Finding Faith: What Passover means

12420176662?profile=RESIZE_710xElements of the modern Passover plate include the shank bone (zeroa), which represents the roasted sacrificial lamb. The egg (beitza), one of the ‘new’ foods, represents a holiday offering. The bitter herbs (maror) and horseradish wrapped in romaine lettuce (chazeret) remind Jews of the bitterness of slavery, and charoset, the paste of apples, pears, nuts and wine, is a sweet respite. The vegetable (karpas) alludes to the endless toil of slavery and is dipped in the salt water, representing the tears of the slaves. Photo provided

By Janis Fontaine

If you ask a Jew what his favorite holiday is, you’ll get a few different answers.

Some love Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year and a time for atonement. For others Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, looms largest. And for children, it’s likely Hanukkah with its simple, straightforward miracle of light and eight days of presents! But for Rabbi David Steinhardt of B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton and for many others, Passover, or Pesach, has become the most important holiday.

“It’s taken on the greatest importance to me as a father,” Steinhardt said.

The Passover holiday, which begins this year before sundown April 22, is structured around the family and sharing the story with children of the Jews’ deliverance from slavery.

Unlike many holidays that are celebrated within the church or synagogue, the celebration of Passover takes place in the home. A guidebook, the Passover Haggadah, tells everyone exactly how certain rituals are carried out. It’s easy to find. Purchase the Haggadah online or print a free copy at www.chabad.org (see a children’s version on this page).

“We use these stories to define ourselves,” Steinhardt said. “We are who we are based on the stories we tell, and we transmit our values and our traditions through these stories.”

Father Kevin McQuone, assistant professor of pastoral theology at St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, says every celebration of the Catholic Mass recalls the Passover story. The holy eucharist that Christ taught his disciples freed them (and us) from the tyranny of sin and delivered to us a new commandment: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” (John 13:34)

“As Christians, we should try to recover a sense of Passover and its meaning and find other ways to improve Christian and Jewish relationships. We’ve got to open the doors to healthy, honest debate about these things,” McQuone said. “We’ve forgotten that we belong to one another.”

The Passover holiday is highly ritualized, “a sacred drama,” and deeply meaningful. The most important part of the celebration is the retelling of the Exodus story to remind ourselves of the past. The primary focus, though, is the seder. Meaning “order,” the seder is a carefully orchestrated consumption of certain foods and wine in an elaborate intertwining of storytelling, scripture reading and eating. Over centuries the seder has incorporated new foods and expanded the story to include them.

“We have added to the story because the element of enslavement is repeated in our history,” Steinhardt said. But in many ways, Passover today is very much like Passover in ancient times.

One of the most important food elements of the seder, and most well-known, is the matzah, the unleavened bread. According to the story, in their haste to leave Egypt, the Jews could not wait for their bread dough to rise and instead baked the dough into matzah. It earned Passover a new moniker: the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Today, Jews follow strict rituals of purging and cleaning that require the removal of all chametz — yeast and yeasted products and other leavening agents — from the home.

But Passover’s primary obligation is to pass on the story of the Jews’ long fight for freedom. It’s a joyful celebration of Moses’ delivering the Israelites to their new home across the sea. It’s also an adventure story that we as Americans, with our fundamental love for freedom, can embrace.

“It’s also about asking questions,” Steinhardt said. Debate and discussion are encouraged. For a father, it’s answering his children’s questions about why it took 10 plagues — 10 plagues!! — for silly Pharaoh to listen to Moses’ demands to “Let my people go.”

Moses’ people were a unified group of slaves who had little to look forward to until he offered them this one chance. Biblical scholar Carol D. Meyers of Duke University says,

“The idea of a god that represented freedom — freedom for people to keep the fruits of their own labor — this was a message that was so powerful that it brought people together and gave them a new kind of identity, which eventually became known by the term Israel.”

