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Springtime for Judaism: Season of laughter, tears | Guest Column | March 13
Somebody once suggested that every holiday on the Jewish calendar can be summarized like this: They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.
The joke is both sad, and funny, which is appropriate, because Jewish history is the same way. You’ve got to cry when you hear many stories of the Jewish past, and you’ve got to laugh, too.
Several of our holidays occur during this season – springtime – and together they help us laugh and weep and experience the whole gamut of human emotions as we remember the history of our people.
At one end of the spectrum is a holiday called Purim, which occurred last Tuesday, March 10.
On Purim, Jews celebrate the events told in the book of Esther. In ancient Persia, we read, an evil man named Haman plotted to kill all of the nation’s Jews.
But Persia had a Jewish queen at that time, Esther, who, along with her cousin Mordechai, intervened with the king on behalf of her people.
It was a cunning act of courage, and it resulted in the king ordering Haman to hang on the very gallows he had built for the Jews.
For centuries, Jews have celebrated the anniversary of these events with great revelry.
On Purim, children (and courageous adults) come to the synagogue dressed in costumes. There are Purim carnivals with games of all sorts to help us celebrate. We eat a fruit-filled pastry called hamentaschen, Haman’s ears.
And on Purim we grownups are supposed to drink so much that we can’t tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai.
They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat...and drink!
Near the other end of the spectrum is Passover – Pesach, in Hebrew – a weeklong festival celebrating our people’s Exodus from Egypt and journey toward the Promised Land. This year, Passover begins on the night of April 8.
Like Purim, Passover also celebrates a Jewish victory over oppression, but Passover is far less bawdy.
It begins with a Passover Seder, a festive meal that we celebrate in our homes with family and friends.
Around the Seder table, we take a symbolic journey with our ancestors from the agony of slavery to the joy of freedom.
We eat a bitter herb – horseradish, usually – to taste the nastiness of servitude. We eat a sweet apple relish called charoset to taste the sweetness of freedom.
And since our ancestors had no time to wait for their bread to rise when they left Egypt, we don’t eat risen bread either.
Instead, for the duration of the holiday, we eat an unleavened cracker-like “bread” called matzah.
Guiding us on our journey at the Seder table is the Haggadah – a Seder prayerbook whose words date back to the second century.
Passover, in short, is often a joyous celebration, but it also incorporates an air of solemnity, as well.
In fact, the effect of matzah on the human body after a full week of eating it tends to make Passover quite solemn, indeed!
They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat...matzah.
These holidays beg an important question. How should we remember our sufferings of the past?
Should we laugh, or should we cry? As we see when looking at these holidays, we Jews have refused to make the decision – we do both.
Laughter and weeping, eating and drinking, fully experiencing life’s highest highs and lowest lows in the sacred journey called life – this, in part, is what it means to be a Jew.
Rabbi Mark S. Glickman serves Congregation Kol Shalom on Bainbridge.