It is often said that if it were possible to remember pain, no family would have more than one child. And yet, year in and year out, we Jews engage in this annual ritual of completely subverting the normal order of our kitchens, and often our furniture, and willingly subject ourselves to the very arduous task of preparing for Passover.
By the way, it is also often said that if the ancient rabbis ever set foot in their kitchens, such that they were, the laws of Passover would look quite different. But we won’t go there…
For a variety of reasons, mostly having to do with the plethora of readily available haggadot, most people tend to assume that, from time immemorial, our celebration of Passover was always centered around a Seder, reading from a haggadah. Of course, that is not the case at all.
The most ancient form of Passover celebration is alluded to in the Bible. On the afternoon preceding the holiday, a family or clan would bring the special Passover offering- the paschal lamb- as a sacrifice, first in the portable sanctuary in the desert, the Mishkan, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem.
Later that evening, on the fifteenth of Nisan- the anniversary of the Exodus from Egypt- the clan would gather to eat that lamb, in a way described in our Seder as the "Hillel sandwich." They put slices of lamb on matzah, with maror (and, of course, charoset), and that would be their special Passover dish. And while they were eating these foods, they would retell the story of the Exodus- the more, the better and more praiseworthy.
Our contemporary rituals, including the Haggadah, incorporate ideas and texts from an eclectic variety of sources, including large portions of the rabbinic materials on Passover from the Mishnah. The eminent scholar Rabbi Baruch Bokser, of blessed memory, wrote a wonderful book on the origins of the Seder, well worth reading at any time of year but especially now. The Haggadah is our script. It provides us with a tried and tested vehicle for not only celebrating the holiday, but also appreciating its deeper significance.
Passover is a holiday in which losing the appreciation of the deeper significance of what we are commemorating and celebrating is much too easy. It is tempting to think that we are fulfilling our mandate to remember the Exodus by cleaning cabinets, changing dishes, spending large sums of money on food, and fretting about whether we are "ready" or not. Being ready for Passover has as much to do with our state of mind as it does with the state of our kitchens.
Don’t get me wrong. Our kitchens matter too. The act of eradicating all manner of chametz from our homes, most particularly what we eat from where we eat it, is central to our celebration of this most significant anniversary. But it’s not all there is.
People have a way of creating all kinds of stringencies that might make them feel as if they’re doing the holiday the way it’s really supposed to be done, but as often as not, they are not requirements as much as self-imposed practices. Under the best of circumstances, Passover is a demanding holiday that is hard to "do right."
But I would suggest that we are really "doing it wrong" if we lose track of what it is that we are remembering. The rituals- like all rituals- are a means to an end, and not an end in and of themselves. It’s about enslavement and redemption, and the beginning of our national history that will, eventually, end with another act of redemption, for all of humanity.
Well worth remembering!
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation, and vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. To read more "A Rabbi’s World" columns, click here.