The Passover Order
I did not grow up in a kosher home. In fact, I refer to the home in which I was raised as “glatt treiff.” My becoming a bar mitzvah in 1973 coincided with my mother’s personal liberation. A few months after I became a bar mitzvah, my mother returned to work and the kitchen closed forever. It re-opened, however, once a year, for one week: Passover. We did not change dishes, but it was the occasion for a major spring cleaning. My father and I would make the long trip by subway down to the Lower East Side. We would visit my father’s mother, who would send us home with jars of chicken soup and matzah balls, potato kugels, and a cake that was too dry to swallow.
Around the same time, a large box would appear in our foyer. There was no room in the small kitchen for this large box from the supermarket. It contained my mother’s Passover order. Before its contents were sorted and put away, it held jars of gefilte fish and horseradish, a couple of jars of honey, dozens and dozens of eggs, and many boxes of matzah, plain and egg.
During the week of Passover, my family (which often dined on spaghetti and clam sauce or shrimp scampi) ate brisket, soup with matzah balls, matzah brie, macaroons and colorful cookies, and plenty of matzah. For one week, we ate no bread. We had matzah with breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That week, we did not eat out.
My family would never consider keeping kosher, in any other form, during the rest of the year. In fact, when I came home one day from Hebrew School and at the dinner table that night, asked if we could keep a kosher home, my parents just stared at each other. They must have thought to themselves, “eleven years ago the hospital must have given us the wrong child!”
But somehow, my family intrinsically understood that by “keeping Pesach” one week a year, Passover would keep us. My parents probably believed in assimilation as much as they believed in Judaism. Yet they understood that if Passover were to have any value for us, it needed to be kadosh, distinct and special. Not only did that night need to be different from all other nights, that week needed to be different from all other weeks.
Without ever saying as much, each year at Passover, my parents tried to teach us that sometimes when God calls upon us to be kadosh, to be holy or to be a light unto the nations, we will sometimes have to make a korban, a sacrifice, in order to draw close to God. Once a year, for a week, we gave up bread and the other foods we normally ate. This sacrifice, this change of routine would somehow bring us close enough to God that we might hear God’s voice.
By drawing close to God, we could hope to find out what it is that God expects from us. Like the time my parents sacrificed their beach club membership when the club would not allow them to bring a black friend as their guest. Or the financial sacrifices my father made to keep his grocery business in Harlem, at a time when most supermarkets would not open stores in African-American neighborhoods.
Through those rituals of keeping kosher for Passover, I learned that ritual commandments are not unrelated to moral commandments. Our biblical ancestors did not see a separation between ritual and ethical behaviors. Perhaps, sometimes, neither should we. Along with the matzah and horseradish, the box that contained my mother’s Passover order contained a heaping dish of morality. That humble box of groceries was also filled with the voice of God.
Originally published in Ten Minutes of Torah.