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Eating history on Passover


It has been said that we are what we eat, so when the late Rabbi Harold Shulweis wrote, “On Passover, Jews eat history,” he told us that the Passover holiday menu offers instruction with each bite along with a lesson on how we learn and why.

The Passover Seder recalls the Hebrew Bible’s telling of the 13th century BCE exodus from Egypt. The Seder’s foods include matzah, baked of flour, water and nothing else as the Hebrews fled ancient Egypt. Matzah, the bland, crunchy, crumbly subsistence staple, is a jarring contrast to the breads, bagels, baguettes and more that we typically enjoy and may even take for granted.

Eating matzah, also known as “Bread of Affliction,” drives home an appreciation for the amount and array of our food options and speaks to the urgency of ensuring that those who hunger get fed. Eating maror, bitter herbs or horseradish, stings the sinus with the harshness of slavery as a demand to extend freedom to all. Parsley, a sign of the arriving spring, gets dipped in salt water that drips from the tiny green leaves like tears of oppression that fall from the eye. We spread that thick, pasty mixture of fruits and nuts, haroset, on matzah like mortar on the bricks of Egypt. The egg, a symbol of birth, offers hope in the fact of challenge. The lamb shank recalls the lamb we ate as we readied to leave Egypt for freedom. Eating history instills the moral, religious and spiritual values for living a Jewish life.

There is debate enough these days over the best way to educate ourselves and our children, and educational professionals have created, use and interpret an array of tests to measure how well our kids learn, how effectively teachers teach and the effectiveness of our schools and universities. Yet there is another way to teach that no pen and pencil, or computer exam can measure. That is, when it comes to history, science, math and more, we get plenty of facts from a book, movie or lecture, but, as Judaism knows, it takes more than knowing things to make a human being whole, to grow a child into what is called in Yiddish, a mensch, an ethically upstanding human being. To illustrate the teaching of the whole person, the body, mind and spirit of a person, Jewish thinker, Martin Buber, spoke of “education of character.”e

Martin Buber is well known for his Jewish spirituality classic, “I and Thou.” Written almost 100 years ago, it speaks to the spiritual dimensions of candid, respectful and honest conversation. Buber wrote numerous other books and essays, and taught extensively in Europe, the United States and in Israel, where he lived and worked from the time he and his family fled the Nazis in 1938 until his death in 1965.

Shortly after reaching Israel, Buber addressed the National Conference of Jewish Teachers in Tel Aviv, saying, “Education worthy of the name is essentially education of character.” (In Maurice Friedmn, “Encounter on the Narrow Ridge,” Paragon, 1993, 247) Beyond imparting facts, “education of character” nourishes the soul. It instills and bolsters a moral and spiritual legacy that informs how a person sets their life direction and moves forward.

Teaching through eating involves senses — smell, taste, sound and sight — with food. It incorporates and sustains a physical appreciation for the lessons of the past. It has us honor the instruction of the Haggadah, the Seder prayer book, to have “each person see themselves as having been liberated from Egypt.” Eating history instills the values of history.

So if we are what we eat, then we become who we are through food. And the Passover meal, as a tactile, audible and edible educational activity, orients the spirit to work for a world where all are free, all have what to eat, and all are equal, as they are at the Passover Seder and in the eyes of God. And the method of teaching about Passover instructs us on what to teach and how.

 Ross serves at Temple Am Echad in Lynbrook and is author of “A Year with Martin Buber: Wisdom from the Weekly Torah Portion.”