As soon as Purim is over, the stacks in the grocery stores begin to display various cleaning detergents! They are all colorful, and each promises sparkling sinks, toilets, faucets, and all for a wonderful price. Who could resist?
Even though the holiday is not yet here, there is the sense of anticipation. Schools will close for three weeks. Passover camps for the children have begun to recruit, and there is excitement in the air.
We have, over a month early, committed to family members regarding our festive meal, the Seder, and I have received two requests from friends in the States who will be here during Passover to help them find a place at which to celebrate. Various congregations hold gatherings to accommodate those who are without family and who want to celebrate this significant festival in the Holy Land. There is nothing like it.
The days of preparation are unlike like anything I have ever experienced. There is a national surge of joy, optimism, and frenzy. We do a total spring cleaning purge. Everything from old couches and microwaves, clothing and shoes, refrigerators and children’s furniture are placed beside the garbage, to be carted away and resold.
In truth, the only thing that is required to be dealt with is our kitchens, but I do not know of a woman in Israel who does not use the weeks and days leading up to Passover to clean their entire homes. We are, in fact, relentless in making sure that our homes are spotless and "chametz" free. "Chametz" is anything that includes leavening, so we purge all soup mixes, bread, cereal, pasta, cakes, cookies, and baking soda. Leavening is a representation of sin, so this dovetails perfectly with our perspective.
The physical acts of preparing ourselves for Passover are pictures of a deeper spiritual reality. As we clean our homes, we realize that we must clean our souls from any dirt that may be hidden. As we scrub our drawers and table tops, we realize that we must also look inward and deal with the lurking evil so relentless and so easy to miss or explain away. In fact, my Rabbi remarked that we needn't even go so far inward. The chametz is obvious. If you don't see it before your very nose, ask your spouse or children!
The children of Israel had no time to wait for the bread to rise because they "left in haste." To remember this event, this is another reason we don't use leavening. In fact, matzah must be baked no less than eighteen minutes after the water is added to the flour for this very reason. Now, one can find all sorts of chametz-free cookies, cakes, and soup mixes, but when we first came to Israel, there were very few of these kinds of products. By the end of the seven days of not eating anything with leavening, the shelves are bare in the supermarkets and often in our homes, as well.
After the cleaning of the home and the buying of new clothing, the preparation of the food begins. We always say that we don't want the meal to be all about food, but it is often all about food. In our growing family, there are thirty-five people who now need to be fed, so I often wind up making over one hundred matzo balls. Meat for this number of people is often split between several families, as well as wine and dessert.
I make a special kind of charoset with dried fruit and nuts, which is widely acclaimed. This type is set on the table, along with the more traditional type made with apples and walnuts. The side dishes, complete with salad, vegetables, and potatoes are in abundance, and by the time the meal is over, everyone claims they are not eating until next year.
However, before the meal can even begin, there is the retelling of the story, after the youngest child who is able asks the traditional four questions. The Haggadah (literally, the telling of the story) answers these four questions. Seder, in Hebrew, means order and it is true that there is a prescribed order in which we conduct the Passover meal. We retell the story of the Exodus, which depicts in graphic detail how the children of Israel left (more accurately, were delivered from) Egypt. The entire story is told, complete with the accounts of the various plagues the Egyptians endured before letting our people go.
When the children were younger, we got ping pong balls to serve as the hail and little plastic frogs to depict the plague of frogs. We would shut the light off when we read about the plague of darkness and once my daughter even screamed when we got to the death of the first born!
It is traditional to dip our little pinkies into the cup of wine and remove a drop as we recite each plague because even though the plagues were sent against our enemies and for our deliverance our joy must be diminished when others suffer.
In our circles in Israel, there is a sense of social conscience in which freedom and its accompanying themes are also discussed. On some Seder plates, along with the traditional shank bone, charoset (signifying the mortar the slaves in Egypt had to use to build), bitter herbs (which commemorate our suffering), there is also an orange to represent all who may be marginalized within our society.
After the meal is complete, we sing songs. This is my favorite time as everyone is satiated, feeling good from the four cups of wine and scrumptious desserts and the fact that another miracle has occurred in Israel, insofar as we have survived this night and the events leading up to it. As I look at the faces of my children and their spouses, I realize for the millionth time that all the work has been worth it.
Everyone sleeps late the next day, and we awaken to the traditional matzo and eggs. In fact, for the entire week, we will have this for breakfast. We will have matzo with tuna and egg salad for lunch. The (now grown) children will spread chocolate over matzo and by dinner time everyone will have forgotten how stuffed they were the night before and ask for something to eat again.
The schools will continue to be out of session, and the weather is usually balmy and warm. The parks and beaches will be full of families barbecuing outdoors and exploring Israel. Many fathers are home from work as well, so this is a perfect time for family outings.
As we cook the festive meal, we remember those who are hungry, and who may not have enough for any meal. And, as always, we reflect on the past and look forward, with anticipation and gratitude, to next year.
Once we were slaves; now we are free. Let us celebrate with thankfulness and joy.