Passover is the most celebrated Jewish holiday in America. For many the most memorable part of it is the food.
Yet, Passover is also a teaching tool. We highlight and expound upon important parts of the Exodus story.
Fortunately, in his monumental work on the Jewish holidays, Abraham Bloch summarized them. Each is rooted in a biblical verse. Here they are:
- The display of God’s power: “And that you may tell in the hearing of your son and of your grandson how I have dealt harshly with the Egyptians and what signs I have done among them, that you may know that I am the Lord.” (Exodus 10:2)
- Remembrance of divine miracles: “And when in time to come your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘By a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.” (Exodus 13:14)
- God’s protection of the Jewish people: “The blood shall be a sign for you, on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you, when I strike the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:13)
- The obligation to express gratitude for God’s intervention: “On the seventh day you must explain to your children, ‘I am celebrating what the Lord did for me when I left Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8)
- That’s God’s deliverance marked the fulfillment of the earlier promises to Abraham: “Because He loved your ancestors, He chose to bless their descendants, and He personally brought you out of Egypt with a great display of power.” (Deuteronomy 4:37)
- That the Exodus is the beginning of the Israelite journey to sovereignty in the land of Israel and free exercise of their religion: “Observe therefore all the commands I am giving you today, so that you may have the strength to go in and take over the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” (Deuteronomy, 11:8)
- That the Exodus reminds us of the possibility of redemption: Stand in awe of the Lord your God and serve him. Hold fast and take your oaths in his name. He is the one you praise; he is your God, who performed for you those great and awesome wonders you saw with your own eyes.
- To remember that we were once slaves: “Be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.” (Deuteronomy 6:12)
- To follow God’s commandments because we were once slaves, and the laws preserve our freedom: “Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, so be careful to obey all these decrees. (Deuteronomy, 16:12)
- To sustain the Covenant in every generation: “The king gave this order to all the people: ‘Celebrate the Passover to the Lord your God, as it is written in the Book of the Covenant.’” (2 Kings: 23:21)
The new pope, Francis, faces enormous challenges. As a rabbi, I can’t offer specific advice on doctrine or practice It would not only be audacious, but meaningless for me to suggest liturgical or clerical reforms that might help the church fulfill its mission.
What I can do is reference a Christian writer from whom I have learned a great deal. He is a writer familiar to many because of his famous children’s book series, The Chronicles of Narnia. He was also a profound and influential religious thinker.
The book I have in mind for Pope Francis to read is The Abolition of Man. It is Lewis’s protest against moral relativism. Relativism is the belief that all moral claims are relative, and we can’t say that one system is better than any other. It is the default worldview for many in the West today.
How the Pope Can Transform the Conversation
As the paramount religious figure in the world, even though he only represents Catholics, the Pope can be a voice challenging moral relativism. He can challenge secular values not with a sectarian desire to convert the world to one particular religion.
Rather, he can speak about essential moral principles. Our survival may depend on it. Here is what he can learn from Lewis, who called these shared principles The Tao.
1. Societies depend on basic communal laws: These include the prohibition of murder, of theft, and the love of neighbor. These values help prevent social deterioration.
2. Societies depend on the basic family unit: We give greater love to certain individuals: our spouse, our children, our extended family. We owe them more than we owe others. The stability and maintenance of families is a broad moral concern on which the Pope can speak in non-divisive way.
3. Societies depend on basic personal virtues: We need to do a better job of teaching character formation. Honesty, generosity, and kindness are virtues religion can inculcate in children and adults. Without them, the world we inherited from our parents and grandparents will not last long.
In her new and controversial book Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg argues that women face a variety of unique challenges in achieving professional success. One of them is self-imposed, yet reinforced by the larger culture.
It is the hesitancy to “lean in,” to not let internal barriers–like feeling the false need to choose between success or family– hold them back from achieving the highest levels of success.
How early Jewish activism shaped her identity
In Time Magazine’s profile, we learn from her family’s history as “activists for Soviet Jews who were trying to immigrate from Israel.” Her parents urged her to stand up for the rights of a persecuted group, and do something to make the world a better place.
