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April 19, 2011 > A night to remember

A night to remember

By Mauricio Segura, Photo by Miriam G. Mazliach

Let's take a journey through time; three millennia is just about right. We arrive to gaze at the grandeur of an oasis surrounded by pristine desert. To the north, the setting sun glistens off well-polished white limestone of 1,000-year-old pyramids. A vast metropolis filled with ornate statues and architecture surrounds a great temple as it oversees the center of a mighty empire. And winding its way through the land like a cobra seeking shade, is the palm tree lined refreshing waters of the great Nile River.

Egypt is where we have arrived, at the height of its power with Pharaoh sitting on its throne. It seems peaceful enough. But as we walk through the streets and talk to residents, we learn that our arrival is in a time of major unrest. For the past 400 years, Israelites have been kept as slaves. Men, women, and children work from sunup to sundown. Age is not a factor; if they can walk and function, they must work. But now Moses, once an adopted member of the royal family, has been chosen by the God of Abraham to free his people from bondage.

Moses' pleas, however, have fallen on deaf ears. Pharaoh's stubbornness has resulted in God's wrath. So far, nine plagues have devastated the country and its people, but Pharaoh stands his ground.

News is now spreading that the tenth - and worst - plague is about to occur. The first-born of each family will be slain by the spirit of the Lord unless doorposts are marked with the sacrificial blood of a spring lamb.

Night falls and as families huddle together, cries of agony echo throughout the city as the spirit of the Lord takes the lives of every first-born not protected as instructed... including Pharaoh's own son and heir to the throne. Finally brought down by this unbearable event, Pharaoh instructs Moses to gather his people and leave Egypt. The Israelite exodus from Egypt begins in haste before Pharaoh can change his mind. There is no time to allow bread to rise so unleavened bread, "Matzah," is baked by the followers of Moses. This "passing over" by God's spirit, sparing Israelite children and delivering them from bondage in Egypt, is the basis of Passover, or Pesach.

Rabbi Avi Schulman of Temple Beth Torah in Fremont says, "Passover is our overall core experience. We recount our days as slaves and our deliverance from it. It is the main day to focus and thank God for our freedom to worship." From April 19 through the 25th, Passover will be observed in Jewish homes and synagogues worldwide. An array of special foods is prepared for the occasion, beginning with a Passover Seder.

The Seder (meaning order) is a ritual performed around a meal retelling the story of liberation from slavery in Egypt. Foods associated with the Seder evoke twin themes: slavery and freedom. Six items comprise the Seder plate: Maror and Chazet - two bitter herbs symbolizing the bitterness of slavery; Charoset - a fruit paste symbolizing the mortar used to build slave homes in Egypt; Karpas - parsley to be dipped in salt water during the ceremony; Zeroa - a roasted lamb bone symbolizing the sacrifice; and Beitzah - a hard-boiled egg, also a symbol of sacrifice.

Once plates are ready, the ritual comprised of 15 steps begins, culminating in the symbolic achievement of freedom. The first step, called the Kadeish, is a blessing said by the head of the household accompanied by drinking the first of four cups of wine. After a hand washing, the Karpas, or appetizer, is dipped in salt water and eaten. Matzah bread is then traditionally broken and the Passover story told, with an emphasis on helping children to focus and understand while being entertained. People around the table take turns reading blessings between more cups of wine and hand washing. The bitter herbs are eaten in a sandwich followed by the hard-boiled egg. The last part to be eaten is the remaining broken Matzah bread as the rest of the evening is filled with prayer and praise songs.

Though technically a Jewish holiday, synagogues in the U.S. have been reaching out to communities in recent years to share this celebration of freedom. We can all be thankful for our freedom, regardless of race or religion.

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