Passover and Awakening

Now when a man becomes aware that he is falling asleep and begins to nod and he is afraid that a strong, heavy sleep may overcome him, the best advice for him is for him to request his friend to wake him from time to time or that he should go among people where a light shines brightly….the friend should know something of the great loss sleep brings and how necessary it is to awaken the sleeper…
— from R. Aaron Roth‘s “Agitation of the Soul” [1934] IN The Schocken Book of Jewish Mystical Testimonies: A unique and inspiring collection of accounts by people who have encountered God from Biblical times to the present, NY: Schocken, 1997. Louis Jacobs, translation/commentary

Passover seems to me one of the times when Jews are called upon to reflect on past awakenings and to commit to awakening themselves and others.


There are midrashim about various ways the People helped one another stay awake throughout slavery. For example, Miriam, as a child of 5 or 6, awakens her father and the rest of the Israelite men to a practice which was leading toward the destruction of the People:

And there went a man of the house of Levi. Where did he go? R. Judah b. Zebina said that he went in the counsel of his daughter. A Tanna taught: Amram was the greatest man of his generation; when he saw that the wicked Pharaoh had decreed ‘Every son that is born ye shall cast into the river’, he said: In vain do we labour. He arose and divorced his wife. All [the Israelites] thereupon arose and divorced their wives. His daughter said to him, ‘Father, thy decree is more severe than Pharaoh’s; because Pharaoh decreed only against the males whereas thou hast decreed against the males and females. Pharaoh only decreed concerning this world whereas thou hast decreed concerning this world and the World to Come. In the case of the wicked Pharaoh there is a doubt whether his decree will be fulfilled or not, whereas in thy case, though thou art righteous, it is certain that thy decree will be fulfilled, as it is said: Thou shalt also decree a thing, and it shall be established unto thee! He arose and took his wife back; and they all arose and took their wives back.
— B. Sotah 12a (Soncino English translation)

When the Israelites are trapped at the edge of the sea with Pharaoh’s army behind them, goes another tale (B. Sotah 37a), Nachshon ben Aminidab walks into the water, awakening Moses and everyone else to a way forward.


At the seder, there are customs to serve odd foods, to remove the table before people have eaten, to perform other actions designed to prompt questions. In this way, participants offer “to wake [a friend] from time to time” through the seder.

Moreover, the entire seder is designed to make us feel the weight of slavery and oppression, the urgency to get out, despite misgivings and fears. We are meant to feel as though we ourselves escaped from captivity. And this experience, it seems to me, should remind us “something of the great loss sleep brings and how necessary it is to awaken the sleeper,” and make us better equipped to be the awakening friend.

May this Passover find all of us where “a light shines brightly.”

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Virginia hosts "Conversations Toward Repair" on We Act Radio, manages, blogs on general stuff a and more Jewish topics at and

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