The lessons inherent in Passover — at once a solemn and celebratory occasion to remember the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt — still hold a strong meaning for people to this day.
“Passover is on par in its gravity with Easter” for Judaism, said Rabbi Rachael Bregman of Temple Beth Tefilloh in Brunswick. “It is a big-deal holiday. However, it’s home-based and not synagogue-based. So much about Passover is about bringing the lessons into your daily life.”
For the uninitiated, God commanded the Israelites to observe Passover after he liberated them from Egypt millennia ago. For generations, Egyptian pharaohs used the Israelites as slave labor. God used Moses to rally the faithful and afflicted the Egyptians with plagues until the Jews were allowed to leave.
The last of those plagues he visited upon anyone who did not observe the first Passover, which involved slaughtering a lamb and marking the doors and windows with its blood. The firstborn of any house that did not do so died, per the book of Exodus.
Immediately after Egypt released them, God commanded the Israelites to observe Passover every year as a festival.
Passover begins at sundown on April 15 and ends on April 23 this year. It begins with the Seder, a feast with a few restrictions. The big one is unleavened bread — all leavening agents must be thrown out before the holiday begins.
“It’s very personal and intimate, and raises questions about what are the other things in my home I want to clean up or clear out,” Bregman said.
That’s part of the challenge, Bregman said. It wouldn’t be a Jewish holiday without Jewish food, but the lack of leavening means a little creativity has come into play.
Some things are a must, however — unleavened bread, bitter herbs and saltwater.
“The food experience, the visceral nature of the food experience is so deeply embedded in the Passover Seder and the holiday itself,” she says.
The bread, herbs and water are typically consumed during the Seder, which is two nights of the eight day holiday.
The meal helps to “remember you were enslaved in Egypt as if you were there,” Bregman says, particularly when “eating the flatbread, which isn’t delicious. It’s very inert and not fragrant.”
The bitter herbs evoke the bitterness of slavery, while the saltwater represents the tears of the enslaved.
The meal also includes charoset, a mix of fruit, nuts and honey.
“Depending on where you’re from, you’ll have a different combination,” Bregman said. “It’s this sticky, sweet, intensely flavorful foodstuff. Symbolizes the mortar used by the Jews to build the Egyptian buildings.
“I think that’s the most complicated of the tastes.”
During Seder, all four are combined to represent the bitterness of slavery, redemption and sweetness.
Along with the food, the at-home nature of Seder is significant and important to understand, she added.
“What I remember is the fun my father and I used to have rearranging our furniture in our dining and house to fit in whatever number of people we were audaciously trying to bring into our home,” Bregman said.
So what lessons does Passover have to teach us today?
“It’s all about liberation of self and others,” Bregman said, without a second of hesitation. “It’s about reminding us all of the times that we have felt enslaved to other people, other commitments.
“It’s a critical and essential human act to seek out our own liberation and the liberation of others.”
Liberation is a common topic in contemporary society. Some of the areas where liberation is frequently discussed, and which Bregman feels it is important, are race, class, gender and religion. Thinking outside the bounds of such structures is a form of liberation.
“It’s easy in this moment, when we’re living in Brunswick, Georgia, on the two-year anniversary of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, it’s easy to look immediately to anti-racism,” Bregman said. “It’s important to recognize there are so many forces at play that create oppression and dehumanization of all of us.”
“Passover is a time to get some perspective on the system and make moves to dismantle and separate from them as best as we are able.”