c. 2002 Religion News Service

Pesach, or Passover in English, the eight-day festivalcommemorating ancient Israel's escape from Egyptian slavery, begins onWednesday evening, March 27. The holiday's highlight is the Seder, agala family meal that vividly recounts the biblical Exodus story througha combination of narration, prayer, food and music.

All leavened foods, especially bread products, are forbidden duringPassover--a link with the flat bread or matzo the Israelite slavesbaked during the Exodus when there was no time for normal preparation offood products.

Even in an age like ours when family members frequently live farfrom one another, Jews still make a modern pilgrimage to "come home" andshare the Seder experience with relatives and friends. Indeed, the homeSeder is one of the religious highlights of the year.

As a faithful Jew of his time, Jesus made a pilgrimage to the HolyTemple in Jerusalem to participate in his people's observance of Pesach.That is one reason the Christian holy days of Good Friday and Easter arecoupled in time and place with Passover. Some scholars, both Christianand Jewish, believe the Last Supper was in fact the Seder dinner.

But behind the Jewish religious observance and the universal appealof the holiday, certain questions remain to be answered. Did the Exodusreally happen?

After all, the official Egyptian records from the period do notmention the Exodus. But that is no surprise. Why would a powerful andproud nation describe the escape of a downtrodden, despised group ofslaves?

However, there is one specific Egyptian mention of "Israel," and itis on a victory stele or stone record from the year 1230 B.C. It boastsof the defeat of Egypt's enemies: "The Hittite land is pacified. Canaanis taken captive ... Ashkelon is plundered ... The people Israel isdestroyed, it has no offspring ... The land has become like a widow forEgypt."

This is solid evidence indicating that the former slaves and theirdescendants had completed the 40 years of wandering in the Sinaiwilderness and were already residing in Canaan, or what Jews call theland of Israel.

That the Egyptian royal historian boldly asserted the Israelites are"destroyed" with "no offspring" is a claim that has echoed throughouthistory. The Egyptian stele could have been written by the Nazi SSGeneral Jurgen Stroop who in May 1943 boasted the "the Jewish Quarter ofWarsaw (and its inhabitants) is no more."

The Seder, one of the longest continuous religious observances inhuman history, is an annual remembrance of an event that took placeabout 3,200 years ago and remains a constant reminder that both theEgyptian chronicler and Stroop were wrong.

Another question: Why did the story of a ragtag group of slaves whofled from a mighty monarchy become a permanent part of the world'scollective bank?

Throughout history, many oppressed peoples have used the Exodus asan inspirational model. It is no accident that Benjamin Franklin wantedthe seal of the newly created United States to feature the Israeliteslaves (independent Americans) fleeing Pharaoh's army (the British) asthey crossed the Red Sea (the Atlantic Ocean).

It is also no accident that America's black slaves sang freedomhymns like "When Israel Was in Egypt land, Let My People Go!" and usedthe Hebrew Bible as a source of hope for freedom.

A final question: Why has the Seder meal endured so well and for solong? The answer is found in a bit of Hebrew grammar.

The Haggadah is the Passover narrative booklet read at every Seder,and probably began to be used in 13th century Spain. The Haggadahretells the Exodus in an unusual way. Instead of the conventional thirdperson formula -- "The Israelites were slaves and they suffered..." --the Haggadah text is filled with first person plural language: "This isthe bread of affliction our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt ... Wewere Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt ... God brought us from the house ofbondage ... In every generation we should look upon ourselves as if wecame forth out of Egypt..."

The basic message is not subliminal, just the opposite. Participantssitting around the Seder table must link themselves with their ancestorsof long ago. The bitterness of slavery and the exultation of liberationwere not limited to the ancient slaves; today's Jews are inextricablylinked to the same events.

It is the genius of the Passover Seder that modern users of e-mailand mobile phones connect spiritually and emotionally with their ancientancestors who wrote on stone tablets and sheepskin.