I’m going to take a break from Brave New World the show and book comparison shenanigans, and I’m going to talk about Passover. This is something I’ve been a big part of for some time. Passover is a holiday commemorating the Jewish freedom from slavery on their own terms, but the story goes back further than just that moment when they fled Egypt crossing a low lying Red Sea.
First, we go back to the time of Exodus, maybe even further back. The Egyptians had a big problem. There were twelve sons of Israel, the Sons of Jacob (not to be confused with those nasty commander types but we’re talking about Jacob of Bethel, or Israel that became known as Bethlehem, the burial place of Rachel and he still had a wife named Leah.) So he had twelve sons, as written in Genesis. Those sons tried to get rid of Joseph, right? But Joseph had God on his side, went to Egypt, and escaped danger because he could interpret the dreams of his fellow inmates in prison where he was sent because some stupid woman lied on him, some wife of an Egyptian lied on that guy. No, Joseph wouldn’t do anything wrong, right? Even when the Egyptian bureaucrat’s wife, I forget her name, asked him to sleep with her, he refused and she lied on him. So he was in prison, and he interpreted the dreams of his fellow inmates. So Egypt exalted Joseph son of Jacob, but when Ramses II ascended to the throne of Pharaoh, became the Egyptians’ living god at that moment, guess what? The Hebrews became the problem, and Ramses’ royal administration decreed they were slaves. Then, the trouble starts.
After the Israelites were enslaved, they multiplied a lot. So there were two midwives who were instructed to kill the baby boys, but God had a way of getting to those women. Shiphrah and Puah did not do as Pharaoh instructed, only what God did. According to the sacred texts, these women were rewarded with families of their own. What they did say to Pharaoh was this, “Oh, those Hebrew women deliver too quick on the stool before we can get to them.” They were clever and they probably saved a lot of baby boys from being killed. Now, the trouble was that pharaoh didn’t want boys and as any taskmaster would do, the overseers would whip slaves, probably rape their women, and do other things that would try to undermine the Hebrews’ ability to stay together as a people. But they wouldn’t have any of it.
The hope came to the Hebrews when Jochebed, the wife of a man in Levi’s tribe, family, whatever, gave birth to a little boy. Jochebed was a Hebrew woman who was enslaved like the others, but she was clever. She decided to hide her baby boy in a basket, and guess who picked up the baby? The Pharaoh’s daughter, in some sacred text she is called Bithia, and she said the Nile god brought her a son. She named the baby Moses, which had something to do with him being drawn out of the water. I won’t go into Moses’ story as a young boy growing up in Egypt and all that stuff, but I will say he had a wife called Ziporrah and two boys, one of whom was called Gershom, but I’m sure I’d like to use that for a boy because it has nothing to do with war or ruling. Gershom is a name that means, “an alien there” or “stranger.” So Moses left his wife and children to go free the Hebrews, and we all know the story of the Burning Bush, right? It’s written in both Biblical and Torah readings.
The trouble for Egypt began when Moses said the famous words, “Let my people go.” Moses said to Pharaoh that enough was enough, let my people go or you’ll suffer the consequences. God had it down, he put down ten plagues, I won’t say in order, but it began when the river Nile turned into blood, and crocodiles were eating bloody food. Then dead fish floated to the surface. Then you had frogs, flies, gnats, boils, the livestock died, locusts, three days of darkness. Then worse, there was a lightning storm among those plagues that lasted days and days, and hail. Oh boy, those Egyptians were mad. But then, God decided to show the ancients what a god he really was. His thought was that “I can kill anyone, just anyone. I’m not kidding. If you don’t let the Hebrews go, I can do something terrible.” And terrible it was.
Here’s how Passover gets started. God said to Moses to bring all the families together. First, they had to fatten and slaughter a lamb. That lamb’s flesh was for eating, if I may say, but the blood was to be sprinkled on the top doorposts of the slaves’ dwellings, and if that was done, all would be fine. But the Egyptians? Well, let’s just say Pharaoh and his people lost their firstborn sons. God killed the firstborn son of Ramses II and went all the way down to the son of a slave girl, as it says in the ancient texts. So what did the Jewish people do? They said, oh okay, we’re done with Pharaoh and his awfulness, so let’s go. Moses had instructions, they couldn’t make dough with flour for bread, so they used unleavened wafers instead. They fled across the Red Sea, and legend has it Moses parted the Red Sea. then, it gets better. Ramses II was all, oh no, my slaves have gone. This after he said, “Go, you stupid people you killed my son and you killed everybody and ruined my country.” Well, what do you do when you enslave an entire monotheistic people and try to force them to be like you, sir? Well, you get punished, sir. Right?
So the Jewish people fled across a parted Red Sea, and they ended up wandering the desert for some time. Probably a hundred years, I forget the whole thing. But the Passover feast was mandated from then on. I could go on for a few lines more and talk about the Ten Commandments, but I can’t do that because it doesn’t have anything to do with Passover as a whole.
So what do the Jewish folks today do to commemorate Passover? Well, symbolic foods are eaten, including bitter herbs and radishes to represent the enslavement of the Jewish people, and the boiled eggs and so on. There are clear instructions on how to celebrate Passover, and I forget what the book is called, but there’s a lot to it.
One tradition I savor in a Passover seder is this: when you have a young child who is able, they have to ask, “How is this night different from all other nights?” I think that’s the tradition, don’t quote me, but I”m sure the youngest is quoted as saying such. What we do as a community in such celebrations is pass on the wisdom of the story of Moses to the youngest children and we want them to know what happens when you mess with people who stand behind a strong faith. People obviously don’t see that sometimes, and like Ramses II, they can get caught up in their selfishness. Ramses said he was God, but that got him in lots and lots of trouble. Passover is just one big huge result from the trouble Ramses caused a whole tribe of people who said, “No more.”
For more on the Jewish traditions, do feel free to read Your Guide to the Jewish Holidays: From Shofar to Seder by Cantor Matt Axelrod, written in plain English. I like how he writes about the Jewish stuff, including how he talks about each holiday and each thing that occurs in Jewish tradition. It’s not boring, I promise.
If you want more interesting fun facts about the Jewish tradition, do read the Newish Jewish Encyclopedia, which to me is pretty like a mini encyclopedia compared to Britanica, but it’ll do. It has all the different stuff in it pertaining to Passover, Hanukkah, and all the holidays between, plus celebrities and famous people’s bios and names and all sorts of fun stuff. Enjoy.