Why does this night draw even the unobservant?

The Universality of Pesach

The annual celebration of the Israelite’s liberation from slavery in Egypt is one of the most popularly observed festivals in the Jewish calendar. Most Jews who are not particularly observant during the rest of the year will attend a Pesach seder and will refrain from eating bread. The seder with all its ritual and tradition is appealing to old and young alike.

The question to be asked is: why does Pesach, especially the first night evoke such commitment from Jews who do not ordinarily observe the tenets and traditions of Judaism? Many who make a point of attending or even hosting a Pesach seder do not observe the weekly Shabbat or celebrate the festivals of Shavuot and Sukkoth.

The answer can be found in the universal message of Pesach – the message of the importance of human dignity and freedom. Pesach is not only a celebration of the physical redemption of the children of Israel from the tyrannical rule of Pharaoh, it is also a celebration of spiritual and intellectual freedom.

The conflict between Moses and Pharaoh symbolises the clash between the life-affirming God of Israel and the culture of ancient Egypt that deified the king and revered the dead. While the ancient Egyptians left the legacy of the Great Pyramid of Giza our ancient ancestors gave the Tanach to the world.

The pyramids, being great feats of human ingenuity are nothing more that tombs of the pharaohs; the Hebrew Bible is a record of the Israelites’ relationship with God and a source of inspiration to thousands of generations of Jews, Christians, and indeed Muslims (the narratives of the Quran are based on the Tanach).

It is no accident that the symbols of ancient Egypt and ancient Israel are diametrically opposed. The pyramids are concrete symbols of the tyrannical views of the Pharaohs who held the power of life and death over their subjects. Any individualist tendencies were forbidden and knowledge was the exclusive domain of the Egyptian priests.

In contrast the Hebrew Bible is the repository of life-affirming ideas that are fluid and applicable to life and the world in succeeding generations. The sacred texts represent the dynamism of God and life. The narratives provide lessons for all human beings, regardless of their social status, ethnicity or faith.

The laws and precepts of Torah are motivated by the desire to sanctify society, to promote the spiritual and intellectual growth of its individual members, thereby fulfilling the notion that we are created bezelem elohim, in God’s image.

Our ability to create is a manifestation of our godliness, a characteristic which must not be stifled by any ruler or master. Thus the history of the nation of Israel as a people began with the liberation from servitude to a Pharaoh of Egypt and the subsequent forging of a covenantal relationship at Mount Sinai with the God of Israel, a God who demands no abdication of the mind but only that we refrain from doing to others that which we would not want them to do to us (Shabbat 31a).

Bound by this “Golden Rule” of Rabbi Hillel the individual Jew is free to express his or her own personality and discover his or her own relationship with the Source of Life. We are encouraged by our tradition to study and critically analyse the sacred texts, the world and life in general. The rituals and traditions of our people are to be used as conduits to holiness and are not there to enslave us.

Because Torah is a “Tree of Life” and because the story of Pesach is a celebration of freedom and life it resonates with all Jews, and indeed with all human beings. Rabbi Ben Zoma taught (Berachot 1:5) that one must recall the Exodus from Egypt twice a day (morning and night) during the recitation of the Shema. Since the liberation from physical and intellectual enslavement to Pharaoh is the paradigm for the eventual redemption of humanity from tyranny and oppression the sages deemed it necessary for us to remind ourselves of our people’s deliverance twice daily.

All peoples who have experienced bondage and intolerance can relate to Pesach. It is no coincidence that the black slaves of the southern states of the United States of America in the mid 19th century viewed themselves as modern-day Israelites suffering at the hands of the Egyptians. The Afro-American spiritual written to inspire the salves in their struggle for liberty and made famous by Paul Robeson is entitled “Go down Moses” and was based on Exodus 8:1.

While the Torah limits the celebration of Pesach to members of the covenant (Exodus 12:48), a limitation which was extended by the rabbis to the Pesach seder, there are some rituals connected to the seder that have universal significance.

The spilling of wine (symbol of joy) for each of the Ten Plagues demonstrates our sorrow that the Egyptians had to suffer before the Israelites were allowed to leave. This interpretation is based on a midrash in which God chastises the angels who wish to emulate the Israelites by singing praises to God for drowning the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds (Sanhedrin 39a).

The midrash and the ritual of the aseret makkot at the seder teach that God does not rejoice in the suffering of the wicked, since God is the God of all. The ritual of the cup of Elijah, expresses the Jewish hope for the universal redemption of humanity when all men and women will be free from persecution, oppression and discrimination.

Thus the festival of Pesach, while a specifically Jewish celebration of the deliverance of the people of Israel from the despotism of Egypt, is also a festival that addresses an issue that is of paramount importance to every single human being that resides on planet earth.

As we sit around our seder tables may we remember that we are part of a universal humanity and that we have much to share with our fellow human beings. I wish you all a Pesach Kasher VeSameach.

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Painting by Gabriella Jacobs of Pretoria.

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