Last night, Jews around the world celebrated the beginning of Passover. It’s an important holiday. It lasts for eight days, and commemorates the freedom and exodus of the Israelites (back then, they were Jewish slaves) from Egypt during the reign of the Pharaoh Ramses II. I don’t really understasnd the Jewish calender very well, other than to say that the dates for specific holidays do not always remain constant. Passover begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan, but the day and date changes every year as the calender does. This year, the final night of Passover 2007 will be April 10th. During this time, observant Jews do not eat bread and leavened bread products. Families gather together for lavish meals with traditional foods called Seders. The purpose of the Seder is to re-tell the story of Passover through the reading of a special book, the Haggadah (in our house, courtesy of Maxwell House, but there are infinite versions).
Every family seems to have it’s own special customs regarding the Seder. A friend on mine insists that it isn’t a Seder without the singing of the Star Spangled Banner, for example (but obviously, there wasn’t a United States back at the time of Pharoah Ramses II). Another family member re-wrote the Haggadah to reflect his own views. and yet another is using a gender-neutral version to honor the many gay friends who will be in attendance.
From my point of view, it doesn’t really matter whether or not you are religious or scrupulously stick to the tenents of the holiday. What matters is that Jews have endured hardships throughout their long history, and never want to forget who they are. The actual story (truncated) is as follows:
In ancient Egypt, Pharaoh Ramses II ruled. One of his friends and advisers was Moses, who (long story short) had been brought up in the royal household, but Moses was a Hebrew, not an Egyptian. The Jewish people were slaves under Ramses II. One day Moses saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew slave, and killed the Egyptian in his anger. He then had to flee and live for many years as a shepherd. The story goes into a lot of stuff about a burning bush and Moses receiving the 10 commandments and so forth, but what’s most important (I think) is that Moses tried to get Pharaoh to free the Jewish slaves. Of course, the Pharaoh refused. Since Pharoh wouldn’t let Moses’s people go, 10 horrible plagues sent down to Egypt: Blood, Frogs, Lice, Beasts, Cattle Disease, Boils, Hail, Locusts, Darkness, and Slaying of the Firstborn.
Where it gets really significant is that the name Passover comes from this last plauge, the Plague of Slaying the Firstborn. The Angel of Death “passed over” the homes of the Jews who knew to put the blood of a lamb on their doors. After this plauge, Ramses finally agreed to let the Jewish slaves leave Egypt. They had to gather their things so quickly, they didn’t have time for their bread to rise. They had to bake it as it was, and that’s why Jewish people eat matzah during Passover.
But you know that’s not the end of the story: if you’ve watched the cheesy but classic movie version, you know that as the Jews were fleeing, Pharaoh changed his mind, and sent his army after the Jews, anyway. Moses saved his people by parting the red sea for the Jews to cross, and as soon as they were safely to the other side, the waters closed on the soldiers, drowning them all. The Jewish people were finally, free.
But not really. I’m not going to go into all the awful, oppressive acts that have been foistered not just on Jews, but on other people, by heartless, uncivilized people throughout the rest of history. Will we ever learn to live together in peace, quality and harmony? I’d like to think so, but, sadnly, it doesn’t look so likely (at least not at this time in history) from where I sit in front of my computer, today.
In truth, as a child I never enjoyed Passover. There were always family dynamics, and although we didn’t really observe Passover that closely,I thought it was a lot of silly fuss about nothing. As I get older, I have really begun to appreciate the tradition of it. It doesn’t matter whether or not we believe in the “miracles,”, what matters is that we honor a tradition and an event that goes back more than three thousand years and tells the story of how one group can make another one suffer. We can tell the story, and we should. Maybe we must.
As I sat at my friend’s table last night, and we took turns reading from the Hagaddah (theirs was a retro version with faded color photos of people I gather were in Israel back in the early 60’s), I realized that with the retelling of the story, we not only celebrate a cultural heritage with each other and with those who want to learn, but we hopefully are reminded that evil and oppression are not yet vanquished. I would like to think that in the retelling of the Passover story, each person is reminded to be a better person from that moment on.
And that’s a good start