Passover questions

Matzah, matzah man

for The Brooklyn Paper
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If you ask ten Jews to name the first thing they think of in connection with Passover, nine of them will respond, “matzah.” (The tenth one took his family to Disney that week to get away from the whole thing.)

Let’s delve a little deeper though, past matzah’s tasteless flavor, beyond tear-inducing horseradish, and the ever-present (and why, why must it be present?!) gefilte fish to look at some important themes of Passover that the whole family can relate to.

First, a thing or two about matzah. Every kid learns in Hebrew school that the Israelite women were preparing bread for everyone (I guess the guys were sitting on the couch watching baseball), and then got the news that everyone had to scram RIGHT NOW. The women quickly gathered the dough at that moment, without giving it the necessary time to rise, and that one instant of culinary mismanagement is the reason why we have to choke down matzah for seven or eight days every year.

But there’s another interpretation as well. During Passover, we eat matzah and unleavened foods that are flat and not puffed up, unlike bread and other foods that rise as they cook. This provides us a true example of “you are what you eat.”

It’s very tempting to think that you are the most important person around. Kids sometimes think their own needs take precedence over those of the rest of the family. Adults might turn a blind eye to those in need, or look down on people they think aren’t as worthy.

This week, the presence of matzah brings everyone down a peg. We consume this food that reminds us that we ourselves aren’t quite as important as we might think.

And what discussion of Passover would be complete without mention of the “Four questions?” Countless kids and adults have memories of singing (or stammering) these questions around the table of judgmental eyes for generations. But here are two more questions for you: Even though you may know about the “Four questions,” do you know what those four questions actually are? (Hint: I’m not telling. Go look them up.) And why do you ask the same questions each year?

Answering these last two questions, though not found in the Haggadah, can be just as meaningful. Their answers relay a valuable message about learning that’s hidden within the Passover seder. Sometimes the same question can bring about different answers or perspectives, depending on the level of the student. The point isn’t so much about providing a few facts about the holiday as much as it is to encourage Jews of all ages to look at the familiar symbols of the seder in a new light every year.

Finally, one line of text that we recite at the seder stands out. It says that in every generation, all of us are required to view ourselves as if we, personally, had made the exodus from Egypt. In other words, don’t simply read about slaves. Be the slaves.

There’s a huge difference between learning facts — the Jews were slaves, then they were free — and having the experience yourself. That’s why we do as much at the seder as we can to trace the lives of the Israelites from slavery to freedom. We taste their bitterness with horseradish. We remember their tears of sadness with salt water. We hold the mortar that they used for their bricks by eating charoset.

Hopefully, your kids will get a lot more out of the seder than they would from yet another viewing of “The Prince of Egypt.”

Posted 12:00 am, April 14, 2014
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