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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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Passover baggage and Pesach magic

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Sara Horowitz

I once had a dream about luggage. In my dream, I was packing for a trip and couldn’t seem to sort out the appropriate clothing for the destination. I kept piling up clothing and other gear, attempting to stuff everything into different suitcases. But try as I might, I couldn’t get myself packed. Finally, I realized the problem. My baggage was all wrong. My last dream thought was: I can’t go where I want because of my baggage.

My first thought upon waking was “Hello, subconscious! Could a metaphor be any more transparent?” Appearing literally as luggage in the dream, baggage is used to signify not so much the physical stuff we take with us when we travel, but the internal stuff that comes with us wherever we go – traces from our past and things in our present that encumber us, weigh us down, burden us and keep us from moving forward.

I thought about that long-ago dream recently while transitioning myself from the easy excesses of Purim revelry to the daunting excesses of Passover planning. Pesach is a kind of reckoning, different from the solemn reckoning of the High Holidays halfway around the calendar, but sober in its own way. It brings to mind where you’ve come from and where you’re headed.

Family seders offer a telling snapshot, hinting at what occurred during the past year. Sometimes the snapshot includes new faces – friends from university whose home is too distant for them to get there for the holiday, significant others, new spouses, babies and toddlers. Sometimes faces are missing: someone’s moved to a different part of the world, someone’s been widowed, someone’s divorced, someone’s feuding.

For many, seders are always tinged with nostalgia, with a longing for an unrecoverable past. My late Aunt Elaine, for example, held mega-seders for the extended family and a growing network of friends. Often there were 40 or 50 people chanting, singing and eating. Her seders were a happening thing, the place to be. Yet I remember her confiding in me that she always missed my grandfather’s seders – missed, that is, the seders of her childhood in her father’s home. That, for her, was the real Pesach. Her own seders were Proustian searches for time past.

Perhaps she also missed the magic of being a child on Pesach. For an adult, that magic is replaced by the labour of production – food production, stage production, cultural production – those very aspects that make the festival so magical for children. Yet we adults, too, need a taste of magic. Sometimes we find it in the voices of children gathered around the table. Sometimes we catch it in a wisp of a melody handed down from ancestral Pesach celebrations.

But sometimes the logistics of magic-production dampens the magic for those who create it for others. Pesach is a home-centred festival whose centrepiece is the seder, but whose behind-the-scenes orchestration extends backwards, exhaustingly, for days, even weeks. I remember some years coming to the seder bone-weary, grateful that all that needed to be on the table could somehow be found on it and realizing that with all my list-checking and preparations, I hadn’t carved out a space for spiritual preparation. I’d thought about menus, but not meaning.

It’s not that this ritual labour – or labour for rituals – is divorced from spirituality and meaning. On the contrary, all “this work,” as both the wise and wicked children call it, is designed precisely to induce a turn to the spirit. But for me, at any rate, there needs to be also a contemplative space, a pause in the frenetic juggling of work, family, and festival demands, to drop the mundane and to focus on what is transcendent and sublime.

There’s a delicious irony in all this – a weaving together of burden and privilege, of enslavement and redemption – in short, the mixed baggage of our biblical ancestors who fled the land of their oppression in triumph and in fear, carrying the flat bread that symbolized both poverty and freedom. Their challenge was not so different from ours: how to turn complicated baggage not into an encumbrance but into spiritual riches.

Oh, and my dream about my baggage? The next day, I bought myself a new suitcase.

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