For almost seven years my position at B’nai Israel Congregation has afforded me the privilege of training kids for their bar/bat mitzvah celebrations. The teens whose b’nai mitzvah have fallen on Shabbat HaChodesh, the first Shabbat in the Hebrew month of Nisan, have chanted the special 20-verse maftir (concluder) from the Torah portion Bo. I couldn’t have been happier teaching them, because the 20 verses of Chapter 12 of the Book of Exodus are a great favorite of mine, as far as Torah passages go. What drama! God speaks to Moses and Aaron and tells them to get the Israelites into gear—they are leaving Egypt and the backbreaking oppression they have suffered at the hands of Pharaoh for over 400 years.
Another reason I love this section of the Torah is that it gives us a recipe! How often in the Torah is food even mentioned, let alone a whole meal? Among the preparations for their hasty departure and the ensuing journey, each family is to choose a lamb to be slaughtered at twilight on the tenth of Nisan. After taking some of the blood and putting it on the doorposts of their houses to enable God to pass over their houses and not strike them with the tenth plague—the slaying of every firstborn in the land of Egypt—they are to roast the lambs over the fire and eat them “with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs.”
God then elaborates further on the food prep: “Do not eat any of it raw, or cooked in any way with water, but roasted—head, legs and entrails—over the fire.” And the Israelites have to eat the whole thing—no packing the leftovers for crumbly matzah sandwiches the next day. Anything remaining is to be burned. Moreover, they are to consume this meal quickly, sandals on their feet, staffs in their hands, ready to move.
Even though this does not sound like a meal to be savored, with the family arrayed around a meticulously decorated table, enjoying the wonderful smell of barbecue and freshly baked bread while sharing stories and anticipating a sweet dessert, what is described here is actually the basis for our Pesach seder meal.
Every year as I sit listening to a student chant through these image-laden verses, I think about seders I have attended, and the flavors come back to me: the sips of sweet wine, that wonderful first bite of matzah, the salt water, the parsley, the hard-cooked eggs and haroset, my mother’s matzah ball soup, my sister’s roast leg of lamb with sprigs of rosemary, my mother-in-law’s pomerantzen (candied citrus peel) eaten on her veranda in Herzliya after the conclusion of the seder with the breeze bringing us the incredible scent of orange blossoms from the coastal plain.
While a picture may paint a thousand words, these 20 sentences of the Torah evoke a spectrum of flavors. How fortunate for us 21st-century Jews that we are privileged to take our time over sumptuous seder meals, reflecting on our people’s shared past while basking in the warmth of Pesach rituals, dishes, songs and, perhaps more important than anything else, the sweet taste of freedom.