The Jewish calendar is complicated enough. Holidays and holy days seem to flow one into the other, giving us barely any time to breathe.
This time of year, I always wonder about the proximity of Purim to Passover. Talmudic discussions link the two, but imagine celebrating Purim without having to see Passover food in the aisles of the supermarkets. At least the spring holidays give us a month to breathe, unlike the suddenness of going from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur to Sukkot and Shimini Atzeret and Simchat Torah. We have no control over the dates of our religious holidays, but did Israel really need an election so close to Passover?
In Israel, everyone who needs to prepare for Passover will get their homes ready and their lives in order. It helps that they only have to get ready for one seder, though with the oddity of the seventh day of Passover being on a Friday, even in Israel, Jewish people will be eating matzah for eight days because they cannot make or buy chametz on Shabbat. Still, it seems that exercising their democratic rights might not be in concert with the principles of Passover.
Politics is a partisan enterprise. A robust and healthy democracy depends on open debate and argumentation. (On that account, Israel should be seen as a very healthy democracy.) A one-party state is an anathema to free and vigorous debate and an open and free society. The byproduct of such a society is an election that demands the free flow of ideas and partisan politics. By definition, a political debate needs at least two sides arguing against each other. While rancor and vitriol are not a necessary component to such debate, they often accompany it. Even in the most civil of discourses, there is disagreement and divide. The spirit of our times is less than ideal, and Israel, like America, is enmeshed in a period of highly partisan rancor and division.
Unlike America, Israel is a parliamentary system that is dependent on forming if not majority rule, then a coalition government, after its election. While sometime chaotic, this postelection bargaining has the benefit of making different parties talk to each other instead of at each other. As the election in Israel has just concluded, some political parties are in the midst of forming a coalition and putting together a government. It is the assembling of a coalition that is the difference between running for election and leading a country.
All this brings us back to Passover. The Israelites in Egypt did not have an election to choose a leader. Even after they left Egypt, there was no popular referendum, but after generations of enslavement, their collective experience forged them into a people. Though the stories of their 40 years in the desert bespeak division, at the moment of Passover, they left Egypt as one people. Indeed, the event of the Passover involved the people casting a ballot of sorts. They were told to mark the doorposts and the lintel of their homes with the blood of the sacrificial lamb. Those who did that were spared and delivered. Presumably, those who didn’t were lost. The Passover sacrifice in Egypt can be seen as the first referendum for our people. Those who voted cast their lots with the future of the Jewish people, and the people of Israel were delivered as one from the land of Egypt.
Fast forward thousands of years to today, approaching Passover 5779. The citizens of the State of Israel have cast their ballots. The votes will be counted and the coalition building will continue and hopefully a government will be formed. Winners will be declared and those who lost will be left to form an opposition. It is the nature of political systems to have parties in and out of government. There will be disagreements and some discord. I am not even sure if that is unfortunate. The adversarial nature of political systems is the foundation of democracy.
Once the politics comes to an end, it would be wise for all to remember that the purpose of an election is to choose a governing party and to steer the ship of state. There are many strategies that politicians may use, but on the eve of Passover, I am reminded of what I called the first referendum — the Israelites choosing to mark their doorposts and be delivered as one.
It would be wonderful if Israeli politicians and society would remember the lesson of Passover, that deliverance came only to a united people and revelation came only when we made our way together and stood as one around a mountain in a wilderness.
Some may think that this type of unity is elusive in our modern era, but our history, both modern and ancient, has shown that when we united, wonders happened, and a state was founded. It is not easy — it never was easy — but it is possible. Maybe that is the hope that has kept us going for thousands of years.
Rabbi Joshua S. Finkelstein is the Rabbi of Montebello Jewish Center, an egalitarian Conservative synagogue in Rockland County.