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


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What exactly do we do on Shavuot? We meditate on the fact that as Jews we have a mission statement, the Torah. The Torah reading, chanted in synagogues on the first morning of the festival's two days, is like a dramatic reenactment of the Sinai revelation. The day has few other mandatory observances, beyond the requirement to refrain from work much as we do on the Sabbath, so as to increase the impact of our contemplation. Many Jews prepare for Shavuot with an all-night Torah study session known as "tikkun leyl Shavuot," intended to demonstrate that unlike our ancestors who stood at Sinai, we are fully prepared to receive God's revelation.

I suspect that this joyous, awe-inspiring, and crucially important day is largely ignored in American Jewish culture because its message makes many contemporary Jews uncomfortable. More than any other festival, it calls us to accept all the ramifications of our commission by God to be Jews-specifically, adherence to the 613 commandments given at Mt. Sinai.

The joys of the eternal Sinaitic covenant ascend to heaven, but the responsibility to follow Jewish law (halakha)-a body of legislation still being clarified and applied by Jewish sages to unprecedented modern circumstances down to our own day isn't compatible with every lifestyle, to put the matter mildly.

As 20th-century Jews entered the dominant culture's mainstream, they found it increasingly difficult to adjust their lifestyles in accordance with the mitzvot. So our grandparents and great-grandparents increasingly shunted Shavuot into obscurity, leaving their descendants-us-Jewishly bereft and impoverished without knowing it.

Jews aren't alone in our misunderstanding of Passover. In this respect we are joined by Christians, among whom the holiday has lately experienced a startling new popularity unknown since the first centuries of the Common Era. Back then, Christian authorities had to warn Christians not to observe Passover the threat of "Judaizing" was considered that severe.

Passover is the Jewish festival that Christianity has sought to take over and adapt as its own. Easter began as the Christian Passover, for good scriptural reasons having to do with the fact that Jesus died at Passover time, and the possibility that his last meal was a Passover seder. Easter used to coincide precisely on the Christian calendar with Passover until Constantine's calendrical reforms. In Christian theology and iconography, Jesus is regarded as the ultimate Passover sacrifice (John 19:36)-Jesus, this man who inspired a religion that gave Jews of his time what some (those who didn't reject him) took to be an honorable discharge from the Sinai covenant.

If Passover is the holiday par excellence that focuses us on the tension between Judaism and Christianity, it also suggests possibilities for resolving the tension. We live in a time of extraordinary Judaizing by Christians, especially among American evangelicals who are bursting with curiosity about Jesus' Old Testament background.

Christians hold seders and read books like Michael Smith and Rami Shapiro's Let Us Break Bread Together: A Passover Haggadah for Christians, Beverly Jeffers's A Christian Observance of Passover, Joan R. Lipis's Celebrate Passover Haggadah: A Christian Presentation of the Traditional Jewish Festival. We seem to be witnessing the emergence of the repressed Christian Passover.

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