What Passover Means to All of Us

by Rabbi David Straus, JSPAN Board member and spiritual leader of Main Line Reform Temple Beth Elohim, Wynnewood, Pennsylvania Of all of the holidays in the Jewish year, I think Passover might be my favorite, for several reasons. Pesah is intimately connected with Seder, and Seder with family and friends. It is, in so many ways, the quintessential memory creator and memory maker holiday. And, while I admit, after a few days, Matzah does get a little stale, I love the many foods associated with Passover, again, because it brings me back to wonderful memories of large family Seders with my grandparents, who have passed away, and memories of our extended family all being together—which now is increasingly difficult, as we live literally all over the country. It is no wonder that sociologists of American and Israeli Jewry tell us that Seder is among the most observed of all Jewish holidays. And, like many members and friends of JSPAN, I suspect there is another reason we are especially drawn to this holiday. It is because the themes and messages of Passover resonate so strongly with those of us committed to Jewish Social Action and Social Justice. On Seder night we read, “Rabban Gamliel taught, in every generation, each person must see him or herself as though they personally went forth from Egypt.” It is a most universal of Jewish teachings (note it says each person, not each Jew). Passover it not just a memory of ancient history—it is a rehearsal for us for our tasks in the world concerning social transformation. We need to redeem ourselves and our world from the bondage of slavery—literally and metaphorically. In the Midrash, our rabbis and sages do a word play with the word for Egypt (Mitzraiyim), and re-read it as Mi-tzar-im—from places of narrowness. That is, we must liberate ourselves and our world not only from the bondage of slavery, but also from that which keeps us narrowly focused and unable to see, if you will, another way, or the big picture, or from that which keeps us from seeing the other, and only focused on our needs and concerns—be they individual or communal. Pesah is about liberating our minds and our souls from visions of narrowness. Of course, liberating ourselves from places of narrowness is not an easy task. Redemption and change, weather personal or communal, never is. Which brings us to the egg. Every week, at Main Line Reform Temple, I teach a 3rd grade class where parents come with their children and learn together. This week, we are exploring the meaning of the various objects on the Seder plate. I am sharing with them the following lesson from CLAL. What exactly is the egg doing on the Seder plate? The roasted orb has been a guest of honor for generations, and hardly a word has been spoken in its direction. The matzah, the shank bone, the bitter herbs - they generate the buzz year after year. But do you have any idea what you would say about the egg? Sometimes you can find out more about life by looking in obscure and ignored places. So here are some of the things we've heard about the neglected egg: "The egg is a symbol of life." "The egg is like the Jews - the more time they spend in oppressive heat, the tougher they get." "The egg is symbolic of the Temple sacrifice." "The egg reminds us that God has no beginning and no end." "The egg is the food of mourning." "The egg is a symbol of springtime and rebirth." Where do these explanations come from? It may come as a shock that none of these explanations of the egg appears in either the Bible or the Talmud. In fact, the only mention we have from ancient sources is from a rather creative word play. In Aramaic, the language of the Talmud, the word for "egg," beya, is the same word as the word for "please." In the Jerusalem Talmud, there is a suggestion that on Pesach the egg be presented together with the shoulder bone, suggesting: "Please, God, lift us up from slavery!" What this tells us is that all the explanations listed are relatively new. As a result, it has become deeply traditional to create new meanings for the foods eaten on Pesach night. We are going to ask our 3rd graders and their parents to think up new meanings for the egg. And this is something you too might do at your Seder. Ask the people at your Seder table to think for a moment about eggs. As you point to the egg, or pass it around, ask your guests to connect their thoughts on eggs to the Passover story. Things they might say: "Peeling an egg is done to free the egg from its shell - but this peeling is a difficult task, just like the peeling away of the slavery mentality of our ancestors." or "An egg, due to its shape, cannot stand without help. From this we learn that our ancestors needed help to stand up against Pharaoh." They might speak of the egg itself or, for example, they might pair the egg with matzah or with the parsley and speak about how these foods are connected. Let this year be the year we liberate ourselves from one thing that keeps us narrow. We may all help bring our world one moment closer to redemption. Hag Sameach V’kasher—a happy, meaningful and fun Seder to you and all your loved ones.