***A little aside here at the outset- I don’t really know what this post is going to be, what it’s going to say, or anything really, I’m just putting some thoughts to paper (as it were) and sharing. I do this from time to time when it feels right and right now, I’m clinging to my culture and me Jewish-ness.***
We are currently, as of the time that you are reading this, right smack dab in the middle of Pesach. And it has struck me that while Pesach has always had a big role in my childhood/early adolescence, I’ve never really spoken about it. More so in a passing “oh it’s the holiday that celebrates the freedom of the Jewish people and we don’t eat bread”- which is more for others benefit than actual statement of what the holiday represents. It’s the basic phrase that I’ve answered for more years than I care to admit, the easy way to please someone without overloading them with information and leaving them confused or not caring.
And in truth, it’s a basic answer. It details what the holiday celebrates and how we honor that celebration. But in reality, Pesach is so much more than that and its meaning and importance from ALL of my childhood Jewishness is much deeper than a simple sentence can convey. So, let’s unpack all of that.
First off, what is Pesach? And I’m going to call it Pesach, even though the English is a word much more familiar- Passover. At its core, Pesach tells the story of the Jews liberation from slavery and Pharoah in Ancient Egypt. It is a celebration of our freedom. As ridiculous as it is, I always like to point to the movie The Prince of Egypt because this movie tells the most basic, easy to understand story of Pesach. The Jews were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt, building his temples, his homes, doing back breaking labor for nothing. Pharoah was a truly horrible leader to his slaves, killing sons so that the population was controlled. The story of Moses birth, then upbringing in Pharaoh’s home is one told again and again. His eye-opening experience finding out he is one of the Chosen, a Jew. His task given to him by Hashem, to free the Jews.
Moses goes to Pharoah and asks him to “Let his people go”, however Pharoah refuses (whatever will he do without all that free labor to build his grand temples and homes?). Of course, his refusal then leads to the 10 Plagues, with the final plague being the death of the first-born son of every non-Jew. At this, Pharoah tells Moses to get the Jews and get out. The Jews leave quickly, not even allowing enough time for their bread to rise (this is important) and make their way out of Pharoah’s Egypt. But of course, Pharaoh, in his grief, chases after them, cueing Moses parting the sea and the Jews escaping to safety. They then wander the desert of Egypt for 40 years before finding their way to Canaan, Israel.
So, how do we celebrate this joyous event? Well by not eating any Chametz, or leavened bread, and by hosting a Seder. First, the foregoing of the leavened bread. We abstain from eating any form of gluten (this includes bread, pasta, flour tortillas, ANYTHING that expands when contacted with water) for 7-8 days (depending on how you practice). You are supposed to cleanse your house of all Chametz and do a full cleaning so not even a crumb is left. It’s important to note that there are varying levels of practice, as with anything else in Judaism, and how one practices does not reflect how Jewish one is. However, no matter how you practice, the tradition of the ridding of Chametz, the eating of Matzah, is to ritualize and remember the breaking away from slavery. The idea of cleansing the house of Chametz, then going forward to 7-8 days with only Matzah (or unleavened crackers) is to symbolize our effective breaking of ties to Egypt. Eating the Matzah (while not always fun) is a symbol of our journey as Jews in the desert.
As with any other Jewish holiday, Pesach is steeped in ritual. Aside from the cleansing of Chametz and eating Matzah, we also have a Seder. The seder is a very orderly, ritual reading of the Haggadah, telling the story of the freedom of the Jews, feast. This feast has a strict and precise order and details out everything from how many glasses of wine will be consumed during the formal portion (it’s 4), to the washing of hands, to the game of finding the Afikomen. It is a joyous, happy occasion and often times one full of laughter and a true sense of community. As part of the seder we invite both those we know and those we don’t know to join our table as a way of honoring that we were all strangers at one point. Typically, there is a Night One Seder and a Night Two seder as we celebrate the first two nights of the weeklong holiday.
Starting the second night of Pesach, Jews typically “Count the Omer”, in which we count and pray on the days between Pesach to Shavuot (the next holiday). This is a 50-day period that links the freedom of Pesach and the handing down of the Laws at Shavuot. There is also Yom HaShoah, falling 5 days after Pesach, which is the Day of the Holocaust. This is a day of mourning for the Jewish people to commemorate the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
Pesach for me is a holiday that I have the fullest, fondest memories of. Of course, giving up gluten for a week is…well torture, it is also one of the few very physical ways to honor that struggle that our ancestors went through to gain our freedom. A freedom that cannot be taken away, no matter how much struggle we have been through since as a people. But I also have some of the best memories of family seders as a child. We always did a night one Pesach Seder with some really close family friends and their extended family. It was a loud raucous night full of singing, laughing, and some great readings of the Haggadah. There was always a spirited hunt for the Afikomen, and the evening ALWAYS ended with a second, third, whatever round of Dayenu. I always loved the holiday of Pesach as it is not only a story of freedom, but also a celebration of finding home. Of having community in each other. Of struggling and triumphing together as a people.