“Rabbi Elazar son of Azaria said: Here, I might as well be seventy years old, and still, I could not persuade others to tell the tale of the Exodus during the nights, not until Ben Zoma illuminated it this way: As it is written, So that you remember the day of your exit from Egypt all of the days of your life. The days of your life means: the days. All of the days of your life means the nights, as well.”
(From the Passover Haggadah, based on a translation from the New American Haggadah, edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and Nathan Englander)
The text resounds in my ears as I read it: Rabbi Elazar…might as well be seventy years old.
I have reached that season of my life, and it is the one in which it is time for reflection and persuading…or on reflection about the Pesach persuasions that have shaped the elder that I am now in the process of becoming.
Shabbat Parah arrives (several weeks before Passover), and I begin my journey to weave the maggid (the central telling of the Passover story at the seder) that will enter my soul and accompany me to the seder table. Of course, we tell the Exodus story, but there are so many additional stories that I need to share with my loved ones each year as we prepare and then finally sit at the seder table.
One of my first childhood memories takes place in my mother’s kitchen in the first house I lived in with my family. I am about 5 years old. The kitchen is all a-bustle as wooden crates are brought up from the basement and green glass dishes are unpacked. The dishes glisten and look like emeralds in my mother’s soft yellow kitchen. I am excited, as if a treasure has been unpacked…and yet my mother seems burdened by “my treasure.”
“Mother,” I ask, “why are you bringing these beautiful dishes up from the basement? Why did the egg man deliver so many eggs today? Why does our kitchen smell different today than any other time? Are we the only ones doing this?”
Four question, perhaps my first Pesah questions—ones that I can ask even before I am capable of reading questions in the Haggadah. And my mother opens to me:
“Pesah is a special time. We eat different foods for eight days, and we change everything in our kitchen so that we can eat the special foods on special dishes. Your father taught me to prepare this way. This is the way he saw his mother prepare, and so I do it the same way.”
This began my special attachment to my mother on Pesah. I loved nothing better than being by her side in the kitchen and learning everything she could teach me. The most important and lasting lesson that my mother offered was that if she lovingly prepared for the holiday in this fashion, it would become my practice for all of the days and the nights of my life. Her simple instructions about why we were doing what she was doing seemed somehow magical to me, and I felt a great sense of pride that my family was marking Pesah in this manner.
What I learned at 5 years of age at my mother’s side became indelible. I have never been able to let go of her practices. Each year her yellowed recipes come out, and I follow her instructions carefully to reproduce all of her wonderful recipes for Pesah. My kitchen smells just like the kitchen in which I first learned these lessons at such a young age. The aromas fill my head with the family maggid—the telling. Every year new chapters are added.
As in any family, the maggid section becomes woven with both the joy of the holiday and the sadness that can also accompany the family story. It is not possible to live a full life and not find that Pesah can be shaped and tinged by both of these elements. And this tapestry of life—all of the days and all of the nights—comes quickly into focus as the first box of Pesah dishes enters my “yellow kitchen.”
We all have our own maggid section—the one that overlays the Exodus story of our people. It is woven with life’s richness.
For me, it always includes the large family seders in hotel banquet rooms, my father at the head of the table leading it. It’s good that I had the chance to ask my mother the questions that I had about Pesah as my father led a non-stop recitation of the entire Haggadah—leaving no room for the children to really ask anything at all about the seder. We had to sit and listen to his intonation and quietly take it in. The many children at the table could not wait for it to be over; it held little meaning for any of us. At these seders, my older brother also led; he led the activities for the restless children who got up from the table and went into the hallway to escape…our own brand of “Exodus.” My brother was a master of telling all of us how we could get around any Pesah practice that we had learned from our parents—another brand of maggid, for sure. A part of my own maggid includes that first Pesah when I knew that I ate something that I should not have eaten during the eight days. All of these tales are woven into my Haggadah.
There are Pesah stories that involve the illness of a grandparent, a family tragedy for a child, a last Pesah for many family members that will not travel with us for another year.
And there are openings as well. “Go and learn,” we are taught. It was my own children who helped me to study the text of the Haggadah, going beyond the family’s simple recitation of the traditional Haggadah and the recalling only of family memories—two young, bright women who knew that there was so much more to our story than we had been experiencing each year. Their research and the new texts they brought to the table was my first adult foray into text study. I began my true love of Pesah and the richness of the text because of their ability to teach their parents.
At age 70: all of the days of your life and all of the nights. I bring these all to this holiday season. I ask new questions and invite all of us to do so. I wish I could still ask my mother, as I gaze at her yellowed handwritten recipes, why she offered the instructions in the manner that she did. Some of the words are still not clear.
I bring her with me to the seder table, and my father and my brother and all of our stories, ready to weave in yet one more chapter.
Rabbi Elazar has persuaded me to bring it all and to tell it all this year…and every year going forward.
It is as if I am 70 years of age.
Rabbi Cooper came to Reconstructing Judaism in midlife. She has been a therapist, a congregational rabbi and a member of the faculty at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. She is now retired and spends her time writing, teaching Torah and serving as a rabbinic governor on the board of Reconstructing Judaism.