We have an unusual situation this Shabbat. Friday night at sundown, not only does the Sabbath begin, but also the week long Festival of Passover. Therefore the regular Torah cycle of readings is suspended until after Passover is completed.
The readings for this week are Exodus 12:21-51, Numbers 28:16-25 and Joshua 3:5-7, 5:2 – 6:1, 6:27. I encourage you to read them at your leisure.
Here in Israel, our people have been super busy, cleaning all the leaven out of their homes and preparing for the Seder (festive meal) Friday evening. What is it about Passover that is so special that an entire nation prepares diligently, even feverishly, for it each year?
Early in the Torah, God defines himself by the event commemorated each year at Passover: At the beginning of the ten commandments he introduces himself like this: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery”.
Previously He called Himself “The God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob”, or “I AM” but beginning at this point He is “The One who brought you out of Egypt” and that self-description is repeated throughout the Hebrew Bible literally hundreds of times.
Many of the Psalms refer to the Passover miracle and though many Jewish people consider Mt. Sinai as the defining moment, perhaps God sees the Passover as the cornerstone of the Israel story. Passover was the moment in history when the Jewish race became the Jewish faith.
Our God is all about freedom; human choice is at the heart of the unfolding deliverance of the children of Israel from Egyptian slavery. Even though God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart”, that only happened after some serious choices on Pharaoh’s part to harden his own heart first. God just confirmed his free choice.
The children of Israel also had to choose whether to go along with God’s plan or not. They were not rescued from the Angel of Death by force – He gave them an “opt in” clause: to have death pass over your house, you must sacrifice a lamb and dab its blood on your door frame. This act of faith constituted the individual’s response to a command of God which carried a promise with it. All who believed it was true and acted accordingly were saved. That means that those who escaped from Egypt freely chose to obey God and follow him by faith – not just because of their national ancestry. This is the moment that the people of Israel became a faith community.
As we mentioned, the ten commandments are introduced by God’s reminder that he loves to set slaves free, and the very first command when he subsequently lays down the rest of the Torah is this: “These are the laws you are to set before them: If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything.” (Exodus 21:1-2). What a strange subject with which to start a new code of government, spiritual life and ethics! But God is determined that his people should not be in slavery – they should be free. This is the message of passover. That is what the exodus was all about. God is serious about making his people free.
Remembering is very important to God. The Bible frequently urges us to do just that: “Remember”. If we remember what God has done, what He has said and who He is, we our faith in Him is energized and our trust solidifies.
The Passover Seder meal is a festive, teaching, and remembering experience, instituted by God himself, in order to prevent us from forgetting His amazing power and faithfulness. Today the family celebration is based around four cups of wine and a “haggadah” or “telling” which is like an order of service. There are different ideas about what each of the four cups represents, but generally the first cup is about being set apart for God, the second is the time to tell the story, the third is after the meal, when Jewish people usually give thanks for their food, and the last one is “hallel” or praise, during which the psalms of thanksgiving are recited.
Each item of food on the table symbolizes something in the story and each aspect of the evening helps the Jewish people to remember the miracles God did for them and even to re-live them. It is as if we ourselves were delivered from the oppression of Pharoah.
The ultimate purpose of the Seder is to re-awaken and strengthen relationship. God wants intimacy with his people. God looks back at that time right after the exodus as something of a honeymoon with his people:
“This is what the LORD says:“‘I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown. Israel was holy to the LORD, the firstfruits of his harvest”. Jeremiah 2:1-3
“Therefore I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will respond as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt.” Hosea 2:14-15
Someone once said “a dessert is something you want and don’t need, but the desert is something you don’t want, but you do need”. We all experience ‘desert’ times in our spiritual life but it’s often during those times that our relationship with God deepends. One day ultimate rest will be ours but until then, life with God is not always going to be a walk in the park.
Passover is the time to draw closer to the One who delivers, saves and redeems. We are with him, and he is with us. We are his people, and he is our God. The joy of relationship with Him is our strength and our song.
It is also a time to look to the future. “The days are coming,” declares the LORD, “when it will no longer be said, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the Israelites up out of Egypt,’ but it will be said, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, who brought the Israelites up out of the land of the north and out of all the countries where he had banished them.’ For I will restore them to the land I gave their ancestors.” Jeremiah 16:14-16 .
The story of God and the children of Israel is not over yet. God has indeed brought the Israelites out from the land of the north (Russia and surrounding area) and thousands have come to live in Israel from countries around the globe. Many do not yet attribute this phenomenon to God but the days are coming when they will know it is truly His doing.
Meanwhile, we celebrate the Passover past and look forward to the future ‘Passover’ when we will transition from life as we know it to the promised manifestation of the restored Kingdom of God on this earth. May it come quickly, even in our day!
A blessed Passover to all my readers – and Shabbat Shalom!