Six Gifts for Pesah

I must begin with a confession: Pesah is my favorite holiday. I know this won’t sit well with some Jews, for whom slave labor is associated with the present and not the past. But the Haggadah is my favorite book, and if treated in accordance with the intent of the tradition, Pesah can indeed be liberating. This is the face I tried to put on Pesah when I taught about it at the Queens Adult Ed Institute, our four-synagogue cooperative of lifelong Jewish learning.

I could teach about Pesah all night long (Rabbi, it’s time to say the morning Shema!), so for those who missed my presentation, here are the six gifts I gave to the community to make Pesah a holiday of love, which after all is the point!

Gift 1: The Search for Hametz

On Thursday, April 2 after nightfall, we take a Hanukkah candle, a wooden spoon, a feather, and a paper bag, and we walk around the house to “find” pre-placed bread crumbs. The next morning, we’ll put it all to flames. If this seems like overkill, given all the work we’ve already done to rid our homes of hametz, then we should take a look at the declaration we make to renounce hametz. “All hametz in my possession, whether I have seen it or not and whether I have removed it or not, shall be nullified and ownerless as the dust of the earth.”

There’s something to be said for the idea that the best of intentions are validated even when we can’t quite succeed to the best of our abilities. In the introduction to his haggadagh, From Bondage to Freedom, Rabbi Abraham Twerski tells a story of a devoted Jew who owned a brewery. In compliance with Jewish law, he would sell the brewery to a Gentile each year so as not to be in ownership of its hametz. But this time around, there was a local antagonist who warned everyone not to enter this business arrangement, thereby leaving the Jew in a bind. Finding no takers, he had no choice but to declare the brewery hefker, ownerless. That meant leaving the doors to the brewery wide open, so that anyone who wanted could come and drink!

During Pesah, the antagonist came to the Jew to complain and indict him. “You claim to be so pious, pretending to leave your brewery wide open, but then you stationed vicious dogs all around it, so no one could take the “free” beer! That means you owned beer on Passover!”

“Dogs?” asked the Jew in bewilderment. “I didn’t put any dogs anywhere! I wonder where they came from?”

Rabbi Twerski suggests that this was a case of God helping those who make the best possible effort to fulfill the Divine will. So when we search for hametz, let’s strive to have the best of intentions, not only to be rid of physical crumbs, but of our spiritual residue as well.

For more on the search for hametz, see the attached materials:


Gift 2: Bring a new language to your Seder

One of my favorite Pesah resources is a fun-filled book called 300 Ways to ask the Four Questions. It enables us to express our curiosity in every known language, and even in some unofficial ones (Pig Latin, Valley Girl, Lawyerese, Sullen Teenager). Inflection is everything when we ask these questions, so it’s entertaining to hear recurring words and figuring out what they mean.

At our seder, we’ve used Cantonese, Haitian, Finnish, and others. This year, in light of our concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, it might be prudent to learn enough Farsi to ask Mah NishtanahChera Emshab. At least we’ll be better equipped to appreciate the menu at Colbeh and all the other wonderful Persian restaurants in the area! See the text below and enjoy!


Gift 3: Is It Ever Enough?

Ask American Jews to rank their top 40 Jewish songs, and Dayenu will probably compete with the Shema for number one. But have you ever thought about what we’re saying? “Had God split the Sea for us, but not led us through it on dry land, dayenu–it would have been enough for us.” Oh really? How long would Jewish history have lasted if God hadn’t led us through the Sea? Or consider this: “Had God fed us manna, but not given us Shabbat, dayenu.” Seriously? What would we be as a People without Shabbat? How can we say dayenu when it really wouldn’t have been enough?

Noam Zion, who dazzled us as scholar-in-residence a couple years ago, explains it this way in his first haggadah, A Different Night: “The principle of dayeinu, of giving thanks even for the partial and incomplete, is crucial for living in this uncertain world in which few dreams ever come to total frution.”

What’s more, our Dayenu poem begins at the Exodus but only goes as far as the building of the Temple. Lots has happened to us, some of even good, in the past 2,600 years. So I’m also including Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s contemporary version of Dayenu, which has a clear Zionist sensibility. You can find Dayenu materials here:


Gift 4: How to Do Seder Midrash

As Noam Zion taught us, the Haggadah is not a siddur. The point is not to read every word, but to use the book as a springboard for us to tell the story of the Exodus and our history. Much of the storytelling of the seder is based on a short passage from Deuternonomy 26:5-8 that gives a concise version of Israelite history. The rabbis attempted to “validate” each phrase in those verses by bringing other verses as proof texts. The best way to appreciate the rabbinic comments is to see how they function as midrash.

For example, the Torah says that God “saw our persecution–onyeinu.” The Hebrew word oni is related to the term for marital intimacy. So the rabbis read this phrase to refer to the enforced separation of married couples by the Egyptians (all work and no play…). The proof text is from Exodus 2: “God saw the Israelites, and God knew.” “Knew” in this case is knowledge in the Biblical sense–a phrase that has sexual overtones. None of this makes any sense if we merely read the literal translation of the haggadah text. But what would make sense is a conversation at the seder table about a theme–perhaps, in this case, about the role of women and sexuality in bringing about Israel’s liberation. You can find sample materials for conducting a conversation about this theme below; the Noam Zion haggadot have several other examples.


Gift 5: Song of Songs

Shir Hashirim, Song of Songs, is the megillah of choice for Pesah, because the rabbis read it allegorically as an expression of God’s love for the Jewish People, a union that began at Pesah (think of the Exodus as the first time God took us out). There’s also a clear sense of romance in the air at springtime. Our custom at HHJC is to read one chapter a year, and that brings us back to chapter 2 this year. It’s a beautiful chapter rich with romantic verses. JPS has recently put out a new commentary by the brilliant scholar Michael Fishbane that looks at the text from the four traditional angles: Peshat, Drash, Remez and Sod (click below for an explanation of the terms from Wikipedia).

For a snippet of the commentary on one of my favorite passages from Shir Hashirim, click here: Spring+Season+of+Love (1)

Gift 6: Matzah in a Blanket

Some people find a greater connection to Pesah through food. Hopefully, these are positive connections. Mercifully, we have resources to help us be creative with what we have. This recipe comes from a cookbook called Matza 101. I chose it not only because I love what the American culinary tradition calls “Pigs in a Blanket.” Do you know the Hebrew term for this staple of catered hors d’oeuvres? Israelis call this Moshe Bateiva–Moses in a Basket. Can you think of a more appropriate midrashic expression of the Exodus in food? I can’t! The recipe is below.


I hope you enjoy these Pesah gifts, and that you have a meaningful and festive Yom Tov!

Hag Sameah,

Rabbi David Wise