I have always loved Pesach. I think it is a family trait. My maternal grandparents were devout socialists. Their Judaism was political. To be a Jew meant standing up for the oppressed. My paternal grandfather was a Holocaust refugee. The idea that we were once slaves in Egypt, that “my father was a wandering Aramean,” hit so close to his own experience that he too practiced a Judaism that while lacking in spirituality, was strongly based on communal commitment and taking care of those in need.
My parents inherited these values, and Passover, the holiday in which we symbolically relive our slavery experience and recommit ourselves to fighting for freedom, became the biggest holiday in our home.
Every year my parents would say, “this year just a small family gathering,” and as we set the seder table the afternoon before Pesach began, each member of the household would add place settings for the “extra” guests invited at the last minute. “One of my students is Jewish and didn’t have a place to go,” my mom would say, before adding under her breath, “and he’s bringing two friends.” “Well, I met a couple of Israelis working the kiosk at the mall,” my dad would add, “better add two plates for them.” Inevitably our small family dinner would involve moving couches to make space for folding tables and chairs, making space for friends, for family, and even strangers. We would eat and drink and sing. We would tease my dad for insisting that we read every line of the Haggadah through until dinner and then “skipping to the good parts” afterwards. Each year, during the meal we would discuss and debate the slavery we see in the world around us.
As I reminisce about countless seder memories of my past, I am humbled when I consider their power. As a rabbi I work hard to ensure that our children are educated, that ritual and worship moments are meaningful, that the wisdom of our text and tradition is passed down to future generations. All that I and the synagogue provide is important and obviously valuable. However, when I think about some of the most profound Jewish moments in my own life, so many of them happened around the seder table at home with my family.
This table brought my family closer together. It taught me the values that were most important to my family, and provided a connection to God and history, Jewish text and tradition, by allowing me to truly live the Judaism I’d learned about in Sunday School. Textbooks and teachers, classrooms and synagogues have so much to offer, but it can’t replace the powerful religious experiences that happen at home. The two go hand in hand.
As you plan for Pesach this year, I hope you will remember just how powerful family tradition and Jewish celebrations at home can be. If you are looking for ways to infuse your Passover celebration with meaning, fun, or new ideas I’m here and would love to help!
Rabbi Toba Strauss Schaller