At sunset Friday Jewish families the world over will begin celebrating Passover, the eight-day holiday commemorating the deliverance of the Jews from Egyptian slavery three thousand years ago.
The holiday is observed with one of the most family-centered events on the Jewish calendar, the Seder, or traditional meal. Seder means "order," and there's a prescribed order to the home service and the meal.
Passover retells the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, when the Angel of Death swept over the land. His instructions: to slay the first-born son in each Egyptian family. By a special sign, though, the angel passed over the houses of Jewish families and spared their children. The massacre of the Egyptian children finally moved the Pharaoh to give the Jews their freedom.
"This is not an event of the past; it's part of our present," says Daniel Mann, executive director of the Jewish Community Council, an organization representing the Washington Jewish community. "It's all part of the Jewish historical memory. We're commanded to feel as if we ourselves participated in both the misery of slavery and the joy of liberation."
The reading of the Haggadah (literally, "the telling"), the book containing the Pass-over story, is of major importance. It's traditional to tell the story of the Exodus through question-and-answer enactments by parents and children.
"The Haggadah is the oldest book there is on method acting," says Rabbi Sheldon Elster, president of the Washington Board of Rabbis. "It's a way of getting into the spirit, the role of Passover and of enacting the story as though one feels he was personally involved in the Exodus itself." Jews are instructed in the Haggadah to feel as though they themselves are being liberated from oppression.
One way they do this is through the use of symbolic foods. Charosset, a mixture of apples, nuts, wine and sugar, represents the building materials used by the Hebrew slaves. Parsley recalls their meager diet; bitter herbs bring to mind the bitterness of their experience; a roasted egg symbolizes life, and a shank bone stands for the special Pascal offering. There's also a plate with three symbolic matzohs, flat wafers representing the unleavened bread the Israelities ate as they wandered through the desert after being released from Egypt, and four cups of wine for the four Hebrew words for redemption. At one point in the service, some of the wine is removed to remind the celebrants of the tragedy of the death of the Egyptian children.
There are clear implications in the Passover story for more recent events that have overtaken the Jewish people, according to the JCC's Mann. It's traditional, he says, for Jews to substitute the name of their current oppressor for that of the Pharaoh when reading from the Haggadah. "People can think of Hitler as much as they think about Pharaoh. Today in the Soviet Union and in prison camps in Siberia, if anyone is secretly reading the Haggadah, they're thinking of their dream to be liberated from Soviet oppression."
"We have to have some kind of sense that we are living through events that have a significance for Jews of all time," Mann says. "Perhaps 2,000 years from now, people will see some of the events we've lived through in our times - the Holocaust, the creation of the state of Israel, the freedom of Jews in the Soviet Union, the growth of strong and active Jewish communities in the free world - as a story comparable to the Exodus."