Passover Guide for the Perplexed, 2014
By: Yoram Ettinger
Published: April 13th, 2014, The Jewish Press
A Jewish child walks beside a stream near Jerusalem. The water from the stream is used to make matzo for Pesach.
Photo Credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90
1. The Passover legacy constitutes the foundation of Judaism, and is therefore included in most Jewish blessings (“in memory of the Exodus”). Passover symbolizes the rejuvenation of nature and mankind, spiritually and physically, individually and collectively/nationally. Passover stipulates that human rejuvenation – just like the rejuvenation of nature – must be driven by memory/history/roots. Therefore, parents are instructed to educate their children about the lessons of Passover. Passover was an early – and much more successful – edition of the (19th century) Spring of Nations. It is celebrated in the spring, the bud of nature. The biblical scroll of Song of Songs, which highlights spring, is read during Passover. Spring, Aviv in Hebrew (אביב) consists of two Hebrew words: Father – אב – of 12 – יב – months/tribes. Spring is mentioned 3 times in the Torah, all in reference to the Exodus. Passover – which commemorates the creation of the Jewish nation – lasts seven days, just like the creation of the universe.
2. Passover is the oldest Jewish national liberation holiday, highlighting the comprehensive nature of Judaism: religion, nationality, culture/morality, language and history. Passover underlines the centrality of spiritual, physical, individual and national liberty and optimism, playing a critical role in preserving Judaism, Jews and the yearning to reconstruct the Jewish Homeland during the super-challenging 40 years in the desert and the 2,500 years of exiles, destruction, pogroms, the Holocaust, wars and terrorism.
Passover – the role model of faith, education, morality, responsibility and governance driven liberty – interacts with Shavou’ot/Pentecost – the role model of morality. Liberty and morality are mutually-inclusive. The interdependence of liberty and morality distinguishes Western democracies from rogue regimes – a clash of civilizations.
The Hebrew word for “responsibility” – אחריות – encompasses the word “liberty” – חירות. It begins with the leading letter in the Hebrew alphabet, א, and ends with the last letter of the alphabet, ת – encompassing the total responsibility of leadership.
The Exodus is mentioned 50 times in the Torah, equal to the 50 years of the Jubilee, a time of liberation. 50 days following the Exodus, Moses received the Torah (the Pentecost Holiday), which includes – according to Jewish tradition – 50 gates of Wisdom. What does that mean for the 50 States in the USA, whose Hebrew name is ארצות הברית – the States of the Covenant?!
According to Heinrich Heine, the 19th century German poet, “Since the Exodus, freedom has always spoken with a Hebrew accent.”
3. Passover, and especially the Exodus/Liberty, were the pillars of fire guiding the twelve tribes of Israel, and the thirteen American colonies, from subjugation to sovereignty. The Passover legacy comprises a critical part of the American story. Moses, the US Founding Fathers and Israel’s Founding Father, Ben Gurion, were challenged by the “loyalists,” who were intimidated by the price/sacrifice of liberty, preferring subjugation to Egypt, the British King and the British Mandate. They featured in prior editions of the clash of civilizations against Pharaoh, the British monarchy and church and the Arab/Muslim world. The latter still rejects non-Muslim (“infidel”) sovereignty in any area considered – by Muslims – to be the abode of Islam (e.g., Spain and Portugal, southern France, Israel, etc.).
4. Passover’s centrality in the American culture, state of mind and ethos has been evident from the 17th century Pilgrims and the 18th century Founding Fathers, until today. The Pilgrims considered Britain “the modern day Egypt,” the British king was “the modern day Pharaoh,” the sail through the Atlantic Ocean was “the modern day parting of the sea” and America was “the modern day Promised Land/New Canaan.” In 1775, the president of Harvard University, Samuel Langdon, said that “the Jewish government [that God handed down to Moses] was a perfect republic.” Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” (the cement of the 1776 Revolution) referred to King George as “the hardened, sullen tempered Pharaoh of England.” The root of the term Federalism is “Foedus,” the Latin word for “The Covenant.” The Founding Fathers studied the political structure of the semi-independent 12 Tribes (the colonies), which were governed by tribal presidents (the governors) and by Moses (the Executive), Aaron (the Judiciary) and the 70 Elders (the Legislature). John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin proposed the “Parting of the Sea” as the official US seal. George Washington and John Adams, the first and second presidents, were compared to Moses and Joshua. Washington was eulogized as Moses and Virginia was compared to Goshen.
