Passover (Pesach) Themes and Theology

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Passover is one of the most important Jewish festivals of the year, and its high point is the seder. Experiencing this wonderful Jewish meal and interactive "happening" is to live through all the varied themes of the Passover festival.

The most obvious theme of the festival is redemption. In the Exodus story, which Jews are commanded to tell their children every year on Passover, the Jews were redeemed physically from slavery. While Pesach is "z'man heyruteinu," the season of our freedom, it is also a festival that speaks of spiritual redemption. Jews were freed from mental as well as physical slavery. It was as a physically and spiritually free people that the Jewish nation prepared to receive the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

passover quizThe notion of spiritual redemption is in part demonstrated by the fundamental Jewish idea that in every generation every individual is obliged to view him or herself as though he or she had actually gone forth from Egypt. Egypt is "Mitzraim" in Hebrew. It stems from the root "tzar," which means narrow or constrained. In order to leave Egypt, each individual must break out of personal narrowness, becoming free to achieve his full spiritual potential. Another explanation of the root "tzar" is calamity. In this view, "Mitzraim" represents the country of calamities that befall the Jews.

The seder includes many allusions to a future messianic redemption. One of the clearest symbols of the presence and hope of future redemption is the Cup of Elijah that is placed on every seder table. Contained within the salvation from Egypt are the seeds of future redemption, as the Torah states, "This same night is a night of watching unto the Lord for all the children of Israel throughout their generations" (Exodus 12:42).

An illustration of the coexistence of past and future redemption at the Seder is the unusual way of reciting Hallel (Psalms of praise). The haggadah splits Hallel into two parts, so that from kiddush at the beginning of the seder until the meal in the middle, the seder emphasizes past redemption, such as the Exodus, and from the meal to the end it looks to the future redemption.

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