Sundown on Friday, April 10 marked the end of 2015’s weeklong Passover season in Jerusalem and beyond. It was a momentous Jewish celebration that celebrated the ancient Israelites’ miraculous journey of deliverance from enslavement in Egypt and their new beginning in Israel, the Land of Promise.
Passover (Pesach) was significant in biblical times when it, along with the Pentecost (Shavuot) and Tabernacles (Sukkot) feasts, was designated as a feast that called for pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
Passover’s venerable tradition also serves to sanctify the family as the center of Jewish life. The Jews left Egypt family by family. And they are celebrating their freedom today family by family. The liturgy at Passover is not recited at the synagogue, but at the family Passover dinner – the Seder.
I have been included in several memorable Seders during my time in Israel. The first of these was strictly Orthodox and religious; others varied in their degree of formality, and one was not very religious at all. I don’t recall the names of everyone at every table and I don’t remember every special food or of the exact sequence in which they appeared. But all of these occasions touched me deeply. Despite their variations, they provided vivid impressions of the warmth and faithfulness of Judaism’s family rituals and of the timeless story of freedom that still echoes around the world during Passover.
The Seder focuses on Exodus 12, which teaches us about the Jews’ plight, God’s calling and ordination of Moses, Moses’ confrontations with a stone-hearted Pharaoh, the 10 plagues that were visited upon the Egyptians and – the most horrifying judgment of all – the death of Egypt’s firstborn. These plagues eventually changed the mind of Pharaoh, at least temporarily.
But as soon as the huge procession of Jews headed toward Egypt’s borderlands, Pharaoh had second thoughts. Why should he give up his invaluable work force? Disastrously, he ordered his army to pursue the fleeing slaves. The frantic soldiers tried to catch up with the Jews in the midst of the Red Sea, which had been supernaturally parted to provide dry land for the Israelites’ hurrying feet. The Egyptian soldiers were not so blessed; they were swept away and drowned when the parted waters suddenly broke over them like a tidal wave.
The epic Exodus tale of faith and freedom is recounted in the Haggadah – the “Telling” – which is the Seder’s liturgy. The “telling” is based on the commandment, “And thou shalt tell thy son in that day, saying: It is because of that which the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt” (Ex. 13:8). Each Seder guest is provided with a copy of the Haggadah. And every child old enough to understand participates in the reading and ritual.
When I arrived at my first Seder, I had of course heard the Exodus story, but had little understanding of Passover’s traditions. That dinner was held in the home of a scholarly and revered rabbi. He is, by all accounts, a fine teacher and a man exceptionally beloved by his family, friends and students. More than two dozen people were seated at what looked like an endlessly long table. Many of those around me were the rabbi’s sons and daughters, grandchildren and extended family. But there were others there as well. One was a single mother, a battered wife who had recently received help and guidance from our host, hostess and a nearby synagogue. Others were relatives from abroad. An Israeli woman of more than 90 years sat near me; tiny and bent with age, she was still radiant with the joys of the feast. A Christian couple from Jerusalem joined us. And I was there, too – a friend of friends.
The Torah includes admonitions that the Jewish people should be kind to strangers and sojourners in their midst. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt,” God instructed them. “That is why I command you to do this.”
Perhaps that’s one reason I was made so welcome as a Christian visitor.
The rabbi wore a knee-length black coat and a black velvet kippah (yarmulke). His son, who had recently been ordained as a rabbi, was dressed in much the same attire. Every man in attendance wore a kippah. The women had focused their wardrobes on modesty and muted colors. There was a quiet dignity to the affair. And, for me at least, one of the most beautiful aspects of the meal – which lasted more than four hours – was the singing of the father and son who enlivened the liturgy with their resonant and perfectly harmonized voices.
It was easy to “disappear” into that room and be a silent spectator. The lengthy dinner reflected the hosts’ devotion to the Haggadah and thus to the biblical tale. In a sense, as the rabbi’s wife and daughters cooked the meal (the amount of work they had done was almost unimaginable), they brought to life, in the form of food, the oral and biblical tradition of the Israelites’ harried flight from their oppressors.
We tasted of the bitterness of Egypt in the form of bitter herbs; we recalled the suddenness of the departure from Egypt with the matzos (as the Jews fled, there was no time for bread made with yeast to rise). We ate a paste of apples and nuts that represented the mortar that had once set in place the bricks with which the Jews labored. We drank four cups of blessed, sweet wine. At the end, everyone sang together.
There was a sense of formality on that occasion, a careful adherence to custom and devotion and important details. It was a little like being in the midst of living biblical tableaux performed by the offspring of those who had actually experienced the story.
I attended another Seder a few years later, and it was as informal as the first was staid. The women were dressed colorfully, the men casually. Only one older gentleman wore a kippah. He had, however, neglected to bring his own, and asked to borrow one. As he self-consciously donned the ceremonial white satin cap, he explained quietly that he didn’t want to speak of Adonai – the Lord – without covering his head.
The food was served with no fanfare, and once each serving was eaten – along with slightly haphazard but sequential readings from the Haggadah – the plates were removed and more food appeared. There was a great deal of laughter and happy conversation between the readings, and a few restless young men went out to the balcony for a smoke. Yet, for all of the differences between them, the two Seders were in many ways alike, featuring the same symbolic foods.
In fact, at that informal table were some families who had come to Israel during the “Second Exodus” – refugees from Muslim lands who fled sometime between 1948 and 1970 due to persecution, abuse and expulsion. Doubtless they remembered well their own recent flight from harm (It is worth noting that today’s Christians are facing their own exodus from those same Middle East countries).
In the spontaneous spirit of the evening, instead of the precise and melodious singing of the two rabbis, the Haggadah was read aloud by the guests, one after another. Those who couldn’t read it in Hebrew – including me – read it in English. By the time we were finished, the old story had been told once again.
In attendance were some who are deeply involved in the functions of the present-day Jewish State. Their hearts and minds have long been tightly wound around discerning the best course for the young nation; their hope is to untangle its complex challenges. Some at the table even recalled the Day of Independence in 1948. I wondered: did they recognize the State of Israel as a promise fulfilled, or as an incomplete human dream, a work in progress?
As the Haggadah’s passages were read aloud, as at every Seder, the words recounted the unchanged story. They expressed the same hunger for a better life, the same need for divine intervention and human obedience, the same deliverance and the same hope for the future.
And, as always, everyone joyfully sang together at the end.
Rabbi David Hartman wrote, “Every year, Jews drink four cups of wine and then pour a fifth for Elijah. The cup is poured, but not yet drunk. Yet the cup of hope is poured every year. Passover is the night for reckless dreams; for visions about what a human being can be, what society can be, what people can be, what history may become. That is the significance of ‘Le-shanah ha-ba-a b’Yerushalayim‘ – Next year in Jerusalem.”
Next year in Jerusalem. For nearly 2,000 years, every Seder has ended with that prayerful promise. After the Jews were scattered among the nations following the destruction of Jerusalem and its Holy Temple in 70 AD, they endured homelessness, abuse, hunger, bloodshed and even slavery. But they never stopped praying.
During recent centuries, Jews have arrived in the land of their forefathers just as they did in the Bible story. In mass emigrations from other lands, leaving behind the ashes of destruction, they have entered Israel by the millions: one by one, family by family. Today they are home at last.
And at every Seder I’ve attended, in the heart of Jerusalem, we have renewed the Jews’ celebration of life.
For me, at least, it still feels like a miracle.
Portions of the preceding account of Passover celebrations is adapted from my book, Saturday People, Sunday People: Israel through the Eyes of a Christian Sojourner (Encounter Books).