Passover is sweeter when we celebrate our freedoms

Passover Greetings for 5781! And also a very happy Easter to my friends and loved ones celebrating that holiday. The Spring Equinox* is nothing to sneeze at, either, except, maybe, for the allergies, a little.

May spring offer hope, renewal, and joyous freedom to everyone reading this post.

You can gauge the season in my home by the drift of matzah crumbs across the kitchen floor. Note to those new to a cracker-based diet: no, it is never a wise idea to eat matzah without a plate for catching the inevitable crumbs. Don’t let my husband or children tell you otherwise!Passover Pesach matzah

In 2021, I found myself rueful that yet another פֶסַח Pesach would be celebrated without guests or even family. Due to necessary medical appointments, we were socially if not spiritually distanced even from my in-laws who live downstairs within our home as this holiday commenced.

Yet, still, we had so much for which to be grateful.

Chief among all blessings, the festival of liberation from bondage reminds me annually of my husband’s exodus from an oppressive regime which persecuted his family for its Jewish heritage. Thank God for a United States of America welcoming refugees! My husband, his beloved parents, and his grandmother z”l all benefited from that largess.

Anyone familiar with DH’s academic record knows how the USA benefits, in turn, from his ground-breaking scholarship in—and beyond—the natural sciences. Certainly, IMHO, the likelihood of international fame ought not be a prerequisite for offering refuge to “your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”** And yet, time and again, immigrants such as my husband prove their worth far beyond such beleaguered beginnings.

Cover of Richard Codor's Joyous Haggadah book

I hope that not a day goes by when I do not thank God for the blessing of my husband’s freedom, but I thank Passover for the fact that a year never could. The Haggadah—the story of Passover related by Jews at a סֵדֶר seder or order of telling—includes the answer, “It is because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt” to the question asked by a child who can’t even formulate a question about what the holiday means.

“It is because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt.”

I must admit to not being particularly literal in my general understanding of the Torah. I believe God gave us a legacy of poetry, using metaphor to offer millennia’s worth of new understandings of the same old words, letting scripture rise to the occasion of ever-evolving human capacity.

And yet… in this case, I take scripture fairly literally. It is, frankly, because of what God did for me in taking me out of Egypt that everything else in my life carries so many of its multitudes of meaning.

That Egypt is a metaphor, yes. But, from where I sit, “Egypt” is a place I was, yet here I am, free.

Compared with 2020, I gave thanks in 2021 for plenty of capacity at the stores to get groceries delivered, and no shortages of either mundane or ritual items we needed for our seder.

At this time of year, in addition to counting my blessings, I am inclined to count my freedoms. The liturgy of the season Deuteronomy (26:5–8) includes the phrase:

God took us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”Bible open to show Deuteronomy 26:1-5 on the page

Bible open to show Deuteronomy 26:5-8 on the pageUnderstanding the mighty/strong hand tends to be trivial. God is mighty; God is great. Translation doesn’t dilute this understanding much, in my experience.

The outstretched arm is, perhaps, less obvious, but sometimes more compelling, at least, to me.

You can find Jewish scholarship on the topic of the strong hand and outstretched arm all over the internet. But here’s what that extended arm means to me.

The outstretched arm reminds me of my obligation—always!— to reach out to the wider world. I believe I must use my personal freedom as a tool to work toward the liberation of others. At my seder, I can’t help but reflect upon current events. This year, that included paying attention to the illegal coup taking place in Myanmar, formerly Burma.

The New York Times reports that:

“Ten days after seizing power in Myanmar, the generals issued their first command to journalists: Stop using the words “coup,” “regime” and “junta” to describe the military’s takeover of the government. ”

When that didn’t work, the military junta that staged the coup in Myanmar—overthrowing the legitimate, democratically elected government—arrested more than 50 journalists for continuing to report the truth.

I wish I could do more than thumb my nose at these tyrants by defying their chosen vocabulary. This is the small strength of my individual hand, however, so that’s the little bit of power I will wield today.

Page view from Haggadah describing The Simple Child

After mentioning this outrage against human dignity, I’m also inspired to consider the question: Which child of the Passover seder am I aping, as I ask?

The Pesach Haggadah prompts us to answer questions about our liberation from slavery in Egypt for the benefit of four children: the one who is wise, a wicked child, a simple son, and the one who doesn’t even know how to ask what s/he needs to know.

Modernity offers most of us instant connections across the globe, yet few of us seem blessed with the wisdom to use what should probably be considered a superpower to its utmost. Staring at the atrocities in Myanmar, I wonder if I’m the child who can’t even formulate a sensible question.

Who should determine the form of government of any nation? Am I remiss in assuming the majority’s opinion offers the critical vote?

What is our obligation, as outsiders, to support those agitating and risking their lives in hopes of bringing democracy to a nation? Is it enough when I simply simply ponder their fate?

When are we called upon to act as opposed to bearing witness? How many civilians must a military coup murder before free people of the world feel obligated to take action?

