Sunset tonight marks the beginning of Passover, or Pesach, one of the central holidays for the Jewish community.
Over the next eight days, Jewish families gather for a period of remembrance. These remembrances may vary from family to family, but central to them all is the story of Israel’s freedom from slavery in Egypt as told in the Book of Exodus.
“Almost all of Judaism that comes after the Exodus from Egypt is framed by the story of that Exodus,” says Rabbi Paul Kerbel of Congregation Etz Chaim. “The prayer that we say every Friday night over the wine to begin the Sabbath includes the words ‘remembering that you were slaves in Egypt.’ Everywhere in the Torah, the five books of Moses, it talks about being kind to the stranger and being good to the poor, remembering that you were once slaves yourselves.”
“In many ways, this makes Passover a universal holiday,” says Kerbel, “because it’s about freedom. But for the Jewish people, it is also a unique freedom in that it’s not just freedom from oppression, but freedom to be God’s people, to be a light to the nations.”
From this comes the Jewish concept of tikkun olam, which means “repairing the world.” According to this principle, one practices one’s faith not just to fulfill a biblical commandment, but because doing so is beneficial to society.
“The commandments, in and of themselves, aren’t anything without the understanding that they are meant to elevate our behavior,” says Kerbel.
This concept of tikkun olam, so deeply ingrained in Jewish culture, is one reason why Jews have historically been at the forefront of such fields as medicine, law, human rights and scientific research. Indeed, the representation of Jews among Nobel Prize winners, for instance, is greatly disproportionate to their representation as a percentage of the world’s population.
Kerbel says he has found Jews living out tikkun olam even though they were no longer practicing as adults. But these people, he says, could recall having acquired their sense of social justice as children during Passover, listening to their elders talk about freedom and justice and about helping people to become free today.
Passover is a family holiday–a home holiday. Traditionally, Jewish families prepare for Pesach by cleaning out their homes, meticulously searching for chometz, which is any type of flour or grain product made with yeast or leavening. All chometz, even the smallest grain, must be removed.
Many families make this an object lesson. The day before Passover, parents will hide 10 pieces of chometz throughout the house. Then, after nightfall, the family conducts a formal search for the chometz by candlelight, chanting the prayer “Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us by His commandments and has commanded us to remove the leaven.”
Leaven is symbolic on two levels: As a part of the Passover story, the Jews were commanded to eat only unleavened bread to symbolize their haste in leaving Egypt. On a spiritual level, leaven may represent those things in our lives which can have a corrupting influence. Just as yeast permeates dough, so these influences can permeate our lives and our families. Searching for these influences and removing them becomes a lesson in diligence.
In place of chometz, families eat matzah, or unleavened bread baked specifically for Passover.
On the first two nights of Passover, families hold a seder, a solemn meal in which matzah is eaten with bitter herbs–a reminder of the bitterness of slavery. As part of the seder, they tell the story of the Exodus.
Passover is about remembering, according to Kerbel. “It’s about family, and about transmitting the story from generation to generation. For every generation, we have to ask ourselves if we are fulfilling our part of the covenant with God in the world today.”
Congregation Etz Chaim is a Conservative synagogue located at 1190 Indian Hills Parkway, next to the Lutheran Church of the Incarnation, just off Roswell Road. For information on the congregation, visit its website.