Rabbi Danny Rich
In a recent article in The Times newspaper I was drawn to a sentence which observed that ‘scientists know that memories are not fixed but are instead being continually reformed and reinterpreted by the brain each time they are recalled.’ It set me thinking about the festival of Passover, and particularly the pesach seder with its magic and memories.
Excepting the weekly Shabbat it is perhaps the seder which has done more to reinforce Jewish identity and demonstrate the value of religious ritual, particularly that which takes place in the home rather than in a religious institution. Thus at Pesach Jewish families which usually only come together for the life cycle markers of chuppot and levayot make an effort for a long evening of story-telling, and wine and food.
There are three main reasons why I think the seder continues to hold its draw – each of which reflects the ingenious layers of understandings which the rabbinic tradition has moulded into most Jewish major festivals: the agricultural, the historical and the theological.
The agricultural origin of Pesach is not itself clear but its two Biblical names may provide clues. As Chag haMatzot: Festival of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 23:15) it may recall a harvest when all the grain that had been necessarily stored over the winter could be replaced by the first of the Spring harvest whereas the Chag haPesach: Festival of Pascal Lamb (Exodus 34:25) clearly recalls the arrival of the season’s young sheep.
The seder itself, of course, is replete with reminders of the arrival of the Spring (the verses of Song of Songs and the karpas, for example), and the (Pascal) lamb bone on the seder plate is a graphic reminder when lambs were slaughtered in the Temple.
The central event of Passover – the Exodus from Egypt – is also supposed to have happened in Spring. Much of the seder ritual is tied to details of the Exodus story including the salt water and the matzah. It remains, of course, a moot point whether the Book of Exodus is telling of an actual historical event or merely repeating a foundational myth but the instruction to remember the exodus and tell it to the next generation is considered a fundamental Jewish obligation.
The appearance of Elijah at the end of the seder elevates the evening to its third level. Elijah is the prophet who comes to announce the Messiance Age when God (who in the Exodus story sided with the enslaved Israelites) will usher in a time of freedom and liberation for all the peoples of the world, for humanity as a whole.
Passover is about memory: what it is to be enslaved; how it is to be freed; and what it can be to be liberated. It transforms the memory of the past into the reality of today and further into the hope for the future.
[This piece was originally published in the Essex News]
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