Passover's powerful message
April 19, 2019
As the sun goes down this evening, Jewish people in our own community and throughout the world will be sitting down with their families and friends to participate in the ancient Jewish ritual of a free people known as the Seder, the traditional feast and story telling that ushers in the Passover holiday.
Unlike most festive meals in the Jewish holiday calendar, this festive meal unfolds in a specific order and ritual. Food and tradition are inextricably bound up in the story and commemoration of the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt, an exodus not only from slavery, but an emancipation into freedom and a transition from tribal life into nationhood.
Symbolic foods are placed on a ceremonial plate to remind us of the bitterness of slavery, the hardship of the labor imposed on the Jewish slaves and the hope of redemption. The refreshing breath of the earth in springtime and the restorative souls of a liberated people are also symbolized by the delicacies on the menu.
We eat bitter herbs to remind us of the bitter existence of slavery in contrast to the sweetness of freedom. We eat matzo, the unleavened bread that the Israelites baked in their haste to leave Egypt. This bread, historically known as the “bread of affliction” is now often referred to as the “bread of freedom” as we willingly consume it for the duration of the holiday in memory of those dark days in our history.
It is a biblical commandment that each generation of Jews are to think of themselves as having been liberated from Egyptian slavery; and we are mandated to retell the story of our slavery and to teach the experience of the exodus to our children throughout the generations.
Passover is a happy holiday, despite the retelling of the hardships of slavery and the cruelty of the Egyptian masters. The holiday is one of happiness because it commemorates triumph over defeat. It reminds us of the partnership between humans and the Divine; and it gives meaning to the covenant between G-d and Abraham, the first of the Jewish patriarchs, that from Abraham would arise a great and everlasting people whose inheritance would be to dwell in the Land of Israel, with the holy city of Jerusalem as its eternal capital.
The biblical story begins with Jacob and his sons going down to Egypt to overcome the famine in Canaan. Joseph, the brother whom Jacob’s sons had sold into slavery, and who later emerged to become a high Egyptian official greeted his brothers and reunited with them and his father. Originally welcomed by Pharoah, Jacob and his sons ended up settling in Egypt, where their descendants multiplied, prospered and transformed into a people with a unique culture.
What has now become a repetitive theme in Jewish history, because the Israelites were different they were perceived as a threat and ultimately, enslaved under a Pharaoh who “knew not Joseph.” This set the stage centuries later for the Passover story.
Although the story of Passover is singular and unique to the Jewish people, the Passover story can be a lesson for all people who were once enslaved or who are currently living under the yolk of dictatorship or other forms of oppression.
The Passover story is not one of victimhood. It is a story of hope, and overcoming victimhood. Lingering victimhood in a sense is a form of self-imposed slavery. While it is important to know one’s own history, the only constructive purpose of tragic history is to use it as a platform to embrace hope and optimism as a launch pad to a future of freedom, equality and mutual respect.
Dwelling on victimhood can make a people bitter, but it cannot make a people free. That is the powerful message of Passover.
If you wish to comment or respond you can reach me at email@example.com. Please do so in a rational, thoughtful, respectful and civil manner.
Mel Pearlman holds B.S. & M.S. degrees in physics as well as a J.D. degree and initially came to Florida in 1966 to work on the Gemini and Apollo space programs. He has practiced law in Central Florida since 1972. He has served as president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando; was a charter board member, first Vice President and pro-bono legal counsel of the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center of Central Florida, as well as holding many other community leadership positions.