Passover, or Pesach (PEH-sach) in Hebrew, commemorates the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt and their ultimate exodus to freedom. This story of redemption from slavery is the “master-story” of the Jewish People – a story that has shaped Jewish consciousness and values. It is just as relevant today for all humankind as it was 3,400 years ago.
The story harks back to the family of Jacob, who fled their home in Canaan in the face of a terrible famine. They made their way to Egypt where they were welcomed and became a populous people. But when a new king arose in Egypt, he feared the growing Israelite population and enslaved them, a sentence that continued for the next 210 years. Then the God of Israel appeared to a simple shepherd, Moses, in a burning bush, instructing him to go to Egypt and free the slaves.
The story of Passover relates the struggle between God, who demands freedom for the Israelites, and Pharaoh, who symbolizes the hard-hearted forces of self-aggrandizement, tyranny, and enslavement. God breaks Pharaoh’s spirit by inflicting Egypt with 10 plagues. During the night of the final plague, God “passed over” and protected the houses of the Israelites, giving the festival its name. Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt and, with the Egyptian army chasing after them, split the waters of the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to cross the sea on dry land and escape. Since they escaped Egypt in a hurry, they did not have time for their bread to leaven and rise, giving Passover it’s most famous symbol–matzah–which is Hebrew for “unleavened bread.”
During the eight days of Passover (liberal Jews observe the holiday for seven days), it is customary not to eat, or even possess, any food that may contain leaven (Cha-MAYTZ in Hebrew). Leaven is a food or beverage that contains any grain product (wheat, barley, oats, spelt and rye) that has been fermented in water. In the days before Passover, observant Jews clean their homes thoroughly in order to remove any leavened food, including everyday pots, pans, and dishes. Often, even non-religious Jews will eat matzah on Passover instead of bread.
The central ritual of Pesach is the Seder (SAY-der), a carefully choreographed ritual meal that takes place on the eve of Passover at home with family and friends or with the community. It is both a sumptuous feast as well as an educational experience for children and adults alike. The Seder begins by reading the Hagaddah (Ha-ga-DAH), a 1800-year-old book that retells in detail the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Children ask the Ma Nishtana (the Four Questions) which introduce the telling of the story.
An essential part of the Seder is eating ritual foods symbolic of the journey from slavery to freedom:
The story of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery is the foundation of Jewish ethics. As we experienced slavery and suffering, the Torah (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures) insists that we are obligated to protect the powerless.
The Torah reminds us that “you were strangers in the land of Egypt,” and contains over 50 references to the resident alien (someone who is not a citizen). It includes admonitions to provide the stranger with economic security, basic food and clothing, prompt payment of wages, and with equality before the law.
Jewish tradition teaches that we are duty-bound to create societies established on the principles of justice, righteousness, and compassion. Throughout generations, the story of the Exodus has encouraged secular and religious Jews alike to commit to bringing more justice into the world. This commitment includes both welcoming the stranger into our communities as well as fighting the ugliness of xenophobia.
We are people of privilege, who enjoy all the freedoms of our society, including security, justice, and equality. Sadly, there are those who do not experience that privilege because of their ethnicity, religion, poverty, or the color of their skin. There are also strangers, many of whom are refugees seeking asylum, who are not treated with the same freedoms we enjoy. The story of the Exodus demands us to stretch our notion of privilege and equality to all people, and especially to the stranger. The Torah asserts that we have a responsibility to welcome others and share our freedoms with them.