In the lead up to Passover this past week, I had the pleasure of watching my uncle compete in the Sixth Annual Manischewitz Cook-Off at the Jewish Community Center in New York City. The five finalists had their recipes chosen from over two-thousand entries submitted from all over the country, and they were flown in to compete for the grand prize: a twenty-five thousand dollar kitchen renovation.
The audience for the event consisted of a hodge-podge of Jewish and secular “foodies” representing an array of food-industry related professions. Representatives from American kashrut organizations like the Orthodox Union schmoozed with Maytag kitchen appliance representatives, while a Celebrity Food Network chef signed autographs for writers from local and national Jewish newspapers. The judges for the competition ranged from kosher cookbook authors to the nutrition editor from Self magazine. Like the Jews leaving Egypt with bread that did not have time properly rise, the finalists were limited to one hour to prepare their dishes, some of which, no doubt, had originally taken much more time to prepare.
All of this reminded me how, for many American Jews, the Passover experience is not only contained in the meal or in synagogue, but in the sacredness of preparing for the Passover seder itself.
This week, cook-offs will take place throughout Jewish kitchens across the world. Unsung heroes - men and women - will spend weeks in their homes and kitchens preparing for the seder, so that those of us who have the luxury of merely attending (and not hosting) seders will get to enjoy them.
Of course, many of us to some extent go through some of the motions even if we are not hosting the seder. Our journey will begin as we reenact the process of slavery by turning our homes over for Passover sometimes weeks in advance, as we shuffle our chametz and kosher for Passover appliances back and forth between our garages and kitchens. We will then hold disagreements of Moses and Pharaoh proportions with the annually unsettled question of which family gets to host the seder and who will prepare what specialty to serve at the meal. Some of us will then undergo the annual quasi-religious experience of grocery shopping, as we run into all of our Jewish friends at the supermarket, sensing the excitement and anticipation that the Jews must have felt as they prepared their last meal before leaving Egypt. We will then hold that meal by eating different types of symbolic foods, some of which have been prepared from old family recipes from the days of Egypt. At the Seder, we will hold a discussion about suffering, as each party present boasts about who bought or made the least vile tasting Passover dessert. And then, this experience will conclude with Birkat Hamazon, recognizing God for our freedom, and the repast that has brought us together in celebration.
In other words, in today’s day and age spirituality on Passover can be found not only during tefilla, but through the very act of preparing for Pesach. By spending the time to prepare for Passover properly, each of us comes to understand what it means to truly enjoy freedom in our world, for freedom can only exist if righteous persons are willing to work for it. Without the sacred labor of Moses and Aaron, the Jews would have never left Egypt, and without our sacred labor today the blessings of Passover - food, family, and togetherness - this holiday would not happen.
Unfortunately, my uncle did not win the free kitchen renovation. Yet, I hope that this year on Passover, we will all take a moment before our seders to acknowledge not only our Maker who took us out of Egypt, but those whose hard work, sacrifice, and time in preparing our homes for Pesach has enabled us to enjoy our freedom properly this year.
Rabbi Daniel Dorsch is the Assistant Rabbi of Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, New Jersey.
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