As we enter the month of April, spring is here, bringing along with it a sense of renewal, life, and warmth. Spring brings out something in us that cannot be measured. The newly emerged tree leaves rustle as they move in the wind for the first time, as the ground under our feet awakens and pushes life out of the earth into the trees and plants around us. This new season and renewal of the earth bring what can only be described as a feeling of hope.
As Christians, Spring ushers us into the Easter season. As tempting as it is to get caught up in the Easter egg hunts, chicks, bunnies and flowery clothing, we know that this holy season has greater meaning.
I have always found it curious that we, whether Believers or not, put so much time, energy, effort and significance into Christmas, yet go thru the Easter Holy Days with not much more than a visit to church and maybe a brunch. Although Christmas is deemed as our Savior’s birth, Easter is the Resurrection. It is our Savior dying on the cross for our sins. It is what saves us! These 3 days, and even the ones leading up to it, deserve more than an obligatory visit to church.
With this in mind, in the next few weeks we’ll be diving deeper into the meaning of Easter and the Resurrection. To begin, let’s look at Passover and Seder.
Celebrating Passover is extremely common with 70% of American Jews attending Passover seders during this time. In many ways, Passover is the ultimate Jewish holiday that recalls the freedom and liberation of the Jewish people. So why are Passover and the seder tradition important to Christians?
Simply, Jesus, who was a Jew, and his followers would have celebrated Passover in their time. Participating in the Passover seder reminds us of how tied we are to our Jewish roots. Understanding the seder ritual helps Christians become more familiar with Judaism and promotes understanding between the two religions. However, the traditional Jewish Passover seder is about reliving the Exodus story while the Christian seder tends to be about understanding how Jesus and his disciples would have celebrated Passover.
For Christians, the Passover seder is a deep part of our Easter celebration. The connection between the two celebrations starts with the very fact that Jesus and his disciples celebrated the seder the night before Jesus died. In addition, it gives us the opportunity to explore our Jewish roots and to identify with the freedom God gave to the Israelites. Sharing customs like the seder, if done properly, might promote some desperately needed interfaith understanding.
Mark Silk, a Jewish professor of religion at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., remarked that the increasing popularity of Christian seders is okay with him. In a piece for the Religion News Service, Silk argued that it is both impossible and unreasonable to demand that Christians avoid Jewish traditions: “Christians started off as Jews, and if we started to ask them to strip away all the Jewish textual and liturgical and theological appropriations they’ve made over the years, there wouldn’t be a lot left of the religion.”
Suffice to say, if we don’t take the time to explore the meaning of Passover, the ritual of the seder and the triumph of the Jewish people during the Easter Holy Days, we are missing a major component of the season.
So When Is Passover?
Like other Jewish holidays, the timing of Passover is based on the Hebrew calendar, so the exact dates in the calendar used by most of the world vary each year (similar to Easter). Passover generally begins in late March or early April, and in 2022, it goes from the evening of Friday, April 15 to the evening of Saturday, April 23.
Passover celebrates the Jewish people’s miraculous exodus from Egypt as told in the book of Exodus. Its name comes from the story of the tenth plague (the death of the firstborn), which passed over the Israelites’ houses, sparing their children.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explained the rationale of Passover this way: “The journey from slavery to freedom is one we need to travel in every generation. So, we were commanded to gather our families together every year at this time and tell the story of what it was like to be a slave and what it felt like to go free.”
The Passover Story
The Passover story is recorded in the book of Exodus and took place more than 3,000 years ago. The Jewish people were slaves in Egypt under the bitter rule of the pharaoh of the time. Deciding that the Jewish people were too numerous, the pharaoh issued a genocidal decree: every Jewish newborn male would be thrown into the Nile River to drown.
The story begins when Jocheved, Moses’ mother, decides to hide her newborn son to prevent his murder. However, after three months, Jocheved can no longer hide her infant quietly. She chooses to risk everything by sending her child down the river in a basket, hoping that he will miraculously reach a safe destination. The baby is discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter who names him Moses, which comes from the Hebrew verb meaning “to draw out” of water.
Moses grows up in the pharaoh’s palace and is raised as an Egyptian. One day, an adult Moses sees an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave; Moses decides to defend the slave from this cruel treatment and kills the Egyptian. This puts Moses’ life in danger, and he is forced to flee from Egypt to the distant land of Midian (believed to be present-day Saudi Arabia near the tip of the Red Sea). While in Midian, Moses meets his wife Zipporah, and the two have a son named Gershom.
