Our Ancestors Were Slaves in Egypt and We Have to Eat What?!

This is a guest post by Rabbi David Locketz of Bet Shalom Congregation in Minnetonka, MN.
People tend to get very “religious” around Passover. You may have noticed that folks that ordinarily do not make particularly Jewish choices about food do so when it comes to Pesach. Some might say there is a dissonance that exists in this…that food choices are food choices and that if you are going to eat “Jewish” for Passover…you should also eat “Jewish for the rest of the year. I am not going to tackle keeping Kosher in this post…that is a discussion for another day that is worth having…but I do see Pesach and the rest of the year differently…so let’s talk about Passover.
Some people do want to keep a Kosher Passover and find it difficult and overwhelming and sometimes give up because they can’t seem to keep it going for the whole week. I think the key is remembering why we do what we do. What is Pesach all about? You should know because the vast majority of Jewish people in our country…whether they affiliate with a congregation or not…whether they do anything Jewish the rest of the year or not…participate in a Passover Seder at least once each year. And I am sure you have too.
Passover is about remembering our foundational story and experience and making sure that our kids know the details so they can grow up and teach their own children. Is the perfect ritual example of the notion that if you want to know where you are going…you have to recognize where you have been. That is Pesach. We have to remember that our ancestors were slaves in Egypt and were liberated so that we can truly appreciate our own freedoms and be liberated in our own right. We are to feel as if we ourselves experienced that oppression and were freed from it with great miracles and faith.
And is so many ways this is true. Whether you believe that the Israelites were truly slaves in Egypt or not…whether you can picture yourself subjected to the harsh reality of forced labor under Pharaoh or not… everyone has an Egypt that needs liberation. Egypt is a dark place…a place where we are not whole if we find ourselves there. Passover is a time to remind ourselves that we can be made whole again…and it so becoming…we need to reach out and make others whole. A Jew cannot sit comfortably when others suffer. We sit down at our Seder tables to remember dark places and we rise up ready to bring liberation to those who need it.
And food is the vehicle that drives this longing for freedom the world over. Food is the ritual of this season.
There are so many debates about the right way to keep a Kosher Pesach. We are imbued with this desire…even our holiday greeting at this time of year is colored with this notion…Chag Sameach V’Kasher…have a happy and KOSHER holiday.
In order to accomplish this we need to remember the basics. Chametz (or products with certain grains and yeast) are bad…things made with matzah meal or grains that the rabbis didn’t know about are good (quinoa for example). And of course there is a whole debate about kitniot (legumes) between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews and those communities that have accepted the fact that we are a hybrid of these culturally historic identities…again a discussion for another day.
In any event, we are only commanded to each matzah at the Seder to fulfill the obligation. You don’t need to eat it for the rest of Pesach…you just need to eat it at the Seder. The most important thing is what NOT to eat for the seven days…yes I said “seven.” This is also another debate. The Reform Movement observes Seven days as stated in the Torah. Other movements add a day as they do to many holidays in order to correct a historical problem with the calendar.
In other words it is not that hard to keep Passover. Have a great time celebrating the Seder and then don’t eat leavened food. And if you slip up because you forgot and ate a doughnut at work…you can go back to eating Passover style…you don’t have to give up because of one mistake.
Many people will fill their homes with all sorts of Passover food products…”matzah o’s” to replace cheerios…matza bagels etc. You certainly can do this is if it adds to your festive holiday observance, but you don’t have to. You can accomplish Passover simply by not eating chametz.
And in so doing, I hope you internalize all that Passover is supposed to remind us as it is written, “Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am Adonai, I will free you from the burdens of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God.”
Let us be thankful for this freedom every day, and never rest until all people are free.
Chag Sameach V’Kasher.
(Photos: Avital Pinnick)