The message of the Jewish holiday of Passover — which begins this year on Saturday, March 27 — is closely tied to the ideals that most Americans hold dear.
In the Hebrew Bible, Passover celebrates the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt and their freedom from slavery. It was given this name because God “passed over” the houses of the Israelites during the last and greatest of the Ten Plagues brought upon the Egyptians. The story of this close encounter with death and the resultant freeing of the Israelites from bondage is designed to impel us to search for the very best of human values and to live out those values in our daily lives.
Throughout the West Valley, Jews — and, indeed, increasing numbers of Christians — celebrate Passover by holding a Seder, which is a ritual feast which involves the retelling of the liberation of the Israelites. The Seder is based on the Biblical command to recount the story of the Exodus for the younger generations.
Families and communities gather together to read from the Haggadah, a liturgical guide to the meal which explains its many exotic ritual practices. For example, the eating of matzah (unleavened flatbread) with bitter herbs provides for us just a little bit of the actual literal bitterness of that experience so many years ago.
While the Passover Seder is designed to help us recreate a long-ago mythical crisis, the unspoken question of what would have happened if we were never liberated from slavery hangs in the air. It is hard to get a sense of what it might have been like to suddenly become a slave.
One of the hallmarks of American democracy is political and social freedom. We cherish our liberties, and most of us instinctively recoil from anything that might threaten those freedoms. Yet, on Passover we gather to consider what it might have been like deprived of all of the choices and options that we too often take for granted.
Our director of education, Andre Ivory, speaking about the retelling of the Exodus to the younger generation is the primary purpose of the Seder experience. We continually come up with new pedagogical strategies to arouse the curiosity of children and draw them into this recreation of events that took place thousands of years ago. Near the beginning of the feast ceremony, the youngest child is chosen to ask the ma nishtana — a question that translates to “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Throughout the evening, the dramatization that unfolds is an attempt to answer this child’s question.
Our religious school — which includes students from Peoria, Glendale, Surprise, Tolleson, Avondale and Goodyear — loves preparing for the Passover holiday. While store-bought matzah is a dry, flavorless bread that many people would not eat voluntarily, our school has baked their own matzahs, which can be absolutely delicious. Alternatively, matzah ball soup is a perennial favorite during the holiday. Many of our younger participants also enjoy chocolate-covered matzah.
The message of the Passover Seder is that, in everything that we do, we must be mindful of the need to help the younger generation learn and understand the important values that can help them grow up to become good citizens and productive members of society.
We celebrate our freedom from slavery not just because it allows us to have more individual autonomy in our personal lives but more importantly because it gives us the latitude to live our lives in the best possible way.
The purpose of freedom is not so that we can buy more stuff but to develop our own values and not feel obligated to accept the values imposed by another group. This attitude will blossom into benefits not just for us and those around us but for all of humankind and the entire world. Sometimes, it is only by looking into the past that we can fully prepare for the future.