Pesach, indeed of all religion, defies logic. That does not make it any less significant, valid, or effective. The whole of mysticism, you might say all of our emotions, are the quite non-rational phenomena. Yet clearly Pesach works! But I want to say something about Pesach, so here goes.
Here is a religion that requires us not to eat leavened, fluffy bread, the luxury food of the upper classes in ancient Egypt. I can understand the idea. Bernie Sanders would understand the idea, if he thought about it. Egypt was a rich, indulgent society full of self-indulgent, heartless Wall Street and dot-com billionaires. To escape from its decadence, violence, prejudice, and corruption, the Israelite slaves were asked to leave town, eschew luxury, to start from the basics by eating unleavened bread to remind themselves of their Spartan diet and how one can, indeed, survive on less.
So now we have to get rid of any leavened foodstuff from our homes. We clean, we scrub, and we vacuum every nook and cranny. Even if the Talmud only tells us to go looking where there is a serious chance there might be some leavened stuff lying around, where maybe the dog or the parrot has it sequestered, we go one better and clean out our cupboards, our clothes, our bookshelves, our cellars, and attics, and storerooms. We go everywhere, even if there’s absolutely no chance any crumbs ever went within spitting distance, because nowadays we electric-wash and dish-wash, we sweep, we Dyson, and disinfect and debug. We zap it all up, relentlessly and with a vengeance. It’s good for us. We invented spring cleaning. It’s good for our homes, our hygiene, and our spirits. It reminds us of a spring, a new season, new life. “The spring is sprung, the grass is riz.”
We have to root out not just leavened wheat and grains, but also everything derived from it, even undrinkable alcohol. No whisky, but so what, there’s still wine (isn’t that fermented too?), vodka, vishniak, and brandies of various sorts. And because its infinitesimally likely that some crumbs of leavened bread might have snuck into the solid glazed dishes, stainless steel cutlery, and our granite countertops, we need to replace the lot for Passover. Or we have to boil, burn, scald, soak, whatever we can to purge whatever might still be attached despite repeated dishwasher boilings and hot rinses in detergent flavored liquid that would kill any last remnant of food desperately clinging into the crevices of your finest Christofle silver cutlery, Rosenthal crockery, and Le Creuset kitchenware.
We are worried that somehow leavened foodstuffs have found their way into aluminum foil, bottled water, toilet paper, plastic wrap, paper towels, teabags, coffee, milk, olive oil, salt, sugar, and honey. At least in the USA, the OU actually tells you that you don’t need special Kosher l’Pesach versions of any of these. But no, we will do it anyway. At least it’s cheaper than spending $30,000 to ship the family off to a luxury hotel in Israel. Unless it’s to find partners for your kids, in which case it’s cheap at the price. How many people can afford to be Jewish nowadays?
But wait! As TV vendors like to say. For reasons known only to conspiracy theorists, the poor Ashkenazim are not allowed to eat beans, corn, peanuts, sesame, sunflower seeds, all lumped together improbably and known as kitniyot, because they might be confused with or mixed with grains. So out goes your peanut butter and half your vegetables, which anyway you can’t have because nowadays everyone one of them from berries to lettuces to artichokes and broccoli are not allowed unless supervised and costing double, because they are otherwise infested with microscopic bugs so there’s no way you can be trusted to clean them.
And somewhere in the last century the extremely remote danger of uncooked matzah becoming mixed with liquids and rising created a new refinement called Gebrokts (mixing little pieces). No produce on Pesach should contain matzah or matzah meal mixed with juices or other liquids. What once only a Chasidic minority bothered about this, now the whole world has to be careful about it, and Chabad Chasidim even eat their matzah into paper bags to ensure none falls on the floor and into a puddle. I kid you not!
So having driven yourself crazy and spent a fortune on Kosher l’Pesach imitation muesli, fake hamburger buns, ersatz pizza, and cured kosher bacon supervised by the Almighty Himself, you go out to buy special Shmurah Mazah (or, as we used to call it, “dog biscuit”), for the seder, that costs several times the old Bonns, Rakusens, Manichewitz and Streit’s stuff, because teams of supervisors have gone out to farms in hot, dry climes to make sure the wheat grew without any water touching it, so that it can be harvested and winnowed and ground and sifted into strictly “guarded” flour that will be mixed with supervised water, Mayim Shelanu, that was not left uncovered uncovered overnight and will be hand baked in supervised ovens for no longer than 18 minutes and the utensils cleaned thoroughly in between to come out costing an arm and a kosher leg. All of this naturally will keep hundreds of penniless ultra-Orthodox families (plus the businessmen who run the show) for six months until Sucot, when the Lulav and Etrog business takes them through the next six months.
You will gather round the seder table (or tables) to discuss the Exodus and the Torah, but whatever you do, you cannot ask inconvenient questions, only the four of “Mah Nishtanah”, because Heaven forbid you might challenge religious authority or prevent the hungry from getting their food. Even if the Talmud says quite explicitly that any questions will do.
You might wonder how it is possible to imagine what it was like to be a slave in Egypt as the excessive quantities of food are brought in from your special Kosher l’Pesach kitchen that you had built in or onto your little palace. Or you may start the recital of the Haggadah by inviting the poor to join you in the banqueting suite of your five-star luxury hotel in the Caribbean enjoying all the excessive materialism the twenty-first century has to offer. And you will know that no poor people will come within a mile. You might even wonder how an ordinary Jew struggling to pay his taxes, educate his kids and fend off importuning rabbis could possibly afford to keep the festival altogether. The slaves coming out of Egypt could at least afford a sheep per family. Most of us couldn’t, with prices as they are now. We can barely afford to live in a Jewish community. Perhaps that’s the real slavery.
Ladies and gentlemen, if this is not all madness in the name of religion, I don’t know what is. Yet Pesach is amazing. It is one of the highlights of the Jewish year. We talk about it, tell stories about horror guests and boring speeches and child performances and stolen Afikoman ransomed for a fortune. We will recite, “In every generation they rise up against us to destroy us, and you God keep on saving us from their hands.” We will end with the two-thousand-year-old prayer the UN does not want to hear: “Next year in Jerusalem!” And it will tide us over the summer, if we are not filing for bankruptcy. It is one of the core experiences that defines Jews and differentiates those who care from those who are not committed to Jewish survival. We Jews have always defied logic, odds, history, fate. That's who we are. Because we are a small nation of barely 14 million producing scholars, rabbis, artists, musicians, Nobel prize winners, billionaires, dot-com moguls, settlers, nationalists, criminals, politicians, outreach pioneers, and more than our fair share of meshuggenehs (crazies). We survive and thrive despite all the billions who desperately want to see the back of us.
We know we can’t rely on others or on the miracles of those days. Even God sometimes hides from us. No, it’s not logical, and it is strange, and weird, and a beautiful experience, and we do it all regardless of whether it is logical or not. Because that’s who we are.