I went to the grocery store last week and there was an entire aisle that isn’t usually there. Kosher for Pesach cake mixes, cookies, pastas, and crackers filled up almost a whole aisle of the store as the surrounding Jewish community begins preparations for Pesach. For those of you who aren’t practicing Jews, this probably doesn’t mean anything so let me explain. Pesach is a time when Jews across the world commemorate the freeing of the ancient Israelites from slavery in Egypt. We celebrate the miracles that G…d provided to aid us, and we seek to understand the burdens felt by our ancestors as they fled through the wilderness. One of the ways we commemorate the Exodus is by imitating our ancestor’s inability to wait for the bread to rise as they fled. We reject, for Pesach week, the five grains (wheat, rye, barley, spelt, and oats). We eat nothing that has been leavened – no bread, no pasta, no rice.
We rigorously change our dietary habits in order to feel, for a few days, the hardship that our terrified ancestors felt as they fled Egyptian rule. The point is to try to share in the suffering of a people running for their lives, a people who had no time to wait for the bread to rise, a people for whom waiting was an issue of life or death. This brings me back to the grocery store. It is now possible to commemorate the Exodus without changing much of your dietary habits. For everything we are not supposed to eat there is a substitute.
Really want chocolate cookies? There are chocolate-covered matzo cookies to replace regular ones. Really want spaghetti for dinner? No problem – we’ve come up with pasta that is kosher for Passover. I have to wonder what we are robbing ourselves of with all of these convenient replacement foods. We give up the bread we love for a reason. We make sacrifices for a reason – to connect to our ancestors, to participate in the community of Judaism all across the globe, to acknowledge in front of G…d that we are grateful for the salvation of our people.
Pesach is a holy time, a time for spiritual reflection on the struggles of our people, on the struggles and oppression of all people. It is a time to be thankful for the miracles that help us survive, and a time to be cognizant of the oppression that still continues in the world. There are still people in the world for whom waiting for the bread to rise could be a matter of life or death.
There are people in the world who are running for their lives – not only in countries like Syria and Iran, but here, in the United States. Passover is a time to recognize this and try, for a mere week, to understand what the totality of their lives might be like. When we rob ourselves of the opportunity to sacrifice by creating instant substitutes, are we really able to say that we are doing the spiritual work of Pesach? When we cannot, even for a week, give up the bread we love, how are we going to continue the work of relieving oppression – a work which takes much greater sacrifices than our dietary desires?
Malachi Kosanovich is a Jewish convert, scholar, and the mind behind Beliefnet blog On the Doorposts of My House.