"Why is this night different from all other nights?" the children will ask.

"We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt and the Lord freed us with a mighty hand," the head of the household will respond. "Had not the Holy One, praise be He, delivered our people from Egypt, then we, our children, and our children's children, would still be enslaved."

In this way, the observance of Passover will begin Monday night in Jewish households.

The deliverance of the ancient Jews from bondage in Egypt is described in the Bible's Book of Exodus.

But the event also has become a universal symbol of struggles for religious freedom and civil liberties. Moses' demand to the Egyptian pharoah, "Let my people go," was sung in spirituals by black slaves in America and then again during the 1960s' civil rights movement.

"It was an inspiration to black people, that if Jews could be freed, a black slave could be freed," said Rabbi Lewis A. Weintraub, rabbi of Temple Israel Synagogue in Silver Spring. "It has been and can be an inspiration to all oppressed people."

This year, Jewish leaders are focusing Passover messages on the plight of Soviet Jews.

"We cannot be free for long from our concern for our fellow Jews in the Soviet Union who are as discriminated against today as they were under the czars," said Maynard I. Wishner, president of the American Jewish Committee.

The traditional celebration will take place with family seders, or Passover meals, in homes throughout the Washington area. Passover services will be held in synagogues.

Special community activities also are being planned.

B'nai B'rith lodges and chapters in the Washington area have collected Passover foods for distribution to needy Jews in the area.

A group of single people from Adas Israel Congregation in Washington will host a seder Monday for 90 senior citizens from the Washington area.

The Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith will sponsor an interfaith seder at the organization's Washington offices on Thursday for area Christian religious leaders. The Thursday date was chosen to coincide with the Christian observance of Holy Thursday.

The American Joint Distribution Committee, the overseas relief agency of the Jewish community, has announced shipment of Passover foods, among them more than 200 tons of matza and 30,000 bottles of kosher wine, to Jews in countries where the Passover foods are not available. In other countries, the agency donated money to persons for purchase of the foods.

The name "passover" comes from the passing over of the first-born Jews while the first-born of the Egyptians were killed by God, according to the Biblical story. The plague was the last of 10 sent by God to force the Egyptians to free the Jews, according to the story.

The story also relates the gift of God's commandments. "It's not only a matter of getting out of slavery, but being given the Torah the first five books of the Bible , being committed to a transcendent goal, to a moral path," said Rabbi Michael Berenbaum, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington.

"Throughout the world, people are yearning for freedom in countries that deny human rights," said Rabbi Marvin I. Bash, rabbi of the Arlington-Fairfax Synagogue in Arlington.

"Just as our forebears were redeemed from slavery in the past, we have the obligation to work to see that others today have freedom--those that are discriminated against economically, civilly, religiously."

The word "seder" means "order" in Hebrew, said Temple Israel's Weintraub. Preparing for the seder takes weeks of effort, including cleaning the house, changing the dishes to special Passover dishes, and preparing the special foods, he said. "When you put that together, you have a soul stirring event, a dramatic pageant of freedom--that's what a seder is," he said.

That kind of effort, Weintraub said, is "necessary in every area of life--our personal life, our national life, and our international life. There are a lot of problems in this country--unemployment, still the race relations, the bigotry manifestations. The same thing applies internationally. We have the fear of nuclear war."

"The central message of Passover throughout the centuries is that freedom cannot be taken for granted. The Haggadah (the special book telling the story of the exodus) says in every generation, man has to look upon himself as if he personally came out of Egypt," Weintraub said.

The Haggadah, which is read at the seder, was part of the Jewish prayerbook until the Middle Ages, when it was illustrated as a separate book. Some Haggadahs in recent years have been written by Holocaust survivors of World War II with illustrations of Nazi soldiers instead of the Biblical Egyptians. Others call for prayers for Soviet Jews.

Special Passover foods at the seder symbolize the story.

The traditional matza, or unleavened bread, shows the haste of the liberated Jews leaving Egypt. There was not enough time to wait for the bread to rise.

Bitter herbs, usually horseradish, represent the bitterness of slavery.

Four cups of wine are placed at each adult's place setting, representing the four promises of God: to bring the Jews out of Egypt, to redeem them, to save them, and to bring them to the promised land.

Parsley and an egg are dipped in salt water. The parsley is symbolic of spring and rebirth of the land, but that rebirth occurs only with the sweat of one's brow; the egg symbolizes life, but that life comes with the pain and suffering of birth. The salt water represents the tears and pain of bondage.