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What I Learned About Pesach from Grade 10 Geometry

Rabbi Micah Streiffer

My high school geometry teacher, Mr. Antoine, was a real character. Picture a tall African American man with a vaguely Cajun accent who wore alligator-skin boots, a cowboy hat, and a large, silver belt buckle.  I can still remember him, in his own unique way, explaining the plotting of points on a graph. “There are two foci,” he would say while tapping the ellipse drawn on the blackboard.

I have to admit geometry wasn't my forte (though it wasn’t as bad as calculus, which is what ultimately drove me to become a rabbi). And yet, the idea of “two foci” came back to me as I was considering the meaning of Pesach, the holiday we will celebrate at the end of this month. According to the dictionary, a “focus” is the “centre of interest or activity.” In geometry, the foci of the ellipse can be used to find its centre point using the equation c2 = a2 - b2 where c is the distance from the centre to the focus (and now my brain hurts again). In Judaism, we can distill the focus of a celebration or holiday by seeking to understand what that holiday makes us think about and the emotions or memories it raises in us.

It turns out that Pesach, like an ellipse, has two foci. On the one hand, Pesach is a celebration of freedom. Around the Seder table, we tell the story of the Exodus and give thanks for that ancient moment (whether real or mythological) in which we were set free and put on the path toward becoming Jews. None of us were there when our ancestors walked through the Red Sea (after all, it probably didn't even really happen), but that story has shaped us in innumerable ways and continues to do so.

At the same time, Pesach is a celebration of bounty, the Spring harvest festival. At this time of year, Israelite farmers would harvest their crops and watch their flocks giving birth, and they would take an accounting and give thanks for this year’s yield. Similarly, we have the opportunity at Pesach time to take an accounting of our bounty: What are we proud of? What did we accomplish? What do we have to be thankful for here and now? Freedom and bounty; past and present; what we have been given, and what we are choosing to become. These are the two “foci” of Pesach, and truly of all of Judaism.

As Jews, we are always looking backward and ahead. We are always aware of the forces of history, mythology, literature and thought that have shaped us, and at the same time of our immense capacity to grow and learn and accomplish.  These two basic truths guide our Jewish lives not only at Pesach but all year long and throughout our lives: to be a Jew is to be part of an ancient tradition, to be the recipient of wisdom and tradition that have been passed down through the generations and that are worthy of our continued attention and love. It is also to know that past generations do not define us, that we are defined by our own actions, our own blessings, the goodness and generosity and learning and Tikkun (repair) that we bring into the world. That is what sits at the centre of Judaism, and if you know your foci, you can find your centre: c2 = a2 - b2.

Thanks, Mr. Antoine.


Rabbi Micah Streiffer

Thu, May 19 2022 18 Iyar 5782