So, what do you do when you have to write a blog post and really don’t know what to write? You fall back on the literary tool of telling a story. Today I was listening to a lecture from the former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, and heard a short, but thought-provoking, story.
In the 1940s David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, came to the United States and said to a group of senators, “Your ancestors came to America 300 years ago to fight for freedom. But tell me, can you remember the day they set out and the food they ate on the way?”
Rabbi Sacks concludes his lecture by saying, “Our ancestors set out on their journey for freedom 3,300 years ago and we have never forgotten the day we set out and the food that they ate on the way.”
You could attribute this to a case of OCD or our obsession with food, but it’s more than that. The collective celebration of our journey out of Egypt is the most celebrated Jewish holiday of the year. The story of Pesach reminds us that for the first time in history, a nation went against the grain of society, religion, and government to become truly free people. Until the Exodus (whenever I always hear or read this word I start humming or singing the Bob Marley song) 3,300 years ago, slavery was pretty commonplace. As our tradition teaches us, we were given our freedom, left Egypt, and, subsequently, gave it to the man. In this case, the man was called Pharaoh, and – as most scholars believe – was known as Ramesses II. Telling the most powerful leader in the world to let your people go is pretty punk.
Passover comes every year and we all stock up on Temp Tee cream cheese, matzah, and do serious damage in the closest kosher wine section we can find. As a kid, I remember going to school year after year and bringing my lunch of matzah and chocolate candy. A healthy lunch? No. A nonconformist lunch? Yes.
Even the Seder plate is a DIY project. We have to prepare all of the items ourselves and keep them away from leavened bread products. We boil the eggs, roast a shank bone, grate the horseradish, grab a bitter herb, make charoset (the original salsa), and dip something in salt water. Of course, there is symbolism for each of the items. Some people eat the square matzah and others use hand-crafted artisan matzah (which is round – pretty anti-establishment if you ask me). If that wasn’t radical enough, the last thing the Haggadah says we should eat is the afikoman – if it can be found. Nothing screams “fight the system” like having to actually find food that has been hidden.
The word Pesach literally means “the mouth opens,” eluding to the idea that we tell the story of leaving Egypt and read the Haggadah out loud. Aside from a library or Starbucks, when do you ever see people reading out loud at a table?
While most people tend to eat whatever they want and follow the crowd, my family and I will be spending just over a week consciously choosing what we eat and drink. We will spend two nights talking about slavery, freedom, and plagues. We will ask four questions, read about four types of children, and occasionally lean to our left as we drink wine or grape juice and eat matzah. If possible, we will go against the mainstream and talk about thinking for yourself, standing up for what’s right, and not always following the crowd.