What's the meaning of Passover ?

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Matza "They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat…"  According to the old joke, that's message of all Jewish holidays. 

There is actually a lot more to Passover, and as part of our preparations for the holiday it is good to give thought to the meaning of the holiday and how it is celebrated.

For me there are two primary messages to Passover:

  • Celebrate how precious it is that we have the freedom to serve God
  • Remember to be compassionate to the poor and oppressed

Note that I did not say the message is to celebrate "freedom."  As I have described at greater length here Passover is not just about freedom, at least, not if freedom is conceived of the way the typical teenager thinks of freedom — freedom to sleep late, freedom from school, freedom to abuse your body.  That kind of freedom is the freedom immortalized by Janis Joplin, "Freedom's just another word for nothin' left to lose."  When I was 16 years old, I was quite the rebel — hair down to my shoulders, organist in a rock band, high school dropout.  Boy was I celebrating freedom!  But after less than a year, it got pretty old. 

I joined the US Army, which provided both structure and meaning for me — and I was, oddly enough, much happier than when I was running around "doing whatever I wanted," or as the Tanakh describes decadent periods, "when each man did what was right in his own eyes."

Serving God also provides structure and meaning to one's existence, in a much deeper way than simply serving Uncle Sam by being in the Army.  And serving God is really the freedom discussed in the Haggadah.  We all remember "Let my people go!"  But the rest of the sentence — what God really tells Moses to tell Pharaoh — is "Let my people go, in order that they may serve me." 

And of course there are many different ways to serve God, and this should be a fruitful discussion for your seder…we can serve God by taking care of God's children, by taking care of God's planet, all sorts of different ways.

The other major message of Passover is compassion.  Why do we all eat "halachma anya," bread of affliction (or bread of poverty, anya can go either way)?  Even a rich man, celebrating his seder on a gilt seder plate, tastes of the bread of poverty.  We should remember what it is like to be poor, to be afflicted — as the Torah tells us, "you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers."  The Torah wants us to learn a lesson of compassion from the difficult time we had in Israel, and compassion not just to fellow Jews, but to all mankind — after all in Egypt we were "outsiders," so an admonition to be kind to strangers, derived from the experience in Egypt, only makes sense in the context of being kind to "outsiders."

And how do we learn those messages?  Through the rituals associated with the holiday, the way we tell the story.  At the end of our seder we say "We have completed the order of our seder, according to its laws…"  How do we do that? 

Pesach is a holiday where a lot of people go crazy following all the laws.  Some people spend weeks cleaning — under the mistaken assumption that dirt is chametz (it's not).  Chabad rabbis, well known for outreach and making Judaism accessible, generally follow the haggadah to the letter without distracting conversation, lest one of the laws be missed.

Those kind of practices put form over substance.  Halachic debates about whether you should eat more or less than an olive's bulk of vegetables when you reach "karpas" are not likely to result in an enhanced Passover experience for anyone.  My take on the "essence of the rules" follows:

  • The most important commandment: tell the story as if you, yourself, were leaving Egypt. As it says in the Mishna (and appears in the Haggadah), "In every generation one is required to view one's self as if one left Egypt, as it says 'You shall tell your child on that day it is because of what God did for me in my leaving Egypt (Exodus 13:8).'"  The most important thing is to bring the story alive.  That's why I titled this blog entry with a question, not a statement.  Asking questions is how we demonstrate that we are engaged, we are paying attention.  To focus on using the "right" language, but to miss getting people excited about the story is to miss the point of the seder.

    Props, skits, questions, are useful in helping to bring the story alive, helping us to really remember those two most important meanings of the holiday. 

  • Eat Matzah.  It's a commandment to taste of the "bread of affliction/poverty," we all need that physical reminder of what it's like to be afflicted.  Thank God it's only a week…
  • Don't eat chametz — and more than that, search for chametz and get rid of it.  Keeping in mind of course, that the rabbis understand "chametz" as puffed up like our egos, and so we are supposed to remove those egotistical parts of ourself that stand in the way of our service of God.

And last, but certainly not least: drink wine, eat good food, and rejoice with friends and family.  Four cups is traditional, there are arguments about whether you should have a fifth cup, and if yes do you drink it.  Follow your customs, invent new ones (like an orange on the seder plate) and don't go so crazy with cleaning and cooking you lose sight of the meaning!

Chag kasher v'sameach,

Reb Barry

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