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Prayers & Passages: Finding the Unique in Our Passover Traditions

You might think that the most popular holidays on the Jewish calendar are the High Holy Days. However, statistics prove that it is Passover which is the most-celebrated holiday of our year. Even those who take a hard pass on fasting and praying on Yom Kippur want to get in on a Seder.

The Torah commands us to teach the story of Passover to our children: “On that day you shall tell your child, I do this because of what God did for me when I came out of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8). “In days to come, when your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Exodus 13:14)

Yet the Torah has many commandments, most of which have faded from our Jewish lives save for the most observant Jews. Why is this one so important?

If you ask a dozen people about their family’s Passover Seders, you will get a dozen unique stories. My childhood memories of Passover still make me smile as I remember relatives who have long-since passed away. My beloved Uncle Harris sneakily drinking half the Cup of Elijah when we kids left the room then telling us with a wide grin on his face, “He was here and you just missed him!” I can still smell the aroma of my Grandmother’s matzah ball soup, which she lovingly prepared only for this holiday. She sent me the recipe years later when I asked for it, and I still treasure following the instructions written out in her own handwriting.

Foods and family customs are a vehicle for transmitting our people’s story and Jewish values from one generation to the next. We all have a Seder plate with the similar foods, we tell the same story, but it is the uniqueness of our own celebrations that touches our hearts and keeps us coming back for more year after year. We become a living part of our own Jewish history, and we transmit that forward with both joy and reverence.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory expressed this connection beautifully:

“I believe that I am a character in our people’s story, with my own chapter to write, and so are we all. To be a Jew is to see yourself as part of that story, to make it live in our time, and to do your best to hand it on to those who will come after us.”

Last year the pandemic compelled us to find a new way to celebrate, writing yet another chapter in our personal Passover story. On the first night, we held a family Seder on Zoom, which included some relatives who have never celebrated this holiday together: my brother in Japan, my Mom in Florida, cousins in Boston and Los Angeles, my kids in Santa Barbara and Portland, my daughter’s Dad in another part of San Diego. To be honest, it was wonderful. We talked, we laughed, we sang and we told the story of the Jewish people escaping from Egypt.

In other words, we lived the essence of Passover.

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