Our Passover Challenge: Integrating the Familiar and the Fresh

by Lisa Chinsky

Passover is super early this year. (I know, I know, it’s always either late or early, but never “on time.”) The first night is March 25! No, that’s not a typo; the first seder is Monday, March 25! I started to think about what that means in our house and to our family, and I realized that it doesn’t really matter when it is because we already know what we are going to do.

Every year, we do the same thing. We eat matzah. We dip parsley in salt water. We ask the four questions. We make charoset. We open the door for Elijah.  Every year, it’s the same. The rituals are so familiar and so comforting.

Part of what I like best about this holiday is its predictability. For as long as I can remember, we’ve had a seder and done pretty much the same things.  First, at my parents’ house and then in our own home. When my kids were younger, Rabbi Elliot Kleinman came to Erie to talk about ways to make the seder more interesting and interactive, and since then, we’ve added some of the fun that my family now associates with seders. We throw rice or marshmallows at each other simulating “hail.” We put stickers all over us for “boils” and we have tons and tons of frogs on the table. We even sing “Hail Fell on Egypt Land” using the melody for “Hail to the Victors,” Michigan’s fight song and one of our favorites. It’s our tradition and we all like knowing what’s coming next.

In 2000 and 2001, we had some bad news come to us. In 2000, our son, Daniel, was diagnosed with leukemia and relapsed exactly one year later—during Passover each time.

When it got close to Passover the next year, I got a sick feeling in my stomach. I tried to skip the holiday entirely.

My children, however, would have none of it. On the day of the first seder, when I normally would be setting tables and cooking, I was doing nothing. “What are you doing?” they asked. “We have to get ready for the seder!” I couldn’t say no to them, so I quickly ran to the grocery store and bought a chicken, matzah ball soup mix in a box, and apples and walnuts—and we threw together a mini seder. It was just the five of us, but they wanted the familiar traditions they associated with Passover.

I think there is great value in retelling the story and honoring traditions. We do that all the time. How many of us have heard “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it” repeated at our temples? Doing something different is hard and sometimes scary.  But, if we never try anything new, we are missing out on the fun. If I had never added the fun of frogs, hail, boils and more to our seders, my children might never have insisted that we celebrate Passover when I wanted to skip it. For them (and for me), it would have been a routine, boring holiday during which we did the same boring things year after year.

“Because we’ve always done it that way” is no way to grow, to adapt, to live. We need to constantly strive to add new things to our routines until they, too, become familiar rituals that we enjoy. Sometimes, it is good to have things so familiar that you can do them without thinking—as when Passover sneaks up on you sooo early!—but if you never think about your actions, you are sleepwalking through life and who knows what you may be missing?  Our challenge—in both our own families and in our temple family— is to keep the familiar, while also adding new things. Matzah is fine, but gummy frogs are fun.

Every year, we celebrate our freedom from slavery in Egypt. But in my house, we are also celebrating so much more. Remembering the year Passover almost wasn’t, I am so happy and grateful that it was my children who reminded me of the importance of our traditions—especially when they are fun!

Lisa Chinsky is president of Temple Anshe Hesed, Erie, PA.