Passover

By Herschel Allerhand with gratitude to Mary Ann Easley 

“For seven days, leaven may not be found in your houses … you shall not eat any leavening. You shall observe this matter as a decree for yourself and your children forever.” (Exodus 12:19-24) 

This year, the first night of Passover is April 15th. “The seder service on Pesach is the oldest surviving ritual in the Western World, dating back some 3,300 years … certain features still remain from Biblical times: the matzoh and the maror (bitter herbs), the reminder of the Pascal offering (egg and shank bone), the questions asked by a child and the explanations given by an adult.” (Introduction, Jonathan Sacks‘s Haggada. Much of the following is based on his essays.) 

The observance of Passover throughout the ages is a miracle, equal to if not greater than the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. To appreciate the enormity of this accomplishment, please consider this question: If the United States lost a war and its population was exiled to become small minorities in hostile populations, where English was not spoken, and they were subjected to unrelenting pressure to assimilate, then how many generations would continue to celebrate July 4th? Under these adverse conditions, we have been observing Passover for almost two thousand years! 

We have been able to maintain this observance because of the instructions given by Moses to our ancestors on their last night in Egypt. On the eve of liberation, after two hundred days of slavery, signs and wonders which brought the greatest empire of the ancient world to its knees, Moses does not talk about this awesome moment; he does not describe the journey to the Promised Land, nor does he prepare the Jews to receive the Ten Commandments from God at Mount Sinai. He looks far into the future, when the land is settled, and he talks about the duty to teach our children the details and meaning of Passover. We are to make the ‘lessons’ vivid and personal. 

Moses repeats the command three times: “When you come to the land which God will give you … and you observe this ceremony and your children say to you, ‘What does this service mean to you?’ You shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when he struck the Egyptians and spared our homes (Exodus 12:25-27)… You shall tell your child: ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt’ (Exodus 13:8)… you shall tell him: ‘With a mighty hand, the Lord brought us out from … the land of slavery.” (Exodus 12:14). 

The parallel would be if Washington in his farewell address had said: “In the future, when the continent is settled and the great events you participated in have become a dim memory, don’t hold parades or set off fireworks on July 4th; instead sit with your children and recreate the Valley Forge encampment and the Boston Tea Party. Tell you children that without the sacrifices made by these actual or spiritual ancestors and the help of God, we would still be subjects of the English Crown. Install in them a love of liberty and the Constitution with the responsibility of doing the same for their children.” 

Taking the time and making the effort to impart this tradition of the Passover narrative to our children is the proven formula for the longevity of our people. In contrast, other civilizations have built magnificent edifices; parts of the Roman Colosseum and the Greek Parthenon remain but the cultures that built them are gone. 

Passover, of course, is also an adult holiday. Here are some perspectives from Jonathan Sacks‘s Haggada and Isaak Klein’s A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice. (The story of Passover has been an inspiration for many liberation movements. The New England Pilgrims looked upon themselves as the new Israel fleeing Egypt (i.e., England) on the way to the promised land.) 

The Torah has very specific and detailed rules for the protection of the poor and vulnerable; they must be helped materially in a manner which safeguards their dignity. Most of these commandments end with the injunction: “You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there, therefore, I command you to do this thing.” The basic lesson of Passover is expressed in Exodus 23:9: “Do not oppress a stranger; you know the feelings of a stranger, you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” During the Seder ceremony we are instructed: “that generation by generation each person must see himself as if he himself had come out of Egypt.” 

In addition to its emphasis on freedom, Passover is an agricultural holiday which is always celebrated in the spring. Our Jewish ancestors brought their early harvest of barley to the Temple. Today, traditional services have special prayers to mark the change of seasons and the Song of Songs is chanted: “For behold the winter is past … the flowers appear on the earth, the time of singing has come, and the voice of the Turtle Dove is heard in our land.” (Song of Songs 2:11-12) 

The Seder ends with the prayer “Next year in Jerusalem Rebuilt” (as does the conclusion of the Yom Kippur service). “Once again, old men and old women will sit in the broad places of Jerusalem and the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing”… Zachariah 8:4 (sixth century B.C.) This return took nearly two thousand years but it happened in our lifetime. 

Happy Passover!

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