I'm a first born child, the first born son of a first born son. The story of Passover scared me when I was little. The thought of a destroyer, turned loose upon the land. I grew up in an interfaith family, what about the rest of our family? What about my friends? Clearly, I was a sensitive child. Why would people who hadn't done anything be subject to this barbaric mass punishment. Why was Pharaoh's heart re-hardened to such a degree when he was going to let us go? Why would god sacrifice so many to drive home the point for the Egyptians? I seem to remember my mother ensuring me that we'd mark doors, as was spelled out in the bible. We'd make sure our friends and family were sheltered. I have incredible parents.
The idea struck me that great moments of liberation often come at great cost. The American Civil War comes to mind, but also the masses of individuals who were hurt and harmed in the name of progress for our society and civilization in all times up to now. The Triangle Shirt factory fire that brought workers rights and workplace safety to the foreground of the American consciousness. The people hurt and killed in the Stonewall Riots who started a liberation still being fought by our LBGT brothers and sisters for equal rights in america. Women all across the world fighting for the right to be heard and have control over their own destinies. People suffering diseases, innocent children suffering things such as the measles, in the fight against ignorance.
Why would ribono shel olam allow this to be part of the system, why do we need to suffer these things to improve. Perhaps like a fever, savaging the body to cure the system of the trouble we suffer? I don't know, I don't have the answer to this. We end the seder each year by saying, "next year in Jerusalem," and hope for a better year to come. Be more than hopeful, be the wunderdrug that makes sure people are sheltered when the destroyer comes.
As I matured and observance of religious customs flagged childhood trepidation was also shelved into the recesses of my mind. However, finding my way back to an observant life I found myself taking up a mostly lost fast, Ta’anit Bechorim. To remember the loss of the first born and the cost of exodus to the land of Egypt, firstborn children fast. Sundown, to sundown a total fast before the seder starts the fast of the first born occurs.
Isn't entering a happy occasion (Pesach) in duress (fasting) considered improper? Yes, it was long ago dismissed as bad idea and a custom of ensuring siyum before Pesach was instated.
I was asked to lead songs for seder at our retired rabbi's home this year. A large gathering for the first night seder and for many it will be their first seder. Experience has taught me from leading seder in my own home, it's much harder to do when you have been fasting. Now that I've entered an age where I'm looked to as a leader I needed to bridge my childhood appreciations of what freedom cost with my adult responsibility to my own community. And again, I look with gratitude to the past of our heritage and find this answer.
A siyum is a commemoration of completion (of a portion of Torah or Talmud) and marks such a completion of study by a small and joyful celebration, thus allowing, or even obliging people a break to the fast. If your not the one fasting, or even the one finishing the tractate, you are obligated to increase in the joy of the moment and celebrate!
I forget this fast is such a strange irregularly kept custom, but I sent our rabbi a text this morning and suggested organizing a siyum this year. Despite the craziness of the morning before the start of Passover, (with two small children of his own,) he agreed and said pick a mishnah. We agreed to read Chagigah ahead and to finish it the next morning. We'll converse, conclude, we'll make blessing and I'll break the fast for the first time in years. I don't know when the last time a siyum was held to break this fast at our shul, but perhaps it's an old custom we can bring back into the foreground for our community and temper the shock of what freedom costs to obtain while preserving the memory of that sacrifice.