From their stations at the edges of the room, the rabbis led us through the steps. First, the recollections of enslavement: we scooped a spoonful of the apple mixture on to our plates to remind us of the adobe mortar we molded into bricks, along with a dollop of horseradish for the bitter experience of forced labor.
Then we were freed by the Egyptian leader, Pharaoh, after a series of plagues befell his land. Calamities including swarms of lice, flies, and locusts weakened his resolve. Water turned to blood and the sun disappeared and his people developed incurable boils. One of the rabbis instructed us to spill a drop of wine onto our plates as he listed each plague. These were the tears we shed for the Egyptians because any human suffering is sorrowful even if it is the price of freedom. The last plague, the death of every firstborn human and animal, finally swayed Pharaoh to release the slaves, an event commemorated by the hunk of meat on the Passover platter. The Jews smeared a bit of blood from a sacrificed lamb on their houses so death would know which families to “pass over.” The meat is a token of this gesture as well as a nod to the significance of animal sacrifice at the tabernacle and temple.
I chewed some matzah and eyed the big sheet of it I had pulled from the stack. This was most definitely the nourishment of a fleeing people, the basic minimum to sustain life.
I watched my tablemates construct little sandwiches with apple mush and the horseradish by putting this odd combination of fillings between two shards of matzah bread. I built my own and ate it along with them. I was surprised by the overpowering sweetness, perhaps heightened by the contrast to the bitter horseradish. That’s the thing about Passover: it’s ultimately a celebration of freedom. The memory of slavery offers contrast that heightens the joy and gratitude we feel for the ability to live freely.
As the festivities progressed we consumed the requisite four cups of wine and the atmosphere grew more jubilant. No one was required to fill their cup to the top, merely to take a hearty gulp each time, and a grape juice alternative was provided, but most people opted for wine and some, like my Vietnam vet tablemate, took its consumption very seriously. We had a small cup for wine and a large one for water, but he used his water cup for the wine, filling it to the brim each time. Watching him, I abandoned the notion that he was here for the free meal. He knew the Hebrew prayers by heart and his enthusiasm for every aspect of the evening was contagious.
Each time we drank the wine, everyone in the room tilted to the left like we were performing some synchronized dance movement. Per tradition, we were mimicking an angle of repose: reclining to relish our freedom. The Vietnam vet leaned so far over I thought his wine might spill.
The entire room broke out in a traditional song. It’s an inventory of all the good things that have happened before, during, and after Passover, but it’s the single-word chorus everyone sings with such delight that it’s contagious. The word is “Dayenu” and it translates into something like “more than enough.” It expresses a deep sense of gratitude and satisfaction even when times are hard and means scarce. We sang the word “Dayenu” over and over again, clapping and shouting. At one point, three rabbis got up and began to dance. Others joined them and for several minutes the joy bubbled over and the crowd egged them on and grown men danced in a circle like ecstatic school children.