IDS Columnist - April 14, 1998

A Passover wish for all
by Aaron Stevens
is a senior studying computer information sciences.

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This week, many IU students and faculty members are celebrating the Jewish holiday of Passover. Because Passover is a seldom-understood holiday to most non-Jews (and, indeed, even to many nonpracticing Jews), I'd like to share some enlightening information about the ancient holiday, its tradition and its meaning to Jews in modern times.

The story of Passover begins back in the time of the Pharaohs' Egypt, in the time of Pithom and Ramses. The story is told that the people of Jacob (Israelites) went down into Egypt from the land of Canaan because there was a famine throughout their land -- while in Egypt there was plenty, thanks to the Pharaoh's adviser, Joseph. Joseph was one of Jacob's 12 sons, whose dream predicting years of fortune and famine helped the Egyptians to better prepare for the famine. And so it came to be that the children of Israel dwelled in Egypt for 430 years.

As the years passed, the Pharaoh who had taken Joseph as his adviser died, and the new Egyptian leadership was not as friendly to the Israelites. The new Pharaoh was afraid of the Israelites; he feared their numbers were too many, and should a war come, the Israelites might join with the enemies of Egypt to battle them. Thus, the Pharaoh made the Israelites slaves and had them build cities and pyramids, suffering hard labor to keep them under control.

But the Israelites were relentless, and their numbers continued to multiply. Therefore, the Pharaoh ordered all newborn male Israelite children be put to death. Needless to say, the Israelites were not happy.

Enter Moses, stage right. The Pharaoh's daughter saves Moses, the son of Israelites, from the river Nile, where he was placed in a basket to escape death. After being raised as an Egyptian prince, Moses learns of his own ancestry, kills an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating an Israelite and is banished from Egypt. The legend continues that God speaks to Moses, instructing him to tell Pharaoh to "Let my people go." Pharaoh says no a few times, and God inflicts the Egyptians with 10 plagues. When blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts (flies), cattle disease (anthrax), boils, hail, locusts and darkness fail to convince the Pharaoh to free the Israelites, God sends the 10th plague -- the slaying of the Egyptian firstborn. According to tradition, the Angel of Death "passed over" the homes of the Israelites, hence the name Passover. Finally, Pharaoh gives in, and the Israelites are freed.

While the Israelites fled Egypt, they had no time to let the dough rise for the days' bread. As such, they ate unleavened cakes. (I'll come back to this in a minute.) To abbreviate the rest of the story, God parts the Red Sea, to allow the fleeing Israelites to cross, makes them wander around the desert in Sinai for 40 years, gives them the Ten Commandments and the Torah (the Hebrew Bible), gives them the Sabbath and delivers them to the promised land of Israel.

On the first two nights of Passover, many attend a Passover seder, a traditional meal at which the Passover story is retold. The retelling of the story reminds Jews of the bitterness of slavery, the sweetness of freedom, and had they not been freed from slavery, they would still be enslaved today.

One main difference between Passover and many other Jewish holidays is it is celebrated for the most part in the home, not the synagogue. The main practice of Passover is abstaining from eating leavened foods (those containing yeast or other leavening, such as breads and pastas, as well as those that have fermented, such as alcohol or other products containing grains such as corn or barley), in remembrance of the unleavened cakes eaten by the fleeing Israelites. During the eight days of Passover, we eat only matzo, the unleavened bread. This, too, reminds Jews that they were once slaves in the land of Egypt.

Jews continue to celebrate Passover because, as literal believers would say, they are commanded to in the Torah: "You shall tell your child on that day, saying, 'This is because of what God did for me when I went free from Egypt,"' (Exodus 3:8). They say "for me" because in every generation, Jews tell the story as though it had been themselves who went free from slavery. In today's world, Passover is about much more than the story of ancestors being freed from slavery in the time of Moses, 3,000 years ago. To Reconstructionist Jews such as myself, Passover reminds us to be instruments of freedom in our generation. This joyous holiday is about striving to bring freedom, peace and justice to all those who are oppressed throughout the world. It is our hope and prayer that the observance of Passover will remind everyone, Jewish or otherwise, to pursue freedom, peace and justice.

1998 Indiana Daily Student