I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but Passover is upon us. The weeklong festival of springtime, replete with family quality time (and sometimes drama), seder meals that last long into the night, and the telling of our people’s tale of redemption. It’s one of my favorite holidays to celebrate each year, not least because I’m celiac (gluten-free for 12 years and counting), and watching everyone try not to eat bread for a week is pretty funny. Nonetheless, Passover crept up on me.
Maybe it’s because it’s coming early this year (late March is too soon), or maybe it’s because the passage of time has almost no meaning in the age of the novel coronavirus. Whatever the reason, my wife and I were alarmed to discover, only two weeks ago, that seder was rushing towards us like an oncoming train.
We’ve been both hosting seder and piecing our own Haggadah together for about five years now. It began in 2016, when her family came to Brooklyn for the holiday. That Haggadah was almost completely taken from the one my cousins use in Boston. We’ve updated it with doo-dads, commentary, songs, poetry, and homemade blessings every year since. The Haggadah reads like a patchwork quilt, and I love it.
This week’s portion, on the other hand, reads like Frankenstein’s cookbook. “If [the priest] offers it for thanksgiving, he shall offer together with the sacrifice of thanksgiving unleavened cakes with oil mixed in, unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes of choice flour with oil mixed in, well soaked,” says Leviticus 7:12, in a pretty mild passage. Other verses describe in extreme detail how to treat the fat, who gets to eat the breast of which bird, how long the meat can be kept, and what fragrant oil should be used in the process of preparing meat and cakes for sacrifice.
Is it just because I’m knee-deep in ingredients for Passover recipes, or does this sound like a very odd food blog to you, too?
Making food for the people I love is one of my favorite things in the world to do. There’s something about knowing that I can nurture or comfort someone with the food that I’ve cooked or baked that is, in itself, a nourishing experience. This is always true, but especially when the holidays roll around.
Crafting the perfect holiday meal isn’t just about ingredients — although those are also important—it’s also about the intention that goes into the meal. When I’m grating potatoes for potato kugel, I can’t help but think about my dad and my aunt vying for the corner piece of kugel my savta made (the crispiest bit is, of course, the best). When my wife and I are chopping walnuts for charoset, we’re thinking of her mom, whose charoset has been eaten at every seder my wife can remember. I like to think that these memories find their way into the resultant meal itself. Maybe that’s one reason why inherited recipes just taste better.
The weekly portion also leans heavily on the ability of certain foods to be transformed based on context. In Leviticus 6:20, God instructs Moses to be aware of anything that touches the sacrificial flesh because it “…shall become holy; and if any of its blood is spattered upon a garment, you shall wash the bespattered part in the sacred precinct.” There’s an aura of magic to this — simply by being touched by something that’s been designated as holy, an object can also be holy. The divinity is that powerful.
Moses, Aaron, and Aaron’s sons go on to perform each and every action as it was laid out by the Lord in chapters eight and nine, as the entire nation of Israel stands by and takes it all in. It’s not an easy thing either. “Moses then brought forward the sons of Aaron, and put some of the blood on the ridges of their right ears, and on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet; and the rest of the blood Moses dashed against every side of the altar.”
When I imagine watching that with my whole family, it makes me more than a little queasy. I don’t mind the sight of blood, but that’s still a little much.
And yet. I am certain that those who took part in this ritual were transformed, in some way. I’m also certain that the faith and intentionality that Moses, his brother, and his nephews brought to the task at hand matters. The meat and cakes that the priests and laypeople ate were imbued with that faith, with that intention. How could being part of such an event not change someone?
As I prepare for my own ritual with my wife, child, two friends, and my sister on Zoom this week, I’ll be thinking about these verses. When my toddler eats charoset and matza for the first time (assuming, of course, that he agrees to try them), I’ll be thinking about how my family everywhere is eating these same foods. Both my kin and my extended Jewish family everywhere. By welcoming our little one into the ritual, I’ll be welcoming into the wide world of tradition, of heritage, of intention. Whether or not he embraces that as an adult, we will have given him that gift of being welcome. It’s about a lot more than potatoes, and parsley, and apples, and retelling a story. Those objects become sacred when we touch them, and then we become sacred for having touched them. And the cycle goes round and round, spiraling down through the generations.