly proclaiming our Jewish identity? Or do we see them as articles of ritual significance, to keep to ourselves, hidden in the privacy of the shul or the Beit Midrash?
In a few short weeks we will celebrate Israel’s 71st birthday on Yom Ha’atzmaut. For Religious Zionists, this will not simply be a secular celebration with a barbecue and fireworks. Religious Zionist Jews will begin the day with a Tefillah Chagigit – a celebratory prayer service, and recite Hallel to offer songs of praise to God for the great miracle that is the Jewish State. To us, Israel isn’t just a secular state, the home of the Jewish nation. It is also, perhaps primarily, the manifestation of Jews’ spiritual and religious yearning for centuries. The State of Israel represents the merging of two identities, the reawakening of our collective nationality on the one hand, and of our religious consciousness on the other.
We must take the same view of our religious and spiritual lives as well, no matter where we live. Eating matzah on Pesach or wearing tzitzit or keeping kosher are not simply a spiritual act. Rather, these choices also represent a conscious and active desire to be a part of the Jewish people and partake in our national customs; acts of pride that we can and must share with each and every Jew around the world.