April 14, 2011

From Gaddafi and Mubarak to Assad and Ahmadinejad, dictators have been in the news a lot lately. We see the evidence of their cruelty, and we are staggered by their ability to make life unbearable for so many people. Soon the Jewish people will turn their attention to another cruel dictator: Pharaoh, the Egyptian ruler who enslaved the Israelites for years and then stubbornly refused to comply with God's command to let His people go. It took a miraculous act of God to free the Jews and bring them back to the Promised Land. This coming Monday at sundown we begin our annual celebration of that miracle with Passover, or Pesach as it's known in Hebrew.

The story is familiar to Christians and Jews alike. Joseph's brothers and their families moved to Egypt due to the famine in Canaan and lived there freely. Years later, however, a new pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph. He enslaved the Israelites and caused them much suffering.

But the Jews cried out to God, who heard their prayers and sent Moses to Pharaoh with the message to "let my people go." When Pharaoh repeatedly refused, God brought plagues upon the Egyptians. After the devastation of the final plague, Pharaoh ordered the Israelites to leave. Later, Pharaoh's heart hardened, and he sent his armies to pursue the Israelites into the desert.

Before fleeing Egypt, the Jews were told by God to sacrifice a lamb, one of the many Egyptian gods at the time, and to eat it hastily. They were also instructed to sprinkle lamb's blood on the doorposts of their homes to show their faith in God and their willingness to defy the Egyptian deity. The angel of death, seeing the blood on the doors of the Jewish homes "passed over" them and spared the children inside. And so, the name of the festival and the sacrifice offered became known as Passover.

The Bible tells us to observe Passover by retelling the story and symbolically reliving the events of the Exodus. This helps us feel as if we ourselves were just delivered by God from Egyptian bondage. The Bible also refers to the holiday as the "Festival of the Unleavened Bread," since, according to the biblical account, the Israelites fled Egypt in such haste that they did not have time to add yeast to their dough. The holiday is celebrated for eight days, though those living in Israel celebrate it for seven.

While Passover is a Jewish holiday, it is worthwhile for Jews and Christians alike to remember that from the event we commemorate on Passover, the Exodus, come some of the most profound affirmations ever made by the Jewish people. The Exodus taught us that God is present in human lives, that He hears the cries of the suffering, and that He intervenes in history to deliver us from affliction and to redeem us from oppression.

In this day and age when cruel dictators abound and when Israel continues to fight for her land and her existence, these truths are all the more powerful and comforting. Instead of a hard-hearted ruler, we serve a loving, rescuing, redeeming God. May this truth fill our celebrations and our hearts with joy this holy season.

With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein