Our liberation from Egypt is the primal story of the Jewish people. By the intervention of the Holy One, the Hebrews who had been enslaved in Egypt for two centuries were allowed to return to the ancestral homeland that God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The Torah tells us that our ancestor Jacob and his family came down to Egypt during a famine. There were only 70, including Jacob’s son Joseph who had been the second most powerful man in Egypt . Within 2 centuries, the descendants of Jacob became a mighty force. There was a revolution in Egypt, indicated by the ascent of a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph. The Pharaoh forced the Hebrews in harsh servitude in order to suppress them.
The Pharaoh, concerned that there would be a rebellion by the Hebrews, demanded the death of all male babies. A Levite woman by the name of Jocheved hid her newborn son for three months, until he became too big, and she sent him to float down the Nile River in a basket that she had waterproofed and prepared for him. Jocheved also sent her daughter Miriam to follow the basket.
The Pharaoh’s daughter was bathing by the Nile . She and her maidens found the basket in the bulrushes; she took the child, named him Moses, and raised him as her own. When Moses grew up, he saw an Egyptian overseer beat a Hebrew slave and he killed the Egyptian. When word of the crime reached the Pharaoh, Moses escaped for his life to Midian, where he met and married Tziporah, the daughter of Jethro, a Midianite priest.
While tending Jethro’s flocks, Moses saw a bush burning in the desert, yet it was not consumed. A voice came out of the middle of the fire, telling Moses to go back to Egypt and to free the Hebrew slaves in order for them to worship God. Moses and his brother Aaron appeared before Pharaoh with God’s demand, which Pharaoh rebuked.
God hardened Pharaoh’s heart and subjected Egypt to ten plagues: (1) blood, (2) frogs, (3) lice, (4) swarms, (5) pestilence, (6) boils, (7) hail, (8) locusts, (9) darkness, and (10) death of the first born. Finally, the Pharaoh relented, and Moses brought the Children of Israel out of Egypt towards the Promised Land.
The Torah tells us that we must teach the story of the Passover to our children for all generations. The events of 1313 BCE resonate today as we come together with family and friends to celebrate our cultural heritage – the story of freedom from slavery.
We celebrate Passover with a family meal called a Seder during which we read the story in a Haggadah. The symbols of Passover are the shankbone, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread (matzah). There is also a Seder plate with the traditional elements of: shankbone, bitter herbs (i.e. horse radish), a hard boiled egg, charoseth (a mixture of nuts and apples), greens, and chatzereth (i.e., romaine). In the 21st century there are many variations. The participants drink 4 cups of wine during the service, share a meal, and re-tell the story of redemption from slavery. There is also a cup of wine for Elijah the prophet. Some families also have a cup of water for Miriam (Moses' sister). A piece of matzah is hidden for the children to find; this is called the Afikomen and it is eaten as dessert. Although the Seder meal and the Haggadah have evolved over the millennia, the focus remains - and that it is our responsibility to teach the children that once we were slaves and now we are free.
In Lev 23:15, the Torah records that Ha'Shem told us to count the sheaves of wheat (the Omen) from the "Shabbat" of Passover for seven weeks. The time of counting the Omer, leading up the Shavuoth (the Feast of Weeks) is a time of semi-mourning and reflection. Traditionally, there are no weddings; people don't even cut their hair. There is the exception of one day, the 33rd day (Lag represents the number 33 in Hebrew, with each letter of the Hebrew alphabet having a numeric value). According to tradition, this was the one day in which there was a break in the plague at the time of Rabbi Akiva. There are weddings, bonfires, and celebration on this day.