Holidays in Israel are interwoven into daily life so beautifully that to me, after just a few years, they seemed to ebb and flow like the tide. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Purim. And, of course, Passover – Pesach – which is about to begin, marking both the beginning of spring, and more importantly the great miracle of deliverance, freedom and the Exodus.
As a Christian sojourner in Jerusalem, my earliest awareness of Passover’s annual approach usually takes place, of all places, at the grocery store. I begin to notice that several products are not located where they’re supposed to be: The cookies or bread rolls or cereal items I came to buy seem to have disappeared.
Then I remember. They contain yeast, or chametz.
No leavened foods are supposed to be eaten during the eight-day Passover festival. Matzo crackers famously replace bread. And (depending on the level of orthodoxy that’s being observed) not a trace of chametz should be found in the house. For a similar reason, the foods in the market that contain yeast are hidden beneath a curtain or sheet.
And that leads to another sign of the arriving holiday: exhausted women (mostly) who are engaged in rigorous housecleaning. This climaxes the night before Passover in the symbolic burning of any chametz found on the family premises. That, of course, includes cookie and bread crumbs. And needless to say, the more small children there are in the family, the more intensive the cleaning.
But, like most matters of Jewish tradition, it’s not just about the physical world – in this case, the presence of yeast. The symbolic burning has its own spiritual meaning as well. It represents that removal from our lives any remnants of unholiness that may be polluting our souls.
As the sunlit days grow longer, the anticipated evening finally arrives. The chametz has been burned, enormous amounts of food have been prepared and special tablecloths, plates and cutlery have made their annual appearance. And across Jerusalem, throughout the land of Israel, the feast – the Seder – begins.
In my book Saturday People, Sunday People, I described a memorable Seder at which I was a guest, and what I learned that night.
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.
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.
As I pointed out, every food on the Seder plate has a distinct meaning.
The shank bone, zeroa` – a lamb or roasted chicken leg bone – represents the Paschal lamb that was hurriedly eaten on the eve of the Israelites’ departure from Egypt, when the blood of the lamb was used to mark their houses, protecting their firstborn from the 10th and final plague.
Charoset is a mixture of nuts, fruit, wine and spices. As I mentioned, this symbolizes the mortar with which the enslaved Jews labored.
Maror, bitter herbs, is usually horseradish, recalling the bitterness of slavery.
Karpas – parsley or any other green vegetable – embodies the flourishing of the Jewish people when they first arrived in Egypt during a deadly drought (it may also have other interpretations).
Beitzah – a roasted egg – illustrates not only an ancient temple ritual, but also the coming of spring and new life.
A covered plate holds three pieces of matzo.
Also on the table is a bowl of salt water (representing tears), a wine glass for each guest, and an extra wine glass for Elijah the Prophet.
Jews from different parts of the world have their own unique traditions, but these foods specifically represent the deliverance of the Jews from slavery, and their Exodus into the Land of Promise.
And, no matter where on earth they come from, they all end their feast with the same phrase: Next year in Jerusalem.
In the rest of the world, this expresses a hope of return to the ancient homeland. To Israelis, it is a prayer that the Lord who delivered them from Egypt will continue to protect not only Jerusalem, but the entire land of Israel, surrounded as it is by enemies.
One of the most compelling aspects of Passover, as well as the other Jewish holidays, is Judaism’s commitment to remembrance. In the case of Passover, it isn’t simply the miraculous deliverance by God’s hand that is recalled. Jews also reflect upon the agony of enslavement, slavery’s harsh labor and abuses, and their bitter tears.
In my view, it is this communal memory that inspires an exceptional nature of compassion in the Jewish people. Remembering their own painful history, Jews almost reflexively seek ways to alleviate suffering whenever and wherever they are confronted by it – whether injustice, murder, enslavement or other cruelties.
For example, for several years I’ve spoken to audiences about the persecution of Christians, and particularly about the genocide taking place in Iraq, Syria and of course Egypt – nation states where the Jews themselves were mistreated, murdered or expelled not so many years go.
When questions are invited, someone from the Jewish community invariably raises a hand and asks, “Why aren’t Christians doing more to stop the persecution of their people?”
That is, to put it mildly, a disturbingly difficult question. If only I knew the answer.
But this much is indisputable: The Jewish people are reminded, year in and year out, of their long and painful history as they observe their holy holidays – particularly Passover. They have managed to remain a people “set apart” – through faith, tradition, scholarship and ethnicity – for millennia. And tragically, during the last 2,000 years or so, much of their suffering came at the hands of “Christians.”
Not only do the Jewish people care for their own, but Israel’s outreach to the rest of the world is astonishing. When disaster strikes, an Israeli field hospital  appears on the ground in some inhospitable location within less than 48 hours. The stories of medical care for enemy combatants  during the Syrian war are astounding. And the medical research that emanates from Israel offers lifesaving options to those who suffer from innumerable illnesses – all around the globe.
Perhaps it’s no wonder. I found this Pesach passage in a prayer book I was given decades ago by a beloved California rabbi – now deceased –named Chaim Asa. He embodied the kindness and compassion for all people that is articulated so beautifully in the prayer:
Great was our people’s joy
After generations of bondage
to be free!
Now we, their children,
Triumph in our heritage of freedom.
Exultant and awed
They sang and wept:
The people in chains were free!
Now we, their children
Hear their song
Resounding in the heart.
Oh God, blessed Source of freedom,
Let the time come speedily
When all the oppressed shall find deliverance.
Let the yoke of bondage be dissolved
And all people serve You in freedom.
May this Passover feast
Bring us new understanding
Of the holiness of freedom.
Then we will rejoice before You,
With festive gladness, O God.
This is the day the Lord has made;
Let us rejoice and be glad in it.