Despite the fact that I have been spending Pesach in Israel for the better part of the past two decades, it never ceases to amaze me how the most mundane episode has the potential to make me look at this country in wonder and amazement. Here are just a few observations about the pre-Passover season festivities…
1. Israelis have turned Pesach cleaning into a full-on extreme sport. We aren’t just talking about deep cleaning. This isn’t about scrubbing the house until it shines. We are talking about a hard-core crackdown…from the outside in and the inside out…dusting every flower in the garden to disinfecting the insulation of each building. During this month of Passover preparation, we are a country at war with chametz. If one intends to buy new furniture, paint the interior or exterior of the house, install new curtains, or complete renovations, all such activity must, must, must happen “before Pesach.” If you do anything too early in the year (i.e., before “before Pesach,” like in January) you’re a frier for not waiting. If you wait too long, you’re an extreme procrastinator. Passover preparation is a frenzy that extends to all corners and all Jewish households in the State of Israel. We are commanded that “In every generation, you should feel as if you, yourself, personally left Egypt in the Exodus.” And here in Israel, it’s not a drill. This is serious exodus-ing at its very finest and with its own unspoken rules and regulations.
2. Each and every supermarket, restaurant, hair salon, car wash, and retail shop has been packed for over a month with panicking, frantic consumers. Everyone is preparing food, buying gifts, and “making order” so that there will be what to eat and with whom to eat. I know that we do our very best in the States and in other places outside of Israel to make sure that everyone has a place at a seder. In Israel, the concept of inviting the stranger is engrained into the very heart of this country. Here, no one sits alone for this holiday. It is simply not an option.
3. Today, I received a text message on my phone that read “to sell your chametz, dial *8044 and we will be happy to accommodate.” (Not included in the text: We are about to charge you an outrageous fee and please don’t bother to read the small print about the fact that the whole idea of “selling” chametz is simply a legal fiction…) Nevertheless, it was still pretty extraordinary to receive that text–just another reminder of why I love this country–the blend of the ancient and the modern–where even technology is harnessed to assist people to observe the festival.
4. These are the things that I’ve never admitted make me weepy: I walked into the gym in Herzliya and was greeted by a salesperson in the lobby of the entrance selling a variety of kitchen appliances, pots and pans, and other necessary sundries for Passover cooking. From the gym, I entered the local supermarket and teared up listening to the Pesach music blaring away over the PA…which made me reminisce about the first time I saw mass-produced charoset sold in a jar (I couldn’t bring myself to buy it, but just knowing that there is a market for the stuff…).
5. Finding what to eat in Israel during Pesach is rarely a problem (which is one of the reasons I enjoy being here). Finding an alcoholic beverage can be far more difficult. Last Pesach, I sat down with friends at a restaurant to have a cocktail and discovered that the same restaurant that serves “shrimps” and all other forms of treif refused to serve alcohol that is not kosher for Pesach (leaving wine and arak as the only alcoholic beverages available). When I questioned the server about the apparent inconsistency he didn’t quite know how to respond. In fact, he looked at me as if I was from another planet.
6. My American friends and family and I are desperate to come to Israel for Pesach. However, an equal or larger number of Israelis are escaping from the Pesach frenzy (and in many respects, I can understand their desire). Many will find some place to join in a seder experience. Some are grateful to have the opportunity to “clear the head” from the Pesach frenzy. Sorry, chaverim…I’ve only missed a few Pesach celebrations in Israel over the last two decades, and I don’t plan to miss more if it can be avoided. I’m happy to water your plants, though…
While I do love observing all of the humorous ways that spending Passover in Israel is fundamentally different than celebrating outside of Israel, there are serious reasons why I love spending Pesach here — and the most important of those is the ability to take significant time for reflection during this time of renewal.
I think we collectively understand that Pesach isn’t really about curtains or haircuts or ready-made charosets or gifts. Rather, it is a holy opportunity to clear out the muckiness, in our homes, in our heads, and in our hearts. Personally, I have always believed that the ritual act of cleaning out the chametz was always meant to be a physical reminder of the emotional exercise of breaking free from whatever might be holding us back from true freedom in our lives. Perhaps because I don’t live in Israel full-time, this yearly retreat allows me to reset and reevaluate my life, my relationship to Judaism and its teachings, and my future. Nevertheless, no matter where one sits for seder, no matter how one engages in the act of retelling the story of the Exodus, the holy work of clearing out what is no longer serving us in our lives.
As I muse, sitting on my balcony looking over the Mediterranean Sea and listening to the calls of chag sameach among the people who live on my street… I’ll extend that blessing to you, wherever you may be this Pesach. May your seder table overflow with family, friends, and food. May this be a Pesach drenched in the sweet tastes of freedom. And may this be a Pesach that brings us all a physical cleaning and spiritual healing.