Monday, May 12, 2008

On Pesach Cleaning and Theology

The excellent Janus Professor asks, "I am curious as to what you do to 'celebrate' Pesach and why you do it."

Some days I am a theist and some days I am an agnostic. Nevertheless, I keep a fairly strict Jewish observance as kind of a spiritual exercise: it gives my life a framework, and it is a cultural connection to my family and to a larger community.

That said, the longer I spend in grad school, the more I find holidays a trial rather than a blessing. It's just so tiring.

So anyhow, Pesach. Taken from various harvest festivals, probably, (see here for an excellent summary); grain storehouses were cleaned before the first harvest, to prevent ergot and rot. The first fruits were then given as a Temple offering. Presumably while all the old grain was being tossed, one couldn't eat it (?). Therefore matzah. Or something. Later some spring fertility rituals got tossed in for good measure.

Somehow this got tangled up with the Exodus story: The Israelites were in a big hurry and didn't have time to let the bread rise. So we eat matzah to remember their affliction(s). So no leavening.*

Rabbinic tradition extends this to anything that has ever touched a grain, lest it should be leavened. So I, and many others, clean every flat surface in the entire house, switch out all the dishes for another set,** and boil the 'leavenedness' off the metal and glass dishes. And then plasticize or foil-ify all cooking surfaces (this year: autoclave bags!).

Traditionally we celebrate with a large feast (Seder- or two of them) with a lot of readings and holding up of symbolic foods: horseradish for the bitterness of slavery, lamb shank for the Temple offering, parsley and an egg for spring/ fertility. It's a big family-and-friends kind of affair; most years we hold one and go to someone else's. There's lots of food and eating and talking about peculiar Talmudic rulings and the natural history of matzah. This part is actually fun, especially if you don't have to do any of the cooking.

Some years, when I'm feeling energetic, I go to services and, y'know, pray. When I have enough mental energy, I try to remember the things from which I've been liberated, and be grateful for whatever spiritual support I receive. The theme is, after all, 'remember that your God brought you out of Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.'

And then at the end, we go out and buy a dozen doughnuts:
And eat them all.

*Just in case. The logical connection is a little tenuous.
**Yes, we have four sets of dishes. So help me.