"Great joy, great joy, spring is here, Passover is coming," go the words to the only Passover song I know that isn't part of the Haggadah. And the coming of spring is indeed an occasion to celebrate. Spring is the season of rebirth, an opportunity to start all over again.
Judaism wholeheartedly embraces the concept of spring as a time for new beginnings. So much so, in fact, that the Bible considers Nisan, the month in which Passover starts, as the first month of the year, and the Mishna considers the first of the month one of four New Year's Days.
The Passover holiday celebrates this new beginning, but, unlike the High Holiday season in which Jews are encouraged to repent their misdeeds and behave better as individuals, Passover calls on its celebrants to be introspective not only as individuals but as a people. At one point in the seder, we say "In each generation, every person must view himself as if he personally went out of Egypt," as a call to understand our personal journey. Yet, at another point, we say, "This year we have been slaves, next year we will be free people," a reminder that we undertake our journey from slavery to freedom together with our entire community.
A Hassidic teaching views Egypt in both a literal and metaphoric sense, and looks at the connection between its Hebrew name "Mitzrayim" and its second two letters, "tzar," meaning narrow. The teaching goes on to explain that while the Jews were brought out of Egypt in the past, today we must all see the ways in which we and our lives are narrow, and that we will only become free, as individuals and as a people, when we lose those constrictions.
Since last Passover, I have written extensively about the areas in which I see Israeli and Jewish society needing to be released from our self-imposed slavery. In some instances, unfortunately, history only seems to repeat itself, and I find myself feeling that I need to republish some of the articles I wrote a year ago. For example, before Rosh Hashannah, I wrote about acts of violence perpetrated by Jews against religious minorities, nicknamed "Price Tag" attacks. Now, on the 7th of Nisan, I found myself once again participating in a counter-protest, calling on the government to view these acts seriously and work toward their prevention.
Over the summer, I wrote about a disturbing trend I saw in Judaism in which men sought to control women, particularly regarding the "modesty police" and responses to Women of the Wall. Since writing that article, women continued being detained for the “crime” of wearing a prayer shawl, and a young religious woman with a lovely voice was suspended from school for singing in front of men. These moments remind me that what might look like isolated incidents are in fact part of a bigger problem. In many ways, these are perfect examples of the slavery that all Jews and Israelis must strive to escape.
Yet, at the same time, especially since the beginning of this holiday season, there has been reason for optimism. Near the end of the protest against violence toward minorities, we received a letter from Rabbi Shai Piron, a newly elected Knesset member of Yesh Atid, praising our action and calling on Israel to view education against racism as a top priority. In the days that followed, Piron was announced the next Education Minister. We can only hope that he will follow through on his beautiful words. Also present at that protest was Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg, a rabbi at the settlement of Har Adar. The words of this Orthodox rabbi that were spoken at the event moved and inspired everyone who heard him. He certainly showed, as Emily Levy-Shochat and I recently claimed, that there are moderate rabbis, even in Israel.
On Rosh Hodesh, the first day of our new year, I returned to the Western Wall to join the Women of the Wall in their holiday prayers. The prayers that day were some of the most moving ones that I had participated in for some time. The police, to their credit, maintained order at the site, and not a single person was arrested. Many of the male "protesters" against the women simply sang loudly from the men's side, which resulted in lots of spirited prayer on both sides of the mechitza (prayer barrier). As the service neared its end, there was another spectacular site. Behind the women singing the Hallel service was a group of religious girls who were visiting the Western Wall upon returning from a school trip to Poland. Those young women sang and danced together, completely undisturbed. For that hour and a half during the Women of the Wall service, women's voices were truly allowed to shine.
The month of Nisan has only just begun, and I am still only cautiously optimistic. Yet at the same time, I feel that we are slowly witnessing positive change. Israelis are moving beyond their narrow conceptions into a wider view of Judaism in the world – one where we are able to see people as different while respecting who they are and what they do. I, for one, am excited for this new year. This should be the year where we release ourselves from the slavery of our narrow-mindedness and all become free women and men.
Arie Hasit, a student at the rabbinical seminary of Machon Schechter, serves as the spiritual leader for NOAM- the youth wing of the Masorti Movement in Israel. He lives in Jerusalem.