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Passover: Ancient Rituals, Contemporary Perspectives

Dressing in Drag, Getting Stoned, Pillow Talk, Feeling the Beat! Passover Like You’ve Never Considered Before!

Pesach, the story of our people’s ancient flight from slavery to freedom, reminds us that ours is the way of freedom. The Haggadah, more than a backward-looking book, calls upon each and every one of us, in each and every generation, lirot et atzmo k’eelu hu yatza meemitzrayim, to see him/herself as if he/she went out of Egypt.

Judaism compels us to translate into reality the sacred ideal of the humanity of each individual and the Divine spark within us. Judaism not only condemns all racial bigotry; it affirms the belief in the sanctity of humans created in the image of God. Judaism thus places a moral responsibility upon its adherents to affirm the equality of all human beings as children of the One Universal God.

The Jewish community has been the quintessential victim of religious persecution, and of all people, we understand the duress of persecution and will devote ourselves to any measures designed to lessen its impact. It is our duty and obligation to prevent any future persecution. The most repeated commandment in the Torah, appearing 36 times, is that we must not discriminate against the stranger in our midst, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Our evening around the table calls us to reenact on that very night – through symbolic foods, dramatic readings, and intense discussion – the quest for justice and freedom. Throughout history, Jews have creatively reengaged our traditional story, creating new rituals, to teach ever new messages.

Dressing in Drag 1: In 1853, Yisrael ben Yosef Benjamin described a ceremony in Asia before the recitation of the Haggadah in which a young person dressed up in kley golah (from Ezekiel 12:3 meaning “gear for exile”) and appeared before the participants with a walking staff in hand and a satchel over the shoulder. An adult asked, “From where do you come, O pilgrim?” “From the land of Egypt,” answered the lad. “Did you go out to freedom from the bondage of Egypt?” “Yes indeed,” replied the lad, “and now I am a free man.” “And where are you going?” “I am going to Jerusalem,” he responded. Then with great joy the participants begin to tell the story of the Exodus… When possible, invite new immigrants to your home so that they can tell their stories.

Civil War Bricks: During the American Civil War (1860-1865), a group of Jewish Union soldiers made a Seder for themselves in the wilderness of West Virginia. They had none of the ingredients for traditional haroset available, so they put a real brick in its place on the Seder plate! Families having remodeling work done on their houses might save a chunk of plaster or brick to place on the Seder table. What better way to highlight the difference between our freedom to choose to build and the oppression of living a life of forced labor.

Getting Stoned: Shemuel ben Hallal relates that his Moroccan uncle, who is a rabbi in Brooklyn, is accustomed to grating rocks into the haroset. Indeed, he adds so much rock that the haroset tastes terrible! While we do not suggest anyone adopt this custom, it is a creative attempt to illustrate the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt in a very “concrete” fashion!

Dressing in Drag 2: Back in the 1530’s, when participants opened the door for shefokh, (Elijah’s cup), someone in costume enters the room quickly, as if he is Elijah himself coming to announce the coming of the Messiah. R. Yosef Yuzpah Hahn (1570-1637) says “how good is the custom that they do something in memory of the Messiah.” How surprising that my family was not the first to think of this!

Communal Drinking: Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz (1760-1827) initiated a beautiful custom. Following Birkat Ha’Mazon (the blessing after the meal), each participant poured some wine from their kiddush cup into Elijah’s Cup. In this way, he taught that each person has the responsibility to create conditions in the world that would encourage the messiah to come and finish the perfecting of the world. As you pour wine from your cup into Elijah’s, share with those at your Seder what you have decided to do this year to grow closer to God and to bring more justice into the world.

Buying Dessert: Others suggest that in ransoming or redeeming the afikoman, instead of just “paying off” the children, each participant at the Seder should also “purchase” his or her share to eat. Money seems inappropriate for such a purchase. So make a pledge of action, vowing to carry out ma’asim tovim (good deeds), as well as acts of tzedakah (charitable giving) and gemilut hesed (lovingkindness). For example, one might pledge to bring food to a homeless shelter or begin to visit the sick at a local hospital. Or, one might begin our search for the Messiah by engaging in Jewish learning or participating in personal and communal prayer. Think of what you will offer for the afikoman this year as it is passed around the table.

