It is springtime. It is Pesach time. As a child, my sisters and I would scour our house for crumbs, which might have fallen from a plate we held while reading or playing.
We would take each and every one of my father’s (may he rest in peace) books off the shelves and dust the front cover, then the back ones and finally do a quick wipe of some of those large Talmudic pages.
He was a bibliophile, my father was, and our task was to ensure his collection of 10,000 Sepharim (Jewish texts) were spotless, purified for Pesach.
I, like many of you I’m sure, feel a depth of warmth inside when I think about the Sedarim of years gone by, especially those of my early years. My Mother, God bless her, would set the table for us – as if we were royalty -complete with the Passover plate and the funny looking shank bone and terribly distasteful marror – the bitter herbs.
Later on in the evening when I would eat the marror sandwich and was instructed to remember: “All their labor was carried out under conditions of excessive force,” (Exodus 1:14) – in reference to the terrible plight of our Jewish ancestors – all I could do was wrinkle up my face, frantically reach for a glass of cold water and swear off horse radish (the main ingredient) for another year.
I was the youngest of five and therefore had the distinct honour of saying the Ma N’ishtana (The Four Questions). How special this moment was, as being the youngest then generally meant being the last in line for most things. One year I decided I would learn this whimsical prayer in Yiddish – Far v’us is the nacht f ’in Pesach, un’dish fin alla nacht fin a gunz yor?” (Why is this night different from all other nights?). I was so very proud of myself.
I also remember thinking about my great-grandparents in Poland, and the trusting smiles on their face when they were little and perhaps lucky enough to be the youngest. I thought about their shtetls – Slipia and Biesechien – and the joy they and their neighbours must have felt sitting around the Pesach table.
Then I grew up and realized that Pesach was more than just a holiday with fanciful rituals and ritualistic items to compel the children to ask questions. I began to understand that those shtetls I had remembered as a child, no longer existed and wondered what happened to the little ones who once had happily asked the F’eer Kashus (The Four Questions).
It became clearer that freedom is a sister to slavery and reclining like a Queen or King (as we are instructed to do at the Seder) is mirrored by the plight of the poor and tattered who are searching for an open door where the people inside are bidding them to enter, by the words: “those who are hungry let them come and eat.” The season has changed and we have joined our loved ones and friends at the Passover table.
As children we should play, and incessantly ask questions: Why? Why?
Why? Children are supposed to do that. Good luck with your answers! As we get older, we can’t help but remember those Jews who died building the store houses for Pharaoh; who perished in Auschwitz while quietly singing the promising prayer – Day’einu; and those who are suffering this very moment through poverty in Israel, genocide in Sudan, and loneliness and hopelessness on the streets of Toronto.
But, as adults we must also sit back at the Seder, taste the sweet charoset and as free people, dramatically and with fanfare, tell and retell the story of the Exodus, recollecting how we found our way back home to Israel, and discovered the uniqueness of the Jewish people and our ability to create extraordinary communities and congregations such as Habonim.
Chag Sameyach. Happy Pesach. Be free, play and remember!