The eve of Monday, March 25, marks the beginning of the Jewish holiday of Passover, an eight-day holiday commemorating the emancipation of the Israelites from slavery in ancient Egypt. After many decades of slavery to the ancient Egyptian pharaohs, during which time the Israelites were subjected to backbreaking labor and unbearable horrors, God saw the people's distress and sent Moses to Pharaoh with a message to let his people go. But despite numerous warnings, Pharaoh refused to heed God's command. God then sent upon Egypt 10 plagues, afflicting them and destroying everything from their livestock to their crops.
With the last of the 10 plagues, death of the firstborns, Pharaoh's resistance was broken, and he virtually chased his former slaves out of the land. The Israelites left in such a hurry, in fact, that the bread they baked as provisions for the way did not have time to rise. For this reason, it is the Jewish tradition not to eat any leavened breads for the duration of the holiday, and to eat matzah -- flat unleavened bread.
The highlight of Passover is the two "Seders," observed on the first two nights of the holiday (Monday and Tuesday evenings.) The Seder is a 15-step, family-oriented, tradition- and ritual-packed feast.
The focal points of the Seder are:
Eating bitter herbs -- to commemorate the bitter slavery endured by the Israelites.
Drinking four cups of wine or grape juice -- a royal drink to celebrate the newfound freedom.
The recitation of the Haggadah, a liturgy that describes in detail the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah is the fulfillment of the biblical obligation to recount to our children the story of the Exodus on the night of Passover.
Although the exodus of the Israelites from ancient Egypt is an occurrence of the distant past, the story carries an eternal message for each of us in our personal lives. Although none of us is enslaved to Pharaoh, it is common for a person to be enslaved and inhibited by other factors, be they social, psychological, emotional or any other. These circumstances impede a person's ability to fully lead a life dictated by the ideals he or she truly believes in. The story of Passover inspires us to rise above our personal limitations and allow our essential selves to be expressed, constituting a personal exodus from a personal bondage. Each step we take out of our comfort zones and in the direction of living up to the ideals we believe in is another step out of our own versions of slavery. This is one of the many lessons the ancient story teaches us.
For more information on the holiday of Passover, visit ChabadofBakersfield.com/Passover. There you will find much information about the holiday's history, how-to Passover and many delicious recipes. You will also find thought provoking articles on the present-day applications of the ancient story.
Rabbi Shmuli Schlanger is the director of Chabad of Bakersfield.