My cousin took out the Hagada and began to read. The first prayer read: “Today we are here, but next year we will be free in Israel.” We all laughed. This is clearly a Hagada written for a Passover abroad. But here we were, my aunt, wife, grandmother, cousin, uncle and mother in law, in Israel, less than 20 km from where Abraham put down his roots, not far from where he nearly sacrificed Isaac. We were in the land of Israel. I didn’t realize it, but I had never been in Israel for actual holidays. In all the times I had been here, I had never spent time to see the holidays, and here I was witnessing them, season to season, day after day, and I was learning things about Judaism so much more than I ever expected.
Passover, is the most important holiday for Jews. This importance is especially felt in Israel where everyone celebrates it, not just your local temple. Passover is important because it is not just a Jewish day of independence or emancipation, it is the Jewish day of nationhood. Passover celebrates Jews getting the stone tablets that gave the Jews the first constitution, the culture, codified us as a people and made us who we are. Before the tablets, we were tribes– after, we became a people with a belief system, with rules, and laws. More importantly, this was not just man’s laws, but laws of God, laws of nature. The laws of god is a first draft of laws of nature.
During Passover in Israel, you feel that you are not alone following these rules, but as part of a bigger whole, for the first time I celebrated as a majority. Even though Jews are often most under attack at this time, in Israel Jews are also more united than ever. You feel it all around as every person wishes you a good holiday, and they wish you not in an abstract way, but in a way that they understand is your day and their day. They will go home and have a feast just like you will, with their family, just like you will with yours. For a full week neighbors invite neighbors, friends invite friends for eight days of gatherings and celebrations.
Driving across Israel on the first eve, I saw fires rage with black smoke of bread as the religious across the country burned all that is hametz (bread). All counters in stores and coffee shops that had bread at one point are empty. Entire sections of stores are closed while sections filled with of matza are open. On the eve of the holiday, people are streaming home and many are arriving from abroad. Getting a car at the car rental is beyond difficult, lines have formed for hours and bickering and laughter is incessant, depending on the temperament of the person.
On the day of passover, especially when it falls on Shabbat, all streets are empty: everything is quiet, stores are closed, no one calls, no one in religious homes checks phones. Families flock to homes of patriarchs and matriarchs for large dinners.
Of all experiences which I thought would happen to me in Israel, it is this connection to Judaism that I expected the least. After all I had travelled to so many countries, experienced so many seder’s and so many events. And yet, every time I learn something new, I realize that I have but scratched the surface of 5000 years of traditions and culture that I am privileged to be born into.
So again, we celebrate our freedom, by remembering our bondage. This memory and celebration, makes me grateful and makes me appreciate the freedom that I have, especially in Israel.