Passover has been lumbering along nicely through its intermediate period, with “the second days” set to begin Friday night after sundown and end 48 hours later. The holiday in total lasts for eight days — seven (1-5-1) in Israel — divided into a 2-4-2 structure. The first two and last two include prohibitions against work other than food preparation. (Bosses are thrilled this year to see three of those four days off absorbed by two Sundays and a Saturday.)
This time around I had occasion to observe a particularly poignant feature of this season, namely the effusion of generosity, what my late Grandpa liked to call magnanimity. About three weeks before the holiday, I received an overnight envelope which, to my relief, did not explode. Inside was a greeting card from a local CEO who wrote touchingly, “It is our great privilege to have a man of your knowledge and talent in our midst.” The accompanying tribute: two thousand dollars of gift certificates to local supermarkets.
Apparently the reputation of writers’ earning power leaves something to be desired. It calls to mind the running gag on Seinfeld where Jerry’s parents never really believe that he can make a living as a comedian — this after they lived fifty years on his Dad’s income as a clothing salesman. Still, the act of unprompted philanthropy shines a light on this very beautiful part of the character of the Passover experience.
There is no question that full observance of this holiday can be a daunting proposition, financially as well as physically. Since no bread or cakes can be eaten, and most pots and silverware have been used for those foods over the course of the year, they have to be dipped in scalding water to eliminate the residue. This is used symbolically to express the human striving to rid oneself of nagging character defects. However, most families simply choose the easier option. They keep a set of Passover dishes in storage for the entire year and bring them out for the eight-day term. That can be a costly proposition, although it is only a one-time expense.
This gave rise to a grim joke when Jews were trying to get money out of South Africa when the apartheid governments were clinging to power and prohibiting transfer of funds beyond the nation’s borders. It was claimed that one craftsman had developed a system of making false teeth out of gold and coating them with innocuous enamel, to be smuggled in the mouth. One very wealthy fellow had enough cash to pay for two of these. When the customs agent asked why he had packed a second set of dental prosthetics, the man replied: “Those are my teeth for Passover.”
THE FOOD CERTIFIED “Kosher for Passover” requires an extensive cleaning of the machinery in the manufacturing plants, which in turn gets passed along to the consumer as higher prices. Go to a supermarket in a Jewish area a week or two before the holiday and you will see shopping carts piled with a vast array of products, as the entire contents of a kitchen are reproduced: new spices, new oils, new flavorings.
As a result, some people simply cannot afford to pay the freight for doing it “by the book.” They either give up completely or skimp on various parts, especially as they struggle to keep their heads above water in a tough economy. The beauty is that many of them get a break from their brethren further up the pay scale. Jewish tradition enjoins the rabbi to keep a careful eye on his flock to be certain that the poor are backed up by the rich and a dedication to tradition should not break the bank.
In that vein, a classic story is told of a rabbi in the late 1800s who was asked by a woman congregant if she could substitute four cups of milk for the traditional four cups of wine at the Seder (festive family meal held on each of the first two nights). The rabbi mooted the question by opening the charity drawer and giving her fifty dollars. “But, father,” his children protested later. “Wine only costs about ten dollars.” “Yes,” he replied. “But if she is considering milk as her main beverage, she obviously has no money for meat, since Jews do not eat meat and milk in the same meal.”
Let us cultivate this spirit of beneficence within ourselves. This will encourage God to treat us the very same way.