Tzom Bechorot: Why I’m Fasting Before Passover
April 3, 2015, is Tzom Bechorot, Fast of the Firstborn when first-born Jews fast before the first seder of Passover. This day also coincides with Good Friday, an obligatory fast day in Catholic tradition. Because I’m a first-born Jew, I will fast for the first reason. Because I’m a rabbi and soon co-chair of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, I will fast for the second reason. Neither reason, however, is quite what it may seem.
On Evolving Spiritual Tradition. Fasting, like any spiritual tradition, begs questions about spiritual tradition itself. Whatever the original reasons once were for tradition, they need to keep making spiritual sense for we who would bring tradition to life. For this reason, spiritual tradition generally – and thus any particular spiritual tradition such as fasting – must continue to evolve, leaning forward while also staying backwards compatible with tradition’s flow. After all, a spiritual tradition that stops evolving can become calcified (stuck in time), brittle (weakened and too easily broken) or both: for proof, we need only look at religious and spiritual life becoming calcified and brittle around us. Passover is supposed to be anything but calcified or brittle: it is the liberation story, the source of Jewish peoplehood, the peak family gathering of the Jewish year. What we do must be consistent with those themes.
On Jewish Tradition’s Reasons for Fast Before Passover. So why fast before Passover? Tradition’s most cited original reason is that first-born Jews “commemorate the miracle that [we] were saved from the Plague of the Firstborn” (M. Soferim 21:3; B. Pesachim 68a). Like other aspects of honoring Passover, “I do this because of what God did for me when I came out of Egypt” (Ex. 13:8) – essentially, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Similarly, we can fast in gratitude, emerging into the festival with added joy. Too, fasting evokes atonement, a purification not unlike Yom Kippur six months opposite Passover on the spiritual calendar. So suggested the Chatam Sofer: while the Israelite slaves were assured that they’d survive the ultimate plague, perhaps they felt a need to repent either to merit their redemption or make extra sure. Both are subtle but important spiritual projections: the first doubts one’s self-worth, and the second doubts God – each an inner enslavement from which we can seek liberation.
My Jewish Reason: For Every Human Soul and the High Price of Justice. I tip my hat to tradition’s reasons for fasting, and I add my own reason – in Passover’s well-trodden path of adding to tradition – that Passover is the paradigmatic liberation allegory for every human soul. It’s the “every” soul that most captures my attention and imagination. Until everyone is free, neither am I. So taught Dr. Martin Luther King from his jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This is how I understand Talmud’s teaching that when the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds and the Sea drowned the Egyptians chasing them, the angels rejoiced but God rebuked them saying, “My children are drowning and you sing Me praises?” (B. Megillah 10b, B. Pesachim 64b). In that merit, I will fast in solidarity with the victims of the Sea, to lament the too-high price of justice, and to do my part to spiritually purge every time that my co-religionists ever sung praises for another’s demise.
Deep Ecumenism and Good Friday. This rabbi won’t presume to comment intelligently about the Catholic fast of Good Friday: Catholicism isn’t my creed, so I can’t claim its wisdom. This year’s calendrical confluence of my fast and the Catholic fast, however, cues up what Raimon Panikkar termed the common spiritual functions that traditions embed differently in their doctrinal reality maps. I may not understand the life and death of Jesus in the same ways as Catholics might, but Deep Ecumenism teaches that I can understand suffering and grace on my own Jewish reality map (the Plague of the Firstborn and Passover), in ways that help me relate to the Catholic reality map Good Friday and Easter uplifting those same values. Suddenly my pre-Passover fast takes on an added valence of journeying with my Catholic cousins from the fullness of my own Jewish tradition and heritage – not to erase differences or blithely celebrate difference for its own sake, but to uplift common spiritual values transcending them all. No less than celebrating and honoring the particulars of my Jewish creed, this uplifting of the transcendent beyond myself is my sacred and cherished responsibility as rabbi and organizational leader.
So on this day before Passover, I dedicate my Fast of the Firstborn to transcendence – growing beyond enslavement, injustice, mistrust and sectarianism. I do so as a first-born Jew, and also as a rabbi and organizational leader representing the firstborn of the Western monotheistic traditions. Each of these has a slightly different valence, but hopefully all share the common intention to open myself and others just a little more to the Oneness we call freedom.
Chag pesach sameach – Happy Passover!