It’s a good thing that we read the parasha Bo at this time of the year, instead of the spring, because usually when we hear these words, we’re just hungry and waiting to eat. Bo is the description of the first Passover Seder. It has so much more to tell us than what we usually discern in the Haggadah script, but it’s hard to appreciate nuance when the food smells so good.
This is a seminal moment in history. I realize that’s a very pompous statement to make, but consider this. Up until now, the Israelites haven’t been much of a community. In Bereshit (Genesis), the story is all about individuals and their families, with a hint of “tribal community” at the very end with all of Jacob’s sons. Then, in slavery, the Israelites are just this big mass – they’re led here, they’re led there, and Moses finally talks to them as a group: “Speak to the whole community of Israel and say….” (Ex 12:3) What does he tell them to do? Eat like a community. “…take a lamb to each family, but if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor…” (Ex. 12:3-4) Cook a meal, and if you have too much food, invite your neighbor over. But is that how a community is born?
It is. This is a birthing moment, complete with crying out (the Egyptians cry out at the 10th plague, death of the first born throughout the land) and blood (slaughtering the lamb in each household and marking space with blood on the doorposts). The first thing God tells this community to define itself is to eat together as families and neighbors. In the social history of our own country, and certainly throughout the world, one of the most destructive things that can be done to a community is to break up the families and neighborhoods. Destroying that identity can take generations to rebuild. And here, the Torah is saying that simply the act of sitting down to a meal and telling a story is enough to build a future on: “This day shall be to you (plural) one of remembrance; you shall celebrate it as a festival to Adonai throughout the ages…an institution for all time” (Ex. 12:14) All the important Jewish words are in this sentence: “zikaron” (memory), l’dorotechem (for your generations), chukat (law), olam (forever). And of course, Adonai, God.
Food accompanies good times and bad, celebration and mourning. Sharing a meal together is the classic way of making peace – “let us break bread together”. The value of a family meal has been written about for ages. The Passover Seder is the one thing that the majority of Jews take part in, even if they don’t do anything else “Jewish” all year round. But I think this parasha teaches us something even deeper.
We don’t mark our community’s beginning with a war. We are a nation that can “date” our founding to something as basic as having a meal together, at God’s command. That’s an interesting community to belong to; one that begins with a God-given emphasis on family, neighbors, discussion, teaching, and eating.
Yet, these days, Jews have a hard time eating together. To invite neighbors over, we need to know if they’re on medical diets of have allergies, if they’re vegetarians or vegan. It’s even more complicated for Jews. Do you keep kosher? Is that Glatt-kosher, eco-kosher, ingredient kosher, circle K or O/U? Perhaps more than anything else, this is a manifestation of a fractured community. Eating together defined us as a community back in Egypt, yet we can’t sit down to a meal today? This makes for lots of Jewish jokes, but it starts getting less funny the deeper the divisions go.
My extended family practices Jewish observance across quite a spectrum. Believe it or not, my household sits somewhere in the middle, so I’ve been able (ok, forced) to observe my own adaptations to others’ kashrut, or way of keeping kosher. Some of my in-laws won’t eat at our house, so they bring their own food, which I serve on paper plates. The use of paper plates and other disposables disturbs my green conscience, but it’s worth it to get together with that end of the family. My mother doesn’t keep kosher, but will buy kosher meat for us, though cooked in her pots. But how could I tell my mother we won’t come over, or make her lay out money, effort and storage for new cookware she doesn’t need? It’s her home, not mine. That’s not kavod av v’em (respecting father and mother), which I believe, as a Commandment “trumps” subsequent interpretation of law, even my own interpretation of it. And, given how many in our community are struggling with limited funds, how do we justify higher and higher prices for one supplier’s product? Is being Jewish only for those who have high incomes?
Ultimately, our community just needs to relax. We need to not only look for the underlying values of Jewish food practice, but elevate them above the actual practice. There are other Jewish values at work that are just as, if not more, important to our future as a community: hospitality, graciousness, honoring family. Kashrut is about making distinctions, and allowing for intentionality, kavanah, paying attention to what goes into our mouths. How we each do that varies throughout the scholarship, the teachers, the volumes of text, but in the end, the fact that we do it is what makes it Jewish. Maybe there used to be one way of eating (and living) Jewish, but frankly, there’s more than one game in town, and has been for a long time. We can remember why we pay attention to what we eat, without doing so at the expense of who is sitting at the table. That’s where our community was born, and that’s where its future is, too.
You can read this post on the JCC Chicago website, http://www.gojcc.org Click on Jewish values to read this and other Shabbat messages by Anita Silvert and Rabbi Nina Mizrahi, Director of the Pritzker Center, JCC Chicago.