Pillow Talk: Noam Zion of Israel teaches that the idea of reclining on Pesach presupposes a social world in which, as in the Greco-Roman nobility, meals were often taken while the guests reclined on their left arms on couches, leaving their right hand free to dip and taste. At each couch was a small table with individual portions, like today’s Seder plate. However, since the European Middle Ages, it is no longer the way of nobility to recline. In fact, eating while reclining on pillows is the way of the sick. Still, Rabbi Y. M. Epstein teaches that everyone should be provided with a pillow precisely because it is an outmoded and outlandish custom. For the point of the Seder is to introduce changes into the meal, so the children will be roused to ask “Why is this night different from all other nights?” By the same token it would be ideal for everyone to have his or her own Seder plate.

Lesbians at the Seder Table: In the early 1980’s, Jewish scholar Susannah Heschel (daughter of the famous Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who marched with Dr. Martin Luther King), was introduced to an early feminist Haggadah that suggested adding a crust of bread on the Seder plate, as a sign of solidarity with Jewish lesbians (which was intended to convey the idea that there is as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate). Heschel felt that to put bread on the Seder plate would be to accept that Jewish lesbians and gay men violate Judaism like hametz [leavened food] violates Passover. So at her next Seder, she chose an orange as a symbol of inclusion of gays and lesbians and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community. She offered the orange as a symbol of the fruitfulness for all Jews when lesbians and gay men are contributing and active members of Jewish life. In addition, each orange segment had a few seeds that had to be spit out – a gesture of spitting out, repudiating the homophobia of many Jews. While lecturing, Heschel often mentioned her custom as one of many feminist rituals that have been developed in the last 20 years. She writes, “Somehow, though, the typical patriarchal maneuver occurred. My idea of an orange and my intention of affirming lesbians and gay men was transformed. Now the story circulates that thirty years ago a man said to me that a woman belongs on the bimah [podium of a synagogue] as an orange on the Seder plate. A woman’s words are attributed to a man, and the affirmation of lesbians and gay men is erased. Isn’t that precisely what’s happened over the centuries to women’s ideas?” Today, let us place an orange on the Seder plate to reaffirm the openness of our Jewish community to lesbians and gay men and to others who have been marginalized.

Vegetarians Feel the Beat: Ever since the Talmudic scholar, Rabbi Huna, stated that “beets and rice” may be used for the two cooked foods on the Seder plate (Pesachim 114b), many vegetarians have substituted a red beet for the shankbone. In fact, while some wonder if Pesach and vegetarianism are compatible (after all, what is a Seder without gefilte fish, chicken soup, chopped liver, chicken and other meats) there is a common misconception that halacha (Jewish law) mandates that Jews eat meat to rejoice on Pesach and other Jewish festivals. According to the Talmud (Pesachim 109a), since the destruction of the Temple, Jews need not eat meat to celebrate festivals.

Surfing Seder: In the internet age, some families asked all the adults attending the Seder to search the web to bring with them one example of oppression, discrimination or social injustice in our world today. They also asked them to bring a few suggestions regarding how they can combat the problem they discussed. During the Seder, they intersperse presentations about modern day problems with the Haggadah’s story about the slavery of the Jews. Before the Seder ends, each person is asked to commit to some action to help alleviate one of these social problems.

Checking Out: Some families have a checkbook ready on the Seder table. Following the traditional recitation of the ten plagues, and a discussion of the modern plagues that are destroying our world, the children and adults choose one or two organizations which help alleviate these problems. They immediately write out a check before the urge to change the world diminishes. During the days that follow, they make plans to write letters to government officials to urge them to act to stop these injustices.

Dressing in Drag 3: The Jews of Morocco had the following custom: After reading the Haggadah, all of the adults put a stick with a bundle on their shoulders and they leave the house in haste, running and shouting: “In this way did our ancestors leave Egypt, with ‘their kneading bowls wrapped in their cloaks upon their shoulders’” (Exodus 12:34).

May these ancient customs and contemporary perspectives entice you to dig deeply into the Passover story to reclaim its essential purpose: to goad us all into action to rid the world of prejudice, oppression, and injustice.

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