As Passover draws to a close this weekend, I’m thinking about two things: a pizza binge on Friday night and the theme of questions. (In the Reform movement, Passover and other festivals end one day earlier than they do among other Jews in the Diaspora.) A central part of Passover observance (particularly at the seder meal) is retelling a story, and that storytelling kicks off with the four questions.
Jewish ritual is complicated. Take the most recent ritual we just celebrated, the seder. It has 14 steps, each of which is to be done in a certain order and in a certain way, and it’s easy to get confused. First, we wash our hands without a blessing, but later, we do wash with a blessing. We ask, “Wait, do I eat the maror with the charoset now, or later?” Even more simply, we might ask, “Which line of Dayeinu are we on now?”
Although the winter in the Northeast was milder than the past few, I still struggle with the season of cold and shortened days of the Winter Solstice. I am one who sees myself as diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). Indeed, the impact of winter, punctuated with the instability of our world has made many of us collectively welcome spring with a zestful sense of gratitude.
In ten days we will be surrounded by these same boxes in a different house. After nine months of preparation—purging our house of unnecessary stuff and packing the essentials for our journey—my family will leave our home of sixteen years. The timing of our move, immediately after Passover, inspired much discussion at our Seder about leaving behind the burdens of last year and embracing the excitement of beginning anew.
This year the first day of Passover fell on Shabbat. Can we find a deeper connection between Shabbat and Passover?
Tonight marks the beginning of Passover. Jews ask over the world will gather to celebrate zman cheirutenu, the season of our freedom. We will read all about freedom from slavery. We will drink four cups of wine to rejoice in the four freedoms given to our ancestors by God. We will eat charoset, a mixture of fruits, nuts, juice or wine which represents the mortar used with the bricks we no longer have to place as slaves. Freedom from bondage, from Egypt, from Pharaoh.
Coming out of Egypt, the Children of Israel crossed the Sea of Reeds (also known as the Red Sea) walking on “dry land in the midst of the sea.” The Hasidic master, the Netivot Shalom, explains this to mean that even after they emerged onto dry land, the People continued to experience themselves as if in the midst of a miracle. The sea’s parting became a lens through which they experienced the miracles of every day, and ever afterward they saw their world as wondrous, amazing. The cataclysmic phenomenon of the sea’s un-natural parting sensitized them to the miraculous order of nature in her ordinary state, in which seas ebb and flow by the force of predictable tides. The miracle of the ordinary was amplified by experience of the extra-ordinary.
Passover 2016 hasn’t even begun, and I’m already frustrated with so much talk about food. Well, this year it’s not hametz (leavened foods) that is at the root of so many debates in the Jewish community, but rather kitniyot. Kitniyot is the Hebrew term for non-hametz food products like corn, rice, beans, and legumes, such as soybeans, peas, lentils, and peanuts that Ashkenazi Jews traditionally have not eaten on Passover for the past 700 years.
What is the essence of Passover? On the one hand, it seems obvious: Passover is about gathering together with loved ones to recall, through sumptuous home rituals, the exodus from Egypt. We gather round our seder tables and quickly become engulfed in the warmth of family and friends, the culinary delights of a delicious meal, and the comforting, vaguely familiar words and songs we recite year after year. Passover is, indeed, a beautiful opportunity for rejoicing and celebrating. But it also can be much, much more.
For the third year in a row, Elyse Heise, a member of my congregation, Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough, Massachusetts, has written and produced a Passover parody music video that involves a cross-section of our community along with several of her very talented friends (in particular our returning vocalists, Ashley Harmon and Rachel Barril, and this year’s video editor, Spencer Caddigan). This year the inspiration was Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood,” with a new chorus line, ‘… now we got Matzah… oy!’