Dear Temple Emanu-El community,
It will come as no surprise that the Passover Seder is the most observed of all the Jewish holiday celebrations. The opportunity to gather family and friends for beloved rituals and good food at the onset of spring naturally has tremendous appeal. For those of us who grew up as Jews, there are memories of special tastes and traditions that continue to sweeten our observances, while for those of us who have encountered Judaism later in our lives there is the opportunity to embrace those customs which truly have meaning for us and make them our own.
While there is no formal period of preparation for Passover, the extensive cleaning that was part of traditional holidays practice required at least several weeks of work. But rabbinic tradition also encourages inner approaches to making ourselves ready for the holiday. In Jewish mystical thinking, we are part of four worlds or four levels of experience: physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual. The task of preparing ourselves for Passover can take place on all these levels.
The physical work of clearing away chametz, the leavened foods prohibited during the holiday, is the primary task associated with getting ready for Passover. But even during the rabbinic period, when the rules for this requirement were being formulated, chametz was also associated with what was unnecessary, whether an inflated ego or overconsumption. Thus, we might view the physical cleaning out of chametz as an opportunity to let go of possessions we no longer need or use, as well as to consider our consumption habits, such as food waste.
On the emotional level, I find it helpful to look to another metaphor in the Passover story. In the Hebrew Bible the word translated as Egypt, Mitzrayim, actually means “Place of Confinement,” or “narrow straits.” When the Haggadah relates that each of us must see ourselves as if we, personally, went forth from Mitzrayim, I believe it is acknowledging that each of us have our tight, stuck places from which we seek and (one hopes) find liberation. The Seder is not only a celebration of our ancestors’ release from bondage but of our own as well. The days leading up to Passover are an appropriate time to acknowledge the ways in which we have left our own places of confinement as well as considering those in which we might still be stuck and what support we might want to move forward.
In thinking about engaging the intellect, the biblical author of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) had no idea how right he was when he said “of making many books there is no end,” especially when it comes to haggadahs! When people ask me to recommend one, I always tell them that it’s not the haggadah, it’s what you do with it. However, I do confess to having a favorite, A Night of Questions, published by the Reconstructionist Press. There are two reasons I like this haggadah. The first is that it acknowledges that for most contemporary Jews, the story of the Exodus is significant as a spiritual, rather than historical, event – what matters to us are the values we learn from the story, rather than whether it really happened. Second, and more important, it is filled with readings and commentary that have deepened my thinking about the Seder. Happily, it’s currently available online: https://www.reconstructingjudaism.org/sites/default/files/a_night_of_questions.pdf If reading through a haggadah isn’t of interest but you would like to learn more about the Seder from a thoughtful, contemporary, and (literally) poetic perspective, I highly recommend Marge Piercy’s book, Pesach for the Rest of Us, an engaging compendium ranging from the origins of the chicken to the history of the seder plate with poems and recipes along the way.
There are many spiritual approaches to Passover. I have mentioned some already in referring to chametz and Mitzrayim. Another is present in the seasonal origins of the festival at the time of year when we see nature being reborn. As the days grow noticeably longer and warmer, as plants emerge from the earth, and buds appear on the trees, they bring with them a sense of hope and the potential of new growth. In this sense, Passover is a counterpart to Rosh HaShanah. Autumn is the season of return and spring is the season of rebirth. Both celebrate the natural, and therefore human, capacity for renewal. We need not remain confined to our old habits, patterns, or ways of thought. We have the ability to change and grow in response to the constant transformation of the world around us. What an optimistic and joyful perspective our Jewish tradition offers us. What a wonderful reason to celebrate this season.
Rabbi Drorah Setel