I am not talking about visitors from other planets – unless you’re thinking of the prophet Elijah, who usually makes just a cameo appearance this time of the year. What would you say is the highlight of the Passover Seder? The food, the Hagadah, the Seder plate? Let me share mine: I feel it is the moment the middle matzah is broken in two.
This step, called Yachatz, which means split, contains the same letters as Chatzi, meaning half. Actually the instructions are to divide that matzah into a bigger and smaller piece. The small piece is eaten at the beginning of the Seder, and the bigger piece, called the Afikomen, is hidden away till the end of the Seder. Some sages posit that the small piece represents the past redemption, while the larger piece symbolizes the future redemption. In a similar way we recite the Hallel, the festive praises from Psalms, during the Seder. Curiously however, we also divide the Hallel into two parts, one before the meal and one after. This division too represents the past and future redemptions.
How can these divisions help us cope with the covid experience? Let us reflect more- reflect being the operative word- on this bifurcation. One example comes from the first of the four special Torah portions read in the months preceding Pesach- the one called ‘Parshat Shekalim’ where at the construction of the Sanctuary in the desert, each Israelite was asked to donate a ‘half-shekel’ to build the Sanctuary. There were of course many donations that were unique to the talents and possessions of the individuals, but the half shekel was common to all. The curious part of it was just that- it was a ‘part’ of a complete coin rather than a whole amount.
The sages provide several reasons, both horizontal and vertical: The individual is only half of a person without the community. The community is only half complete without a relationship with G-d. And so too the entire world, and all of creation, for that matter, is only half the story of life without being sourced in the Creator.
Another example gives an ethical perspective: when we look at others, or even events in our own lives, it is very important to remember that what we see is usually only half the story of a more complete picture that will take much more information to comprehend. When Moses asks G-d, ‘Show me Your face, G-d replies, ‘you will see my back, and not my face.’ The rabbis elaborate: Moses was asking to understand the question of theodicy, i.e. why the righteous seem to suffer, and the wicked to prosper.’ G-d’s response was that we can only see the full story of most events, in retrospect.
To me, the most profound interpretation of the significance of ‘half’ is a mystical one where, when our souls come down to earth, they descend as a half. In other words, only part of our souls inhabit our bodies. It is similar to the idea in physics called ‘Quantum Entanglement,’ or as Einstein put it, ‘spooky action at a distance.’ The lower part (not inferior, but more material) of our souls fumble around on earth, trying to focus on doing good, but often getting distracted or burnt out, especially in a year like this. The higher part cheers us on to accomplish our purpose in this lifetime. It sees the goal but needs the lower part to carry the ball.
This concept has helped me in a very practical way. Living alone and feeling my age, I sometimes feel worn out, physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. That’s when I try to listen to the ‘coach’ on my shoulder, sending me valuable messages. This ‘alter non ego’ endorses my imperfect attempts at doing right, as well as urging me to do more, and not just rest on my laurels.
In a sense, this is the primary message of Pesach. The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, is rooted in the word ‘Tzar’ meaning ‘narrows.’ We are to remember the Exodus, to leave these narrow places, not just once a year, but each and every day, multiple times in our prayers and blessings, because each day we are meant to expand the boundaries of our personal growth as well as our positive impact on the world. In other words, to go beyond the limitations of yesterday. One of my favorite verses in Psalms expresses this concept: From Psalm 81, the Psalm for Thursday: ‘I am the Lord your G-d who has brought you up from the land of Egypt; BROADEN your mouth, and I will fill it.’
If someone happens to be alone at a Seder, the rabbis tell us that we must still ask the four questions- and we must reply to them. If you think about it, this directive is rather startling. Who are we talking to if no one else is around? Perhaps Pesach is the optimal time for what seems like a ‘split personality’ dialogue- especially this Pesach. Perhaps this is the best time, in particular this year, to have a clear channel of communication between our soul’s root and branches. Perhaps we are all only half a shekel, unless we are open to ‘spooky action at a distance.’ And perhaps we are all ‘they’ from this spiritual perspective. The Seder indeed may be the finest time and most conducive time to unite the two halves of our souls. We all long for connections, both human and Divine, and in this year of ‘Covid roadblocks’ to those connections in so many ways, we can easily feel discouraged and lonely. So my message to others as well as to myself, is to ‘passover’ the gap between the two parts of our souls, and to take this concept of Quantum Entanglement seriously and personally. Perhaps this can bring us literally – to paraphrase a recent James Bond movie title – QUANTUM SOLACE.