There are a lot of aspects of Passover that people panic about. It’s worse than Christmas. Much worse.
First there are the elaborate preparations.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
There might be people who are not familiar with the Jewish holiday that draws relatives, and any Jewish (or non-Jewish, for that matter) friends, visitors in town, complete strangers….to one’s home and table, to participate in an elaborate ritual celebration of FREEDOM.
The ritual is prescribed by the Hebrew Bible, which commands us to gather at the full moon of the Month of Spring (Aviv), which is the Hebrew month of Nissan, which itself is a variant of the word “nissim,” which means “miracles.”
At this gathering, we are commanded to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, when, after ten dreadful plagues, Pharaoh begged Moses to get the Hebrews (whom Pharaoh had enslaved) the hell out of Egypt so they could have some respite from all the different kinds of badness that God was visiting upon the Egyptians.
The Hebrews jumped on this opportunity. They had just mixed up a batch of bread for themselves, and since they were in such a hurry to leave Egypt before Pharaoh changed his mind, they just stuffed the unleavened dough into sacks, threw it across their backs, made sure it didn’t get wet crossing the Sea of Reeds (even though it split for them, you know how water tends to get into things), and we hear no more about that until we are commanded to sit and eat this stuff for eight days every year.
Since the words “mitzvah (commandment)” and “matzah” are spelled very similarly in Hebrew, Kabbalah teaches that eating matzah is the Number One mitzvah.
Actually, it’s the Number Two mitzvah, number one being “love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus learned that in Hebrew School.
What does matzah teach us, to gain such high status in Mitzvah World?
That’s it. Be simple.
What could be more simple than flour and water?
Of course, Jews have a way of making even flour and water complicated, but that’s for another post.
Let me just say that in Orthodox Jewish circles, the object is to cram as much of the Sacred Crunchy Cracker down one’s gullet as possible.
Now, I love matzah. I mean, I really LOVE matzah. I could eat nothing but matzah for the rest of my life.
Matzah with butter thinly spread on it, which is a feat in itself because it breaks very easily.
Matzah with horseradish and a sweet kind of relish made of grated apples, walnuts, and wine. Heaven.
Matzah with pickled herring. Don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it.
Yep, I can eat a whole box of matzah without even trying. Munch, crunch!
In Israel, matzah is even yummier because it’s made by hand, very thin, and it’s round, and you can get it made from spelt, which is delicious.
No, there is no blood in matzah. None. That would spoil the whole thing. Matzah that has any additive beside flour and water is disqualified. So let’s get THAT blood libel off the table. Literally.
Now, sometime between my becoming Jewishly observant and my second or third year in Israel, I became gluten intolerant. I didn’t know what it was, at first. All I knew was that on the Sabbath, we are commanded to eat at least three meals containing bread made from any of the five grains that grow naturally in the Land of Israel: wheat, spelt, rye, oats, and barley. In my circle, spelt was the most common, and all women were to be found on Thursday night or Friday morning lovingly kneading their Sabbath bread.
Me too. I often hosted 20 or more people on Friday nights, so lots of bread came out of my toaster oven. No one has money for a “real” oven in Israel. It’s amazing what a toaster oven and a hot plate can put out in a pinch….or every week!
Anyway. I’m procrastinating. P is for procrastination.
So I began to notice that every Sunday, which comes after our Sabbath, I was spending in the bathroom. Since our Sunday, at least in Israel where there really isn’t such a thing as a weekend if you’re a religious woman..anyway, since Sunday is a weekday, and you go to work, I started having to cancel patients because I couldn’t get off the toilet. Usually by Tuesday I’d be fine, but that really screwed everything up for both me and my patients.
But since eating bread on the Sabbath is the main thing, I ate it. And if you eat a piece of bread the size of an olive (or an egg, depending on things too complicated to go into here), you become obligated to say a blessing that takes a minimum of fifteen minutes, possibly up to an hour if you make a meditation out of it (then you get extra Heaven points, for being extra holy). It’s an obligation, and a privilege, to be done with concentration and love.
When Passover came around that year, I ordered my huge box of extra-holy matzah, and munched away for the first few days of the eight day holiday….then my munching came to an abrupt halt. I was forced to realize the disastrous connection between the bread, leavened or unleavened, and the bathroom.
How could this be??? God commanded us to eat this stuff. And commanded us to bless him for all the good things he does for us, and bread is the proof!
“Ve’ahalta ve’savata u’veirachta et Ha’Shem Elokeicha…”
“And you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied, and you shall bless the Name of Your God…” The Blessing After Meals says this…so why couldn’t I say it?
And this is the core, the heart, of Jewish ritual observance…because Judaism isn’t something you THINK, it’s something you DO. Our observance is centered around what the Children of Israel said at Mount Sinai when we received the Torah: “We will DO, and we will HEAR.” This means that even if we do not understand on an intellectual level what the commandments are about, we do them anyway.
