Passover is upon us once again, the festival of freedom when we commemorate our ancestors’ deliverance from bondage in Egypt.
Throughout the world, a familiar scene will repeat itself, as Jewish parents relate the story of the Exodus to their children, preserving the chain of Jewish memory that links us to our past while fortifying our future.
The traditional four cups of wine will be emptied, Matzah and bitter herbs will be consumed, and that distant day so very long ago, when the nation of Israel took its first, tentative steps towards liberty, will be recounted in great detail well into the wee hours of the night.
The Passover Seder is a powerful ritual, one that continues to resonate with many Jews who otherwise are largely unaffiliated or even uninvolved with Jewish life.
But the question that comes to mind, and which demands an answer, is what is the relevance of all this in the 21st century? After all, Israel is a sovereign and independent country, and most of world Jewry currently resides in the West, where they enjoy unprecedented freedom to live as they see fit.
Why, then, is it so important for us to commemorate what took place on Passover over 3500 years ago?
The question becomes even more pointed when one considers some of the horrors that have occurred to the Jewish people over the centuries specifically on Passover.
Indeed, it was over 1900 years ago that the Jews defending Masada against the invading Roman legions committed suicide on the first day of Passover rather than succumb to slavery and torture. As Josephus writes in The Wars of the Jews (Book 7, Chap. 9), the scene was heartbreaking as “the husbands tenderly embraced their wives, and took their children into their arms, and gave the longest parting kisses to them, with tears in their eyes,” before killing themselves and their families.
In the medieval period, European anti-Semites conjured up the blood libel, hurling false accusations against the Jews of murdering Christian children as part of the Passover preparations. The first such instance took place in 1144, when Jews in England were accused of having killed young William of Norwich and then draining the blood out of his body to make Matzah for Passover.
In 1497, Passover coincided with a cruel decree issued by King Manuel of Portugal, who ordered all Jewish children between the ages of 4 and 14 to be forcibly converted to Catholicism. Countless thousands of Jewish youngsters were taken from their parents on the first day of the holiday. They were compulsorily baptized and then handed over to be raised by Catholic families. As historian Cecil Roth described it (A History of the Marranos, p. 58), “Scenes of indescribable horror were witnessed as they were torn away by the royal bailiffs.
More recently, on April 19, 1943, the German army entered the Warsaw Ghetto on the eve of Passover to liquidate and deport the remaining Jews to the Nazi death camps, prompting the start of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
And who can forget the Passover Massacre in Netanya that took place four years ago, in 2002, when 30 Jews were killed and 120 others were injured by a Palestinian suicide bomber belonging to Hamas, which now rules Gaza?
What, then, is to be gained by focusing our attention on what happened on Passover 35 centuries ago, if the intervening period has been marked by so much calamity and bloodshed?
The answer, in fact, is really quite simple, and it goes directly to the heart of what Passover, and our nation’s history, is truly all about: the Jewish people’s unshakeable determination to persevere, even in the wake of disaster and tragedy.
After all, our ancestors merited salvation from Egypt because they did not abandon their unique identity, even when Pharaoh’s taskmasters worked them to death and murdered their newborn male infants.
The first Passover signified their rescue, creating a model of deliverance that would be replicated over the millennia: stubborn Jewish fortitude in the face of overwhelming odds and a cruel enemy, followed by a heartrending appeal for Divine mercy. It was this powerful combination of faith and identity which paved the way for our ultimate triumph and liberation.
The reason we continue to look back to that first Passover is because it was a microcosm of our people’s historical saga throughout the ages. Then, as now, the nation of Israel was forged through anguish and suffering, which was followed by an unprecedented act of heavenly kindness and intervention.
It is precisely because of Passover’s power to inspire Jewish resolve that our foes have seized upon it over the centuries to try and break our collective spirit. From Portugal’s King Manuel to the Palestinian Hamas, our foes have recognized the festival’s ability to stir the Jewish people’s hopes for a better future.
So no matter how bleak the present might seem, Passover instructs us to view the world with a healthy dose of historical and theological perspective. “A person is obligated to view himself as if he too had left Egypt,” says the Haggadah, wisely reminding us that in the process of looking to our nation’s past, we gain a glimpse of our own bright and redemptive future.