This week, Jews around the world, from the most secular to the ultra orthodox will be celebrating Passover. It is a time to recall the story of the Exodus from Egypt, of the many miracles God gave to ensure religious freedom. Jewish tradition calls for two nights sitting around the table at the Seder (which means order), reading this story from the Haggaddah. It is a feast of freedom not just for the Jewish people, but for the soul.
I myself have many memories of Passover. As a child, I missed out on most of the preparation, and therefore my grandmother’s comments about still being enslaved (only now to the myriad of yummy delights) in the kitchen literally passed over my head. Thirteen souls, uncles, aunts and cousins, descended each April upon my grandparents home. A sunny two bedroom in a Florida retirement community, we were pretty creative about setting up our own spaces. Upon arrival from the airport, we were assaulted with the scents of cinnamon, almonds and roasts; all with the warning ” Do NOT eat these yet, they’re for Passover.”
Seder nights my grandparents opened their home to friends and neighbors who were unable to travel to their families, or had no family, or just wanted to be a part of the boisterous meal that would ensue. The sunroom was transformed into a banquet hall of folding chairs and tables, pillows and candles. The crisp, salty smell of matzo ball soup permeated the house as each guest arrived. Our tradition was to read round robin from the Haggadah, the book containing the story of Exodus and the many mystical commentaries associated with it. Many humorous moments ensued, as seven children asked questions and added their own commentaries. Perhaps my favorite comment was from my then three year old cousin. We were talking about our forefathers. Suddenly she piped up loudly, “what’s? Four fathers? Who has four fathers? I only have one!”
As children, we followed the rituals, then overstuffed on roast, kugel and wine-cake, we competed to see who could stay awake the longest. I remember Seder nights lasting to the wee hours of the morning. One year we succeeded in staying awake so long, that we went into overdrive. With a second wind we had a massive pillow fight, dancing, falling and giggling long after we should have been asleep. The adults let us go at it while they cleared the tables to make room for the cots, flip chairs and other makeshift beds.
So why is this night different now?
As an adult there is the preparation. We should be forewarned. Being conservative or more in the Jewish faith means that your house turns upside down. It is spring cleaning like you’ve never seen. Every couch cushion, every track in the doors, the baseboards, cupboards, etc. is scrubbed and vacuumed. Even clothing gets sorted and put aside for donation. It is a massive undertaking. Perhaps the biggest challenge is the kitchen. The extensive preparation and the rituals involved mirror the intensity of the Passover story itself. No other holiday in the Jewish religion requires as much preparation or strict adherence to the many extra rules and restrictions of Passover. Even the most reform Jews make an effort to get rid of all leavened products, and bring out the special Passover china for meals. For the more religious, it involves deep cleaning the kitchen, clearing the pantries and breaking out the completely different (or new) sets of cutlery, dishes, pots and pans. It often means covering the kitchen counters with contact paper for more than the eight days, because after all, someone needs to cook the meals.
So what is it all about really? Besides faith, one of the biggest ideals in Judaism is the idea of “Tikkun Olam.” This literally translates to mean “repair the world.” It is a basic underlying theme, even at my children’s school, along with those seven habits (thanks Steven Covey, http://www.theleaderinme.org/the-7-habits-for-kids). In modern Jewish circles, the idea of Tikkun Olam has become interchangeable with the ideas of social action and the pursuit of social justice. (Credit here to an article on myjewishlearning.com) It is really sort of abstract, as it is more than just helping those in need. In the 16th century, Rabbi Luria stated that the world is made up of good and evil, and to balance the two, mankind must be involved in repairing the world. (Something I actually remember form high school) I take this to mean that as humans walking and living on this planet, we are responsible for its welfare. We have to take ownership for our actions to improve society world in general. I think Tikkun Olam explains environmentalism, charity and justice. It’s probably what propelled my crunchy granola self to be so inclined with PIRG groups, the Coalition for Safe Living, and the pipe dream of working on the Rainbow Warrior. I just want to save the whales, really.
Let’s talk about helping those in need. In the Passover Haggaddah it says, ” let all who are hungry come and eat. Let all who are in need come and share in the Passover meal.” I don’t see any delineation of religion, just the desire to help, to foster good will to mankind, and help those less fortunate. I do not actually know anybody who would invite a total stranger to their home, but maybe it’s time to consider those in our own communities who kitty be in need. Perhaps it is financial, or they are just alone with no place else to be, need is not always hunger. Perhaps someone is simply curious. One of my closest friends, unaffiliated but very spiritual has spent several Seder nights at our table. Need is the desire to be included, to share traditions, to help the lonely and unaffiliated feel less oppressed. After all, the Passover story is about freedom from oppression. Today, in such transient times, with many who are new to communities, out of work, or out of faith, we need to open our hearts just a bit. Begin with repairing the confidence of those in your community. Smile at your neighbor, invite them for a coffee, or a meal; volunteer, invite, motivate. It’s a life brightener for everyone.
This year, as we celebrate this Spring holiday with family and friends, I hope to infuse both a sense of tradition and one of social awareness. For Jews, freedom is always tied to responsibility. We need to examine our lives and determine what still enslaves us, (literally and figuratively) that prevents us from reaching our true potential. This Passover, I am freeing myself. I will not stress over complicated recipes, but will focus on the bigger picture. I think the story of Passover is really one of Divine grace. It is about Gods love for the undeserving, about offering opportunity for self improvement in all aspects of life. The story of Exodus is a call to action, meant to intensify our belief and appreciation for being “chosen” and redeemed, I am choosing freedom over oppression, and I plan to use my powers this year to help fix the little things in the world that are within my reach. My Tikkun Olam starts here. So for all of you who are hungry, I’ve got some extra chairs.
Savta’s Mock Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
2 cups matzo farfel 4 eggs
2 cups matzo meal 2/3 cup oil
1 1/2 cups sugar 1 cup raisins
1 1/2 cups chopped nuts 1 teaspoon cinnamon
preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a large bowl mix together all dry ingredients except raisins. In a small bowl beat eggs and oil together, add to dry ingredients. Blend well. Add raisins. Drop by rounded spoonfuls onto a greased cookie sheet. Flatte the mounds a little. Bake for 15 minutes or until edges begin to brown.