Passover, the Incomplete Festival

Most Jews don't understand that the Exodus we celebrate at Passover is only a prelude to the main event at Mt. Sinai.

BY: David Klinghoffer


Besides being the most widely celebrated of the Jewish festivals, Passover is also the most widely misunderstood not only by Jews but by Christians.

Case in point: The gorgeously produced 1998 animated film "Prince of Egypt," with Moses as its hero, completely missed the significance of the Passover story. The film ends in just the wrong place after Moses has split the Sea of Reeds, letting the Jews pass through safely before the walls of water collapse upon the pursuing Egyptian army. It is depicted as the story's denouement, toward which everything else was leading.

Hollywood is not alone in misunderstanding where the Exodus story's climax belongs. Many Jews, and others, see the liberation of the Israelite tribes from Egyptian slavery as the whole point of the Passover narrative.

Not so at all. The purpose behind God's redeeming of the Israelites can be summarized in a word, and a holiday: Shavuot.

In contemporary America, Shavuot is certainly the least observed of Judaism's biblical festivals. It comes on the sixth of the month of Sivan seven weeks after Passover and celebrates the giving of the Torah and the 10 Commandments to Israel at Mt. Sinai, an event that occurred some 50 days after the Exodus. That event, and not the picturesque crossing of the Sea of Reeds, was the climax toward which the Exodus led the children of Israel.

The two holidays are so closely linked in significance and in Jewish liturgical practice that at the conclusion of the seder meal on Passover's second night, Jews formally begin the counting of the omer (an ancient unit of measurement), a ritual dating back to the days of the Temple in Jerusalem that serves as a countdown of the days that will conclude on Shavuot.

The Torah is the commission from God to the Israelites to be His "kingdom of priests" (Exodus 19:6), with all that entails by way of the unique grammar, that is, the mitzvot, or commandments. It is the covenant that created the Jewish people out of the Israelite tribes and defined the Jews' relationship with God. In the scheme of world history, were it not for the revelation of the Torah at Sinai, were it not for Shavuot, the Exodus and its commemoration at Passover would have been of little significance.

True, one of the most beloved songs of the seder's liturgical script is called "Dayenu." In Hebrew, that word means literally, "It would have been enough for us." (Hebrew is a compact language, often requiring only one word to say something that in English would take a whole sentence.) "Dayenu" includes the puzzling line, "Had He [God] brought us before Mt. Sinai, but not given us the Torah, it would have been enough for us."

What? Didn't I just say that freeing us from Egypt would have been pointless had God not then given us the Commandments?

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