‘Can we go now,” my youngest son asked on Monday, about 30 seconds after we tossed a small paper bag of hametz into a fire to symbolically burn all our leaven before Pessah.
“Huh,” I looked at him dumbfounded. “We just got here. The pitot aren’t even toast yet.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “You threw it on the fire; you know it’s going to burn. What are you going to do, sit there and watch it all day?”
And with that response the end of an era painfully dawned. In days past I’d take the kids down the street to burn the hametz with the neighbors, and we would sit there for hours, the youngest lad happily stirring the fire with a stick, joyously tossing other people’s pasta on the pyre.
We could make a whole morning’s activity out of the event. The kids would skip and ramble and fight, all perilously close to the fire and the burning leaven, and I’d alternately kvell and yell. In our home this ritual came close to being classified a bona fide outing, a dress rehearsal for Lag Ba’omer.
We’d come back into the house after a couple of hours at the fire, the kids’ clothes reeking of smoke, their faces and hands black with soot – everyone just happy as could be.
That joy could last clear over into the first intermediate day of Pessah, when the little ones would ask what fun excursion we were planning for that day, and The Wife and I could say, in all sincerity, “But, dear ones, we’re not going on an outing today, since just two days ago we had our outing when we burned the hametz, remember? We don’t want to overdo it, we have to pace ourselves.”
THAT WAS then. But now, with the youngest in eighth grade and the oldest in the army, the thrill is gone. Thirty seconds down at the hametz pyre, and we are out of there.
What this does is underline one of the intriguing aspects about Pessah rituals: that life’s journey can be measured by the different ways we approach the holiday’s customs; that time and age can be measured by the different ways we relate to the exact same ritual performed year after year after year.
Once the ritual is magical, once mysterious, once annoying, once almost physically impossible to perform – it all depends on your age.
Take, for example, searching the home for leaven the night before Pessah.
For small children there is something thrilling about that ritual, about walking around the house in the dark, armed only with a candle and a feather, looking for strategically placed bread crumbs. As the kids get older, however, the magic wears off, and what once seemed so special, now seems kind of silly.
And then, as adolescence turns into early adulthood and the reason for the search is understood – that it is done as a concrete reminder to remove hametz from all the house – that ritual, once magical and then silly, becomes pragmatic and practical.
And then when early adulthood morphs into parenthood, that same ritual is performed in an attempt to make it magical and mysterious for one’s own young children.
SITTING AROUND the Seder table this year, a table less rambunctious and more orderly than in years past, I now hanker a bit for the noise, pandemonium and excitement that reigned when the kids were small.
I yearn for the days when any question about why we perform any of the rituals – from the dipping of the celery, to leaning to the left when drinking wine, to eating the egg – could all be answered with a simple “to get the kids to ask questions.”
Shakespeare, were he Jewish, could very well have situated his famous “All the world’s a stage” monologue from As You Like It
around a Seder, with each of man’s seven stages of life illustrated by how one relates to the Seder.
There is the infant “mewling and puking” in his mother’s arms, crawling on the floor between the chairs, the mother exhausted, the guests wishing the kid would just sit still.
There is the “whining school boy” coyly and with embarrassment reciting the Four Questions. There is the “lover” from Shakespeare’s monologue, bringing a boyfriend or girlfriend to the family Seder, hoping beyond hope that no one does anything embarrassing.
There is Shakespeare’s soldier, tired from the week, wanting to get through the Haggada as quickly as possible. There is the “justice,” the middle-aged man, “in fair round belly,” as the Bard put it, “full of wise saws and modern instances,” trying to make the story relevant for others.
Then there are the grandparents with “spectacles on nose and pouch on
sides,” observing the goings-on, having sat through many a Seder in the
past and watching now as someone else takes the lead. And, finally,
there are the aged infirm, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans
everything,”’ sitting around the table, perhaps a bit confused, no
longer remembering precisely what it is all about.
Holidays, whenever they roll around, are often accompanied by newspaper
stories reporting a spike in depression, since the festivals highlight
for some what they feel is missing. The holidays often underscore the
psychological tension between what a person thinks he should feel –
happiness, joy – and what he does feel: perhaps loneliness, perhaps
some melancholy because something, or someone, is absent.
The melancholy hit me this year on two planes. First, because I feel
guilty that I have to work during the intermediate days, and as a
result still try to fop off burning the hametz with the kids as a
genuine vacation activity. And, second, because watching how the
children address the rituals now – so different than when they were
small – is at once gratifying (watching them grow and all), but also
melancholy-inducing, since sensing time pass is among the most
intensely bittersweet experiences of life.