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God Squad: Celebrating Passover as a changing message

This week's column is about what it means to eat a meal for God. Next week, we will focus on Easter and ask what it means to eat a meal of God.

When Father Tom Hartman was alive, he would write the Passover column and I would write the Easter column. It was our way of proving and sustaining the mission statement of the God Squad: "We know enough about how we are different but not nearly enough about how we are all the same."

I am all alone to do his work and sustain his memory. We met at News 12 Long Island on Passover/Easter 1987, and this time is filled with his soul and his smile for me.

The similarities and the differences of Passover and Easter are profound, and we must understand them not only to understand each other's way up the same mountain to God, which is critical for both Christians and Jews, but to understand what it means to be human in a broken world. This is important for all human beings living with or without organized religion as best we can here on Earth.

Both Passover and Easter bring our families together. This was always important, but never more so than right now. COVID-19 has robbed us of family holiday dinners. Last year, I connected our family for the Passover Seder meal via Zoom. It was great to include far-flung family that never could have made it to our home in the old normal times, but it was painful to not be able to touch, hug and kiss, and clean the kitchen together. Families cannot thrive electronically. Families thrive around the holiday table. I pray that this year we will be able to touch one another again.

The Seder meal, which precedes the actual meal, is a form of teaching and praying — as well as eating. Each of the ritualized foods of the Passover Seder is a teaching.

Dipping greens called karpas into saltwater combines the despairing symbolism of the tears of slaves with the hopeful symbolism of the new growth of springtime.

The mixed apples and wine and spices called haroset symbolize the mortar used to cement the bricks of pharaoh's monuments; the horseradish root includes once again the bitter taste of being owned.

Together these ritual foods of the Seder meal teach us that in life bitter and sweet, good and evil, despair and hope, burdens and blessings are always mixed.

Bread is life but matzo, the Passover bread, is different. It is unleavened, flat and unseasoned. Matzo was the bread of escape from bondage that did not have enough time to rise. Leavening is also a symbol of arrogance (puffery) and so the unleavened matzo is a symbol of humility. We take for granted so much, so eating this bread reminds us to give thanks for the least of our blessings. This is the only way to train ourselves to give thanks for the greatest of our blessings.

Wine is not merely the symbol of joy; wine is joy. The Bible commands us to "Serve the Lord in joyousness" (Psalm 100:2) and drinking the four cups of wine during the Seder meal on Passover brings us a ritually induced, but not quite excessive, inebriation. There is also the miracle of how the simple substance of grapes can become transformed into the complex substance of wine.

In the old days, when water was mostly contaminated, wine was the only safe drink. Safety and joy are in the wine cups and in our faithful service to God.

The shank bone and roasted egg are not eaten but displayed. They remind us of biblical Judaism in which serving God meant bringing animal and grain sacrifices to the Temple and to the Jewish priests. The Seder meal is the product of rabbinic Judaism in which the synagogue replaced the temple; where rabbis replaced the priests; where prayers replaced animal sacrifices; and where the Passover Haggadah (the rabbinic script for the Seder meal) replaced the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer up sacrifices on the Hag, the holiday.

The Muslim pilgrimage called the hajj is from this same root word. The shank bone and egg remind us that our rituals today were not necessarily the rituals of yesterday — nor will they be the rituals of tomorrow. Some families place an orange on the Seder plate because of the old remark of a traditionalist, "Letting women read from the Torah is like putting an orange on the Seder plate."

While remembering and honoring the old rituals of our faiths, we must also make room for a few new oranges.

Happy Passover!

SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at godsquadquestion@aol.com or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.

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