Passover Traditions: Do YOU Know Where to Find B'nei Berak?
Passover is coming! I love this holiday. My extended family is Jewish, and they have given me the gift of including me in so much that is beautiful in their lives ... especially Passover. This year, we won't be together due to illnesses and other unavoidable unusual circumstances. I find myself mourning the loss of this gathering this year. So instead of being sad, I want to share with you some treasured memories, and I ask you to share with me your memories -- or those moments that you would miss if you couldn't connect with your family this year.
First -- for those who have not yet been blessed with the joy of a Passover Seder, this is an eight-day festival that celebrates the escape of the Israelites from over 400 years of enslavement in Egypt by Pharaoh. Led by Moses, they implored Pharaoh to let them go. When he just heaped more indignities on them, more suffering, Moses threatened him with various plagues if he did not relent. Pharaoh was arrogant. So along came the plagues -- boils, locusts, dying livestock, frogs, flies, hail, lice -- and more. But Pharaoh stayed resolute and threatened to kill Moses. Then the tenth plague -- all the firstborn of Egypt, human and animal, would be killed. That night, Israelites put a mark of a slaughtered lamb above their doorposts to identify their homes. The Angel of Death came that night and "passed over" only the marked homes. It was then that Pharaoh relented, and the former slaves started their exodus from Egypt.
That period in history is recalled in the rituals and elements of a special family dinner that occurs around a religious liturgy which is recorded in a prayerbook called the Haggadah. Passover lasts eight days, but usually only the first two nights have the elaborate Seder meal. This event is all about attaining freedom, about celebration.
Many of the foods are symbolic: bitter foods for bitter years, unleavened bread as a reminder of having left Egypt in a hurry, and so on. You can read about the symbolic meaning of items on the Seder Plate.
One of my most treasured memories is a simple silly thing that our host does every year. He reads this portion of the Haggadah and asks the same question every time:
It happened that Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarphon were reclining [at a seder] in B'nei Berak. They were discussing the exodus from Egypt all that night, until their students came and told them: "Our Masters! The time has come for reciting the morning Shema!"
His question: "Where is B'nei Berak?"
And we all answer, in unison and with gusto the lesson we have learned every year. "It is a suburb of Tel Aviv!" And then we all laugh because it is so silly to be asked what we already know. We smile, because we all share the joke. Our host feigns surprise that we remembered.
But on another level, it is an interesting bit of knowledge. It is a real place, a place many around the table have visited -- that hiding place for the rabbis. It may seem strange that they had to be told that it was daylight, and time for morning prayers. But during the time of these rabbis, the Roman Empire was in charge, and forbade the practice of Judaism. They were celebrating Passover in secret, perhaps in a cave, while their students stood watch. It might have cost them their lives to be discovered.
Our host knows that we cannot let important places just become suburbs in our minds -- that we have to understand that people paid a price to preserve what we enjoy now in freedom. And that is not just a lesson for the Jewish community.
One year, our host forgot to ask us about B'nei Berak. We made him stop and go back. It wouldn't be right to skip over our lesson about sacred ground.
And every year, we know the folks at the table who don't like homemade gefilte fish, and the ones who love matzoh noodles. We know who can take the strongest blast of homemade horseradish and who is a gastronomic coward. And we know that there are millions of families probably nothing like ours, but who are identically gathering to say these same words and celebrate these same events -- some in freedom, and some in oppression.
Every year, I was honored with being asked to read the Hallel - a stunningly wonderful and poetic prayer at the end of the liturgy. I will quote a part of it here, so those of you who are new to it can hear its joyous Psalmic beauty, and those who know it well can smile in fond remembrance with me.
...To You alone we give thanks. Even if our mouths were filled with song as the sea, and our tongues with joyous singing like the multitudes of its waves, and our lips with praise like the expanse of the sky; and our eyes shining like the sun and the moon, and our hands spread out like the eagles of heaven, and our feet swift like deer we would still be unable to thank You L-rd, our G-d and G-d of our fathers, and to bless Your Name, for even one of the thousands of millions, and myriads of myriads, of favors, miracles and wonders which You have done for us and for our fathers before us. L-rd, our G-d.
You have redeemed us from Egypt, You have freed us from the house of bondage, You have fed us in famine and nourished us in plenty; You have saved us from the sword and delivered us from pestilence, and raised us from evil and lasting maladies. Until now Your mercies have helped us, and Your kindnesses have not forsaken us; and do not abandon us, L-rd our G-d, forever! Therefore, the limbs which You have arranged within us, and the spirit and soul which You have breathed into our nostrils, and the tongue which You have placed in our mouth they all shall thank, bless, praise, glorify, exalt, adore, sanctify and proclaim the sovereignty of Your Name, our King.
For every mouth shall offer thanks to You, every tongue shall swear by You, every eye shall look to You, every knee shall bend to You, all who stand erect shall, bow down before You...
Please share with us your favorite part of Passover.