It’s bleak in Chicago, hard to believe that Passover starts at sundown tonight. It’s a holiday like Easter that should serve as spring’s harbinger. When I was a child, it was my job to wash all the special Passover dishes. My brother Jonathan would help me. We’d drive into town to buy the special foods for the ritual dinner. I would coach him on reciting the Four Questions, which the youngest child must ask. When he was four and my dad insisted he learn them in Hebrew, I drew a picture of his brain and showed him the part of his brain where the strange-sounding words would lodge themselves. Somehow this made it possible for him to become word-perfect.
Now, living with someone who despises rituals, I don’t bother to make a seder: like all Jewish holidays, Passover is a communal, not a solitary ritual. I go on the second night to a friend’s house, where we use a Haggadah another friend and I constructed over the course of a decade, our Women’s Haggadah, which frames questions and ritual through a woman’s lens. I love this ritual, but I miss the excitement and pageantry of a first-night celebration.
I shopped today for the Seder plate, which includes greens and a boiled egg to celebrate spring, bitter herbs to remind us of the bitterness of slavery, chopped apples and nuts to symbolize the mortar the Hebrew slaves were denied when Pharaoh demanded they build his pyramids; salt water to remind us of the tears of the oppressed; a lamb bone to remind us of the Holy One’s mercy in saving the first-born of the children of Israel; and an orange, to symbolize women’s freedom to lead religious services.
I am grateful that I live in a country where I can freely ask a butcher for a lamb shank for my seder plate. I am grateful that I do not need to hide my religion.
For everyone, Passover is a holiday that celebrates the movement from slavery to freedom. It demands that we ask what we are enslaved to. If we are free people, what habits or fears or addictions, be they computer games or texting or drinking or other obsessions, keep us from experiencing life in a full and free way? I have my own obsessions and addictions, but what troubles me more is my enslavement to a bleakness of spirit. I hope that this year marks my going forth from that bleak land to one of greater richness of spirit. I hope that wherever you are on your own road from bondage to a land flowing with milk and honey, you will find something in this holiday to quicken your spirit and give you strength for the journey.