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A cleansing, spiritual path to Passover

By Carolyn Click
The State

COLUMBIA, S.C. When Rivke Case greets her guests at the family’s Passover table, she may be forgiven for a gentle, satisfactory exhale as she settles into her chair.

For the past month, Case has been engaged in her annual Passover cleaning, a thorough top-to-bottom cleansing of the home she shares with her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Case, the leader of Beth Shalom synagogue.

This is no ordinary spring cleaning for Jews, but rather a lengthy, physical and contemplative spiritual practice that gives added meaning to the holiday.

“It’s a lot of work but I like to think of it as a spiritual path,” said Rivke Case, who last week was a little frantic as Passover neared and tasks still remained on her lengthy “to-do” list.

For her, it is a season to set aside ego and concentrate on the meaning of a holiday that not only commemorates freedom but also calls upon Jews to liberate others similarly enslaved.

Passover begins at sundown tonight, when Jews recall their ancestors’ escape from slavery in Egypt and the plagues that were brought by God to aid them in their exodus. Traditionally, Jews gather in their homes for the first night of Passover and the reading of the Haggadah, which contains the narrative of the exodus, special rituals and Passover songs.

The Passover Seder plate graces the table with foods symbolic of the Israelites’ bitter, arduous toil in Egypt and the tears they shed as they waited for liberation.

One element of Passover is the eating of unleavened bread. That serves as a reminder that the Israelites, whose families were spared or “passed over” when God unleashed a final plague that destroyed Egypt’s first-born sons, had to flee hurriedly and could not wait for bread to rise.

Every bread crumb, every bit of leavened product must be removed from the home at Passover, which has sent Rivke Case on a hunt through her cabinets and pantry to make sure everything is cleared away and every shelf cleaned. Even her oven and stove must undergo a thorough scouring to make sure no trace of leavening is left. Even the crevices of the sofa must be vacuumed.

The dishes and pots and pans that mark everyday life are put away during the holiday to make way for the special Passover dishes that are used only during the eight-day festival.

“Just think of it: utensils, pots and pans, detergent, my sponge,” she said pointing to all the things that must be exchanged. “I have to make sure my Brillo is kosher.”

The Cases recently had ordered a new refrigerator, so that has made the process of cleaning it a little less strenuous; she simply covered the shelves when it was delivered several weeks ago to make it easier to empty and clean for Passover.

During Passover, the practice of selling the unleavened products, known as hametz, is undertaken by the rabbi, who under Jewish law contracts with a non-Jew to buy or lease the products during the eight-day festival. Many families donate their unopened food, he said, because Passover is also a time to remember the poor.

Rivke Case spent her earliest years in the Dominican Republic, part of a small community of “Crypto-Jews” who were descendants of Jews persecuted during the Spanish Inquisition and forced to give up their faith and declare themselves Catholic.

Growing up, Rivke never publicly revealed her Jewishness, but her grandmother and other family members instilled in her the tenets and rituals of her faith.

“My grandmother taught me well,” she said.

When she places the paper towels on her clean kitchen shelves, “it is like I am covering my ego,” she said. “I see every day as an opportunity to evaluate myself.”

Jonathan Case noted that unleavened bread is “deflated bread. We try to come to terms with that, to take the ‘I’ out of the equation.”

“Passover is psychologically a very heavy time,” the Rabbi said. “People tend to die about this time. Family rifts are created or healed. It is all connected.”

He believes the faithful need to plumb the themes of slavery and liberation as well.

“When the Israelites were in Egypt they made a lot of preparations before they escaped. We are preparing, too, for liberation of self and soul,” he said.

While Rivke Case is modest about her long journey to Passover, she said she will take a moment to reflect on what has been accomplished as she welcomes a table of 15 on this first night of Passover.

“When I do sit down and look at everyone and see my husband doing what he is supposed to do, it’s satisfying,” she said. “We did what God tells us to do.”

The Seder plate

The Passover Seder plate symbolizes the ancient biblical story, told in the book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible of the Jews’ escape from bondage in Egypt. Each food is representative of the trials they endured.

Bitter herbs: Horseradish or romaine lettuce is often used as a reminder of the bitterness and harshness of the slavery the Hebrews endured in Egypt.

Charoset, or haroset: a mixture of chopped apples and nuts, cinnamon and red wine symbolizes the mortar the Hebrews used in making the bricks used to build Egypt’s pyramids and buildings.

Bitter vegetable: parsley, celery or potato representing the back-breaking work the Jews had to perform. The vegetable is dipped in saltwater to symbolize the tears shed by the Jews during their long captivity in ancient Egypt.

Lamb shankbone: a symbol of the animal sacrifice offered on the eve of the flight from Egypt as well as the Temple of Jerusalem before its destruction. The Jews marked their doors with the blood of a lamb so that God would “pass over” their homes as he visited the 10th plague on Egypt, the killing of the first-born sons.

Hard-boiled egg: a symbol of mourning that serves as a reminder of the destruction of the holy temple.

Matzo: unleavened bread placed beside the Seder plate. The hard bread reminds Jews of their hurried flight out of Egypt, when the bread in their homes had no time to rise.

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