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Reflections on Passover

Passover starts long before the night of the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Nissan.  As the festival of Purim ends housewives start thinking of what needs to be accomplished in the next month. And this day shall become a memorial for you, and you shall observe it as a festival for the L-RD, for your generations, as an eternal decree shall you observe it. For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove the leaven from your homes …; you shall observe this day for your generations as an eternal decree”. (Exodus 12:14-17)  This leavened bread is called Chametz, and includes any food that’s made of grain and water that has been allowed to ferment and rise. Bread, cereal, cake, cookies, pizza, pasta, and beer are blatant examples of chametz; but any food that contains grain or grain derivatives can be, and often is, chametz. Practically speaking, any processed food that is not certified “Kosher for Passover” may potentially include chametz ingredients.  Removing Chametz from our homes, therefore, for Passover is no easy task. Preparations to make the home “kosher for Passover” begin days, even weeks, before the festival. But for those who make the investment, the reward is an especially meaningful Festival of Freedom.

Chametz is the antithesis of matzah, the unleavened bread we eat on Passover.  Matzah recalls the haste in which we left Egypt, the fact that the Jews leaving Egypt were in a hurry, and did not have time to let their bread rise. They ate Matzah instead.  Ridding ourselves of Chametz is also a symbolic way of removing the puffiness- the arrogance and pride from our souls, the egotism and spiritual coarseness it represents.  Our Rabbis explain that chametz is symbolic of haughtiness and conceit – traits so deleterious that they are at the root of all negative traits. This is one of the reasons why even the minutest amount of chametz is forbidden – haughtiness and conceit must be completely nullified.  Matzah is the symbol of the Exodus, the heart of what the Scriptures call the “Festival of Unleavened Bread”.

I admit that the cleaning I do three weeks before the holiday is more spring cleaning than anything else—after all, there is no chametz in my linen closet upstairs in the hall.  But as I wipe down the bookshelves and hang quilts out the window for airing, and throughout the cleaning process, I feel that if I follow this commandment to its extreme I will be serving God and be cleansing myself spiritually, too.

The night before the holiday there is a formal Search of the House for Leaven.  My kids run around the clean house hiding crusts of bread in every room.  Passover knows how to appeal to children.  Then all lights are closed and Kuti, my husband, by the light of a candle, walks from room to room, searching for any missed chametz—or rather for the carefully hidden, wrapped pieces of bread.  Perhaps it should insult my competence as a housekeeper but instead it suits my soul’s love for the symbolic. The next morning we take those ten pieces of bread and make a ceremony of burning them, stating officially that any leaven which may still be in the house is as the dust of the earth.

I love changing over the kitchen, bringing out the Passover pots and dishes, buying the ingredients for the traditional holiday recipes.  Setting the table for the Seder is one of my favorite parts of the holiday; the night will be full of meaning and the symbols of the Seder Plate have to be set with care.

First there is a potato.  Passover is the spring festival where we celebrate the birth of our nation — and this vegetable is a symbol of rebirth and rejuvenation.  When we eat it we first dip it into salt water to represent the tears that were shed when the Jewish people were enslaved in Egypt.  Everything on Passover has that paradox of rebirth and slavery, hope and despair.

Next on the Plate is the Shank Bone symbolizing both the Paschal Lamb that was eaten in Egypt by the Jewish people, their bags on their back, the cries of the Egyptians during the Plague of the Firstborn in their ears, right before they leave Egypt.  It also symbolizes God’s strong hand, his outstretched arm with which He brought us forth from Egypt.

We place a [hard boiled] egg on the Seder plate [to] symbolize the cycle of life that is never-ending.  And the more you boil them the harder they become.  How like the Jewish people who, in Egypt, the more the Egyptians tortured them, the more they multiplied and the stronger they grew.

Bitter herbs symbolize the lot of the Hebrew slaves whose lives were embittered by backbreaking labor.

Making the Charoset is a fun job and the little kids treat it like a project at school, pulling chairs up to the kitchen counter for a better spot and I’m reminded again how child-oriented this holiday is.  Everything is made to involve, entice and stimulate the children to ask and to learn.  Charoset is a pasty mixture of nuts, apples and wine. It really looks like the mortar and bricks the Jewish people had to work with in Egypt.

