The Meaning of Passover
This week’s parashah is Bo. The Exodus narrative reaches its climax and the parashah is the primary source for the festival of Passover.
Much of the exodus narrative is surprisingly enigmatic and the final plague, the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn, remains troubling. One rabbinic approach is to suggest that the firstborn were given elite status and were particularly associated with the brutalities of the regime but, at the end of the day, the story remains mysterious and the questions are not really answered.
Passover celebrants are certainly warned not to rejoice at the downfall of their enemies. A well-known custom at the Passover table is to spill a little wine as each plague is recalled, reminding participants of the suffering that accompanied their redemption. The custom is clearly in the spirit of a Talmudic passage about the crossing of the Red Sea: the angels sing psalms of praise to celebrate the deliverance of the people of Israel from the Egyptian army and they are rebuked by God: “My children are drowning in the sea, and you are singing psalms and praises!”
The parashah describes the first Passover in considerable detail. On the tenth day of the first month, each family is instructed to take a lamb for each household and slaughter it on the fourteenth of the month at twilight. Having taken the blood and put some of it on their doorposts, “they shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire … anything that remains of it until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the Lord.” The lamb was to be eaten “with unleavened bread and bitter herbs”.
Chapter 12 goes on to instruct the people to eat unleavened bread for the duration of the festival and remove all leaven from their houses before the festival begins. Under no circumstances should leaven be eaten during the festival.
A final element involves recounting the story of the Exodus and sharing it with the next generation: “When you come to the land … you shall keep this observance. And when your children shall ask you, ‘What do you mean by this observance?’ you shall say, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, for He passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt, when He struck down the Egyptians, but spared our houses.’ And the people bowed down and worshipped (12:26-7).” This is repeated in 13:8: “You shall tell your child on that day: ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’”
Much of this account is quite enigmatic, but to this day, even in very secular times, Passover is one of the most popular of the Jewish festivals. Not everyone observes the festival punctiliously, but many families who would not usually regard themselves as being very religious do participate in a ‘seder’, the celebration that takes place at home on the first nights of the festival.
Passover’s survival as a joyous festival is at first sight surprising in the light of its early history. It is the first of the three pilgrim festivals of the Jewish year and for many centuries in Temple times, any family who were able to do so, made their way to Jerusalem, where the celebrations took place. Each family would obtain a paschal lamb, and the lambs were slaughtered in the Temple courtyards as priests sang the Hallel psalms. Passover was certainly familial but it was in no sense domestic as it did not take place at home; it was both public and highly communal. Family groups would eat their paschal lamb and discuss the Exodus on the first night of the festival, wherever in Jerusalem they happened to be.
Following the destruction the Temple in in 70 CE, it was no longer possible for celebrate with a paschal lamb. In the wake of the catastrophe that befell Jerusalem, one might have expected Passover to be muted or even rather sombre.
It was still possible to have some elements of the festival, as the reciting of the Exodus narrative and the dietary requirements did not depend on being in Jerusalem and remained obligatory, but doing all of this at home in the aftermath of destruction would surely have been both difficult and disheartening.
What sustained Passover was the transcendent hope that is the essence of its celebration. Its enigmatic symbolism gradually found its interpreters. The lamb is reminiscent of Isaac, the first lamb of God who transcended his earthly nature when he was willingly bound on an altar as a sacrifice and an atonement, a founding gesture that remained efficacious even when the Temple was destroyed. The unleavened bread in the Torah and the Passover Haggadah is both the bread of affliction – the bread of the poor – and the bread of redemption – reminding us of the dough that did not have time to rise as the Exodus got under way. The choicest ‘bitter herb’ is not the very sharp horseradish, but lettuce, because lettuce also has an element of sweetness. Hillel famously argued that the bitter herbs should be eaten together with the matza rather than taken separately, so binding the bitterness with an ultimate hope of redemption.
Most remarkably, in the very dark times after the destruction, the rabbis instituted four cups of wine for the Passover meal, when only two at most were required for festive purposes. The assumption that the four cups were alluding to the four promises of redemption in Exodus 6:6-7 is well known, but what it seems to mean is that the promises were re-oriented, taking in not only Egypt, but also the future redemption. Likewise, when the wine is seen as a remembrance of the blood that was shed in Egypt, it indicates a redemptive transformation of suffering that is in keeping with the symbolic pattern we have been observing.
The symbolic pattern is closely akin to the world of the ‘idealists’ that we looked at last week. The rabbis who created it were fully aware of the suffering inflicted by all-powerful empires, but unlike the ‘realists’, they refused to permit their vision of life to be defined by the darkness that they experienced. ‘Idealists’ see the darkness as do the ‘realists’, but they also see far more.
In Israel-Palestine, there are few people more sober and hard-headed than the members of the Parents Circle, all of whom have suffered terribly from the violence of the conflict. But they know from their own experience and their love for each other, that the dark vision of right-wing politics is tragically misleading. They are part of the politics of hope which is the ultimate meaning of the story of Passover.