In every generation, all are obligated to view themselves as having personally left Egypt, since it is said, "And you shall explain to your child on that day, 'It is because of what Adonai did for me when I went free from Egypt'." Therefore we are obligated to thank, praise...and bless the One who performed all these miracles for our ancestors and for us, for bringing us from slavery to freedom, anguish to joy, mourning to festival, darkness to great light, and subjugation to redemption.
--Mishnah, Pesahim. Also in the Haggadah
Pesah (literally, "protection") is the first of the three major biblical festivals, and the oldest continually observed holiday in the world. Celebrated in the spring, the holiday celebrates the liberation of the Israelite slaves from their bondage in Egypt. As such, it looks back to that pivotal moment in the memory of the Jewish People when we first became a people, affirming our conviction that God frees the enslaved and cares for the weak and the oppressed. Additionally, Pesah is a memorial to freedom for all peoples, a beacon of hope that the humanity can make the world a better place.
In addition to being the oldest holiday, Pesah is also by far the most widely observed Jewish ritual. Over 90 percent of the Jews of North America, regardless of their religious views or practices, regardless of their affiliation with the larger Jewish community, make a point to sit down on the first night of Pesah to observe a Seder (literally, "order", the festive communal meal of Pesah. Plural, Sedarim) -- many more than the number who fast on Yom Kippur or who celebrate their Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
This is a story that never fails to attract and to excite. Blending the grand themes of human liberation, inner spiritual growth, the sweep of Jewish history and Peoplehood, Divine love and justice, the message of Pesah is one of the greatest ever told. Little wonder that the story of the Jewish Exodus from Egypt has inspired most of the freedom movements throughout later Western history -- from the Underground Railway of the African-American slaves of the Nineteenth Century to the liberation theology popular in Twentieth-Century Latin America.
But the charm and attraction of Pesah is not limited to its ideas -- however powerful and compelling they may be. Pesah also entices through its central ritual, the Seder meal -- when the warmth of gathered family and friends, good food, festive songs, and colorful pageantry combine into an emotional and edible feast.
Pesah is just about everybody's favorite Jewish holiday.
At the same time that everyone loves Pesah, only a small percentage of the Jews who cherish the festival are fully comfortable with its rituals and its symbolism. Only a few know how to lead a Seder, or can teach the melodies of any but the most popular songs. The richness of Pesah is often abandoned simply because of its complexity and its unfamiliarity.
Pesah develops three principal themes (as do the two other biblical festivals of Shavuot and Sukkot): agricultural, historical, and religious/spiritual. These three themes develop in unique ways, blending and enriching each other to produce holidays that are each quite distinct.
In the case of Pesah, the agricultural connection is the season of spring that is called Aviv (in biblical Hebrew Aviv means "ears of grain," It means "Spring" in contemporary Hebrew). Thus, the Pesah offering of a lamb in the biblical period, and the concurrent barley harvest (called the Omer) both speak to a celebration of springtime, with its promise of renewal and of life. The historical aspect of the festival is its memorializing the exodus from Egypt, the end of slavery, and the leadership of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. The religious focus of the holiday is on the values of freedom, on Jewish identity, the rejection of idolatry, and on the role of God in human liberation.
The heyday for the holiday of Pesah was during the period of the First and Second Temples. It was during that period (from around 1000 BCE to 70 CE) that all three central components of the Pesah meal -- the sacrifice of the lamb, eating the Matzah (unleavened bread) and the Maror (bitter herbs) were all possible. With the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, it was no longer permissible to offer animal sacrifices, so the Pesah offering was relegated to the realm of memory.
Pesah is deservedly a favorite festival. Joining a rich historical awareness to contemporary concerns for freedom and self-expression, enjoying the warmth of people you love while sharing delicious and seasonal food, this is a time to renew our own commitments -- to our own growth, to our relationships, and to our Judaism. As we celebrate our past and our values, we live -- if for just a few nights -- outside of the slavery of time, separate from the imposition of power and of pomp.
Freedom is within our grasp, and Pesah reminds us that we need to reach.