Meanwhile, the Jewish people are still toiling under the backbreaking labor of the pharaoh. In a critical turn of events, while Moses is herding his sheep in Midian, God appears to him through the flames of a burning bush and tells Moses to go back to Egypt and say to Pharaoh, “Let my people go.” This iconic moment begins Moses’ blossoming career as the greatest prophet in Jewish history. Moses becomes the only prophet in the Bible to ever speak with God face to face, and the only one who could speak with God whenever he wanted. [I think it’s important to note, that, yes, we can speak to God anytime we choose. The most notable difference is that God not only appeared to Moses but clearly and apparently audibly spoke back. Yes, at least this author is a bit envious.]
After initially protesting the plan, Moses ultimately agrees to carry it out and returns to Egypt, his family by his side. At this point, there’s a new pharaoh in town. Through Moses, God inflicts 10 devastating plagues onto the Egyptian population in order to set the Hebrew slaves free. Pharaoh resists each round of divine intervention and refuses to let the Jewish people go until the tenth and final plague, the death of the firstborn. Ahead of this, Moses tells the Jewish people to put the blood of a lamb on their doors as a symbol for God to “pass over” their homes and spare their children.
Pharaoh’s son is among the thousands of Egyptians to die. Faced with this personal tragedy, he finally agrees to let the Jewish people go. However, just as the Jewish people leave, Pharaoh changes his mind again and chases after them. With Egyptian chariots on their heels, the Jewish people come to a dead end at the Red sea.
It is here that the Jewish people witness yet another astonishing act of divine intervention: the waters part, enabling the people to cross the sea and reach the opposite shore. At this moment, the walls of the water fall down behind them, drowning Pharaoh’s entire army. Moses goes on to lead the Israelites through the desert to the brink of the promised land.
The Passover story is told and even reenacted at the traditional Passover dinner. For example, bitter herbs are eaten so as to “taste” the bitterness the Israelites endured as slaves. With its central theme of redemption, Passover is a time not only for Jews to connect with their own history, but also to be mindful of the suffering of others and those who are oppressed today. At the seder, many Jews draw attention to present-day issues of justice (in and out of the Jewish community) with the hope that all people will find freedom.
There are many opportunities to attend a traditional Seder dinner. Many temples offer Seders that non-Jews can attend, as well as many Christian churches, do their version. If you’re attending a seder, here are a few key components you can expect.
Seder plate: The seder plate contains six foods: a green vegetable (usually parsley), haroset (a mixture of fruit, nuts and cinnamon), two types of bitter herbs, a shank bone and an egg. Each item symbolizes a part of the Passover story.
Haggadah: The Haggadah (which means “telling” in Hebrew) is a book used as a guide to the Passover seder. It contains the order of the service and the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
Matzah: Matzah (unleavened bread) symbolizes the food the Israelites brought with them on the Exodus: the Israelites were in such a hurry when leaving Egypt that they did not have time to leaven their bread.
Afikoman: This is a piece of matzah that is eaten at the end of the Passover meal. It is also commonly a game for children: the Afikoman is hidden during the seder, and the kids compete for prizes to find it.
Wine: Each participant drinks four cups of wine during the seder. This number could represent different articulations of divine redemption in the Exodus story: “I will bring you out,” “deliver you,” “redeem you” and “take you to Me for a people.”
I ran across a couple of quotes as I researched Seder practices that spoke volumes to me:
- “I suppose I am remembering Passover as a way to remind myself that the struggle for freedom is as old as time. That there are always others who yet need to be delivered.” Jonathan Auxier, Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster
- “On this night, long years ago, our forefathers hearkened to the call of freedom. Tonight, that call rings out again, sounding its glorious challenge, commanding us to champion the cause of all the oppressed and the downtrodden, summoning all the peoples throughout the world to arise and be free. Let us raise our cups in gratitude to God that this call can still be heard in the land. Let us give thanks that the love of freedom still burns in the hearts of our fellowmen. Let us pray that the time be not distant when all the world will be liberated from cruelty, tyranny, oppression and war.” Mordecai M. Kaplan, The New Haggadah For the Pesah Seder
- “The exodus from Egypt occurs in every human being, in every era, in every year, and in every day.” Rabbi Nachman of Breslov
In a few weeks, Christians will be gathering to celebrate Easter, while Jews will gather again for the family ritual of the seder. It is an opportunity for our own reflection. Passover is one of those festivals that underscore the Jewish traditions that it is never too late to move on, change our outlook, to learn new skills, and to continue to grow. Indeed, we understand this from the Torah itself. Abraham in Genesis 12 is given the call to “go forth” (lech l’cha) to a place that he did not know. Trust and faith were to carry Abraham forward. Trust in some eventual outcome and a faith in himself and his God, that the future would unfold in a positive way.
These themes of trust and faith are powerful forces that motivate us and, in many cases, push us forward in life. The story of the Exodus; the movement from slavery to liberation that is read at Seder is a metaphor for each of us. Every year we are called to move forward, to free ourselves from that which enslaves us; if we only have the courage to trust our instincts and have faith in our own dreams and our all-powerful God.
To be continued…