Where should I draw the line between my own liberation and that of another oppressed person?

Why have I been blessed with so much more freedom than the people of Myanmar?

How can I make the world better given my limited strength and resources?

In this spring of optimism across the developed world as a pandemic God willing wanes, I hope those of us living in the bosom of privilege, safety, and freedom from want can provide some sort of meaningful support for those in  Myanmar and elsewhere living beneath a cloak of oppression.

* With a special nod to the pagan holiday of Ostara, aka Eostre, from which Christian Easter stole borrowed what it needed to convert the masses. Please note, friend Christians, that I don’t think Jesus himself is in any way incriminated in this wholesale holiday obfuscation. The social history is pretty fascinating, however, to a nerd like myself.

Hebrew acronym for zikhronah livrakha, meaning “May her memory be a blessing.” Read more about this Jewish acronym at My Jewish Learning dot com.

** Excerpted from Emma Lazarus’ poem, The New Colossus, as etched at the base of the Statue of Liberty.

Here’s one rabbi’s thought on understanding how translation affects a well known, widely “understood” passage such as the one I’ve quoted here.

Larry Levine’s Meats & Deli saves our pandemic Passover with Seder in a Box

If it weren’t for the generosity of local Jewish charities and businesses like Larry Levine’s Meats & Deli of Peabody, Massachusetts, my family would not have had a proper Passover seder this year.

Larry Levine Kosher Meat Market & Deli contact info

Yes, I, too, was googling “how to make matza at home”… but I don’t keep any wheat flour in the house since we cut gluten out of our younger son’s diet due to his autoimmune disease and a relative’s diagnosis with celiac. Things were about to get really artsy-crafty around here. Oh, yes, and I was a nutcase!

On Tuesday, April 7th, I left my house for a public space other than the park/a sidewalk for the first time since March 12, 2020. I went out to pick up a “Seder in a Box” kit at Larry Levine’s kosher deli.

Seder in a Box Larry Levine 2020 pandemic letterOur “Seder in a Box” was organized by the Combined Jewish Philanthropies group out of Boston. I’ve received email from CJP and other local/regional Jewish organizations for years as our family has gratefully enjoyed programs like PJ Library which offers amazing, free monthly Jewish books for kids of Jewish and interfaith heritage.

In case you are wondering, a “Seder in a Box” includes all the elements that need to be represented on a seder plate, a box of matzah, and a small bottle of Kedem grape juice. You’ll still need to prepare the “festive meal” to go along with the kit to make a full and proper Passover seder.

seder plate with bitter herbs, charoset, shank bone, etc.More properly described as a “seder in a paper bag,” the package had everything one needs for the seder plate plus approximately enough grape juice (8 oz.) for a skimpy* solo seder.

crystal goblet filled with wine on silver salverHere’s Elijah’s cup on our table. Poor Elijah, like me, had to make do with mostly grape juice this year.

Manischewitz kosher wine bottle, mostly empty, on silver salver

Luckily, I had a bit of Manischewitz sweet kosher wine in the house and one 32 oz bottle of organic concord grape juice to supplement. The one full box of matzah included in our kit was sufficient for our family of six to celebrate a Passover seder, though I rationed matzah in a way I’ve never done before.

My hope is that each of us can eat at least a bit of the matzah we received in our Seder in a Box every day throughout the eight days of the Passover holiday to fulfill the commandment to eat unleavened bread. Luckily, I feel confident that God will understand if we fall short of orthodox religious interpretation this year amidst pandemic and societal chaos.

I’m not sure if a financially comfortable family like ours is the most deserving recipient of any beneficence, but I clicked through and requested a Seder in a Box immediately when I got the email offer from CJP. I would not have gone into a grocery store for these items; not at this time, not this year. My family would not have continued our tradition of celebrating this very important Jewish holiday in the traditional fashion if we hadn’t had access to this gift.

Here’s what I know: I can’t get a grocery delivery slot from anyone these days, and I am unwilling to visit stores in person while I have ample calories available in my house. The health of my family—especially my septuagenarian in-laws downstairs—demands that I sacrifice all trivial wants at this time.

Passover, to me, isn’t really a trivial pursuit. To be fair, I wouldn’t risk the lives of anyone in my household to honor the holiday, but I will certainly go outside my comfort zone to do my very best to host a meaningful seder.

This year, the Seder in a Box was a lifeline for observing Jewish traditions that date back for millennia. I’m so grateful for what I received, and I hope the people at CJP and Larry Levine’s are aware of how meaningful their gift was to me and my inter-generational household.

* Strict interpretation of Jewish law says we should pour each of the four required cups of wine for a seder into a cup that holds 3.5 oz, and each of us should drink at least ~50 cc per cup. 4 cups x 50 cc = 200 cc = ~7 fluid oz per person.

Note: if you need to drink grape juice instead of wine for health reasons, that is totally okay! If you’re diabetic, I’m less certain. Maybe Passover will kill you unless you’ve got some insulin to inject?