Posted on April 16, 2012 by Derek Kwait
“Even if all of us were wise, all of us understanding, all of us knowing the Torah, we would still be obligated to discuss the exodus from Egypt,” says the Haggada. While by no means do I, like most of the people I had seder with this year, consider myself inordinately wise or understanding, I knew spending seder night with other Pardes students, all of whom have, in some way or another, been studying Pesach for at least the past month, would make this year’s seder night different from any I had experienced before.
So what ultimately made this year’s seder different from all the others? Every other seder I’ve been to had meat, but this one was vegetarian—the pascal yam replaced the pascal lamb in remembrance of how God gave the more liberal-minded Israelites special permission to slaughter a root vegetable instead of a yearling yam for their Pascal sacrifice in Egypt. Every other seder I’ve been to didn’t have Persian Jews, but this one had one, giving us an excuse to adopt their custom of beating each other with scallions during Dayenu. Every other seder I’ve been to does Maggid by going around the table, but at this seder, everyone prepared presentations on pre-selected segments. By far, this was my favorite change: All year, I have seen my friends as Torah students, now I had the privilege of having them as Torah teachers. I once heard that more commentaries have been written on the Haggada than on every other Jewish text combined. If this is true, you would think there is nothing new anybody could possibly say about it, yet, by combining their own personal learning, experience, creativity, personality, and passion, everyone made me think about the text and the seder itself, in exciting, inspiring new ways. This is what the Haggada means when it says that in every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as though we personally have come out of Egypt—every generation and each person has their own Exodus, and the genius of the Haggada, the reason it has generated so many commentaries and will keep generating more each year is because it encourages us not only to see our personal story and our family’s story, our place, as part the larger story of our People, but to celebrate it and share it.
Every other seder I’ve been to, the meal has been one of the highlights, if not the highlight, but at this seder, after hearing everyone’s presentation and filling up on karpas, by the time we got to the meal at around 1 AM, everyone was too full and tired to eat more than a few bites of the food. Even though it was really good, we still had piles and piles of it left over.
This year in Jerusalem, everything about Pesach was different. I had an idea to go around town taking pictures of the unbelievable looking kosher-for-Passover food in the restaurants, whole shelves in the supermarkets blocked off, and other fun and unusual sights around the city then posting them on the blog. Monday, I took a nice walk around the city and got lots of nice pictures, then stopped on a park bench in Baka to review my shots before reading more of God in Search of Man, which I had been working on since I first got on the Mega Bus to New York to come here. I was on the chapter called “Freedom,” about how man’s free-will consists pretty much exclusively in his ability to make moral decisions, how only by rising above the animal instinct and choosing the right over the comfortable can humans be said to be free in any meaningful way. I finished this chapter then got up to walk home, thinking about its ramifications for my life and decision-making. Once I was about half-way home, I realized I left my camera on the bench. I got back not 5 minutes later and breathed a sigh of relief to see the case was right where I left it. I got closer and retracted that sigh once I realized that while case was indeed still there, the camera was not. So no more pictures until the rest of the world learns to study Heschel (though of course, he was hardly the first to say this, he just put it best).
Anytime I mention Haifa to someone who has been there, their first response is always, always “Oh, it’s so beautiful there!” I have been dying for an opportunity to have its beauty leave such a strong impression on me since coming back from Birthright. Besides that it’s right on the beach, the Bahai Gardens are there, and that it’s beautiful, the only other thing I knew about Haifa was what someone told me over Sukkot, after telling me how beautiful it is. She said, “Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays, Haifa works.” I have been praying in Jerusalem all year, one afternoon playing in Tel Aviv left me sunburned (though I’m told it leaves many much worse); a day of watching other people work in beautiful Haifa sounded like just the vacation I needed. Tuesday, my friend Eric and I took the 3-hour bus ride to see the beautiful city for ourselves. While on the bus, I saw a guy walking away from me up the aisle wearing a Steelers kippa and a Steelers shirt. I considered saying “Hi,” but figured he would beat me to it once he saw my Pirates hat. Sure enough, almost as soon as he turned around, he recognized me as a landsman and introduced himself. The following conversation ensued:
HIM: Hey, are you from Pittsburgh?
ME: To be wearing a Pirates hat, I’d have to be either from Pittsburgh or crazy.
HIM: [pause] So you’re not from Pittsburgh?
ME: No, no I am!
Following this, he fulfilled his Halakhic obligation of asking me if I was from Squirrel Hill. I told him I was from the South Hills, and he said he was from McKeesport, but has been living in New York for something like the past 20-years. We talked for a little while more and our conversation ended with him telling me how to stream Pens games online. (Thankfully for my sanity. I fell asleep before I could take his advise for every game so far.) Later, as he got off at his stop just outside of Haifa, Eric made a comment about his accompanying Steelers tote bag. “It’s like a religion,” I told him, but really, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.
