As the days brighten and spring kicks into full swing, Jews all over the world are celebrating one of their most important observances, Passover. Passover is celebrated annually commemorating the anniversary of the Jews’ miraculous Exodus from Egyptian slavery, as told in the Bible (Chabad, 2022).
The story of Passover can be found in the book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible. Found in the Torah, the Passover story tells of the Israelites’ slavery, deliverance, and escape (“the Exodus”) from Egypt. The story begins with Joseph, who was sold into slavery by his jealous brothers and arrived in Egypt as a poor, powerless servant. Joseph was favored by God, was very wise, and could interpret dreams. This made him rise to be a trusted advisor to the Egyptian kings. He rose in power and fame and his family eventually joined him in Egypt as well as many other Israelites. There they prospered and multiplied for many generations.
A new King ‘Pharaoh’ came into power in Egypt. He did not remember how helpful Joseph had been and was threatened by the number of Israelites who had now occupied Egypt. He was afraid that they would one day rise against him so he treated them harshly, forcing them to work as slaves in terrible conditions. The Israelites persevered and continued to multiply regardless.
Pharaoh was still dismayed by the fortitude of the Israelites and passed an even harsher decree that all sons born to Israelite women should be killed at birth. When an Israelite woman, Yocheved, had a baby boy, she feared for his life and placed the baby in a wicker basket and placed him floating on the River Nile. Pharaos’ daughter who was at the river, came across the baby and took him home. All this was witnessed by Miriam, Yocheved’s daughter.
The baby was named Moses, ‘drawn from the water’, and he grew up in the palace. As he grew up, he learned of the plight of his people and once killed a taskmaster who was beating an Israelite slave. On realizing what he had done, he fled to the land of Midian, where he married a Midianite woman, Tzipporah, and became a shepherd (REFORM JUDAISM, 2022).
One day as Moses was tending to his flock, he came upon a burning bush that was not being consumed by the fire. God spoke to Moses and told him that with the help of his brother Aaron, they would free the Israelites from the shackles of slavery in Egypt.
Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and demanded that he “Let my people go,”. Pharaoh refused and instead made the Israelites work even harder. God then told Moses that, as proof of God’s power, the Egyptians would suffer a series of plagues until Pharaoh agreed to let the Jews go.
During the last plague, God killed the firstborn of each Egyptian family, but “passed over” the houses of the Israelites who had marked their doors with lamb’s blood, leaving their children unharmed. Following this last plague, Pharaoh relented and let the Jews go. The Israelites hastily left Egypt and did not have time to let their bread rise, leading to the holiday’s tradition of eating unleavened bread, matzah.
After the Jews left, Pharaoh regretted his decision and his army chased the Israelites to the Red Sea. God told Moses to stretch his staff over the sea, and, in perhaps the greatest miracle in all of the Jewish tradition, the waters parted, allowing the Jews to cross on dry land (REFORM JUDAISM, 2022).
Modern Passover celebrations try to commemorate the Biblical events. The seder, which is the ritual meal that is the centerpiece of Passover celebrations, incorporates foods that represent elements of the story. Bitter herbs represent the bitterness of slavery, roasted shank bone represents the sacrificial lamb, and an egg represents new life. Vegetables are dipped into saltwater representing the tears of the enslaved Israelites.
During a traditional seder, participants eat unleavened bread, or matzoh, three times, and drink wine four times. They read from a Haggadah, a guide to the rite, hear the story of Passover, and answer four questions about the purpose of their meal. Children get involved, too, and search for an afikomen, a piece of broken matzoh, that has been hidden in the home (BLAKEMORE, 2020).
Passover celebrations last one week in Israel and 8 days in other parts of the world. Passover celebration is important as it advocates for strength, hope, and triumph over adversity and anti-Semitism.
BLAKEMORE, E. (2020, April 7). A brief history of Passover, which honors resilience amid adversity. Retrieved from National Geographic: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/history-passover-honors-resilience-amid-adversity#:~:text=The%20story%20of%20Passover%20can,newly%20born%20Jewish%20son%20murdered.
Passover. Retrieved from CHABAD.ORG: https://www.chabad.org/holidays/passover/default_cdo/jewish/Passover.htm
REFORM JUDAISM. (2022). Passover: History. Retrieved from REFORM JUDAISM: https://reformjudaism.org/jewish-holidays/passover/passover-history
Sarah Hobson, Ph.D. specializes in supporting teams, departments and schools, businesses, and government agencies in building inclusive innovative change-making communities who understand how to connect well with and join diverse populations in providing needed sustainable resources for all youth and families.