The National Catholic Review
Michael A. Signer
As the gray days of winter move toward spring, Jews and Christians begin to prepare for their festivals of rebirth and freedom: Passover and Easter. Since the Second Vatican Council’s publication of the Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions in 1965, many Christians have been moved to greater curiosity about what Jews celebrate during their eight-day feast of Passover. They want to know not simply what happened at the time of Jesus, but what Jews commemorate today when they gather in their homes on the first night of Passover.What We Do

On Passover eve, our tables are the scene of rituals that provoke questions and inquiries that lead to long discussions rather than answers. We read from a book called Haggadah, which means the telling. That bookoften rich in illustrationsprovides us with the Seder, an order, or rubrics of the commemoration for the evening. But the Haggadah and its Seder are foundations for improvisation and innovation as families bring new ideas to the table.

The compelling message of the evening is summarized in these words from an ancient rabbinic text: In every generation a person should see himself or herself as if s/he had come out of Egypt, as Scripture states, And you shall tell your child on that day because of what God did for me, when I went free from Egypt’ (Exod 13:8). Each generation and each individual once again brings the Exodus into their lives at the Passover. It is not a turn toward the past but an evening of moving a past experience deeply into contemporary life.

The notion of seeing ourselves underscores the visual element of the Passover: the table set with matzo or unleavened bread; a plate that contains greens, bitter herbs, a lamb shank, an egg, charoset (a paste of fruit and nuts); cups for wine; and a bowl with salt water. Each of these foods, at some point during the evening, will initiate a series of questions and answers. In the Seder we see, taste and tell and re-experience that event so long ago within the framework of our contemporary world.

What story do we tell on this night? We begin with humiliation and we end with praise. The paschal sacrifice, such an important element in the first Passover (Exod 12) and during the time of the ancient Temple, recedes into the background of the evening. The lamb bone on the table is never tasted, only mentioned, recalling an ancient rite. But the matzo, also mentioned in the Book of Exodus describing the first Passover, takes pride of place as the central symbol of the festival. Matzo, the bread of poverty, appears at the beginning of the Seder, when the leader recites an invitation: This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. The taste of unleavened bread will remain with us throughout the eight days of Passover: Jewish households do not serve foods with leaven during the entire festival. During the meal we drink four cups of wine, recalling the four promises of redemption that appear in the Pentateuch. In each cup of sweet wine is a taste of the joy of freedom.

Tasting and seeing are the framework for telling the story of the liberation from Egyptian slavery. The text of the Haggadah that follows a disagreement between two rabbis indicates that the Jewish people were liberated from two types of slavery. Physical slavery, in its immediate and crushing reality, is indicated by the Haggadah’s simple declaration: We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and the Lord our God brought us out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. If the Holy One had not brought our ancestors out of Egypt, then we and our children’s children would still be slaves to Pharaoh. The oppression came from an earthly monarch, but liberation was accomplished by God. All participants read that all generations would continue to be enslaved were it not for God’s mighty acts.

Lest those around the table think that they already know the story of deliverance, the text suggests that even if all of us were wise and knew the Torah, we should still be under the obligation to tell the story of the departure from Egypt. The more one tells the story, the more praiseworthy. The process of liberation comes through telling the story, participating in the discussion and moving toward greater depths of understanding.

Slavery and Freedom

At this point in the Seder, the Haggadah announces the other form of slaveryspiritual slavery: In the beginning our ancestors were idolaters, but now God has drawn us to his service. The liberation story begins with the journey of Abraham from Ur to discover the one true God. This is when human beings discover that they are enslaved not only by submission to other human beings, but when they turn away from the God of Israel and surrender themselves to other ideologies and powers. God demands covenantal loyalty from the Jewish people: doing justice, loving mercy and walking with humility. The night of Passover reminds us how easily we can be distracted and lose the spiritual freedom offered by the story of the Exodus.

After the story of the biblical ancestors, we view the movement toward settlement in Egypt through the narrative of Deuteronomy 26, that our ancestors were wandering Arameans who went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in numbers. Moses and Aaron fade into the background as the evening focuses on the power of God who delivered Israel from Egypt, not by the hands of an angel, nor by a seraph, but the Holy One in his own glory and person. The Haggadah focuses on this exclusive relationship to emphasize the uniqueness of our celebration, an occasion for contemplating divine faithfulness, not simply spiritual liberation.

Two freedomsone from the slavery of political oppression and one from the slavery of idolatryare the foundations of the Passover. Just before everyone gathers to begin the meal, we have an opportunity to see and taste these freedoms. We take a piece of matzo along with bitter herbs and eat them together, recalling that this was the custom of Hillel, a Jewish teacher who lived in the first century, when the Temple still stood. Having heard the story of slavery and hope, we consume the bitterness of slavery with the matzo of freedom. A continuous thread of slavery and freedom is woven through Jewish history, but recalling the Exodus from Egypt leads toward hope. That hope for the Jewish people is to be discovered in the next part of their biblical journey, commemorated 49 days later on the feast of Shavuot, which commemorates the trip to Mt. Sinai where they gathered to receive the revelation that bound them to God.

Freedom from Egypt leads to freedom in the covenanted community where Jews can see, taste and retell their story.

Michael A. Signer is the Abrams Professor of Jewish Thought and Culture at the University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, Ind.