For many of the same reasons that Christians celebrate Easter – being released from bondage into freedom – Jewish people traditionally celebrate Passover as a series of observations passed down from generation to generation. It’s a holy day to recall how God saved his called people from plagues and the death of their first-borne sons, the latter by painting the lintels framing their doorways with the blood of sacrificial sheep so that the angel of death “passed over” their homes while the Egyptians suffered an entirely different fate.
One of the central themes of Passover is telling the story of oppression and the journey to liberation.
“Let my people go!” Moses repeatedly pleaded with Pharaoh.
And finally, with the death of his own first-borne son, the story goes that Pharaoh relented. Miracles of the water parting so the Jewish people could walk safely through while, later, as Egyptians had second thoughts and pursued the Israelites through that same water, it gathered back together and drowned the Egyptians hunting their hostages. Even the matzoh – the unleavened bread – is part of the Passover story, reminding us of the haste in which the Hebrews fled (with not even enough time for their bread to rise).
While we may understand that spiritual maturity means accepting that life is the integration of the bitter and the sweet, the matzoh sandwich also reminds us that we live our lives “in-between.” We hang in the balance, alive, but not immortal, sandwiched between a fragile, limited, carnal self and our eternal Divine DNA.
For both faiths, Easter and Passover have the same significance: remembering our freedom from bondage. We gather together, observe certain rituals, and share a communal meal while passing down these remarkable legends.
For Christians, Easter Sunday is preceded by Palm Sunday which, in turn, is preceded by days of Lent, preparing ourselves for worship in church. Often, there are processions (especially in predominantly Roman Catholic countries) with banners, floats, and flowers. For Jews, however, Passover is a home-based, solemn festivity, worshiped around the family table … with a very interesting tradition: one of the chairs is always left empty.
Jewish tradition teaches that Elijah the prophet will be the harbinger of the coming of the Messiah and the world’s redemption. It is a chair of hope. Elijah’s cup, in Judaism, the fifth ceremonial cup of wine poured during the family (seder) dinner on Passover is left untouched in honour of Elijah, who, according to belief, will arrive one day as an unknown guest to herald the advent of the Messiah. His presence signals the messianic era: a time of redemption, peace, and spiritual bliss. The full cup ―one for the future ― remains untouched to honor and offer hospitality to Elijah when he ultimately appears. Symbolically, he is also welcomed when families open their doors during the Passover Seder.
During the last generation, however, Elijah’s chair and cup have been taken.
By cell phones and digital devices.
How ironic that holidays which are supposed to lead us by faith from bondage and oppression to freedom and peace have been usurped by humans putting their faith on hold should they be beckoned by a telephone call, Facebook message, or Instagram photo.
Each year, the chairs around our table are filled with different individuals who join together to retell, once again, the story of our enslavement and redemption. The Passover seder is more than a history lesson, for each of us is instructed to see ourselves as if we had personally been freed from Egypt. It must become our own story, told in the context of our family’s generations and community. We add new layers as each new year’s experience melds with the memories of the past.
Some years are painfully different. A beloved family member or friend has died during the past year. A country has been destroyed, whether by politics, war, and division. There is an empty chair – Elijah’s – at the table. How can we go through the same rituals when life has been so drastically altered? What if we begin to cry at the seder table? What if everyone is so afraid of pain and grief that they ignore the empty chair? Are we even allowed to bring our sadness to the seder, which seems like it should be a happy occasion? Sometimes death changes family/social relations, also the empty chair at the table.
How do we find meaning in the holidays now?
With God’s grace, hopefully beyond our fleeting “new normals.”
Bruce Joffe is publisher and creative director of Portugal Living Magazine. You can read the current issue and subscribe — at no cost! — by clicking on this link: