I love Passover — the message of freedom, the food, even the preparations. But I’ve discovered over the years that I’m not always good at transmitting that love to my family. At my best, I amuse my kids by rocking out to 70s music while scrubbing the fridge or making my Bubbe’s mushroom farfel while they hum the Mah Nishtanah. But at my worst, I’m yelling about crumbs and saying “no!” with increasing frequency and volume as the holiday draws near. This year, when Passover, Easter and Ramadan coincide, I find myself at interfaith events when I should be going through the Haggadah, coming up with creative activities for synagogue and home, and cleaning my kitchen. And don’t get me started on deadlines for taxes.
On Passover, I fall prey to what I always caution people against: I let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The image of the ideal seder is always in my mind. There are a few of them, actually: the seder of my childhood, with a room full of grandparents and cousins; the seder of my young adulthood, searching for bitter herbs and parsley at the market in Budapest and discovering the joys of a seder shared with friends; the seder I aspire to as a parent and never quite attain, with my parents, in-laws and children all leaning in, making memories to last a lifetime. Don’t get me wrong — I am tremendously grateful for everyone around the table and all that we have, especially this year when we could once again gather in person. But I always feel like I’m failing.
This year, I stumbled across a piece of Talmud which helped me see things differently. In a discussion of when Elijah might come, the rabbis state with certainty that he won’t arrive on the eve of Sabbath and holidays. Why? Mipnei ha-torech — because it would cause too much trouble (Eruvin 43b). People are busy with preparations, and if Elijah comes he will distract them. Better to finish our preparations, get the holiday started, and then we’ll open the door for him on seder night. That would be a more convenient time for redemption.
On one hand, this is actually a liberating perspective, and a classic piece of rabbinic Judaism: We make the rules now, and heaven works on our schedule. If Elijah and the messiah have waited this long to appear, they can wait a few more hours until we are ready. On the other hand, imagine if that had been the reaction of the Israelites in Egypt when God said it was time to go. What do you mean you want me to take plain matzah? I have to make my farfel! There is a great irony here: Somehow, the festival of freedom has become the holiday that requires the most preparation.
Years ago, I was in an airport on Passover. Passing through the food court, I saw a father with his young child. As they took their tray to their table, the father removed the bun from the burger. “Why are you doing that?” the child asked. “Because it’s Passover,” the father replied, “when our people left Egypt for freedom.”
At the time, I’m ashamed to say, I looked down on the exchange. What could it possibly mean to just remove the bun from the (non-kosher) burger? There would still be crumbs! The food was still prepared in a regular kitchen! And I was willing to bet this family hadn’t burnt their hametz.
Looking back now, I think: That’s something this child will remember forever. And if Elijah had showed up in that airport, that family would have been ready to go. The journey from slavery to freedom. The openness to possibility and hope. The belief that history can change, that tyrants can be defeated, that there can be an end to oppression. Dayenu! That would be enough.
It’s all about balance, of course. Changing the dishes for Passover, vacuuming the Cheerios out of the minivan, making (and eating) our family’s recipes, finding dad jokes for the seder table to keep the kids groaning and new poems and teachings to inspire the adults. These things make the holiday special for me. Hopefully each year, I’ll get a little better at sharing the joys rather than the “oys” with those I love. And if Elijah knocks, hopefully I’ll look up from my preparations and be ready to answer the door.
This article initially appeared in My Jewish Learning’s Shabbat newsletter Recharge on April 23, 2022. To sign up to receive Recharge each week in your inbox, click here.