Friday, April 22, 2005

The Magic of Pesach

Pesach is probably the most magical of Jewish holidays. And that really bugs the heck out of me!

Before we go any further: here’s a spoiler alert: just like in a movie review, if you don’t want to know too much about the way I really think about some of the more obscure Pesach traditions, stop reading right here.

For those of you still with me, OK, first of all, what do I mean by magical? I’m not talking about the warm fuzzy feeling you get when the family is all assembled and someone inevitably blurts out “Oh, what a magical night!”

No, I’m talking about doing things that just don’t make sense.

I was raised in a Jewish home that worshiped at the temple of science. And although much has changed for me since those days (clearly, Israel wasn’t on the agenda growing up...more about that another time), many of my core values have remained, paramount of those being: if you can’t explain it logically, then don’t do it.

I have no problem with the main objective of Pesach. It says it clearly enough in the Torah: you shall not eat any of that there leavened bread for the week (loosely paraphrased I admit).

And clearing out the hametz, the formerly 100% kosher pitas, rolls and bagels that become off limits once the holiday begins, can be given a nice philosophical spin. For example, the physical labor of removing hametz is like cleaning up our souls, taking stock of where we stand as Jews and human beings.

And some of the customs can be loads of fun for both kids and adults alike. In our house ,the highlight of all the preparation for Pesach is the night before Seder when we hide small pieces of bread around the house and the kids search them out with a feather and a flame. Then we reverse and the kids hide and the parents go looking under pillows and behind books.

It’s maybe the world’s first institutionalized game of hide and seek...with a nice educational bent.

The stories we retell from the Haggada are timeless and never fail to engender new insights. The Jewish people’s slow descent into slavery and eventual emergence from Egypt to freedom is just as relevant today as it was then. The commandment to see yourself as if you were actually there in Egypt is sublimely powerful.

But then there’s the magic.

Every year, I have to gather up all the silverware in the house and trudge over to the local mikve where two young men stand over an enormous cauldron of boiling water. I hand them the silverware and they dunk it in the water. And then – magic! – the silverware is suddenly kosher for Pesach. I get to pay a pretty penny for the privilege, too.

But what happened there, that’s what I want to know? Scientifically, I mean. Did the molecules of hametz embedded in our every day knives and forks and spoons somehow re-fuse into another metal with entirely different physical properties?

Is their some hidden chemical process going on that only the sages of long ago knew about but that modern research has failed to detect? Last I checked, most of us were still ordinary Muggles and alchemy is on the curriculum at Hogwarts not Harvard.

Same with the whole business regarding glassware. Apparently, if we soak our glasses in water for three days, changing the liquid every 24 hours, suddenly the glasses are no longer hametzadik but kosher for the holiday? What’s up with that?

I put the glasses in, I take them out. Same glasses, guys!

I sometimes think that if an alien from outer space were to look at Jewish customs this time of year, he’d shake his three heads in disbelief and tell his commanders that this part of space would be a fine place to build a hyperspatial expressway.

So given all my griping, you might ask: why do I still do it? I won’t lie and tell you that I’ve received some divine wisdom and now pouring scalding water over our kitchen countertops suddenly makes sense. Or that there’s a logical reason why we can’t just use the same old dishes after a couple of hot rinses in the dishwasher.

Some would say I need more faith. But I’m fine with the vast majority of Jewish tradition. For me, the real reason is much more prosaic. This is what you do in the community I live in, and I’m not ready – nor interested – in separating myself over a relatively minor matter of some occasional magic.

Hypocritical? Not really. I don’t "believe" in paying a marginal income tax rate of over 60% either but that’s what you do if you want to live in Israel. There are plenty of other things I find wacky in religion and life that alternatively amuse or annoy me. It’s part of a bigger package which I rather enjoy.

So I put up with a little magic. Because as the Pesach Seder starts, it’s often times me who blurts out “Oh, what a magical night!”

May you have a happy and kosher Passover!


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