Believe it or not, my earliest Passover memory is one of flies. Hundreds and hundreds of flies. Not the 4th plague recounted in the Haggadah kind of flies, but the real kind.
My Grandmother made her traditional Ashkenazic gefilte fish from scratch. She ground the carp and the pike by hand, and boiled the fish balls in a huge blue-enameled pot on the stove. Since I grew up in the South, it was not uncommon for the temperatures to have already reached springtime highs by the time Passover rolled around. So the kitchen windows would be open, and the smell of that seething mass of boiling fish drew every single fly in the neighborhood. I remember the popping sound they made as they bashed against the window screens trying to get into the house. I recall that memory comes each year at this season.
But then it all began to change. We got central air-conditioning. So the windows stayed closed. Then the flies didn’t come any more, and when my grandmother eventually entered the nursing home, then she too didn’t come for Passover any more. That’s the thing about memories. They slip away unless you make a conscious effort to hold on to them.
Some years ago I thought I would try my hand at making my Grandmother’s gefilte fish using her recipe and her grinder. But David would have none of it. He insisted on the mass produced fish from the Manashevitz jar because that’s what his family always had for Passover. He had a different memory. Different traditions spring from different memories.
And in large part, Passover is all about what you remember. Traditional food and rituals. Tastes. Opening the door for Elijah. Reciting the four questions. The first time you aged out of asking the four questions. Celebrants past who are no longer among the living. These are the kind of recollections that make the seder special.
If you are choosing or have chosen Judaism, for you Passover is more about creating memories. About cherishing and experiencing the firsts of your Jewish journey and then holding on to them as precious.
It’s all to the good because, remembering is also the primary mitzvah of this festival.
Be it veteran or newcomer - strangely and most importantly - Passover asks you to remember something that never happened to you. You actually were never a slave to Pharaoh in Egypt, although you are supposed to remember that time as if you had been. The Torah commands, Remember the day YOU went forth from Egypt. Elsewhere, “chayav adam lerot et atsmo c’elu hu yatsah me’mitrayeem“ In every generation you are to hold yourself as if you personally experienced the actual Exodus.”
The truth is you cannot do this first-hand kind of remembering if the thing you are supposed to remember never happened to you. But you can live AS IF it had happened to you; which is to say you can live as if you had learned the lessons of that experience. And because you imagine what it was like, you can remember the heart of the stranger because in a way you too were a stranger in the land of Egypt. You do not oppress the poor or subvert the rights of the lowly because you can imagine what it was like when that was done to you - not so long ago in your own remembered past. The Exodus may be a kind of phantom memory of personal oppression and subjugation but you act and live as if it had been a reality from which you – by the goodness and grace of God – have been liberated. It’s all very confusing, but it works. This memory of oppression and liberation has sustained our people for centuries and just as importantly fostered within us a love of freedom and a commitment to social justice.
So this Passover, remember and make memories happen and then cherish them all for the mysterious and wondrous gifts that they are.
Shabbat shalom and Chag Sameach