The holiday of Passover is upon us, beginning tomorrow night. The week-long festival marks the onset of spring and the story of the Exodus, the Torah story of the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian slavery. The story is an important theological anchor for Judaism: the journey from redemption to freedom is a paradigm we refer to often, and is an underpinning of our understanding of personal spiritual growth and social justice (“do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in Egypt,” the Torah tells us often.)
We begin Passover with the Seder, the ceremonial meal held on the first and second nights. During the Seder, when we retell the story and eat symbolic foods, we have the recurrence the “fours.” We drink four cups of wine, the younger children recite the four questions to prompt the telling of the story, we tell the story of the four children to relate the Exodus in different ways.
So as we begin Passover, here are another group of four—the four observances. The means of observing Passover can be involved and intricate, and there is much on which to reflect. Here are four ways you can make your Passover a meaningful one.
Eat Differently: Each Passover we revisit the ceremonial foods which form the centerpiece of the ritual. (Literally too since we put them on a special Seder plate). We may engage with the story differently each year, but the foods remain the same. Bitter herbs, salt water, parsley, boiled egg, charoset and matzo all appear year after year to provide us with a visceral understanding of the events and their meaning. And beyond the seder, it is the custom to put aside our leavened products—bread, pasta, cakes, etc.—and eat only matzo and its unleavened derivatives for the entire week.
So, do it. Eat differently. Put aside the leaven and focus on the matzo. Adopt the different set of eating guidelines this week (even if you don’t keep kosher normally). It is a way of understanding the story in a new way, and also has the impact (I speak personally on this one) of causing us to evaluate our relationship to food. Matzo is called both the bread of affliction and the bread of liberation: it is simple and plain and the opposite of luxury, and yet also the result of bread not having enough time to rise because of the rush out of Egypt. When we take on the eating practices of Passover, we experience both as well—the affliction of limited resources and the liberation of the ability to make choices. It is a good spiritual practice to experience both.
Clean House: The traditional practice is not only to eat matzo rather than leavened products (called chametz), but to actually rid your house of chametz all together. One is traditionally not supposed to be in possession of chametz during the week, so people will begin to use up their chametz in the days and weeks prior to Passover. That which isn’t eaten can be donated to the Food Bank, or composted or fed to animals. Some have the custom of putting aside the chametz and “selling” it so that it is technically not in one’s possession. (A good option if you want to follow this practice and not waste food.) And then, a big cleaning of the house ensues to find the what is left—the Jewish version of “spring cleaning.”
Take some time over Passover and do your spring cleaning. You can do a physical cleaning and do those infrequent cleaning jobs you have been meaning to get to. You can clean out your closet, and get rid of the chametz—the clothes that you are hanging onto for no good reason, that don’t fit, that you don’t care for anymore. Donate them to someone who will care for them. And do some spring cleaning of yourself, find the chametz within your own soul and swap out the puffed up haughtiness of the leavened for the humility of the unleavened.
Give Birth: When we clean out the chametz, we have room for the new. Passover is a time of renewal—the Israelites are renewed in the process of leaving Egypt—but it is also a spring time festival that honors the renewal of life all around us. The parsley on the seder plate reminds of the new buds of spring, and the egg is a symbol of fertility and new life. We can look around and see rebirth all around us.
So ask yourself, what do I wish to give birth to this Passover? Where do I want to be renewed, and what new endeavor or project or journey (either inner or outer) do I wish to begin? Passover is a time of new beginnings—for our people, for our world and for you. Take the first steps.
Become an Ally—The point of retelling the story during Passover is not just to recount history but to relate the story of the Exodus to the present day. Indeed, the historicity is not even important. What is important is the narrative: an oppressed people is able to see and articulate both its oppression and its vision for a new world and by doing so is able to leave the narrow place (the Hebrew word for Egypt, mitzrayim, is related to the word for “narrow”) to the great expanse of liberation.
In the Haggadah, the special Passover prayerbook, we are told that we are to see ourselves as if we personally left Egypt. We are to experience the oppression and the liberation ourselves. And if we are able to not only see the story but live it for ourselves, then we will be able to more deeply understand the struggle for liberation. And if we more deeply understand the struggle for liberation, then we will be more likely to assist those in need of liberation. The Torah speaks of a “mixed multitude” of Israelites and Egyptians leaving Egypt, and there is a midrash that speaks of the Egyptians rising up against Pharaoh. The Exodus wasn’t isolated, we needed allies. And as we tell our story, let’s think about how we can be allies to others in their stories.
And a bonus fifth (like the fifth cup of wine—the cup of Elijah—we put on the table): Recline. We are meant to recline when we do the seder as a symbol of being free. So recline—not just during the Seder but the whole week. Passover has deep theological significance and provides much fodder for reflection and thought. But it is also a holiday, so have fun! Find a way to enjoy the week, experience nature, enjoy good food, do something different and fun.