Passover, or Pessach in Hebrew, is upon us. The Eve of Passover, aka the Seder, is on Monday Evening.
Going into town today, it was Passover frenzy all over the place: streets jammed with cars and people everywhere doing their holiday shopping. Those hosting the family for the Seder shop for food, food and more food. Their guests on the other hand, are shopping for fancy gifts to give to their hosts and to everyone else attending.
The other Passover obsession is with cleaning. This is more than just spring cleaning for religious or observant Jews. They aim at eradicating every and any crumb of chametz from their home.
For the non-Jews reading this: originally, chametz was the pita bread dough that the Biblical People of Israel didn’t get a chance to wait out for it to ferment and rise. Literally, chametz is a take off on the word “sour”, as in sour dough (fermented dough). So, the Bible tells us not to eat fermented dough products on Passover. Orthodox Jews have taken this a few steps further, as they’ve done with most things, and these days, pretty much anything that doesn’t have a “Kosher for Pessach” stamp on it is forbidden.
Religious Jews freak out over this Chametz business. Houses are pulled apart, cleaned and put together again, just to avoid even the tiniest of crumbs. God forbid.
Looking at all of this saddens me. I’m not religious, but I’m very Jewish, and have my own take on Passover, derived from the cultural and historical context of this holiday.
What Passover is Really About
On his holiday, we celebrate something very special. Regardless of historical accuracy (or lack of it), it is a forming event in our national psyche. The main theme is freedom. More specifically: the move from a state of enslavement towards national freedom.
The process was not an easy one, and took literally decades. It was a mental journey for these tribal people as much as a physical one – a forty years long hike in the desert.
So, yes, as they were leaving the place, they were in hurry and their pita bread didn’t rise. Is this really what we should pay so much attention to on this holiday? Honestly, I’d be pretty insulted, as a religious person, if I thought bread crumbs are what my God is obsessed with.
Not to mention the huge meals and gift exchanging, when the whole point of the process was to leave material comforts – in the form of the Biblical “pot of meat” behind, in the quest for freedom.
Thoughts About Alternative Passover Customs
In light of the real meaning of the holiday, I’d like to humbly suggest some alternative customs. Take a break from the shopping frenzy and bread crumbs chase (sounds like a great game for my new iPod Touch) and try these instead:
- Remember how we used to be “the foreign workers ” in Egypt? How about showing some compassion for the foreign workers in Israel these days? Things that come to mind: the government giving a period of grace for illegal workers and maybe even giving citizenship to their children who were born in Israel, as well as to the parents. On a more personal level, how about inviting these people over to your Seder? Share some Jewish traditions with them and make them feel welcome in this country?
- God really wanted the People of Israel to leave behind their “pot of meat” – so why not go for a vegetarian Seder meal? It will be kind to your bodies and to the environment, and will be very much in the spirit of the biblical story.
- The People of Israel had to walk to Israel. On foot. For forty years. That’s some hike. I suggest a long family hike as a new Passover tradition. We’re going to try this ourselves, packing up the kids and going on a long hike from the coast of the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee. On foot, camping out in tents for seven nights. Yes, we’ll be spending the Seder out camping!
- Finally, and I know, this one is a bit far fetched… but let’s keep cats in mind. The former deities of Egypt sure could use your help, so care for feral cats is something I would try and push on this holiday as well. It’s a great time for a TNR (Trap, Neuter, Release) project in your neighborhood, preventing unwanted litters of kittens in a couple of months time. For more information, please read my article about feral cats.
So, what do you think? How does your family spend the holiday and what do you think about my new suggestions?