Yale University President, Ezra Stiles stated on May 8, 1783: “Moses, the man of God, assembled three million people – the number of people in America in 1776.” “Let my people go” and “Go down Moses” became the pillar of fire for the Abolitionists. “Proclaim liberty throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10) is inscribed on the Liberty Bell. The Statue of Liberty highlights a Moses-like tablet. The biography of Harriet Tubman, who dedicated her life to freeing other slaves, is called The Moses of Her People. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was motivated by the laws of Moses, which condemn slavery. She promoted the teaching of Hebrew. Martin Luther King was considered the Moses of his age. Daniel Boone, the famous frontiersman, was known as “The Moses of the West.”
A statue of Moses stares at the Speaker of the House of Representatives, towers above the Supreme Court Justices (in addition to seven additional Moses statues in the Supreme Court Building), is featured (along with a statue of Maimonides and 21 additional Law Givers) in the US House of Representatives Rayburn Building subway station and is found in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress. Ten Commandment monuments were erected on the grounds of the Texas and the Oklahoma State Capitols. Cecile DeMille‘s hit movie, The Ten Commandments, promoted US liberty, morality and the freedom of religion and expression, in contrast to Soviet oppression.
Theodore White wrote in The Making of the President: “It is as if Kennedy, a younger Moses, had led an elderly Joshua [LBJ] to the height of Mount Nebo…and there shown him the Promised Land which he himself would never entering but which Joshua would make his own.”
5. The numerical value of the Hebrew letter of the Exodus – יציאת מצרים – is 891, which is equal to the combined numerical value of the three leaders of the Exodus, Moses (משה – 345), Miriam (מרים – 290) and Aaron (אהרן – 256).
6. Passover (פסח) highlights the fact that the Jewish People were passed-over (פסח) by the angel of death, in defiance of conventional wisdom. Non-normative disasters have characterized Jewish history ever since slavery in Egypt and the Exodus: the destruction of the two Temples, exiles, pogroms, expulsions, the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, daily Arab/Muslim terrorism and wars, etc. The 1948 re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty – against global, regional, economic and military odds – constituted a modern day Exodus and Parting of the Sea. Principle-driven tenacious defiance of the odds is a prerequisite to Jewish deliverance in 2014, as it was during The Exodus some 3,450 years ago.
7. Passover’s centrality in Judaism is highlighted by the first of the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” The Passover ethos is included in daily Jewish prayers, Sabbath and holiday prayers, the blessing over the wine, and the blessing upon circumcision, the prayer fixed in the Mezuzah (doorpost) and in the annual family retelling of the Exodus on the eve of Passover. Passover symbolizes the unity of – and interdependence between – the People of Israel, the Torah of Israel and the Land of Israel. In Hebrew, Israel (ישראל) means “overcoming” (Jacob was named Israel because he wrestled and overcame the angel) and it is the acronym of the Jewish Patriarchs (אברהם, יצחק, יעקב) and Matriarchs (שרה, רבקה, רחל, לאה).
8. David Ben Gurion, the Founding Father of the Jewish State: “More than 300 years ago, a ship by the name of the Mayflower left Plymouth for the New World. It was a great event in American and English history. I wonder how many Englishmen or how many Americans know exactly the date when that ship left Plymouth, how many people were on the ship, and what was the kind of bread the people ate when they left Plymouth.
“Well, more than 3,300 years ago, the Jews left Egypt…and every Jew in the world knows exactly the date we left. It was on the 15th of [the month of] Nisan. The bread they ate was Matzah. Up to this day, all the Jews throughout the world on the 15th of Nisan eat the same Matzah, in America, in Russia. [They] tell the story of the exile from Egypt, all the sufferings that happened to the Jews since they went into exile. They finish with these two sentences: ‘This year we are slaves; next year we will be free. This year we are here; next year we will be in Zion, the land of Israel.’ Jews are like that (The Anglo-American Committee, March 11, 1946,).”
Rabbi Gamliel, Head of the Sanhedrin, mid-first century: “In each generation, every individual must consider himself as if he/she personally participated in the Exodus from Egypt.”
