Monday, April 16, 2012

Defining Freedom

One of the most common gripes heard just before Pesach (usually from me) is, how the heck can you call Passover the Festival of Freedom when we are slaves to our kitchens the week before? Many of us start preparing immediately after the holiday of Purim, cleaning rooms and closets, emptying our refrigerators and cupboards of anything that remotely resembles Chametz, checking our couches for those sneaky little Cheerios that get down into the cushions (or in my case, stuck to the back of the couch).

Then we spend days scrubbing our kitchens, emptying our cabinets, boiling, burning, buying new to prepare for this seven- (eight if you live outside of Israel) day holiday with its strict rules. If we’re cooking for the first night, the Seder, then we have to “turn over” our kitchens at least a day before. All the regular dishes and cookware has to be stored away, and all the special Passover pots and pans brought out. So we spend a day living in limbo – the kitchen is cleaned for Pesach, but we don’t have the Pesach supplies out yet, so we can’t cook anything. Therefore, we go out for pizza.

With all this preparation and hard work, how could this possibly be freedom? And then, when the physical work is completed, we have the psychological work of having to figure out how to cook food without the ingredients we’re used to having. Want Passover noodles in tomato sauce? You can’t reach for that jar stored in your pantry, remember? It’s Chametz, forbidden during Pesach. Want to make some Passover brownies? Uh-uh-uh, don’t touch that vanilla. You need that special Passover vanilla. I baked a few times this year for the first time during Passover and realized I don’t have Pesach measuring cups. I did a pretty good job of guessing, but that went on the list for next year.

So where, exactly, does this freedom thing come in?

I have a couple of thoughts on this. The first Seder was celebrated when we were still slaves in Egypt. We didn’t know freedom yet. Now when we hold Seders, we’re too exhausted from all the preparing to think about freedom. Okay, so that connection makes sense. So we’re not meant to be free the first night of Pesach. Now, define freedom. We left Egypt and left slavery behind, but did that mean we were free from work? Heck no, we were on the first day of a 40-year journey through the desert. We still had to get across the Sea of Reeds yet! Not to mention all the stuff we were carrying; y’know, all the goodies that the Egyptians so kindly gave us to wish us well on our desert trek. We had battles to fight, doubts to overcome, Golden Cows to build, terror to feel, Torah to learn, an Ark to shlep*, a Mishkan to build, a law-abiding society to create... Makes kashering my oven look like a day in the park.

Freedom is not an absence of hard work. It’s not an absence of rules. Shabbat, with all its rules and restrictions, gives me such a sense of freedom: I may have piles of laundry to do, but they’ll have to wait, I can’t do laundry on Shabbat. I need to enter bills into the family budget? After Shabbat. I feel not one whit of guilt for sitting around for hours straight reading (my guilt is reserved for when I sleep through the alarm and miss shul).

My second, more light-hearted thought was that Pesach is a little more free in Israel, where it started. Yes, it’s easier to get kitniyot-free products outside of Israel, but where I lived, if you didn’t get your Pesach goods two weeks before the holiday, you didn’t get your Pesach goods, period. The stores ran out and didn’t resupply (although, unsurprisingly, mayonnaise and Kedem grape juice were plentiful throughout the holiday week). Unless you have small children, you’re really not supposed to go out and buy milk or eggs during the holiday; stock up before. Here in Israel, we do our Passover shopping the day or two before, with few exceptions. Here, when we decided in the middle of the week to make matzo-lasagna (trust me, it’s better than it sounds), we ran to the local market to get Passover pasta sauce. Eggs? No problem. Milk? Sure. It’s just easier here. It takes less planning. And much less stress.

It’s a hard holiday, to be sure. And I’m still trying to put my kitchen back together and find all the non-Pesach things I stashed away at the last minute. But I’ve once more celebrated our Exodus and been forced to think about what that means. And now I’m free to think about what I’m going to do with all that leftover matzoh...

*Forgive my artistic hyperbole. Carring the Ark was a mitzvah, it was not a shlep.


Leah Goodman said...

Freedom in the time of Egypt meant freedom to serve G-d rather than man. At least that was the main gist I got out of it...
Serving G-d is hard work, but all your choices are your own, and your own responsibility to live with.

Alissa said...

I agree, with both your statements. I decided to address just our modern-day gripes about all the work and restrictions of Pesach (which, let's be honest, are mostly about serving man these days. Wonder if God intended for the kitniyot-free mayo stampedes?), and leave the "what does freedom to serve God mean?" questions to the deeper folk out there.