By Rabbi Evan Moffic
Near the beginning of every spring, Jews sit down around the table and celebrate the Passover meal. Many Christians do the same. But should Christians celebrate Passover? That’s a controversial question because Passover means different things for Jews and Christians.
Jews see it as God redeeming the people of Israel. Through miracles and the leadership of Moses, God led the people out of slavery in Egypt toward freedom in the Promised Land. Christians tend to see Passover primarily as the precursor to God’s eventual redemption of humanity through death and resurrection of Jesus, the ultimate Passover lamb.
While their interpretations of it differ, Passover can still bring Jews and Christians closer together. In my experience, Christian Passover celebrations reinforce what binds us. They also convey a deeply spiritual message about God’s desire for human freedom.
Moses observed the Passover. Jesus observed it as well. And people of faith around the world can do so today.
Passover is a uniquely powerful holiday because it teaches life-changing lessons through a meal known as a seder, which is the Hebrew word meaning order. Early in my rabbinic career, I had the opportunity to lead two Passover seders on consecutive evenings.
One took place at an upscale dining club. The men wore suits and most of the women wore dresses. The catered meal was brought to us, and a choir helped us sing the Passover songs. It was powerful and reminded me of the blessings of living and succeeding in America.
The next evening I led a Passover seder at a recovery center. Some of the folks came in from local homeless shelters. Many had experienced severe alcohol and drug addictions.
It was an equally powerful evening, reminding me that slavery is not always physical. It can take the form of mental, spiritual and psychological entrapment.
Wherever and whoever we are, Passover can add meaning and a spiritual depth to our lives. Here’s why.
1. Passover shows the power of story.
The most important tradition of the Passover ritual meal is the telling of the Exodus story. The word hagaddah—which is the name of the book we read during the Passover meal—means “the story” in Hebrew.
Faith depends on stories because we remember stories more than facts. The Jewish rabbis taught through stories. Jesus taught through stories. Stories change us, shape us, and deepen our human sensitivities.
On Passover, we live those stories through interesting foods like matzah (unleavened bread) and charoset (a mixture of apples and nuts). Passover engages all of our senses and speaks to the soul, the mind and the body.
Through the Passover experience, God also calls us on to act. God splits the Red Sea and inflicts the ten plagues upon Egypt. But God also uses human beings. God sends Moses to tell Pharaoh to “let My people go.” Moses becomes God’s mouthpiece, helping bring God’s word to fruition here on earth. God works through each of us.
One of the chief Jewish practices of Passover is the avoidance of any leavened bread. For eight days we use unleavened bread for sandwiches, eat only certain types of cereal and pasta and even use a special set of silverware. While these practices may seem strange to some, they force us to live with greater mindfulness. What could be more common than eating bread?
Yet, when we stop doing so, we become more aware of how often we do it. It becomes more precious. We become more aware of the daily activities we often do without thinking.
One of the central customs of Passover meal is tasting bitter herbs. In doing so we are supposed to imagine that we ourselves—not just our ancestors thousands of years ago — were slaves in Egypt, and that God freed us and led us to the Promised Land. Eating the bitter herbs makes that experience more real.
In other words, all of us are actors in the drama of the Exodus. Tasting the bitter herbs not only creates a bridge to the past, but also to others in the present.
In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln called on the North and South to draw from the “better angels of our nature” as the war drew towartld a conclusion. Lincoln knew that reconciliation had to occur if the country was to remain unified and at peace.
So did Moses. After experiencing the Exodus, the Israelites could have emphasized how awful the Egyptians were to them, and all the different ways they planned to destroy Egypt. But they had a very different reaction.
They promised to not oppress the stranger for they had been strangers in the land of Egypt. They promised to not hate the Egyptian in their hearts. The Exodus became an impetus for love rather than hate.
America’s founding fathers drew from the Exodus story in understanding the purpose of the United States. The pilgrims were like the Israelites, fleeing the oppression of England and King George, crossing the Atlantic Ocean and journeying toward the Promised Land (America).
The Egyptian Pharaoh sought to destroy an entire people. He saw himself as a god. In so doing, he oppressed God’s people. Passover nurtures and affirms our deepest desire for freedom and reminds us God is on the side of those who seek it.
But freedom is not simply the right to do whatever we want to do. That kind of freedom lasts only one generation. Sustaining freedom depends on accepting responsibility for our actions and developing the moral sensibilities of future generations.
Slaves had all their questions answered. The free Israelites had to study and listen to God so they could answer them themselves. The Passover meal is a sustained celebration of and lesson in these values. Freedom requires responsibility. It is no accident, as poet Heinrich Heine put it, that “since the Exodus, freedom has always spoken with a Hebrew accent.”
5. Passover renews us.
Passover usually coincides with the arrival of Spring. That is not accidental. The Israelites found new life after the Exodus. It was a moment of rebirth. They had been slaves for 400 years. They were on the brink of losing their identity and sense of purpose. Pharaoh not only enslaved the Israelites’ bodies. By refusing to let him worship, he sought to enslave their hearts and souls.
The Exodus brought them back to life. The waters of the Red Sea not only provided a path out of Egypt. They also symbolized the life-giving natures out of which a new nation emerged.
Passover also renews our commitments to our faith. Faith needs to benourished. We are constantly tempted by the surrounding culture. Distractions fill our day. When we sit around a table and tell an ancient story, we return to what matters most.
Passover did not just happen in the past. Yes, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt for 400 years. Then in an extraordinary act of deliverance, God brought them to freedom. It was God’s first great act of redemption.
But when we celebrate Passover,
we remind ourselves that God’s redemption did not stop in Egypt.
Each of us can experience it.
We are not stuck where we are.
Passover compels us to ponder anew the places in our lives where we feel trapped and inadequate. We see where God’s outstretched arm can renew our lives and faith.
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