Spring is here, the season of rebirth and renewal. Easter displays of purple and yellow marshmallow Peeps, and chocolate rabbits with hollow ears line shelves adjacent to baskets filled with shredded green celophane, emulating the new growth of a reawakening earth. There is an abundance of baby chicks at the feed store, and bunnies at the pet store. Eggs, the ultimate symbol of regeneration appear in their many iterations; real ones by the dozens for dying and hiding, chocolate or marshmallow ones for eating, and pastel colored plastic ones for filling with goodies. All very uplifting and exciting.
If you are Jewish, it is almost Passover, the Feast of Unleavend Bread, a weeklong observance, kicked off by a ceremonial meal called the “Seder,” at which we reinact the story of God’s Redemption of the Israelites from the House of bondage, and the miracles that enabled Moses to lead the Exodus from Egypt. We are instructed thus: In each generation every Jew must regard himself or herself as personally liberated by God from Egyptian bondage. The story is read by all present from a book called “The Haggadah” which means, “The Telling.” The high points include enumerating the Ten Plagues, ingesting boards of tasteless matzah, dipping bitter herbs in salt water to remind us of the blood, sweat and tears of slavery in Egypt, and eating a mush of apples, wine and walnuts reminicient of the texture of the mortor used by Hebrew slaves in building storage cities for the Phaoroah. Oh, and we open the door to welcome the Prophet Elijah. No marshmallow Peeps, but if you are lucky someone will show up with a box of chocolate candy locusts or one filled with chocolate dipped matzah.
So, here it is, thousands of years after the Exodus from Egypt, and we are still at it for the simple reason that we were commanded by God to commemorate the event for all eternity.
Leviticus 23:5-8, gives us the “technical side” of the Passover.
“In the first month on the fourteenth of the month in the afternoon is the time of the Pesach offering to God. And on the fifteenth day of this month is the Festival of Matzos to God; you shall eat matzos for a seven day period. The first day shall be a sacred holiday to you when you may not do any work. You shall then bring sacrifices to the Lord for seven days, the seventh day is a sacred holiday when you may not do any work.”
It is in Exodus 13:8 that we get the spiritual message:
“This day shall be to you one of memory; You shall celebrate it eternally as a festival. You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, For on this very day I brought your ranks out of the land of Egypt...And when your children ask you, ‘What do you mean by this rite?’ you shall say, ‘It is because of what God did for ME when I went forth from Israel.’”
For twelve hundred years after their arrival in the Promised Land the major ritual of Passover consisted of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the sacrifice of an unblemished lamb by each pilgrim.
The lambs were brought to Jerusalem on the 10th of the Jewish month of Nissan, with the Passover itself taking place on the 15th of Nissan. The historian Josephus Flavius estimated that about two-hundred-fifty-five thousand lambs, an amount capable of feeding over two million people, were sacrificed during the festival in commemoration of the sacrifice made by every Hebrew family on their last day in Egypt, when the blood of that lamb was painted on the doorposts of each Hebrew home sparing the First Born Sons of Israel, even as the First Born Sons of Egypt were visited by the Angel of Death.
It is at this point in the story that Jesus becomes part of the Passover story. The New Testament records that five days before Passover Jesus entered Jerusalem, arriving on the 10th of Nisan, the same day the lambs arrived for sacrifice. During the Second Temple era, all the sacrificial lambs would be herded into the walled city of Jerusalem through one gate. Symbolically, it is the same day another sacrificial lamb, Jesus, Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God also enters Jerusalem through a different gate.
After the paschal lamb offering was made by the Priests at the Temple, a portion of the sacrificed meat was returned to the pilgrim to be eaten at a festive meal, at which time the Exodus from Egypt would be retold. Josephus Flavius notes that it was customary in Jerusalem to eat in groups of ten to twenty and discuss the Exodus. The Last Supper, the Passover meal Jesus shared with his followers would have been such a meal.
After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D. and the dispersal of the Remnant of Israel into exile, the sacrificial system ended. Prayer replaced sacrifice, enabling Jews to maintain their traditions wherever they went.
Since then, Jews have met annually for a communal meal called the Seder. The word Seder, in Hebrew, means Order, and the ritualized “Order of the Passover” meal is laid out in a book called the Hagaddah, which translates as “The Telling.” Each person at the table participates, with a special section reserved for the youngest at the table who asks a series of questions beginning with “Why is This Night Different from All Other Nights.” Another section addresses four kinds of children, The Wise Child, The Wicked Child, The Simple Child and the one Too Young To Ask, and provides versions of the story each can understand.
Every generation faces different challenges, and each person makes his or her own connection to the story: Freedom, Liberation, God’s Redemption of His Children, The desire for a Messianc Age. We are confronted daily with so many new means of enslavement: Drug addiction, Alcohol abuse, Domestic violence, Excessive use of electronics, Greed, A need for power over others. We can be shackled by demands or obligations. We can be restrained from being the people we want to be.
No matter how difficult or challenging the path to personal redemption or liberation, be assured that we are not meant to go it alone. Just as God accompanied the Children of Israel through the Wilderness, leading them with a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night, God is ALWAYS with us, to guide the Journey.