Passover: Holiday of Exuberant Liberation--or Humility?

Michael Medved
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Posted: Apr 19, 2011 5:00 PM

This column was written by Diane Medved.

In most religiously observant Jewish homes this time of year, the mood is frantic. At the deadline--this year on Monday morning, before the Passover holiday starts near sundown--leavened food products become forbidden. That means that cereals and cakes, bread and cookies, pasta and beer may not even be owned, much less consumed. For the duration of the 8-day holiday, these products, called "chametz," cannot be part of Jewish life, replaced by a diet big on fruits and vegetables, eggs, meat and a fresh stash of specially certified for Passover goods, many of which include the flour-and-water flat crackers called "matzah."

Matzah is very carefully baked within the 18-minute time frame that excludes possibility of leavening, and during the festival is creatively served as "matzah pizza," "matzah brei," (fried up with egg), and in fake-cakes and other baked sweets using matzah "flour" instead of the real thing. Before the holiday, homes are prepared by elaborate cleaning to remove all residue or crumbs of anything leavened, and usually kitchen counters are covered with something--a tarp, foil, contact paper--as a barrier against any errant chametz particle.

Sounds bizarre. Seems like a lot of work. And for what?

Not to strip away all pleasure from eating. Not to drive Jewish women crazy taking toothbrushes to grout. The restrictions and cleaning are important, though, because all the work and restraint do put us in the frame of mind that the holiday promotes: humility.

Everyone knows that Passover is a festival of liberation. Pharaoh finally caved to Moses' repeated pleas to release the Jews, with the coaxing of ten plagues, including the killing of Egyptian firstborn sons. Freedom is a wonderful thing; it lets you do what you want. Slavery, obviously, is horrific, especially subjugation to cruel taskmasters. If it's a holiday of ecstatic liberation, how is the message humility? And what has chametz to do with either liberation or humility?

If you've heard of the seder, then you probably know that the reason for matzah instead of fluffy bread is right there in the haggada, the little book that contains the proceedings of the evening. It says that once the Jews got the go-ahead to leave Egypt, they didn't have time for yeasty expansion, so they packed their flat matzah, grabbed the Egyptians' gold, and bolted. Matzah represents the exhilaration of freedom, and the absence of lofty loaves symbolizes the happy haste of their exit.

Of course, the haggada also calls matzah "lechem oni," the bread of poverty. Poverty? True, it's a poor excuse for hot-from-the-oven challah, and yes, the Jews in captivity were kept down, and matzah is the most basic combination for subsistence, just flour and water. Why remember this negative side of the story in the midst of our most triumphant moment, escorted out of bondage by God?

Here's where we come to the humility part. It's a myth from what used to be called a "Negro Spiritual," a traditional folk song, called "Go Down Moses," that the Jewish leader asked Pharoah to "let my people go." Instead, he asked the Egyptian ruler to allow a 3-day furlough so the Jews could worship God in the desert--and return! (Exodus 8:23)

With his heart hardened by God (so his real inclination to refuse the Jews could trump the plagues), Pharaoh said no. God told Moses and Aaron to keep going back, each time asking Pharaoh to "send out My people that they may serve Me." What God had in mind, though, was the birth of the Jewish people, and their ultimate removal from Pharaoh's human domination--to be replaced by a different servitude, this time directly to God.

They had to clean their mental slate, emptying it of the slave mentality. Opening their minds to something greater than their human condition. They had to expand their sense of possibility, grow their sense of potential, inflate their view from physical survival to heavenly consciousness.

Kind of like dough, going from flat, gloppy blob to an enlarged, and more refined state baked into bread. This is the process the Jews needed to accomplish--moving from matzah-minds to an awareness of heavenly presence. The "rising" process took 50 days, the time between escaping Egypt and the receiving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. The Jews started out internalizing--eating--matzah, the flat bread of affliction and poverty. And over time moved outward spiritually, expanding upward, getting closer to God, until finally, they became ready to stand as one in His actual presence. That day, called "Shavuot," or the holiday commemorating the culmination of this seven week process, is annually marked by an offering of real bread, baked from the first wheat harvest.

So the celebration of freedom is the kind that comes from detaching. No longer tethered by Pharaoh's slavery, the Jews are actually poor, eating bread of poverty, because at that point they have neither the familiar, though oppressive status of slaves, nor their new servitude to God's demands as given in the Torah. They're adrift, fleeing one status yet unsure of their destination. They need to be aware of this void. They need to be humble, to realize how desperately they need God.

The first bit of expansion of their souls came after they were cornered at the Red Sea. Finally, when Nachshon ben Aminidav proves his trust in God, submerging in the rushing waters up to his nostrils, God opens the way--and their minds--to pass through to the other shore. Once they make it, the first line of their song of praise--they all knew the words in a communal fit of prophesy--was, "I shall sing to God for He is exalted above the arrogant... (Exodus 15:1)" A perfect juxtaposition to their own humility, in the realization of their dependence on and gratitude to God.

It's unlikely that the White House Passover ceremony of the seder (recounting the exodus), that President Obama plans to host for the third year in a row, will strictly follow Jewish law (which is actually written directly in the Torah) to avoid chametz. The announced menu for his seder includes a noodle kugel, and unless it's made with that weird-textured passover pasta (usually made from ground matzah and potato starch), it's probably not acceptable. It's also unlikely he knows the holiday doesn't celebrate the "now we can do what we want" freedom that everybody lauds, but rather the "I've gotta serve my real master" that's tougher to embrace.

In a sense, it's easier to understand the relief those enslaved Jews experienced after you've been rooting out crumbs and emptying refrigerators and locking up cupboards for weeks. As you do these things, you're constantly questioning its purpose, and trying to imbue the tiring experience with some kind of uplifting rationale. Finally, when Passover does arrive, and your tired limbs want to succumb to fatigue and four cups of wine, you let go and identify with the yearning to move from the physical to the spiritual realm. Quite a transition; quite a magnificent trick to make the exodus real and current.

I confess that my thoughts of pressured house-cleaning are memories rather than realities as my husband and I are fortunate to be scholars-in-residence at a Passover program in a beautiful hotel. The meals are excellent, the accommodations comfortable, the setting serene. Our family will be together, among hundreds of others at their own tables reading the same words of the seder, transmitting the history of our people to our children, and attempting to relive and renew our own passages from physical slavery to service to God. But the lovely surroundings themselves are reminders that we must not take for granted even a moment's blessings. Nothing in this world is truly free.