This year I am feeling haunted by one of the lesser-known aspects of Passover: On the morning before the First Seder –- which means this very morning –— First-born sons (or in this generation, first-born children) are supposed to fast from daybreak till the Seder.
We first-borns are released from this obligation if we study Torah and then conclude with a “seudat mitzvah” – a meal celebrating the fulfillment of a mitzvah, which means a commandment or a connection-making between ourselves and the Holy One of Being, the Breathing-Spirit of the world.
Why should we first-borns fast as we approach Passover? Presumably in grief, relief, and gratitude – grief for all the first-borns of Egypt, Mitzrayyim, the Tight and Narrow Place, who according to the Exodus story died that night, and in relief and gratitude that our families of the Godwrestling folk were spared the disaster.
So from 1971 or ’72 on, as I found my way through the Freedom Seder deeper and deeper into Passover and Torah, I have fasted –— or studied Torah – during this day, in honor of the ancient story.
But this year I am feeling a more personal grief. In some strange way I am no longer a “first-born” — because my younger brother died two years ago. Indeed, on his deathbed I said to him that he had become for me the older brother that he wished I had been for him. He nodded, using the little breath left to him: “It’s true.”
There’s more to this “first-born” thing than the deaths of Exodus. All through the Book of Genesis, the struggles of younger brothers to become the “Elder” are the thread of conflict and of holiness. In every case but one, after a struggle the First-born steps back – and then there is a reconciliation.
The one exception is the tale of Cain and Abel. Cain, possessed of anger at his dispossession, refuses to step back –- and kills his younger brother.
Early in the tale of Exodus, God defines Yisrael as the older child of God –— deserving of the first-born’s special blessings. This is patently untrue –- for Egypt is older, richer, stronger. And Egypt – or at least its Pharaoh — refuses to step back.
Indeed, like Cain the Pharaoh commands the death of all the boy-children of this presumptuous upstart claimant to the Elder blessings. He tries to turn the very power of birthing –- the nurturing power of midwives –- into murder, but the midwives honor the Voice of God expressed in the babies’ cry and the Breath of Life expressed in the babies’ first breathing.
So this time it is not the younger brother who is murdered as was Abel, but all the older brothers of the Older Brother Egypt who die, slaughtered by the hand of the Breath of Life, the Wind of Change that blows away all that keeps a death-grip on its narrow power..
How are the Israelite first-borns –- the Godwrestlers — saved? By smearing blood on the doorposts of their houses. When they walk through their doorways in the morning, they are reenacting their own births through the one doorway cloaked in blood that every human being passes through –- the womb and birth canal. Those who are willing to take the chances of rebirth are those who live.
Mitzrayyim – the Tight and Narrow Place – had been nurturing as the new being, the new community, began to grow. But as its numbers, like the multiplying cells that grow into a fetus, truly become a new identity, they begin to feel the pressure of a narrow space. Will the birthing contractions of Mother Egypt make the birthing joyful?
No, because Pharaoh tries to exert his power –- his overbearing, over-reaching, hypermasculine, tyrannical power — over mother and child to stop the birthing as the time comes fully due. So terrible pangs – the Plagues — rip Egypt apart , before the new child can break the bloody waters of the Red Sea and cross into the Wilderness of experiment and learning.
So the story of Passover carries two great and archetypal myths – the story of Overreach that brings on its own destruction, and the story of new birthing into new community.
My brother Howard and I did together give new birth to each other and ourselves. Our rebirthing began in the midst of our mother’s dying during Passover 1985, when we banded together to let her choose death over the torture of a breathing machine that a hospital had forced upon her. It continued when Howard invited me to join with him in writing a book together about brotherhood.
After some reluctance and dismay - was a psychotherapist, this was his turf; would I look foolish? — I took a step back from the Elder’s power, a step forward into his own territory. Out of that grew both a book – Becoming Brothers –- and a deep friendship.
As I grieve my brother’s death and feel gratitude for the friendship into which he wooed me, I don’t know whether I am any longer the Elder brother, First-Born.
But I am fasting today until I can sit down once again with the Talmud passages about Passover — especially the passages about my beloved charoset and my beloved Song of Songs — the poem that promises a Beloved Community embracing all of life.
Fasting in grief and gratitude:
- Gratitude that I can once again celebrate the Passover that many years ago, in the midst of grief for Martin Luther King, gave me rebirth;
- Grief that the over-reaching Pharaohs of our generation are bringing new Plagues of drought, famine, flood upon our Earth and our communities;
- Gratitude for the stirrings of resistance and rebirth I see – growing toward a planet-round community of love and shared abundance, the Earth that is promised in the Song of Songs.
- Grief that I cannot share with Howard two poems –- one he loved, one he admired –- two poems of this moment of our year:
“When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
“Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.” (Walt Whitman)
“April is the cruelest month,
breeding lilacs out of the dead land,
mixing memory with desire,
stirring dull roots with spring rain.” (T.S. Eliot)
Here we go, mixing memory with desire into our Passover. Every generation, every year, we must walk through the doorways of blood, reborn through grief and gratitude.
Blessings on your journey through the doorway.