Monday, April 11, 2011

Settled Nomads

On Sukkot we leave our permanent dwellings and camp out for the week in a Sukkah. The link to our nomadic and agricultural heritage seems clear enough.

Pesah isn't usually a holiday associated with those themes though. Slavery, spring, cleaning, those are things we think of when we think Pesah.

Unlike on Sukkot we don't actually leave our homes, but we turn them upside down and inside out in our thorough banishing of every last crumb of hametz. We transform the familiar by hiding our everyday utensils out of sight and bringing out the special Pesach dishes and linens, items we see only one week a year. Familiar bread is replaced with matzah, and in many families we have recipes saved for just this one festival. Many Jews have the custom of repainting their homes.

It's almost like an extreme take on Purim with our routine and household wearing the masks, rather than ourselves.

Like Sukkot though, Pesah is about reminding ourselves that however settled or comfortable we've become, it means nothing without understanding where we come from. Cliched you might say, but a point oh so easy to forget in the day to day life of modern Western man.

So we moan and groan but we take our homes apart. In our campaign against leaven we symbolically reanact our ancestors slavery in Egypt, frantically working against the clock to complete the gargantuan task of Pesah preparations. I know that many people say they hate Pesah for this, but I think the vast amount of labour involved in Pesah cleaning is part and parcel of understanding what it meant to be slaves in Egypt, the only way to even come close to that feeling of relief at being free, at finally having reached the seder night after all those weeks of gruelling work.

I find that seeing the hoardes of Israel on the move for Pesah also takes me back to our roots. The families and friends who band together in extended groups to celebrate seder together as our ancestors would have gathered shared the Pascal lamb sacrifice. The throngs crowding Jerusalem as the Jewish people would have in the times of the ancient Temple. The masses filling every park and forest with their barbecues and bonfires and shades and awnings, reminscent of our nomadic Israelite forbears camping in the Sinai desert en route to the promised land.

A wise relative of my husband's (he has the long white beard to prove it) once said that it is no coincidence that Judaism's biggest festivals occur in the autumn and the spring, the most pleasant times of year in the Land of Israel. What better time to be out and about in the Land remembering where we come from and how our ancestors lived.

Perhaps I read too much into these things, but I think it's all part of the message.

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