For me, Passover is a mixture of ritual and redemptive messages. It is a recounting of my people’s narrative of persecution, redemption and relationship with God as well as a time for broader reflections on universal concerns and obligations including those we have to protect the most vulnerable.
On Thursday evening, the night before to Passover, I began with a ritual of hide and seek, known as the search for the leaven (which Jews are forbidden to have in one’s possession during Passover). Ten pieces of bread were hidden around my home by my children. I lead my family through my darkened home, holding a lit candle, a wooden spoon, a feather and a paper bag. Reflecting the tensions mentioned above, I left my house after only three of the ten pieces were found, as I had made a commitment speak at a Uniting Church interfaith event. Sitting alongside my Muslim and Christian fellow panelists, I explained to our audience how in Judaism, unlike other faiths that seem more focused on beliefs, practices such as the one I had only partially completed were highly significant.
At Friday Morning Prayers I participated in a sale to our local MP who bought the leaven that remained in many Jewish homes in the area included unopened boxes of crackers and bottles of Vodka. If the past is any indication, he will choose to sell all that leaven back to their Jewish vendors after Passover. For now, his ownership lets my fellow Jews off the hook. Regardless of the sale, some of the leaven that was not sold would need to be destroyed. So a small camp fire was lit at the back of my home to burn Bread. Some marshmallows were also toasted. These were not part of the ritual, but a little bit of fun on the side.
On Friday night, with my oldest two sons returned from overseas study joining me, my wife, their younger siblings, and some other guests around a festive table, we performed the “Seder”, the ceremony of retelling and reflecting on the story of Exodus. I suggested that this story, which inspired people like Martin Luther King Jnr, proves that you can “fight city hall” and win. The defeat of Pharaoh proves the vulnerability of all tyrants, showing that the oppressed can triumph and that all of us need to think beyond our own stories and needs to those of other vulnerable peoples.
My Universalist political commentary sat uncomfortably alongside the theme of a narrower focus of Jewish victimhood “in every generation”. I shared a memory of my maternal grandfather, recalling his journey from Vladivostok during World War II. He told us how he and hundreds of other Yeshiva students danced on a rickety boat singing one of the Seder songs: “and it is this (divine promise) that has stood by our fathers and by us, because it is not just one (enemy) who stood against us to annihilate us, but, in every generation… and the Holy One Blessed Be He saves us from their hands[i]”. I tried to sing the same melody that he would sing when I was a young child, but don’t remember all of it. I said that next year I should listen to the recording my sister made of him singing it. My son reminded me that I said the same thing the previous year. I joked that maybe this was becoming a family ritual he could tell his children about one day.
On Sunday afternoon we had a mini-conference in the Synagogue, where I delivered a talk on the Torah position on Eritrean Asylum seekers in Israel. The current discussions and range of perspectives about Asylum seeker policy are echoed in discussions centuries ago. We have the legalistic perspective[ii], concerns about national security[iii], as well as interest in possible economic/demographic benefits[iv], land on the other hand we have teachings about prioritising the emotional and economic needs of vulnerable people[v].
Like so many things, there are different dimensions and approaches one can take. For me it is about navigating between these different approaches to honour my traditions in a way that also embraces “the other”.
By Zalman Kastel
[i] The Hagada, Vehi She’amda
[ii] Talmud Gittin 45a, Maimonides laws, Yad Hachazaka, laws of slaves 8:11, Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 267:85, Beis Yosef on Tur Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 267, Rosh on Gittin 45a, Maharshal, Ran, Ritva, Beit Habechira
[iv] Talmud Kesubot 110b
[v] Vali, Rabbi Moshe David, (lived 1696-1777- Talmid Muvhak/closest or premier student of Ramchal) Biur Ramad Vali Mishne Torah, Devarim, p 242-243