Rabbi Bearman: Passover is a personal yet universal holiday

As a child, I loved everything about the way my family celebrated Passover. I couldn’t wait until it was time for my sisters and me to carefully prep, measure, and then mix all of the sweet-smelling ingredients as we “helped” my grandmother make charoset (a dish of apples, nuts, and spices that symbolizes the mortar the Israelite slaves used to build Egyptian structures).

I eagerly anticipated the first night of Passover, knowing that as my family gathered, we would find that the dining room had been transformed into a beautiful seder table filled with small mementos from past generations. As the seder (the festive holiday meal) began, I would flip ahead in the haggadah (the prayer book used during the seder) looking for my favorite illustrations. And, after we finished eating our meal, which included matzah ball soup, gefilte fish (my grandmother’s rule was and continues to be “You don’t have to eat all of it, but you have to try some of it”), brisket, and more, my sisters and I would begin to bounce in our seats because we knew that it was almost time to begin the search for the afikomen (a Greek word for a piece of matzah that had been broken and hidden earlier in the service).

The afikomen is meant to be the last food that you eat, and the scholars who created structure of the haggadah used the idea of searching for the afikomen as a way of keeping the children at the seder engaged and entertained. My sisters and I dutifully listened as my grandfather explained to everyone around the table that unless we successfully found the afikomen, we wouldn’t be able to conclude the seder, and then, the second he finished talking, we tore through every room in the house looking for the hidden matzah. By the time the seder ended, I was both exhausted and already excited about next year’s celebration.

Because Passover is almost exclusively celebrated at home with one’s family (except for the communities that come together as a kind of extended family), there is incredible variation in the way the holiday is observed. Each family and group has access to hundreds of available haggadot (the plural form of haggadah) and can choose to use anything from The Union Haggadah, published in 1923, to The (unofficial) Hogwarts Haggadah, published just last month. Some families even make their own haggadah, emphasizing customs and stories that they find particularly meaningful.

The inherent flexibility of Passover’s rituals and customs means that even if two families use the same haggadah, their seders might look very different. But despite this wonderful diversity of practice, the central theme of Passover remains constant. The Jewish people are commanded to tell our children the story of the Exodus every single year. We are meant to study and share this story, not as something that happened long ago but as an experience that continues to shape each new generation. This commandment is intended to instill within us a deep sense of empathy for all people and to ensure that we understand our ongoing responsibility to continue working for a world where and toward a time when all people will be free.

I wish all who celebrate a Gut Yontif (Good Holy Day) and a Happy Passover.
Rabbi Rachel Bearman
Temple B’nai Chaim