Over time that passion translated into government work and business success. It has now expanded into non-profit advocacy and teaching.
Following in giant footsteps
It also follows in the tradition of Jewish values. The role of women in Jewish life has been the subject of great discussion, and it varies between Reform and Orthodox Judaism. What unites them, however, is the belief that a commitment to family and to making a difference in the world are not at odds.
Here are two examples:
1. Sarah: In the Bible, Sarah is not only Abraham’s wife and the mother of Isaac and Ishmael. She is credited for bringing many people into the new religion with Abraham as they were journeying toward the Promised Land. She frequently protects Abraham from the wrath of local rulers with whom they have to negotiate. Her role is an immense and often underappreciated one.
2. Rebecca: The biblical Rebecca is an extraordinary character. Her passion and boldness become clear right when we meet her, as she volunteers to water the flock of Abraham’s messenger and invite him to her home, where she leaves with him over her father’s objection.
Her insight into her children and into the needs of the moment allow her to ensure the survival of the Jewish people.
Perfection is not the goal
Now these two examples should not lead us to believe that Judaism was always perfect and forward-looking in understanding gender roles. It evolves, as all faiths do. Yet, it provides a useful corrective to the kind of binary thinking often blocking us from wisdom.
Family and professional satisfaction are not at odds. They can reinforce one another. We will not be perfect in everything we do. Indeed, Jewish wisdom has taught this truth for milennia.
Yet, as Sandberg puts it, when we find the strength to lean in–when we do not get trapped in false choices–we can work and live in a way that is “sustaining and fulfilling.” May all of us–men and women alike–find that strength.
On the evening of March 25, people around the world will begin the Passover holiday.
They will sit down for a Passover meal known as a seder, with small book known as a hagaddah, describing the rituals and blessing of the meal, and telling the great story of the journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the Promised Land.
Here are ten things to know about Passover. If you’d like to know more or have questions comments, feel free to leave them below. (and don’t miss the free gift at the end!)
1. Passover celebrates not only the freedom of the Jewish people from Egypt long ago. It honors the freedom we seek today. Freedom from addictions, from materialism, from anything that distracts from the best that is within us.
2. The Passover seder (ritual meal) is the oldest religious ritual in continuous use in the Western world.
3. The Passover story has inspired leaders from different groups in different eras: From African Americans during slavery to pioneers of the modern state of Israel to those who struggle to expand our freedoms around the world today.
4. Both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin wanted the seal of the United States to depict the Exodus story. Jefferson wanted a depiction of the Israelites crossing over the Red Sea. Franklin wanted a display of the cloud of God leading the Israelites through the wilderness.
5. Passover is also known as “The Holiday of Matzah,” emphasizing the importance of unleaved bread in observing the holiday. Matzah is eaten during the eight days of Passover because in their haste to escape from Egypt, the Israelites did not have time to let the yeast rise in their bread. Therefore, they ate unleaved bread, known as matzah.
6. The number four is important for Passover because God’s promise of redemption from Egypt is mentioned four times in the beginning of Exodus story, (Exodus 6:6-7). During the seder, we have the four cups of wine, four questions, four types of children, and four hundred years of slavery.
7. Passover revolves around children: Much of the ritual of the Passover seder is meant to keep children engaged. From the telling of the story to the hiding of the afikomen (dessert matzah) to the constant asking of questions is the Jewish sages attempt to make Passover an educational experience, as well as a religious one.
9. In Israel people still conclude the Seder with the words “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Even though they may be sitting and eating in city of Jerusalem, Jerusalem represents more than just a physical place. It sybolizes an era of peace, of harmony, of universal freedom.
10. In 1932 Maxwell House Coffee printed a Hagaddah (the book containing the passover rituals, blessings and story) as part of advertising campaign. It spread quickly and became the most widely-used Hagaddah in America. It was recently updated.
11. (Bonus): There are thousands of Hagaddahs in print today. A free one is available below!