My Christian friends, alerted by the media, are full of Passover questions. I happily explain that it's a celebration of freedom commemorating the flight from Egypt of 600,000 barefoot, fractious Israelite slaves led by a lawgiver, warrior, priest, politician, named Moses. It’s a great holiday. Very simple to observe, ecumenical in its simplicity you might say.
Here are the rules I cite to my pals at the office:
1. You must be a freedom fan; i.e., you must dislike oppression worse than a midnight toothache. Anybody who enjoys laying bricks for pyramids is automatically disqualified as a Passover celebrant.
2. You must be an eater with a wide-ranging interest from muscular matzo balls, whose secret essence is chicken fat, to sweet and sour tsimmus. Cadaverous fashion models must eat alone at the kitchen table. Nobody wants to be reminded of starvation on the festive night.
3. Now here’s the bad news. No bread is allowed during this 8-day holiday. That’s because our ancestors bailed out of Egypt in such a hurry that they didn’t have time to cancel their magazine subscriptions, or wait for their yeast to swell up in the oven. Instead of yeasty bread, we eat flat slabs of unleavened cakes called Matzos; joyless and tasteless, appropriately called "the bread of affliction" in the Passover narrative.
The mass exit from Egypt started around 1300 BC. The children of Israel, ex-nomadic shepherds who loved the wide-open spaces, suffered the first major problem of their young history. They were slaves in Egypt! We’re not talking non-union, or minimum wage, or an OSHAless workplace. We’re talking slavery - ownership of one human being by another - a profitable 13th Century BC industry. It was a violent era and swords beat shepherds’ staffs every time.
Their escape from bondage is joyfully celebrated at our family feast the first two nights of the 8-day holiday. Besides the entrees that would warm the heart of King Solomon’s chef, many ceremonial dishes are presented. An apple is chopped up and sprinkled with cinnamon and wine to represent the mud mortar of pyramid bricks. Spread on a board of matzo, it improves it like orange marmalade improves dry toast.
Much tastier are two hard-boiled eggs served whole in a soup bowl of salty water. This is a dish full of symbolism. The eggs, round with no beginning or end, like creation itself. The salt water, like our enslaved ancestor's tears and the briny Red Sea crossed by the fleeing Israelites. (One of the great mysteries of Judaism - untouched by our religious books - is why boiled eggs in salt water only charm your palate on Passover. Any other day of the year it's a dish to run from.) And there’s horseradish to remind us of the bitterness of slavery.
At table center there's the lamb shank symbolizing the sacrificial lamb eaten at the first Passover meal - the creature whose blood on the doorpost warned off the Angel of Death. A symbol still embedded in the Christian image of Christ as the Pascal or Passover Lamb.
And, of course, before the feast we tell our children the story of our deliverance: “With a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,” says Exodus; HE who made both Egyptians and Israelites plucked these weary slaves out of their bondage. He was their navigator guiding them with a cloud by day and fire by night. And He was their quartermaster feeding them with manna and quail when they lusted for the fleshpots of Egypt.
Even the most skeptical guests, who wonder how the Sinai Peninsula sustained a mob of 600,000 vagabonds, nod in belief; overpowered by the miraculous narrative and the sedative effects of the hot chicken soup.
There’s a closing ceremony honored by tradition where we shout, “Next year in Jerusalem”! A reasonable prayer for the Jews of yesteryear in hostile lands awaiting the ominous hammering on the door. But not here in America. Didn't the Pilgrim Fathers, who braved a watery waste instead of the sandy Sinai, call their wilderness home the “New Jerusalem”?
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