is a senior studying computer information sciences.
Write a letter to the editor:
Or send a general comment on the site to
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.