Pesach, Passover, is one of the most significant holidays in the Jewish calendar and it is the most observed of all our festivals. On this day we celebrate the liberation of our ancestors from slavery, and our deliverance. We re-tell the story of the Exodus and enjoy a ritual meal, the seder, in which the themes of the festival are considered.
We are taught that through the process of the seder meal, the rituals and prayers, we should all feel as if we had experienced the Exodus. The constant refrain of the Pesach season is to remember that we were once slaves, to understand and acknowledge the struggle and suffering which goes along with that enslavement, in order to ensure that we are never the oppressors of others and that we stand up for those who are most vulnerable in our world.
The Torah tells us: “Remember you were slaves in Egypt, you understand the soul of the stranger, therefore do not oppress others, defend the orphan, the stranger and the widow.” Because of our experience, we are impelled to have empathy, compassion and to act in the world to help all who are suffering, the most vulnerable, to ensure that all people can live in freedom and peace.
The command to celebrate Pesach comes from the Torah. There are three aspects to the biblical imperative: to tell the story of the Exodus, to eat unleavened bread, and have no leaven in our homes for seven days. The festival is still celebrated in the same way thousands of years later but outside the land of Israel, the observance of Pesach lasts for eight days.
The obligation to tell the story is fulfilled with the Pesach seder meal. It is a 15-step ritual which involves eating different symbolic foods, enjoying four cups of wine and telling the story of the Exodus. Through the process of the seder, the tradition teaches us that we should each feel as if we too had left Egypt, we “re-enact” the slavery to our redemption through the steps of the seder. We also refrain from eating any leaven during the eight days of Pesach. We clean our homes, remove any leaven from the five grains: wheat, oats, barley, rye and spelt. The only bread we consume is unleavened bread called matzah.
The matzah is symbolic of many aspects of the Pesach story and experience. It represents the bread made in haste by our ancestors when they fled slavery. The tradition teaches that they left in such a hurry they did not have time for their bread to rise, and so to remember that we eat matzah, unleavened bread.
But through the seder the matzah “transforms”. At the beginning we hold the matzah aloft and say, “This is the bread of affliction our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt, let all who are hungry come and eat, let all who are in need come and celebrate Passover with us.” And this is the central statement of the seder and Pesach: a time when we reach beyond ourselves, acknowledge that there are those in the world in need because of hunger, and others who have a different need: perhaps loneliness, fear, pain, struggle.
Not all need is physical hunger, and we invite everyone to celebrate this moment together. Pesach is a time for us to open our doors and see the struggle in the world and reach out to soothe the wounds of others. The matzah represents that call, reminds us of the struggle of our ancestors and the pain which still exists in our world.
But then as the seder progresses, the matzah changes along with us, we recite at the end of the seder, “This is the bread of freedom that our ancestors ate.” The matzah, like us, is changed through the process of the seder. The bread of affliction has become the bread of freedom. Nothing has changed about the matzah, it is the same, but bread eaten in slavery and bread eaten in freedom are different, there is a transformation in us which changes the very nature of the matzah. In the same way, we are called upon to change the world and transform it to become all that we dream it can be.
And at the end of the seder, we recite the messianic hope that we will live in a world where all people are free, where we are all able to experience joy, happiness and blessing and we acknowledge our role in bringing about that world. Pesach is a call to action to us, to recognise the suffering of others and be part of the solution for a better world for all. I pray that time of peace, harmony and blessing will be soon for us and all the world.
Rabbi Jacqueline Ninio, Emanuel Synagogue