Jews have a personal responsibility to empathize with the Israelites who faithfully followed Moses out of Egypt, Steinhardt said. As Jews, the weight of the yoke, the pain and endless drudgery of bondage, the oppression of their unique faith in a monotheistic God must not be forgotten. The seder dinner with its bitter herbs, its brittle matzah and the roasted Passover lamb (the makings of Hillel’s sandwich) reminds Jews of their sacrifices.

Scholars have long debated whether the final meal Jesus shared with his disciples — the Last Supper — was a Passover seder. Steinhardt thinks it was more of “a rehearsal” for the seder, as it contains several common elements but is missing one thing: the family.

At a Passover seder, family members would be present.

“The seder democratized religion,” Steinhardt said, making women and children part of the worship service.

The Passover story

(A children’s version, from Chabad.org)
Over 3,000 years ago, God saved the Jewish people and took them out of slavery in Egypt, leading them through the Split Sea and into the land of Israel.
Each year we celebrate our redemption from Egypt by reading the story of Passover out loud during the Passover Seder.


Evil Decrees
For a long time, Pharaoh’s advisers had been warning him as to the growing threat of the Jewish nation. His sorcerers had seen in the stars that a Jewish boy would be born who would grow up, overturn the entire Egyptian empire and lead his people to freedom.

“All Jews must work from sunrise to sunset … without pay!” Pharaoh declared. “Children must work as hard as adults. No parents are allowed to spend time with their kids.

Egyptians may use a Jewish slave to do whatever they need.” And worst of all: “All Jewish baby boys are to be thrown into the Nile!”

Moses Is Saved
A Jewish woman called Yocheved had a baby boy. Desperately trying to save his life, she hid him until he was 3 months old, then placed him in a basket and sent him floating down the Nile. His sister Miriam watched him, hiding amongst the reeds on the banks of the river. The floating basket was picked up by the Princess of Egypt — Batya — Pharaoh’s own daughter! Discovering the beautiful infant inside, Batya named him Moses and took him to the palace where he grew up in the lap of luxury.


Fleeing For His Life
Despite the fact that he grew up in the palace, Moses could not bear to see the suffering of the Jewish people. One day, Moses chanced upon an Egyptian taskmaster, savagely whipping a Jewish slave to death. Furious, Moses cried out one of God’s Holy Names, and the Egyptian immediately died. Certain that Pharaoh’s officers would be after him, Moses fled to Midian.


The Burning Bush
Moses lived in Midian for a number of years, and was a shepherd for his father-in-law, Yitro. One day, a lamb ran away from the rest of the flock. Moses chased after it and saw a strange sight: a bush covered in fire, yet the bush was not being burnt by the flames! Amazed, Moses drew even nearer, and all of a sudden heard the voice of God speaking to him.

“Go down to Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let my people go!”


The Ten Plagues
Moses and his brother Aaron came before Pharaoh. “Let my people go!” they declared. But Pharaoh just laughed. They threatened Pharaoh with 10 terrible plagues if he did not listen to God, but he did not believe them.

Plague after plague soon struck the Egyptians, each one more shocking than the next. Blood, frogs, lice, wild animals, sick animals, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and — the worst plague of all — death of the firstborn.

Finally, Pharaoh had enough. He ran frantically through the streets of Egypt searching for Moses. “Go!” he yelled. “And take all the Jews with you!”

Moses sent word to all the Jews. “The time has come,” he told them, “grab your bags and get ready to leave at once. Don’t wait for your bread to rise, just go!”

The Jews left Egypt with sacks on their backs, and faith in their hearts.


Freedom At Last
The Jews walked until they reached the sea. And there they stopped. They were trapped! They could see the Egyptian army chasing after them, swords at the ready. Pharaoh had changed his mind. He was chasing after his slaves, trying to recapture them. God told Moses to stretch his arm out over the waters, and all at once, the sea split! Miraculously, the Jews were able to walk through on dry land, but as soon as the Egyptians stepped foot in the sea, the walls of water came crashing down on them.

The Jews were free!

Janis Fontaine writes about people of faith, their congregations, causes and community events. Contact her at fontaine423@outlook.com. 

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