I’ve declared myself Sephardic for Pesach. I’m trying to keep the dietary rules this year, which makes it the first time at least since I left the US and probably for a while before that. It was way too hard in Taiwan, where there were no Passover foods at all, and in the Netherlands, where there were non-kosher-for-Passover matzah because the Dutch eat it at Easter (which I still find fascinating) but nothing else. (Yes, I might have been able to find stuff somewhere in Amsterdam, if I’d really tried hard. I didn’t.) I’m not being terribly careful about it, not poring over ingredient labels looking for corn syrup or maltodextrin. And I’m going by the Sephardic rules instead of the Ashkenazic ones my ancestry dictates I should follow; that means I can eat rice, beans, lentils, and peanuts. And corn, I guess, though I’ll probably avoid it in flour or baking form and I felt a bit guilty using a smidgen of corn starch (not flour) to thicken a sauce yesterday.
I have two reasons for taking the easy way out; admittedly the prime one is that I’m lazy and weak-willed.But another factor is that I don’t think this is meant to be an ordeal; I think at Passover we’re supposed to remember what our ancestors went through, rejoice in our delivery from slavery, learn the lessons from being strangers in a strange land, but not to suffer. We reinforce the memories viscerally by eating matzah and refraining from unleavened bread – but neither Moses nor the medieval rabbis spent a lot of time worrying about whether their Coke contained corn syrup.
I got curious (wondering about the Last Supper, actually, after reading an essay on the problematic nature of “Christian Seders”), and it turns out that, as you’d expect, the way we celebrate now is only a bit over a thousand years old, out of the three thousand years we’ve celebrated this holiday. I’m not sure what it means to say any more that the Last Supper was a Seder; at that time, the Second Temple still stood, so Passover wasn’t the home-centered holiday it was now. You took your first lambs to the Temple for a sacrifice, then feasted on them (I guess the priests got a share but couldn’t eat it all?) and ate matzah. After the Temple was destroyed and the diaspora began, the rabbis brought the Seder into its current form. The first Haggadah was somewhere around 800 CE (Common Era, a way Jews avoid saying Anno Domini). I don’t know if Jewish literacy was as common then as it became later; before that, and until Haggadot became affordable, I don’t know if most people memorized the Seder or if it was more free-form.
So anyway, apparently what the Talmud actually says is “eat matzah” and “don’t eat hametz” (wheat, oats, barley, spelt, rye – actually, according Wikipedia, orginally only barley and wheat are forbidden, but the others were included in early on).
Since there are only two of us and Ted isn’t Jewish anyway, I didn’t take Monday off – not like it was going to be a real Seder, though I did make matzo ball soup the day before. At work Monday, I was asked to help in a Lessons Learned session – when you look back over a project, see what went well and what didn’t, and figure out how to change the bad stuff and perpetuate the good, going forward. With that in mind, I was thinking about the holiday, and realized: Pesach really is the ultimate Lessons Learned session. We relive the Exodus story, by talking about it, by eating matzah, and by all the parts of the Seder – the elements on the Seder plate, the recitation of the plagues, the Four Questions, and so on, telling the story over and over in bits and pieces. We repeat the catchphrases that remind us of what we’ve been through – “We were slaves and now we’re free,” “We were strangers in a strange land, ” “Dayeinu” and so on. Like any Lessons Learned session, there are a whole lot of lessons – I think the main ones here are meant to be “Treat other “strangers” (immigrants, visitors, minorities) well, just as we wre originally treated well in Egypt”; treat other strangers well and don’t do what the Egyptians did when they enslaved us,” and especially, “trust God, especially when he’s just saved your ass from slavery, pursuit, and starvation” (short attention spans are apparently not only a modern failing).
Thing is, usually the hardest point in any Lessons Learned session is institutionalizing the lessons, to actually make things better in a real way. If you look at Passover in that light, here’s a case where those learnings have been institutionalized for three thousand years; it makes me wonder if some of that could be applied in the corporate world, where making change persist over one year is exceptional. Could LL sessions use more storytelling, to make the learnings more memorable? Is there some way to add ritual (in a business sense, that would translate to habits or standard ways of working – I’m not suggesting prayers at work!) as reminders? It seems liek there ought to be something to be learned from tradition here, in addition to what it’s trying to teach.