Traditional preparations for Passover are detailed, complex and arduous. “Spring cleaning” doesn’t even begin to cover the hours and seriousness with which an observant Jewish homemaker would ensure that the house contains not even a crumb of leavened bread, crackers or even pet food that is not “kosher for Passover.”
I have to admit that I am not one of those dedicated and observant women. While I have sometimes performed a thorough house cleaning more or less because Passover is coming, my usual fall-back position is that I’ll just not eat anything leavened for the duration, and I’ll attend at least one Seder to mark this important holiday. I can come up with numerous reasons (excuses is probably more honest). Didn’t grow up Jewish; other members of my family are not so committed to observing; personality-wise I am very uncomfortable with what appears to me to be an obsessive position on any subject, but particularly in ritual matters. I do feel conflicted about all this, because from my spiritual perspective Passover is a seminal and profound event. Perhaps the day will come when I can match my outward observance with the spiritual impact I feel, but I’m not there yet.
This particular narrative belongs to the Jewish people, and whether it literally happened the way it is told, or whether it is an apocryphal story is of no consequence to me. But we are not unique in longing for freedom and redemption. It is probably fruitless to rank suffering. Many people suffer unspeakable horrors at the hands of others, while some “only” struggle to free themselves from bad habits, difficult relationships, health or financial problems. But we all struggle. The appeal of the Exodus narrative is universal because it is a story of deliverance from oppression, whatever form that may take.
Anyone who has attended a Seder will know that we don’t just tell the story. We discuss and debate, think and contemplate, teach our children, ask questions, wrestle with meaning or new interpretations. We were commanded to tell the story as if we had actually been there and this is the heart of observing Passover. To think deeply and spiritually about what we need to do in order to create and preserve freedom, to ask ourselves what we would risk to free our families, our neighbors, ourselves. Who would we follow? What would we choose to take with us on such a journey? Would we rejoice at the destruction of our enemies, gloating over their misery? Or would we acknowledge the tragedy of human suffering in any form, and long for the time when it will no longer occur? Would we have the courage to step into the sea even if we were not sure we would survive?
And why do we need to mark the doorposts of our homes and gates? The simple answer has always been so the Angel of Death would know where we lived and the final, most horrible plague – Death of the Firstborn – would not descend upon us. But surely God knows where we live and could easily direct the Angel of Death where to strike and where not to. A deeper layer of meaning may be this: In order to journey to freedom, we first need to know who we are, in what spiritual home we live, what emotional gates we have built and what purpose they serve. We need to know what we stand for, who we are willing to follow, and who will be our companions on the journey. We must not live in denial, but courageously mark the doorposts with our individual truth.