The Meaning of Passover
Rabbi Moshe Pitchon is the head of 21st Century Judaism (https://www.21stcenturyjudaism.com/) and the Director of the Meriane Albagli Geni Cassorla Sephardic Institute for Sephardic Development in the 21st Century.). Opinions like this appear almost weekly in media around the world in English, French, Spanish and Portuguese
The Hebrew Scriptures tell us that an Israelite family went down from Canaan to Egypt four thousand years ago to escape famine. Having welcomed them initially, the Egyptians later enslaved them.
Overcome by the apathy and exhaustion of servitude, not even the decision by an Egyptian pharaoh to kill all their male infants did propel them to break with their despairing condition.
Then came Moses, a Hebrew adopted and raised in the Egyptian court, who delivered a call from God to freedom. Though initially, his assignment met with a series of reversals, the Israelites were eventually freed.
When the Egyptians later recanted their decision and chased them, the Hebrews were miraculously saved and the pursuers destroyed.
It is impossible to read the Bible without noticing the disproportionate emphasis that this story stamps upon almost every core Jewish value.
The primacy of freedom, the possibility of escaping tyranny, God’s anger with every form of social abuse. The existence of objective truth at Sinai- a reproach to anarchy and the at the same time a source of righteousness. No less than the demand that Israel creates a just society.
Having marked a kind of “zero-point” in Israel’s history, the Exodus from Egypt is the central event around which Jews have organized their whole perception of reality. The event’s memory is a necessary ingredient in Israel’s definition as a nation and Judaism as a historical religion.
Arguably, no holiday defines Jewish identity more than Passover.
It should not surprise to find out that this is the most widely celebrated of the Jewish holidays. For instance, seventy percent of American Jews, including 42 percent who don’t consider themselves religious, observe it.
This defining moment in Israel’s story eventually became also a transformative milestone in western human consciousness.
The Exodus became a model for the principle of individual freedom and, together with it, the first description of revolutionary politics.
The Exodus metaphor appears in various degrees in all American cultural foundations:
the Pilgrim Forefathers; Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin used it as their image when, in 1776, they drew their designs for the Great Seal of the United States. (Benjamin Franklin chose an allegorical scene from Exodus, described in his notes as “Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot. Motto: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”) Jefferson suggested depicting the Children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night for the front of the seal.
When African- Americans sang of freedom, their words were, “Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land, tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.” In his last speech before he was murdered, Martin Luther King said, “I may not enter the Promised Land with you; I may only stand on the mountain top and look in, but you will enter.”
In the 21st century, the Exodus story derives its strength because it remains a model for a secular and historical account of “redemption” rather than a model for messianism and millennialism. However, the intended end-result is the same: the push to use the redemptive energies in nature and human beings.
To paraphrase Rabbi Irving Greenberg:
Where does Israel get the strength- the chutzpah- to go on believing in redemption in a world that knows slavery, poverty, mass hunger, political exile, refugees, hate among nations, brothers and sisters? How can Jews testify to hope and human value when they have been continuously persecuted, hated, dispelled, destroyed? Out of the memories of the Exodus! “So that you remember the day you went out of Egypt all the day of your life” (Deuteronomy 16: 3). The Jewish tradition takes this biblical ideal literally.
The annual commemoration of Passover is certainly a renewing celebration that educates the Jewish people toward its future and humanity’s future.