So for me, the paradox of being commanded to eat bread, but the bread making me sick, was incomprehensible. Why would God command me to do something that made me sick? Nonsense. So I kept eating the bread, and got progressively sicker, lost thirty pounds, became anemic, ended up in the hospital bleeding from my ravaged guts and crying out unto the Lord who led us out from Egypt “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm….” And when I got out of the hospital I realized that my God had either failed me or cursed me or both.
But there was one grain that didn’t contain gluten: oats!
Listen, bread made out of pure oats with nothing added is disgusting. I did manage to develop a recipe for oat pita for the Sabbath that was edible when washed down with copious amounts of dry red wine. Fortunately, Israel has a rich and ancient tradition of wine making, and therefore some rich and ancient vineyards that produce gorgeous vintages. (A friend and I used to make pilgrimages to ancient wine presses, 3000 years ancient! We always brought a bottle from that region to enjoy…and he brought bread, so he could make the after-blessing…)
Then I learned to make oat matzah, which is super easy, and my Passover blues were gone.
A lot has happened in the meantime, and we’re going to skip over it and fast forward to this year, and this night, which is the third night of Passover, in the year 5776 from Creation.
I wanted to celebrate Passover, so I looked around for a community Seder (the word “Seder” literally means “order,” and connotes the order of the fifteen steps of the Passover ritual celebration, and not just the meal that most people associate with the word). There was one, so I signed up for it, and got my plans together for making my oat matzah on the grill. No problem!
But then God got in the way again, by causing someone to steal my camp furniture, and me to ask the management what might have become of it, and them to put me out on the street, quite literally, on the night before the day I had planned to make my matzah, which was the day of the night of the Seder. I guess I could have made it in the parking lot of the truck stop where I slept that night, but to be honest I was so rattled I didn’t think of it….
That is, until I walked into the huge hall filled with Jews from all over the world who had gathered in tiny Flagstaff, drawn from places like Sedona and Las Vegas, to eat matzah, drink wine, and do the annual spiritual pilgrimage to Egypt and back to Freedom of the Mind and Soul.
I was decked out in a muted version of my Passover finery, minus the outrageous headgear, shoes, scarves, jewelry…since I have lead my family’s Seder for the past ten years, my rule is “I’m running this show, so I get to wear what I want.”
It probably wouldn’t have helped.
The “ikar,” the MAIN THING, the WHOLE POINT, of the Seder, is to eat the matzah and drink four cups of wine. If you do nothing else, eat the matzah and drink the wine. And I had no matzah.
And suddenly, with that realization, I became aware of the noise…the smell…the presence….of all these people, all these Jewish people who were all going on a spiritual journey through the medium of BREAD AND WINE, and I was there, but I was not going…the train was leaving without me.
“DAH LEHEM OHNI…this is the Bread of Affliction that my Foremothers brought out from Egypt…” the leader intones while holding up a piece of matzah.
Ohni…an Aramaic word meaning “of affliction…” but in Hebrew, it translates, “MY affliction.”
MY affliction. The bread of MY affliction.
Suddenly I knew that if I didn’t get out of there, and NOW, I was going to throw up in my fancy fake silver plastic plate. I took advantage of it being a point in the ritual where everyone is lined up to wash their hands from special lavers, and I snaked my way through the crowd and out the door to my van, which the rabbi had graciously given me permission to park in the Jewish Community Center parking lot for the weekend.
I am sorry to say that I wasn’t able to make myself go to the rabbi’s home for dinner the following night, either. I felt terrible, because being invited to the rabbi’s home is a huge honor. But the thought of dealing with people–ANY people–terrified me. And especially–ESPECIALLY–the black-and-white Orthodox mode of dress, the segregation of the sexes, the hordes of properly dressed children charging around in a frenzied pack (Orthodox children are rarely disciplined, yet somehow morph into polite and kind young people at the age of 12 for girls, 13 for boys. This is a mystery).
And, of course, I would have to answer thousands of questions. No, no, and no. I just couldn’t face it.
So I stayed one more night in the JCC parking lot, grateful for the stand of young trees in the landscaping, since the incoming cold front brought with it a roaring wind.
Now I’m back on the Coconino Plateau, feeling uncomfortably unwashed, since I didn’t have a chance to fill my fresh water tank before being ejected from the KOA. I’ll be here another night, since there’s a high wind advisory for tomorrow too. When that’s over, I hope to go Somewhere Else…hopefully to Canyon de Chelly, where I can talk to the Ancient Ones who built the cliff dwellings there….maybe they can tell me why my journey to my roots has brought me so much Bread of Affliction.