2017-03-29 / Religion Column

Passover’s focus on food is an opportunity to help others

Congregation Beth Tikvah

More than at any other time during the year, Jews focus deeply on the foods we consume during the holiday of Passover. We observe the mitzvah (commandment) to eat matzah, as well as the mitzvah to not eat leavened bread. We trek to the basement to pull out our Passover dishes and cookware, and schlep them up to the kitchen. We clean. And clean. And then we clean some more. We shop for the ingredients. We begin cooking. Then we run back to the store for the three items we forgot to purchase the first time around! Then, again, we cook some more.

For eight days, we live differently. We clean differently, we consume differently, we prepare our food differently, and we engage with consumption differently. Jews who do not typically observe the laws concerning kashrut (keeping kosher) during the rest of the year often find it meaningful to adhere more stringently to the food guidelines for Passover. For example, I have distinct memories from my childhood of seeing well-meaning Jews eating pepperoni matzah pizza during Passover! Perhaps for them, and perhaps inexplicably, the usual prohibitions on consuming pork and on the mixing of milk and meat were less pressing than the Passover prohibition on consuming leavened bread. I believe that there is something particularly special to allocating these eight days to increasing our consciousness around the foods we consume, whether or not you observe kashrut year round. This way, you can dutifully and meaningfully mirror our ancestors’ quick exit from Egyptian slavery to freedom by God’s mighty hand and outstretched arm.

During Passover, we joyfully sing “avadim hayyinu, ata b’nei chorin.” This translates to “we were slaves, but now we are free.” The word avadim, or slaves, has the shoresh (root letters) ayin-vetdaled, which is also the shoresh of the word avodah, meaning service to G-d. As free people, we become able to freely serve the Divine here on Earth. The Haggadah, the book we read and study during the Passover Seder, teaches us that during the Seder, we are to experience for ourselves moving from slavery to freedom. How do we do this? First, we tell the story and we ask questions. We eat the foods on the Seder plate and recite the brachot. We sing joyfully and eat the meticulously prepared foods of the festive meal.

Once the Seders conclude, we are left with six remaining days to observe Passover. How can we best use this time, as free people, to transform our slavery to Divine service? Below are two practical ways.

We are required to consume matzah on Passover, but surprisingly, not very much. The minimum amount of matzah required to be eaten in order to fulfill the mitzvah of consuming matzah on Passover is defined as two c’zaytim (the size of two olives, or about a half of a sheet of machine made matzah) per Seder. Once that amount is consumed, we are released from the obligation to consume any more of it. It has over the years become my practice to eat simply during these remaining days, refraining from Kosher for Passover packaged foods, like cereals, breads, and desserts. I further refrain from eating meat. I eat mostly vegetables, fruits, eggs, and dairy. I attempt to free myself from the chemical laden processed foods that pervade my diet when not careful during the rest of the year. This practice helps me to increase my mindfulness around the consumption of processed foods. I avoid meat during Passover (which I typically consume a fair amount of) to decrease my environmental impact. This serves as a reminder of the bounty that G-d has provided us in the natural world, as well as an awareness of the impact of my food decisions on the environment that G-d has lent us to shepherd.

These remaining days are useful for focusing on the blessings that I have received by having the economic freedom to purchase the foods that I want, when I want to purchase them. Many Americans do not have that same luxury due to “food insecurity.” According to Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger, “The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines food insecurity as a lack of access at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.” They further explain that “42.2 million Americans struggle to put enough nutritious food on the table. That’s 13.1 million children and 5.7 million seniors. 12.7% of all American households (are food insecure)— that’s more than 1 in 8. There are more food insecure Americans than the entire population of Canada (35.1 million).”

As we prepare to celebrate Passover and prepare to focus deeply on our food consumption, use this opportunity to increase your awareness of food insecurity in America. Further, use this time as an opportunity to consider your own food consumption and its impact on yourself, your health, and on the environment. We were slaves, and now we are free. This freedom can and must be leveraged for good in order to truly serve the Divine.s

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