The Gratitude of a Firstborn Before Passover (Pesach)
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Seder plate (photo: Dana Skolnick/Flickr)
Today is ta’anit (“fast”) bekhorim (“of the firstborn”), the day before Passover begins, when only the first-born males of Jewish families abstain from eating. In our show on Exodus, Avivah Zornberg describes the tragedy of the tenth plague, the plague of the firstborn, and how the tradition of eating unleavened bread during Passover came about from that story:
"And that God passes over the Israelite houses as the firstborn in the Egyptian houses are dying. It’s actually rather a terrible. One can just imagine the sounds, the crying. And I think there is really a feeling of pressure at that moment. This is not an ecstatic moment. The word that’s used in the Hebrew text, here and in later retellings of the story in Deuteronomy, is chipazon. Chipazon means “panic haste.” And you should eat the paschal offering, the sacrifice that the Israelites were supposed to eat on that night, you shall eat it in haste, which is always a strange commandment. Ahead of time, you should prepare to eat it in haste.”
It’s not the tempo. It’s the — the people are being told ahead of time that the way in which you will experience this will be pressured, there’ll be a sense of pressure. The Egyptians will be rushing you out of Egypt. But most of all, what’s called the haste of God himself, a sense of history, a sense of the redemption as something that God is making happen rather faster than people can really assimilate it. Things are happening very fast at that moment, and people are almost not capable of registering what is really going on, as one often is not at critical moments of experience, cataclysmic moments.
Unleavened matzo bread (photo: paurian/Flickr)
The uninviting, dry, brittle matzo bread is meant to remind Jews of what nourished them in the midst of that “panic haste” created out of great trauma.
The religious symbolism of fasting is an act of gratitude for the life you have and the time when you can eat again.
Matzah Makeover Turkish-Style
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Got a few extra sheets of matzah handy and looking for a Passover-friendly recipe? Deena Prichep has posted photos and recipes of various matzo pies, including a Turkish mina de carne that elevates this bread of affliction to a culinary delight!
Longing for Passovers and Memories Missed: Pesach 5770 (2010)
by Mary Moos, guest contributor
At Monday night’s Passover Seder we used hard-covered, bound copies of a Haggadah with a copyright date of 1923. The first user of the book — a relative or friend of our host family — had carefully inscribed his name on the inside cover.
In the many years since my conversion from Roman Catholicism to Judaism, I’ve used a variety of Haggadot but none like the one we used last night.
Some of them were faded blue, mimeographed copies, dog-eared and stained with wine and brisket gravy. Others were stapled and patched together with cracking glue and brittle cellophane that incorporated feminist interpretations. A few years ago, we enjoyed the company of a blind guest at our Seder. She used a Braille Haggadah in Hebrew. When it was her turn to read, she simultaneously translated the text into English. Amazing.
Reading from an almost 90 year-old Haggadah, with the name of the octogenarian sitting next to me written in childlike cursive on the inside cover, was an extraordinary experience. It struck me that he had been Jewish 60 years longer than I had been. It filled me with a deep longing for the Passovers and memories I’d missed. At the same time, I felt tremendous gratitude for the spiritual home I’d finally found.
Celebration of Passover is a biblical command for all Jews worldwide to come together as a community to singularly and collectively remember: What the Eternal One did for me when I came out from Egypt. At Passover, I am — along with the ancient Israelites enslaved in Egypt. I am with them redeemed from bondage, and I am promised the care and love the Eternal One blessed be He.
Growing up in a large observant Roman Catholic family, I often felt spiritually displaced. Praying and having a relationship with G-d was always important to me, but I struggled with how to do it within the structure of my birth-religion. The idea of Christ and His divinity got in the way of the personal relationship I wanted to have with G-d.
Holy Week was the only time I felt intimacy and safety with Christ. And then it was as a supremely saintly man who modeled how we are to have a relationship with G-d. Holy Week was the only time Christ became real. From His ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to the Passover dinner with His disciples, the Stations, and His death on the Cross on Good Friday, I felt comfortable with Christ.
