So declared Pope John Paul II in 1999. He called for a different way of living in keeping with his religious ideals, and he argued that the Church should not achieve these goals through partisan politics or by revolutionary violence. The purpose of religion was bringing about the Kingdom of God, not about creating a Marxist utopia. So how does our traditional-egalitarian Jewish community read this week’s call for liberation in the Exodus story?
This section in the reading of Exodus serves as one of the main moments for the etiology of Pesach – to “passover” the marked homes of the Hebrews when the Angel of Death comes to smite all firstborn children. The roasted Paschal offering is to be eaten that night together with the matzah and bitter herbs. