Pesach for adults
I have had 3 or 4 conversations over the last few weeks that have inspired this post. The essence of each of them was essentially: how do I access learning and spirituality to make my Pesach more meaningful for me and not just my kids?
So in lieu of running an adult ed course, which busy parents find it hard to find the time for, I thought I would put down some of the ways that Pesach is made meaningful for me as an adult; beyond creating the crossing of the Reed Sea on our table with the kids (which E loved so much she insisted on doing it in January for her junk model at school!) or throwing toy frogs and bugs at one another during the seder meal?
For me it all begins with the kitchen swap over, but the cleaning is not just hard work, it is also cathartic, and, even, a spiritual process. Unpacking family heirlooms, rediscovering wedding and engagement presents that might become our children's heirlooms, and cleaning the fridge out in a way that just doesn't happen the rest of the year, it doesn't sound like a fun Sunday, but it is a wonderful way to refresh and clear. We are also committed to making sure there is as little waste as possible; for example out of date nuts and seeds are mixed with marge and squished into pine cones with the kids to make bird feeders, and friends join us for the weekend to eat as much as possible! Donations are made to the food bank and food is stored for after Pesach. We talk to our children about the value of Bal Tashchit - not wasting, and with a mini dust pan and brush, a water spray and a sponge, they enjoy joining in. But this is an important effort beyond teaching them, it is also about living a values driven Judaism rather than a convenience driven one.
The first year that we hid chametz (the food forbidden at Pesach) around our now spotless home in order to hunt and find it I was pretty bemused. Why on earth were we wandering about with a candle, in a semi lit home, trying to locate something we just 'hid' anyway! But actually cleaning these chunks of chametz (usually pitta bread as not too crumby!) has become one of my favourite parts of Pesach preparation. There are dark parts of me, not just of my home, that need illuminating, and this quiet hunt is also a chance to reflect. When our chametz is gathered up, the next morning we hold a barbeque. Having thrown bread in the water for Tashlich at Rosh Hashanah, the bread of our chametz hunt becomes a chance for a spiritual and emotional check in. What were the things I wanted to throw away at Rosh Hashanah, but still need to be dealt with? What other things do I now realise need burning out of my life? At Tashlich we generally discard our sins in silence. At Pesach our family tend to name out-loud that which we are metaphorically setting on fire. In some cases this has been a very moving opportunity for us to admit to ourselves and to one another our failings, and the things we want to change. We rarely take this time to check in, and giving ourselves a mid-point between Rosh Hashanah and Rosh Hashanah is a helpful reminder of the ongoing nature of working on oneself. So the cleaning and searching for left behind crumbs isn't (just) spring cleaning gone mad, but a spiritual process of renewal and personal change.
On Seder night itself many of us are pulled in multiple directions, whether it is parents who want to include every last word, or friends who need to get the last train, a brother who wants to skip all of maggid and get on with dinner (we almost all want to skip at least some of maggid!) and children desperate to stay up, but exhausted beyond tears. There are things we can do to engage everyone that require a lot of leg work, like designing your own Haggadah - something I have always wanted to do, and never quite managed!
The go to fun seems to always be had around the Plagues, something I am personally struggling with at the moment. Our kids are offered Plague bags full of toy plagues, they joyously sing songs about the horrors of the plagues. They enjoy imitating 'frogs here frogs there' when torah tells us not only did they afflict Egypt, they were then piled up, rotting, stinking out the land (Exodus 8:10). I have myself bought toy frogs and toy bugs, and thrown them at people during the seder, but I also think we have to remind ourselves that the Plagues in Jewish tradition are not something that is celebrated and made fun; Proverbs 24:17 reminds us that we do not rejoice in our enemies downfall, and midrash (Talmud Megilla 10b and Sanhedrin 39b) tells us that God chastised the Angels who sang in praise and celebration as the Egyptians drowned in the Reed Sea - the Rabbis wanted us to know that while this might be necessary in the narrative, it doesn't mean celebration is appropriate. We could argue 'but our ancestors celebrated, singing the Song of the Sea' - yes, they were permitted to celebrate their exodus, their saving, but that doesn't mean we should see another's downfall as a reason for celebration. We have long ritualised the need to acknowledge the Egyptians suffering: This is the reason we take wine out of our cups at the seder meal when we recite the plagues - wine is a symbol of joy in Judaism, and our joy should literally be diminished when others suffer.
So how can we have fun at our seder as adults? Many people now invite their guests to bring an object, or a story, something that tells a tale about their own personal freedom, or their slavery. I now regularly create an alternative seder plate, filled with symbols that remind people about modern day slavery and oppression. This is a great way to involve people and to introduce guests to one another, but it does take a bit of time! I have taken to setting up an alternative seder plate on our table. The symbols on the plate might be about fairtrade and issues of slavery today, or LGBTQ rights, and areas the Jewish community could do better. There is a huge range of new seder symbols that is growing all the time, but the fun comes in asking guests to guess what the meaning of each symbol is on our alternative seder plate. They often come up with ideas and creativity that then become a part of the symbol next year, and it always serves as a conversation piece, making the seder more real to today's issues of slavery and struggles. This is a summary of the options, but it is growing and changing all the time, so let me know what we should be adding this year!
Maybe next year we will finally get around to creating the perfect haggadah for our family, but this year we will still be enjoying the chaos of everyone holding a different edition, perhaps symbolic of our different Judaisms, exploring the same festival and the same themes in unique and personal ways for each of us. There is a lot still to do in these last few days, but I can't wait to begin enjoying this walk of freedom, remembering that it is a walk that leads us straight to Shavuot 7 weeks later. A walk from freedom to responsibility. How will we honour that responsibility to our own Judaism, not just our children's, in the year to come?