Perhaps no story from the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) is better known than the story of the Exodus --Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt. The confrontations between Moses and Pharaoh, the ten plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea have all been depicted in books and films. Movies like The Ten Commandments, with Charlton Heston in the role of Moses, have firmly embedded the Exodus story in popular culture. The story is the subject of many Christian hymns. Enslaved Africans identified with the plight of the Hebrews and appropriated their story of bondage and liberation for their spirituals.
As the foundation story of the Jewish people, the Exodus narrative forms the basis for the important Jewish festival of Passover. On Friday evening, April 19, Jews will gather, mostly in their homes, to participate in a Seder, a ritual meal that follows an order set down in a text called the Haggadah (literally the telling). The Haggadah includes a retelling of the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.
In the Biblical account, we learn from Moses’s genealogy that his father Amram had taken Yocheved, his aunt, as a wife. The Rabbis note that the Torah later severely prohibits the marriage between a man and his aunt. The great 20th century Jewish philosopher Yesheyahu Leibowitz maintained that Moses’s ancestry teaches us that “the level a person receives in the recognition of God is not dependent on biological factors.”
A remarkable feature of the story in the Passover Haggadah is the absence of Moses, who is such a central figure in the Bible. Perhaps the rabbis who composed the Haggadah feared that Moses, the hero of the Biblical account, might become an object of excessive reverence or even worship if he were given a central role in the celebration of Passover.
The word Passover is a reference to the tenth plague God visited on the Egyptians, the striking down of their first born, and passing over the homes of the Hebrews. The ten plagues have troubled rabbinic commentators, and today it is customary for participants in the Seder to spill a drop of wine from their cups for each plague as a sign that our own pleasure is diminished by the suffering of others. A midrash or rabbinic comment on the Egyptian soldiers who were drowning in the Red Sea has God rebuking the angels for rejoicing while his creatures are drowning.
An important feature of the Passover Seder is discussion and even argument. We are supposed to plumb the meaning of the liberation from slavery. The Haggadah includes questions for the youngest child to ask about the rituals in order to foster discussion.
Today there are many variations on the traditional Haggadah.There are vegetarian and vegan Haggadot (the correct plural), gay and lesbian Haggadot, humanist Haggadot, and even a Marxist Haggadah.
The story of the liberation of our Hebrew ancestors from slavery cries out to be universalized. It has long been customary to bring supplementary material on contemporary problems to the Seder to enliven the discussion. Rabbi Brant Rosen of Chicago has expanded the four traditional questions posed by children in the Haggadah to include the following:
Your child will ask
Were we set free from the land of Egypt because we are God’s chosen people? And you will answer: We were set free from the land of Egypt so that we will finally come to learn all who are oppressed are God’s chosen. Let all who wander find welcome at the table. Let all who hunger for liberation come and eat.
Alan Rutkowski is a member of Congregation Emanuel and a founding member the Victoria Jewish dialogue group of If Not Now, When? He is a contributor to the online edition of the American Journal Jewish Currents.
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* This article was published in the print edition of the Times Colonist on Saturday, March 23rd 2019