“Why is this night different from all other nights?” Thus began the ritual of questions during the Seder meal with which observant Jews start the celebration of Passover, or Pesach, which commemorates the deliverance of the Israelite slaves from bondage in Egypt.
The youngest child at the table is expected to answer the questions, fulfilling the commandment, “And thou shalt tell thy son.”
According to tradition, as related in the book of Exodus, the tenth plague Yahweh imposed on the Egyptians to convince them to let his people go was the death of the firstborn son in each family. The Jews were instructed to sacrifice a lamb or kid and smear its blood on the house’s lintel or doorpost. Seeing the blood, the Angel of Death would pass over that house. After this plague, Pharaoh relented and allowed the Jews to leave.
Why do some people eat only unleavened bread, or matzoh, on Pesach? To remember that when the Jews left Egypt there was not time to allow the bread to rise, so the dough was baked into hard crackers.
Why do some people eat bitter herbs? To remind us of the cruelty the Jews suffered.
Why do some people dip our foods? We dip bitter herbs into Charoset made of apples and nuts, which resemble clay for bricks, to remind us how hard the slaves had to work. Parsley is dipped into salt water; the parsley symbolizes that spring is here and new life will grow. The salt water reminds us of the tears of the Jewish slaves.
Why do some people lean on a pillow? To be comfortable and to remind us that once we were slaves and now we are free.
Passover is typically celebrated for seven days in Israel and among Reform Jews, and for eight days among diaspora Conservative and Orthodox Jews. It recalls the birth of a Jewish nation, freed of Egyptian oppression and able to serve Yahweh, or God, alone.
The first and last days are full festivals, marked by abstention from work, special prayer services and holiday meals. Jews eat only unleavened bread during the entire observance.
Passover commemorates the birth of a Jewish nation consecrated to serve Yahweh, or God, not the pharaoh. It is a time to be humbled and to remember what it was like to be a slave. Most of all it is a celebration of freedom, of the joys and opportunities available when we are not forced to serve others.
The story of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt has inspired countless peoples suffering in slavery or oppression, notably African-American slaves in America during a shameful part of our history. It is a reminder to all of us that freedom is invaluable, that God wants us to be free of human oppression. You don’t have to be Jewish to appreciate that blessing.