Anyway, once we got of the Haifa Central Bus Station, we saw the beach is directly in front of us, and huge hi-tech offices behind. Everything in Haifa is huge: the office buildings, the cranes at the port, the mall, the walking distances—I would have taken pictures, but… not everyone reads Heschel.
After staking out the food situation at the mall, we got a taxi to the Bahai Gardens. They were even more gorgeous than they look in pictures, with sparkling clear water features, blooming flowers, and perfect grass—Eric at awestruck at just how perfect the grass was: ‘How do they give it such uniform height and color?! In this climate!! All the work that must go into it!’ Again, I would have taken pictures, but…
So they were impressive but they were also kind of disappointing since, even though the Gardens continue all the way up Mt. Carmel, only the bottom two levels are open to tourists. So they were nice, but in themselves would hardly be worth the 3-hour bus ride. After the Gardens, Eric and I walked through downtown. Every angle of downtown looks like a postcard, only once you notice something moving or hear a car horn do you remember that it’s real—the Gardens are smack in the middle of Mt. Carmel, which ends in a small plain leading directly to the Sea. Lovely as it is from a distance, though, up-close, downtown is mostly convenience stores and parts wholesalers. Jerusalem prays, Tel Aviv plays…
Following our trek downtown, we took a shuttle back to the bus station and walked back to the mall to get Chinese food. Outside Jerusalem, it is nearly impossible to find a restaurant that does not serve kitniyot on Pesach. Eric and I knew this would be a challenge, but I can’t complain since it’s still much easier than traveling during Pesach in America. I thought not being able to go wherever I wanted and eat anything anywhere I went during Pesach would be annoying, but I’ve actually found the challenge quite meaningful. For me, kosher in general and Passover especially, has always been about learning how to say “no,” how to build the strength to withstand temptation and stick to your principles in spite ample opportunity to do otherwise—a skill that reaps benefit in life far beyond the food court. Living in Squirrel Hill for two years, then coming to Jerusalem has made kashrut almost too easy; truthfully, where I live, it would almost be harder not to keep kosher. As I repeatedly refused the rice at the Chinese place in the Haifa Mall, even while the woman kept insisting I take some, I felt once again some of that spark of inspiration that reminded me why I came here to begin with.
Wednesday I went to the Kotel. It didn’t dawn on me until I was pushing my way through literally thousands of other Jews to get to it how symbolic, indeed how redemptive, this act was. I found davening the Musaf Amida for Festivals at the Kotel, saying things like, “Bring back our scattered ones from among the nations, and gather our dispersed people from the ends of the earth. Lead us to Zion, Your city, in jubilation, and to Jerusalem, home of your Temple, with everlasting joy,” while standing and praying among hundreds of other Jews of all persuasions from all over the world, was both inspiring and absurd: Inspiring because here we are doing what the text says—after 2,000 years, it actually happened! Absurd because how can I really say other passages like “because of our sins we were exiled far from our land and driven far from our country” with a straight face while standing mere meters from the Temple Mount? But the tension was exhilarating and inspiring, and I’ve never considered it such a blessing to have to push my way through a such big crowd.
Later that day, with my experience at the Kotel still too fresh in my mind to have settled into any one specific meaning, I read,
In this moment, we the living, are Israel. The tasks begun by the patriarchs and prophets, and carried out by countless Jews of the past, are now entrusted to us….We are either the last, the dying Jews or else we are those who will give new life to our tradition. Rarely in our history has so much depended upon one generation. We will either forfeit or enrich the legacy of the ages….
What we have witnessed in our own days is a reminder of the power of God’s mysterious promise to Abraham and a testimony to the fact that the people kept its promise….We own the past and are, hence, not afraid of what is to be. We remember where we came from. We remember the beginning and believe in an end. We live between two historic poles: Sinai and the Kingdom of God.
A few seconds later, I finished God in Search of Man. If the person who took my camera is reading this, I have a book to trade you. אם אדם לקח את המצלמה שלי קורא את זה, יש לי ספר להחליף אותך. Si la personne qui a pris mon appareil photo est de lire ceci, j’ai un livre à vous échanger.
Quote of the Week: “I was at a meal last night hosted by this guy from Pittsburgh. He said, ‘Now we’re going to cut the matzy.’ I was like, ‘What?’ and he said, ‘You know, because we can’t have chally.’”
Hebrew Word of the Week: חרות (“khayroot”) – the freedom to