9. Former Israeli President, Ezer Weizman: “Only 150 generations passed from the Pillar of Fire of the Exodus from Egypt to the pillars of smoke from the Holocaust. And I, a descendant of Abraham, born in Abraham’s country, have witnessed them all. I was a slave in Egypt. I received the Torah at Mount Sinai. Together with Joshua and Elijah, I crossed the Jordan River. I entered Jerusalem with David, was exiled from it with Zedekiah, and did not forget it by the rivers of Babylon. When the Lord returned the captives of Zion, I dreamed among the builders of its ramparts. I fought the Romans and was banished from Spain. I was bound to the stake in Mainz. I studied Torah in Yemen and lost my family in Kishinev. I was incinerated in Treblinka, rebelled in Warsaw and migrated to the Land of Israel, the country whence I had been exiled and where I had been born, from which I come and to which I return…. And, like our forefather King David who purchased the Temple Mount, and our patriarch Abraham who bought the [Hebron] Cave of Machpelah, we bought land, we sowed fields, we planted vineyards, we built houses, and even before we achieved statehood, we were already bearing weapons to protect our lives…(German Bundestag, January 16, 1996, ).”
10. The ancient Jewish yearning, “Next Year in the rebuilt Jerusalem” concludes the annual reciting of the Haggadah, the Passover saga. It reaffirms the ancient Jewish commitment to build homes all over Jerusalem, the 3,300 year old indivisible capital of the Jewish people.
11. Moses, the hero of Passover, has been a role model of effective leadership, highlighting humility, faith, principle and endurance-driven leadership, along with human fallibility. Moses’ name is mentioned only once in the Passover Haggadah, as a servant of God, a testimony to Moses’ humility. The only compliment bestowed upon Moses, by the Torah, is “The humblest of all human beings.”
12. Passover is celebrated on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan ניסן – the first month of the Biblical Jewish year, and the introduction of natural and national spring (Nitzan is the Babylonian word for spring and the Hebrew word for bud). Nissan (Ness – נס is miracle in Hebrew) is the month of miracles: the Exodus, the Parting of the Sea, the entry into the Promised Land (the 10th day of Nissan), Jacob wrestling the Angel, Deborah’s victory over Sisera, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, etc. The birth of the Jewish people was through non-normative, miraculous events, shaping the positive, non-normative nature of Jewish history. If the Jewish people were normative, there would not be any Jews left following the litany of catastrophes, which have afflicted the Jewish people since inception.
13. The 15th day of any Jewish month features a full moon, which stands for optimism – the secret Jewish weapon – in defiance of darkness. It is consistent with the 15 parts of the Haggadah (the Passover saga); the 15 generations between Abraham’s message of monotheism and Solomon’s construction of the first Temple; the 15 words of the ancient blessing by the Priests (recited until today by parents, blessing their children) and the 15th day of the Jewish month of Shvat, Arbor Day – the “Exodus” of vegetation. The Hebrew value of 15 corresponds to two Hebrew letters which are the acronym of God – י and ה.
14. Passover has four names: The holiday of Pesach (פסח “Passed-over” and “sacrifice” in Hebrew), the holiday of liberty (חירות), the holiday of Matzah (מצה) and the holiday of spring (אביב). The number 4 features in the Passover Saga, representing the four women who shaped the life of Moses (Batyah – Pharaoh’s daughter, his savior; Yocheved – his mother; Miriam – his sister; and Ziporah – Jethro’s daughter, his wife); Joseph’s four enslavements- twice to the Midianties, once to the Ishmaelites and once in Egypt; the 4 times that the word “cup” was mentioned by Pharaoh’s jailed wine-butler when recounting his dream to Joseph; the 4 Sons (human characters) of the Haggadah; the 4 glasses of wine drunk on the eve of Passover; the 4 Questions asked on the eve of Passover and the 4 stages of the divine deliverance from Egyptian bondage. The 4th Hebrew letter (ד) is an acronym of God.
15. Passover is the first of three Jewish pilgrimages, followed by Shavou’ot (Pentecost), which commemorates the receipt of the Ten Commandments, and Sukkot (Tabernacles), and named after Sukkota – the first stop in the Exodus.
“Next Year in the rebuilt Jerusalem!”
About the Author: Ambassador (ret.) Yoram Ettinger is consultant to Israel’s Cabinet members and Israeli legislators, and lecturer in the U.S., Canada and Israel on Israel’s unique contributions to American interests, the foundations of U.S.-Israel relations, the Iranian threat, and Jewish-Arab issues.
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