Now that I have found my spiritual home in Judaism, I no longer struggle with Christ. I understand Christ and His teachings from a Jewish perspective. I see Him as a wise and holy Rabbi falsely accused and killed by the Romans like another of our other Jewish saints, Rabbi Akiva.
I am grateful to have found Judaism and the community to which I can belong. I am no longer in Diaspora… I am home.
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Asking the Questions, Developing the Answers
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Pesach (Passover) is upon us. In a recent entry by Rachel Barenblat (a rabbinical student who writes the Velveteen Rabbi blog), she recounts a seder in which three questions were asked and were answered with prescribed responses. A Sephardic custom (according to Barenblat, Iraqi or Afghani in origin), the seder opens with a person circling the table of participants asking:
Who are you? The answer: “I am Yisrael.”
Where are you coming from? The answer: ”I am coming from Mitzrayim.”
Where are you going? The answer: “I am going to Yerushalayim.”
As Barenblat sees it, these questions call us to think more deeply, to examine the nature of our true selves, and open ourselves up to the possibility of emergence from narrow, confined places and look ahead to a more generous future.
My two sons attend an early childcare facility run by a Jewish community center. Although our family’s not Jewish, we, by default, loosely observe shabbat on Friday and various holidays simply through scheduling and songs and rituals celebrated at school (I’ll be taking a vacation day tomorrow to be with my boys because the daycare center is closed).
So, when I read these questions, I was shaken to the core, especially after a tumultuous, stress-filled week of work and family hiccups. They cause me to pause and ask myself about how I define myself and not the outside world. I look to the being who exists in that thin crevasse between closed eyelids and the breaking rays of dawn, and the vestige that reflects in the cab of his truck on the freeway home.
It’s in this interstitial space that I remember Avivah Zornberg’s retelling and interpretation of a story from a fifth-century Midrash:
You find that when Israel were in harsh labor in Egypt, Pharaoh decreed against them that they should not sleep at home nor have relations with their wives. Said Rabbi Shimeon bar Chalafta, ‘What did the daughters of Israel do?’ They would go down to draw water from the river, and God would prepare for them little fish in their buckets. And they would sell some of them, and cook some of them, and buy wine with the proceeds, and go to the field and feed their husbands. And when they had eaten and drunk, the women would take the mirrors and look into them with their husbands, and she would say, ‘I am more comely than you,’ and he would say, ‘I am more comely than you.’ And as a result, they would accustom themselves to desire, and they were fruitful and multiplied, and God took note of them immediately. Some of our sages said they bore two children at a time, others said they bore 12 at a time, and still others said 600,000. … And all these numbers from the mirrors. … In the merit of those mirrors which they showed their husbands to accustom them to desire, from the midst of the harsh labor, they raised up all the hosts.
Dr. Zornberg: She says to him, ‘I’m more beautiful than you,’ and he answers her, ‘No, I’m more beautiful than you.’ So there is some kind of dare going on here. There’s some kind of game. As I understand it, it’s a game in which she is challenging him to see his own beauty. If there’s anything left in him at all of any kind of assertiveness, then how could he not somewhere swing back at her when she has said that to him? And the result is — and the Midrash is very unequivocal — the result is that they accustom themselves to desire, an extraordinary expression, as if desire is something that simply has disappeared from their repertoire.
Ms. Tippett: Right.
Dr. Zornberg: And I think there’s a sense here that what she’s got going here makes it possible for each couple to feel that they are capable of giving birth to all the many various possibilities.
Ms. Tippett: And the possibility of freedom.
Dr. Zornberg: Of freedom, of infiniteness, of unpredictability, which such multiple births suggests, and that it’s all done with mirrors, the Midrash says, mischievously, it seems to me. And I have a whole theory about these mirrors. It seems to me that, when one looks in a mirror, one is basically always seeing a somewhat changed version of oneself, a distorted version of oneself. So it means that the mirror represents fantasy. But from the point of view of the Midrash and from the point of view of God, who supports the women’s activities, it takes an act of this kind, a performative act of whimsy and imagination, not looking at things quite straight, in order to open things up.
From this story, I’ve created my own meaning and retelling of the idea to apply to my circumstances. I won’t go into it here, but the mirror is held up to me every day — and in it I’m creating my own midrashic story.