Yesterday was the first day of Passover, which is celebration of the ancient Jews’ liberation by God from slavery in ancient Egypt. Even if you’re not Jewish, you are probably familiar with some elements of the story.
Moses, a fugitive at the time for killing an Egyptian who was beating a Jew, returned to Egypt to demand Pharaoh free the Israelites, lest a series of plagues sweep Egypt.
Pharaoh refuses, and God sends 10 plagues to “convince” Pharaoh to release the Israelites (God acts as a sort of mob enforcer in this case). The plagues include turning the Nile into blood and giving everyone a brutal skin disease (boils). The worst of which, however, was the slaughter of all first-born males.
To ensure the Israelites’ first-borns were not slaughtered, God commanded the Israelites to mark their doorposts with lamb’s blood, which would be a signal to God that he should “pass over” their homes.
After this horrific plague, Pharaoh releases the Israelites.
In the morning, I attended Minyan services like I normally do, however, this Minyan was special, as it was followed by a Siyum, which describes the completion of any act of Torah study.
The reason there is a Siyum on the first morning of Passover, is because all firstborn males are required to fast (Fast of the Firstborn). When the 10th plague was imminent, the firstborn males were understandably nervous. To curry a bit of extra favor of God, many of them decided to fast and atone for their sins to increase their odds that they would be passed over. Thus, Jewish firstborn males follow the tradition and observe the fast.
However, one of the Talmudic rabbis declared that the obligation to fast can be broken if the firstborn males complete a Siyum.
The synagogue I’ve been attending, in order to spare the firstborn males of hunger, conducted a Siyum in the morning following the prayer service in order to allow everyone to eat.
For the Siyum, we studied a piece of Talmud that discusses anger, and how, while sometimes useful, often leads us to make poor decisions. More importantly, indulging in anger is about pleasing yourself. When you are only focused on yourself, you are separating yourself from God
I was fortunate enough to be invited to a Seder by my girlfriend’s work colleague who has become a good friend over the course of my Jewish month (he is the one who helped me define the scope of my activities for my immersion into Judaism).
After hosting Shabbat dinner, I realized how stressful it is to have people over for a dinner that requires ritualistic observance of ancient rules. I have no idea how my friend prepared an entire Seder for 20 people. I would have given up. They managed to pull it off.
The Seder is full of rituals that you must observe throughout the night. As it would be nearly impossible to memorize everything, the Jewish people have wisely written the instructions down in a text called the Haggadah.
You can read the Wikipedia article for the details, but the rituals included reciting blessings, singing songs, washing hands, drinking wine, eating bitter herbs dipped in salt water, and a number of other activities that don’t really make sense until you learn what they symbolize.
A portion of the night was dedicated to Biblical History Jeopardy, but, I’m pretty sure that’s a modern, Simon-family activity, not a thousand year old ritual.
The Seder started at about 6:30 and ended around 11 or so. It’s a long period of time to eat dinner, but it actually felt went fairly quickly.
When you participate in the rituals and have friendly conversations with the other guests, time goes quickly.
Thoughts on Passover
Passover is one of those religious traditions that I would have dismissed as “silly” prior to this project. There are many seemingly arbitrary rituals that are based on texts written by rabbis a thousand years ago about (possibly apocryphal) events that took place over three thousand years ago.
To be honest, the Passover rituals and traditions still don’t appeal to me. There were some nice ideas represented by the rituals, but it wasn’t emotionally or spiritually moving. There just wasn’t enough time to reflect on these ideas.
I suspect this is because Passover, like other Jewish traditions and rituals, can only be truly appreciated if you put the effort into learning and understanding its significance. And it’s not to just understand the rituals for the two Seders, but to incorporate that understanding into your life on a daily basis.
How would you live your life with the knowledge that you came from a people that suffered terribly and only survived due to God’s mercy?
Would you act more compassionate towards others if your freedom came at the expense of the innocent (death of the first-borns)?
I’m still processing my thoughts on Passover, but I will report back tomorrow after my second Seder this evening.