The Feast of Freedom

Beginning next Monday evening as a commemoration of the freeing of the Israelites and the “passing over” of the Angel of Death during the time of the plagues upon the Egyptians, the Seder meal of Passover or Pesach is one of my favorite holidays. The formalized ritual of prayer, story-telling, special foods to prepare and share as symbols of a common history, and the gathering of family and friends, provides much inspiration and a lot of fun that more than offsets the task of preparing such an event.

Our own Seders that we have hosted for nearly every one of the last forty years have evolved during this time frame. While we still use the Haggadahs, books which lead us through the order of the service, which belonged to my husband Buck’s grandparents, we have added some new elements. For instance, on the special Seder plate holding the traditional foods which are symbols of Pesach, we have added an orange. The motivation comes from a story about how a young woman was denied the right to study Torah. When she questioned her Rabbi about when it might be possible for her to do that, he replied, “When there is an orange on the Seder plate”...meaning of course, “never”. The orange is symbol of the courage and power of women in the face of oppression throughout the world. For me the act of placing the orange on the plate is a message to every woman who graces our table that women can and must seek to grow in every way they can, especially in spiritual knowledge.

As a commemoration of the Exodus, Passover is also often called the Feast of Freedom. Each of us has the opportunity to reflect upon what freedoms that we enjoy and the ways that we feel imprisoned -by others, by the ways that we judge ourselves, our own rigid thinking, or by our own expectations of who we are.  Others may be physically imprisoned in broken bodies or by politically motivated oppressors. We are invited to examine and let go of that which restricts us from realizing our fullest potential as humans and to strive for justice and freedom for others.

During the period of Pesach we do not eat leavened bread as a reminder that the Israelites did not have time to leaven their bread as they fled Egypt. Just before Pesach, many Jewish households clean their cabinets and stoves to rid even the smallest crumb of leavened bread (chametz, pronounced "hum it's") before the holiday. This ritualistic spring cleaning can mirror a spiritual cleansing as well as we identify that which slows us down or impedes spiritual and emotional growth.   I liken this process to what happens in meditation, whereby we first recognize the crumbs, the things that are prickly and uncomfortable and perhaps hidden to us or our self concept. Or perhaps in our fear of parts of us which we deem unacceptable, they loom large and frightening. We cannot be free of that which we do not first recognize and embrace. We must be willing to look for the crumbs.

Next Monday night, three of our family members will join our dear friend and daughter Katherine’s godfather, Joel Fleishman at his traditional Passover Seder here in Chapel Hill. I am reminded that it was forty years ago this spring that I attended my first Seder at Joel’s home in Fayetteville, NC. Tomorrow I will assist him with some cooking in the very same kitchen where I cooked my first catered event at his invitation.  That Joel has been a significant part of our lives for all these years makes the observance even more meaningful. Joel gave my husband his first job out of college and advised our daughter to pursue her passion for writing and publishing in New York. Many others will tell similar stories. Joel’s Seder is especially moving and a test of stamina as well. I recall the pillows he provided us as twenty -somethings so we could properly “recline” during the multi-course meal that has been known to last until the wee hours of the morning.

During the Seder, we will hear the story of the escape from bondage in Egypt by the Israelites and the forty years of wandering in the desert before reaching the Promised Land.  I can hardly say that I have been wandering in the desert for the last forty years (more like laboring in the vineyards), but there is symmetry in the timeframe and the ripening of our friendship with Joel, our journeys, and in the sense of ever moving toward the promise that is evoked and expected when we have been given so much.

 The word dayenu, meaning “it would have been enough” takes on special  significance in this long perspective. There is a song by that name sung during Passover Seders that recounts of how each blessing and moment of assistance from the Eternal would indeed have been enough to spark endless gratitude, but there was always more. Looking back on these forty years I cannot help but feel the same. Perhaps that sense of contentment and real appreciation for what I have received is the thing for which I can be most grateful.  It would have been enough that these long and supportive friendships began, that I shared forty Passovers with my husband Buck, that I have been able to pursue my work, that I have come to know both meaning and purpose in my life, that we have been blessed with two beautiful children, that the beauty of nature never ceases to nourish me. The list is as endless as the blessings in my life. Dayenu.

Comments

  1. Aaron Mason's avatar
    Aaron Mason
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    Passover always reminds me of taking the train with John up to Kathy & Steve's house for a great family Seder. Wonderful, witty observations, as always. Cheers!

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