Passover begins at sundown, Monday, March 25, 2013.
With the possible exception of Sabbath once a week, Passover (Pesach) one week a year has the most my has the most spiritual resonance, and has always been my favorite Jewish holiday. It celebrated the freeing of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt, as told in the Book of Exodus, and also the beginning of Spring, a second form of redemption.
It starts with a traditional ceremony and meal, called a Seder. at sundown March 25 this year. Jews who live outside Israel, in the Diaspora ,get an optional second Seder a day later. The second Seder is a great convenience for in-laws and community organizations that want to host one. Legally, the ancient rabbis established an extra Seder because Jews in the Diaspora did not know precisely when the sun sets in Jerusalem.
Even though I was estranged from my religion for 33 years, I still found a way to get to a Seder every year. The Passover text read at each Seder requires all Jews to “Let all who are hungry, come and eat, all in need come celebrate Passover with us.” A hungry person might not have food, or a Seder to go to on Passover. So you can get invited to a Seder just by asking. In many communities, the local synagogue will refer you to a family that needs a guest to fulfill that commandment.
Jews who are estranged from their people, community, and religion — as I was for 33 years — can always find a Seder with a minimum of effort. I heard about a study recently that showed estranged Jews, who keep one tradition, usually keep; Passover. Here’s why I kept it for so long:
Passover’s Main Themes
- It’s celebrated in a home, around a supper table, not in church.
- It’s when you see family you only see once a year.
- It celebrates freedom from slavery, liberation.
- It celebrates the start of Spring.
The Seder table is spread with symbols of all its themes, that are mostly wonderful to eat .
I once asked my father, Marvin Braiterman (1925-2004) if he ever had a spiritial awakening. I expected him to say No. He was a lawyer and law professor with an intellect as hard and swift as a bullet. His approach to life was historical and rational, not emotional or mystical. He surprised me. He told me about seeing something he’d always known in a completely new way.
People went down there to help the Civil Rights movement for many reasons: they believed in right and wrong, in human rights, in the U.S. Constitution, or Jesus. My Dad went because lawyers should uphold the Constitution, and because he was he was Jewish, and believed Jews should suiport freedom from slavery and oppression even if the victims were not Jews. He learned that lesson from Jewish history and the Passover Seder.
“You shall tell your children the story of the Exodus from Egypt as if you yourself had been redeemed from slavery, and whoever expands on the story is worthy of praise.” In other words, Jews are expected to fight all oppression, the Passover story tells all Jews every year.
A Passover Awakening
In the Mississippi “freedom summers” of 1964 and ’65, he went down South with a few dozen other lawyers to protect civil rights workers, who wanted to force th state, legally and non-violently, to enforce the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The state had only teo black lawyers willing to take civil rights cases, and the state Legislature passed a slew of special laws making practically everything with a black defendant a civil rights case, from jaywalking to registering to vote.
In 1965, a less violent summer than the one before, a worker in the Movement’s office asked my dad to come up and tell the story of Passover to the peopled inhis church’s Sunday school class.
“It wasn’t really a town,” my father told me, “just some tar paper shacks where the dirt roads crossed in the cotton fields. It was too hot to meet in the church,so we went down to the river, by the bull rushes, where there was some shade. The Reverend introduced me as ‘one of the Hebrew children whose ancestors were redeemed from slavvery in Egypt.’ Then, I told the story my father told at his Seder, that I tell my kids every year.”
He told about the parsley that represents the first greens of Spring, dipped in salt water to remind us of the tears we shed in slavery, the four cups of wine we drink at every Seder to remind us of the joy of freedom, the bitter herbs we taste to remind us of the bitterness of slavery, the unleavened bread (matzo) to remind us that we had to get out fast, before the Pharaoh changed his mind, the lamb shank to remind us of the sacrifice our ancestors made, whose blood we put on our doorposts to tell the Angel of Death to Pass Over our homes, and not kill our first born as he killed the Egyptian first born, “I heard the congregation shouting Amen and Hallelujah like I was a charismatic preacher.”
Then, they sang “Go down Moses…” and went up; to the church for the service, my father said.
“If a spiritual experience can be seeing something you’ve always known in a completely new way, I had one that day,” he said.