The dramatic conclusion to the Israelites’ sojourn in Egypt has been remembered by their descendants through the millennia at Passover. Whether in obedience to a Divine commandment, as an exercise in nostalgia, or as an act of cultural identity preservation, the Seder ritual continues to bring the preponderance of Jews together like no other observance.
Redemption from bondage
The Scriptural text in Exodus laid down the requirement for the annual father-to-son transmission of the story of miraculous redemption from bondage. Other passages embedded the recollection in ceremonies of gratitude for freedom, and in the injunctions to be kind and generous to the downtrodden and the stranger. Finally, when a formal structure of prayer was developed, an acknowledgment of the deliverance was inserted into the daily as well as the Sabbath and festival liturgies.
The Session of the Passover Seder
The Passover Seder, a session of Biblical study and singing of praise built around an elaborate and symbol-studded meal, articulates the redemption traditions in maximum detail. As designed by the Talmudic sages, the object is to provide so much detail and atmosphere that the participants are not only reenacting the deliverance from Egyptian bondage but reliving the experience itself. Besides substantial quotations from the Bible about the rigors of slavery, the plagues, the Exodus, and the crossing of the Red Sea, there are the mandated cakes of unleavened bread (matzoh), bitter herbs, a symbol of the animal sacrifice of Temple times, and four cups of wine. All are presented with a view to stimulating questions from children and discussion among all.
Ironically, the matzoh and wine of the Seder became the basis for the Eucharist because of the confluence of Passover and the Passion story. In that sense, a remembrance of the last days of the Israelites in Egypt was always implicit in Christian practice.
But it was not until the Christian-Jewish reconciliation movements of recent decades that Christian churches and individuals began conducting their own Seders or joining Jewish neighbors at theirs. For those who have not become part of that trend, there is at least the annual telecast of Cecil B. DeMilles’s epic, “The Ten Commandments,” which gives even couch potatoes a vivid and recurring dose of Passover memories.