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A Fifth Passover Question: Why Bother?

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Here we are on the eve of Passover 5774, (the year according to the Jewish calendar), and the celebration of the traditional Seder, a meal rife with symbolism. After ridding the house of leavened products, bringing in Passover food and preparing the important meal, parents and children both delight at the table as each family’s youngest members sing the famous “four questions” that ask why this night of Passover is different from other family dinners, and indeed “all other nights.”

I’d like to propose a fifth question, one that enters the minds of busy Jews purging their homes of leaven–as well as observers thinking this whole obsession is crazy: Why go through all this?

It’s easy to see that one purpose of the Seders and this whole clean-out process is to re-install a connection to Jewish identity–for adults and especially children, who get a starring role in the traditions of the evening. When kids grow up seeing their parents carefully cleaning their homes, gathering special foods and building up to the climactic meals, they learn the importance of the occasion, and create memories that will later fill them with guilt when they inevitably question it all.

But aren’t there better ways to impress on children that they better keep the faith?

If Seders or Chanukah candles or a couple hours in synagogue on Yom Kippur are the extent of your connection, there’s little reason for all the effort. In that case, Judaism is a collection of holidays with a moral code anybody can adopt. Dump the rituals and you can still have the moral system. And if you want spirituality, well, lots of other paths are easier and certainly less dangerous, as Jewish history shows.

Passover, with its wild, unbelievable back-story of plagues and doorways painted in blood so long ago and poorly documented, and so many bothersome requirements, becomes significant only if it fits into a package with daily relevance. The Jewish package of observance constantly delivers several useful messages:

I’m not the arbiter of right and wrong; I’m not “entitled” to anything, really; I don’t know best all the time, even though I may think so.

Differences between ideas, times, foods, and people matter a great deal.

The world doesn’t run on coincidence or accident, and yet, we don’t and can’t really know its real basis.

There’s Someone out there we want to be close to but relate to in ever-changing personal experience.

Those are the macro messages, but living Jewish is about the micro. In the traditional view, living Jewish means following rules of divine origin, plus many more that humans tacked on to apply the divinely-given rules as closely as possible to the way God wants. Six hundred thirteen commandments covering every aspect of daily life describe how to most effectively and beneficially behave as a Jew.

What does this have to do with Passover? Everything, because re-living the creation of the Jewish people as a nation (that’s the gist of Passover) is simply one piece in a cohesive lifestyle whole that makes little sense without its complementary parts. If you’re insensitive to the whole, its components can’t mean much. It can certainly mean something–people do lots of limited-value and nonsensical things, and celebrating a warm-fuzzy holiday, even with its strange narrative, isn’t the weirdest of them.

Family warm-fuzzies of kids singing the “ma nishtana” four questions and gnawing on cardboard-ish matza crackers in apple-nut-wine relish bring nostalgic pleasure. For some, Passover offers a celebration of freedom (which is nice, but Jews didn’t want Pharaoh to let them “go” but to let them change their master from Egyptians to God). Lovely rewards, but devoid of the package, they mean as much as secular holidays like the Fourth of July, with its bar-be-ques and its own Freedom theme.

So why bother before Passover lifting the cushion on the couch searching for stray granola bars? Why lock up all your usual tableware and bring out separate plates for only eight days a year? Not for a Seder night of warm-fuzzies, but for the package in which these actions fit; a lifestyle that offers layers of explanation and interface with the other events of the year; a process that renews one section of a fabric that is restored on a particular schedule. Together, the elements of daily Jewish life make Passover prep worth it, because the prize at the bottom of the package is a thoughtful life.

This column originally appeared at TruthRevolt.org on April 11, 2014.

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