Each of our major holidays has a theme. The theme of Passover, which begins on Monday evening, is the emergence from slavery, and the journey to freedom. And strangely enough, the most impressive thing about this process, is the awareness that we have to be willing to sacrifice some of life’s pleasures in order to attain freedom. Usually, when people think of freedom, they think about the good things… the luxuries that are enjoyed by free people. And the bill of rights, so to speak. But our history tells of giving up some of the things we loved… meat and watermelon, for instance… And going out to the desert for forty years… having an entire generation die in transit so that their progeny could build a free society.
The holiday starts with a great banquet which is probably our most famous meal. It has many courses, and entire families get together to celebrate the occasion, telling the story of our exodus from slavery in Egypt, and the process by which we became a unique people. We tell our children of the cultural foundations of our people, and how freedom demands responsibility, discipline, and caring for the weak and incapacitated within our society. But the characteristic most identified with the Passover tradition, is the prohibition of the use of fermented dough.
For us, fermentation is a hint of spiritual awareness. We sanctify the Sabbath by blessing it before drinking wine or eating bread. Both wine and bread are what they are, thanks to the yeast that move in and add that certain something beyond our control. We don’t actually see the yeast… but we know its there… and it’s our allegory on spiritual awareness. There is something to be learned from those unseen microorganisms that live alongside of us in this world, interacting with us in many ways. Some even enable us to live richer lives. It is estimated that there are more than 100 million different species. But we have a special relationship to the Saccharomyces cerevisiae which convert carbohydrates to carbon dioxide used in baking, and alcohol which provides the magic in wine.
Yet when we were led out of slavery in Egypt, Moses our teacher told us to move swiftly. To get out in one night. There was no time to let the bread rise, so we took unleavened bread with us to make sandwiches. And to this day, three and a half thousand years later, we remember that rule: to move decisively, by not eating leavened bread on Passover. We call the flatbread that is prepared without yeast, matzot. And that’s what we eat in the place of bread for the seven days of the holiday. The instruction regarding fermented grain is one of our most unyielding rules. And we are prohibited beer and whisky among many other grain products that usually embellish our lives. All the same, there is no need to worry about us. Over the years, we have developed countless recipes by which to enjoy both food and drink, without the use of fermented grain.
Before the holiday, we clean our houses and our kitchens in order to remove any traces of fermentation. Each and every community provides ‘flour for the poor’. This is a very important part of the holiday, and those who do not have the means to prepare the banquet, are given all the components needed… flour, meat, fish, fruit and vegetables. Then we prepare the great banquet, in which all participants will be seated like royalty round the table. It is common to invite single people to join us in the feast. That first banquet is called the seder, because seder means order, And there is an order to our ceremony. Children are encouraged to ask questions. And we adults respond by telling them of our exodus from slavery. The children have a role to play at the end of the banquet too, and this keeps them involved and awake throughout the evening’s function.
The holiday lasts a week. The first and the last days are like Sabbath. And on the Sabbath that falls on Passover, we read the portion in chapter 37 of Ezekiel that refers to the dry bones. For just as we had assimilated in Egypt, and were living the life there, and accepting values that were not our own, so we were brought back to life and led to salvation by our teacher and leader, Moses. And later, when we were dispersed among the peoples of the world, in exile from our beloved country, we prayed and hoped to return to Israel, to be a living nation once again. And this great miracle happened again in my very own lifetime.
The holiday of matzot; this holiday of freedom… is also a celebration of spring. After the first day which is a full holy day, a Sabbath, the intermediate days are often celebrated by going out to nature, and appreciating the signs of spring around us. And it is with this in mind, that I chose to illustrate this holiday post with photos taken in the Begin forest, a short distance from Jerusalem.