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Passover is not simply a Jewish holiday; it is an invitation to be free and a method for achieving freedom.
The holiday of Passover takes it’s name, according to the Hebrew Bible, from the ancient Israelites last night in Egypt. On that night, some 3,200 years ago if the story is historically accurate, God “passed over” the houses of those leaving Egypt, sparing them from the last of the ten plagues: the death of the first born Egyptians. The Hebrew name for Passover is Pesach, from the word meaning to pass over.
Passover celebrates more than a one-time liberation though, inviting each succeeding generation to confront the oppression and slavery of it’s own era. Passover celebrates freedom — past, present and future, both national and personal. And it’s surely not limited to Jews as both the Bible and later rabbinic commentaries portray as much as 20 percent of those participating in the exodus as having been non-Israelites.
According to the Talmud, the foundational text of Rabbinic Judaism, in every generation, every person should see themselves as a slave who is being liberated from Egypt. This seemingly impossible task, the obligation to feel that we are characters from a distant past, is perhaps best understood as being possible when we appreciate that the Hebrew word for Egypt is itself a kind of pun.
In Hebrew, Egypt is called “mitzrayim,” literally a tight spot. Celebrating Passover is about identifying those “tight spots,” the “egypts” in our own lives and in the lives of others, and seeking liberation from them.
The central practice of Passover today is the Seder –the family table centered dinner party featuring story-telling, conversation, eating matzo and drinking wine. While there is a “standard” text, called the haggadah (Hebrew for “the telling”)around which this is all orchestrated, the key to the whole thing is a question-based approach in which anything can be asked and all people are invited to offer their own answers.
Questions and questioning are central features of freedom and each is celebrated at the Seder. Passover reminds us that we are only as free as our minds and spirits are. Physical freedom is a necessary, but insufficient, component in the freedom we all need.
While it often makes for somewhat chaotic evenings, that family and intellectual tumult, so often associated with Jewish culture, is a sacred expression of the freedom which Passover celebrates.
There are physical signs within the tradition as well. Eating matzo at the seder not only reminds us of the food eaten by ancient slaves, but of the path to freedom which we all seek. In fact, the unleavened flatbreads are described by the ancient rabbis of the talmud as bread which provokes questions and invites answers.
The eating of the matzo is paralleled by drinking four cups of wine at the Seder. The four cups are meant to remind us of the four terms which the Bible uses to describe how God liberated the Israelites.
The wine itself is a reminder of the divine-human partnership, the covenant, which is necessary to achieve true liberation. Just as God/nature provides the grapes but require human technology and effort to turn the juice into wine, liberation requires our participation. Liberation, the wine reminds us, doesn’t just happen. Neither we as individuals, nor the world in which we live, will be free until we are part of the process.
Passover invites us to be free — to free ourselves and our world. It brings together family, friends, and food in the context of lively conversation, inviting us to find the freedom we all seek. May it be so for each of us, whoever we are and wherever we may be.
More On Faith and Passover:
Rabbi Boteach: An ancient Passover for a modern generation