Pesach (Passover) is one of the festivals whose celebration by the people of Israel is commanded in the Bible. Several rules are to be observed. No food containing leaven may be eaten or possessed during the days of the celebration. Unleavened bread is to be used instead in order to remember the bread of affliction that the ancient Israelites ate when they left Egypt (Deuteronomy 16:3). A lamb must also be offered on the eve of the celebration, which is eaten with bitter herbs (Exodus 12:8) in a family meal. Of course, Passover lambs have not been sacrificed since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by Roman armies. Like any living tradition, the observance of Passover has always adapted to changing times.
During this meal the parents must explain to their children the story of how God rescued the Benei Israel (Children of Israel) from their slavery. The importance of this particular instruction is emphasized by being repeated four times in the Torah (Exodus 12:26; 13:8, 14; Deuteronomy 6:20). According to rabbinic interpretation (Mekhilta d´Rabbi Yishmael on Shemot 13:14; y.Pesachim 10:4-70b), these four occurrences refer to four types of children: wise, rebellious, naïve, and those who do not know how to ask questions. The Pesach meal, which was first celebrated in Egypt and has been celebrated uninterruptedly in Jewish homes ever since, must serve as a setting for teaching young people the importance of freedom. It is a most significant occasion to impart lifelong values into their minds and hearts.
The Talmud (b. Pesachim 116a) states the questions that the children must ask their parents and the answers that must be told to them. It is an educational curriculum to be implemented at the Pesach dinner. If there are only two sages celebrating around the table, one should ask the other the above questions. The lesson is never fully learned, each year requires a review.
The meaning of Pesach — that people must be free if they are to attain their full dignity and realize their full, God-given potential — is one of the foundational axioms of the scriptures. From the first and second chapters of the book of the prophet Amos, as well as from the texts of the other Hebrew prophets, we learn that the God of the Bible demands justice and peace of all peoples and nations, and these are only achieved in a reality of freedom. The culmination of this process of seeking understanding among all human families is described in Isaiah 2: 1-4 and in Micah 4:1-5, a world in which one nation never raises the sword against another and no one trains for war anymore. This would be a world redeemed through the help of God and the efforts of humanity.
Clearly, that world has not yet appeared. Conflicts continue to multiply in the world. Leaders seem to amuse themselves by using people and resources as pawns on a chessboard of power games. Human beings die, old and brutal destructive strategies reappear, and both the victims and those who helplessly witness the devastation wonder with enormous anguish: when and how will this nightmare end?
The Passover story of the liberation of the Children of Israel from slavery does not end with their departure into the desert. This was only a precondition for the second and most important step, that of entering into covenant with God at Mount Sinai and the pledge that they would observe the commands and norms in the Torah Moses received. Without law there is no freedom, and a law without mercy is merely another form of slavery. For the Bible, the Torah covenant between God and Israel is what brings true life (Deuteronomy 30).
These themes have, of course, been taken up in Christianity. According to the New Testament, the Last Supper of Jesus occurred at Passover time, on the evening before his death. Jesus’ words during that dinner over the bread and wine, and his request that his companions continue to have such meals in his memory (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:25), are the origins of the Christian Eucharist. Indeed at the Easter Vigil Service, a prayer called the Exultet tells the Christian story of humanity’s redemption, speaking of Jesus’ death and resurrection as his Passover. In this Christian vision, Jesus’ “Passover” made possible a covenantal relationship between God and the whole of humanity. The nations in darkness have come to the light (e.g., Luke 2:32) and they have received new life (Romans 6:3-4).
The Pesach story, which we Jews and Christians transmit in our distinctive ways from generation to generation, contains the essence of what God expects of people as they live their earthly lives. It points to the very meaning of our existence. Despite the many shadows of the past and present that we recall, we must also keep in mind the lights that guide us. These are the moments of illumination that we could understand as God’s interventions in history. Let us keep this in mind during the celebrations of Passover and Easter, which this year once again take place during the same week. May the Eternal bless us so that we can continue to bear witness to God’s vision for humanity, understanding that God’s intentions are not illusory but will inevitably come to pass.
By Abraham Skorka
Georgetown University, Washington DC