Holiday of freedom? Really?

So, Passover officially starts tonight. We are literally counting down the hours until our annual Jewish version of the declaration “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!”

Passover traditionally marks the Exodus from Egypt – the end of generations of slavery and the beginning of the new reality of a free people, subservient only to God and not a human king. Equally importantly, the Exodus marks the transformation of the 70 sons of Jacob, into the Children of Israel, the name given to Jacob by the angel. A family went down to Egypt, but they left as a nation .

Passover is signified by joy and celebration. We are commanded to re-live the story of the Exodus as though we personally were with our ancestors when they were redeemed from slavery, and shortly after departing Egypt, when they received the Torah at Mount Sinai.

Yet, so many people are unable to enjoy Passover as it is meant to be. They never experience the joy and the freedom that we have been granted on this wondrous holiday. They get so caught up in the details of Passover preparations that by the time the day actually arrives they are too exhausted to appreciate the beauty of what we are celebrating. Even worse, weeks before the holiday begins they are already dreading what needs to be done in order to celebrate “freedom”. Basically, they miss the point of Passover.

Make no mistake; there is an absolute plethora of extremely detailed laws regarding the Passover preparation. We must clean out our house of all chametz (leavened bread), and we spend seven days (eight days outside of Israel) eating no chametz at all, including food with any chametz ingredients. For those of us who observe the laws of Kashrut (kosher), finding food to eat throughout the year is enough of challenge (especially outside of Israel), on Passover it’s much harder.

We replace our dishes (two sets – one for dairy, one for meat) with dishes used only for Passover, we clean and scrub the refrigerator, the oven, the stove and anything else used for food preparations including all of the countertops, table tops, cabinets, and more (some things we don’t clean, we just put them away and replace them with Passover counterparts). Then, because we obviously have not done enough, we clean the entire house – making sure that no crumbs or other food remnants remain in our midst, thus allowing us to enjoy the Freedom of Passover in a completely chametz-free environment.

But that’s not all. For those who host a seder (the traditional Passover dinner that includes re-telling and teaching children the Passover story), they have the kitchen cleaned out several days in advance and make sure that all of their food preparation is only with ingredients certified as Kosher for Passover, and with dishes and utensils which have not been used at all for chametz. Even more fun for people outside of Israel, who have two nights of seder. Some, like my parents, are daring (perhaps crazy?) enough to host people both nights.

Completely Unrelated Tangent Alert (CUTA): I am fascinated by the different perspective I have gained since becoming an alleged “adult”. Growing up in North Carolina (which is right next to America), my family hosted seder each of the two first nights of Passover, and we would average 20-25 people (including us) per night at our seder table. While my parents continue to this day to host both seders every year, over the last couple of years (including this year) they have had “only” about twelve people per night. Last week while chatting on the phone with my mother I commented how small that seems for a Zeiger family seder. But when I hung up I couldn’t help laughing at myself as I thought back to one year ago when my wife and I hosted a seder, which was for twelve people, including us and our two children, and I remembered feeling overwhelmed by how many guests we were having that night. Not that I have ever lacked respect or admiration for my parents, but this realization certainly enhanced it. End of CUTA

So back to the point – the entire description above as to the preparations for Passover is, believe it or not – is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. This holiday involves a lot of work, so it’s no wonder that many folks get so overwhelmed by it.

And therein lies the irony of Passover. Jewish law dictates that we enjoy this holiday, and treat it as one of celebration and of thanks. Yet, if we are so exhausted from preparing for the holiday, and so cowed by the sheer volume of rules and regs involved in observing the holiday, how exactly can we be expected to enjoy the holiday?

At the risk of (once again) being branded a heretic, I would offer that much of the work that many folks do is not really as necessary as we’ve come to believe, and that we are better able to properly observe Passover by lightening up on the preparations.

Yes, we need to clean the house and clean it well. But if we miss a couple of crumbs in the cracks behind the draining board, it’ll be OK. According to Jewish law, the determining factor whether or not something needs to be considered as Kosher for Passover is if it is fit to be eaten by a dog. I seriously doubt that any crumbs caught in the netherworld of my kitchen after all the soap, boiling water and various cleaning solutions that I use, is something a dog would eat.

But it gets better. Religiously observant Jews sell their chametz from the morning before Passover until the evening that it ends. This is an interesting symbolical process which I won’t go into details now, but it effectively allows us to keep the chametz in our house, albeit covered up (the old “out of sight, out of mind” approach to Jewish law) while it has been temporarily sold to a non-Jew. So we’ve covered up the chametz which we will use after the holiday and rendered inedible the crumbs that we may have missed cleaning up.

To top it all off, on the morning before Passover, we burn whatever chametz we have left in our possession, during which time we recite a paragraph declaring that any chametz still in our home which we may have neglected to clean, sell or burn, whether knowingly or not, is hereby designated as dust and no longer even considered chametz.

So, without taking away from the work that goes into preparing for Passover every year, or from those who are as exacting as they can be in following the letter of Jewish law, it seems that some people have allowed the observance to detract from their Passover experience, and they have lost the big picture of what the holiday is meant to be within the many minute details of its preparations.

Passover is meant to be very special. In the prayer liturgy we refer to it as the “day of our liberation”. The time and energy needed to prepare for it can – and should enable us to appreciate the unique beauty of this holiday. But if all we see is the huge burden and we run ourselves ragged making sure that every little thing is done just right, then by the time we sit down at the seder with family and friends we are so worn out – physically, mentally and emotionally that we are unable to be a part of re-living the Exodus. Rather than moving from slavery to freedom, we feel just the exhaustion, even resentment. And without the sense of freedom going hand-in-hand with the exhaustion, giving us the energy to do what we need to do, all of the work that we did – the cleaning, cooking, and attention to details – becomes pointless.

Yesterday morning my daughters – ages 10 and 7, woke up and were so excited to start cleaning out the car that my older one skipped breakfast in order to get to it. She and her sister also put a lot of thought and planning into the logistical aspect of which of them would get to clean what in which of our bathrooms, each one making sure that she got to do as much as her sister.

My wife said that what we see as chores, the kids see as treats. And while that insight amused me, it also showed me that my kids really get it. They understand what Passover is all about, and they take absolute pleasure in being a part of it. When we sit down to our seder tonight, they will have earned the right to celebrate the freedom that is the entire reason for all that we do in preparing for the holiday.

I would like to wish all who celebrate Passover a joyous, happy, healthy and kosher holiday. May we all merit the freedom for which our ancestors fought so hard and for which they sacrificed so much.

About the Author
Asher Zeiger grew up (well, sort of) in North Carolina and moved to Israel in 1988. He lives in Modi'in with his wife and two daughters, and works as freelance writer, editor and translator. In his spare time, he tries hard at not taking himself or life too seriously (successfully) and at unwrapping himself from around his daughters' little fingers (not so successfully).
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