When the sun sets and the holiday begins, and when everyone starts trickling in from services at synagogue we sit down to the Seder,- literally, “Order”.  But before we even get to the meal, we spend a couple of hours reading from the Haggadah- the book which sets forth the Seder and includes Biblical passages, songs of praise and discussions- all surrounding the incredible miracle that was the Exodus.  My favorite passage is: “In every generation one must look upon himself as if he personally had come out of Egypt, as the Bible says: ‘And thou shalt tell thy son on that day, saying, it is because of that which the Eternal did to me when I went forth from Egypt.’  For it was not alone our forefathers whom the Holy One, blessed be He, redeemed; He redeemed us too, with them, as it is said: ‘He brought us out from there that He might lead us to and give us the land which He pledged to our forefathers.’”   Yes, even as we read the Haggadah, we are actually reliving and “remembering” Jewish history through the ages.

The “Four Questions” is always a favorite in our house.  Traditionally, the youngest child at the table, who is able, recites this song. The Four Questions, beginning with the words “Why is this night different?” encompasses the theme- the paradox of Passover.  The child is meant to look around him and see the extremes presented at the table.  We eat matzah- the flat, tasteless bread of our affliction.  We dip vegetables in salt water and eat bitter herbs to remember the tears, the suffering.  But we also drink fine wine and as we drink, we sit in a reclining position on pillows set comfortably in the crook of our armchairs to remind ourselves that we are a free people—we were brought out of Egypt to be God’s nation and to be taken to our Promised Land.

Everyone turns to look at my husband Kuti and my father-in-law when it’s time to eat the bitter herbs.  The bitter herbs are meant to induce tears, to help us remember our brethren’s suffering in Egypt.  My brother-in-law intones the words, “These bitter herbs which we eat—what is their meaning? They are eaten to recall that the Egyptians embittered the lives of our forefathers.” But I know that for my father-in-law the impetus is unnecessary.  He has a built-in trigger for tears.  He has memories imprinted on his mind and heart that can easily bring on hurt, pain.  You see, he went through the Holocaust.  He saw so much horror, lost so much, suffered such unmentionable abuse and heartbreak, that I’m sure the tears he was shedding then were not just for his people’s hardships generations ago in ancient history.  The tears were for a part of his—every Jew’s—very recent past.   I cannot imagine what pictures were going through his head as he cried…

As the Seder draws to a close, nobody wants to miss the songs of joy and praise which end the Seder.  We chant, “Ended is the Passover Seder, according to custom and law.  As we were worthy to celebrate it this year, so may we perform it in future years.  O Pure One in heaven above, Restore the congregation of Israel in Your love.  Speedily lead Your redeemed people to Zion in joy.”  Then we all shouted “Next Year in Jerusalem the Rebuilt!” and start singing that glorious hymn of hope.

[Each year] we feel two parts of this Season of Freedom—the release of the Jewish people from servitude and the fact that we became a free, independent people.  Our previous master’s dominion over us ceased, allowing us both to be free as our own people and to be free to serve a new master—the Lord our God.

The miracle of the Exodus was not completed with the people’s departure from the house of bondage; they needed to become more than merely runaway slaves.  The ultimate purpose of the Exodus is found in the verse: “Upon your taking out the nation from Egypt they shall serve G-d on this mountain”.  For the Jewish people could not be truly free of the physical bondage of Egypt until they were spiritually free as well and received the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Through all the laws and customs of the Seder night, what we are really emphasizing is the most important thing about ourselves: Once we were slaves, and now we are free.” As we go through the rituals and recite the Haggadah, and as we discuss the written text and what lies beyond it, we must bring ourselves to understand ever more deeply that we shall truly be redeemed only when we take it upon ourselves to fulfill our need to live in our own unique way – that is when we become truly free.  Living here in the heart of the Biblical Homeland I know I have made that first step for myself and my family.  We live in the place where we are able to picture the Redemption, a place where free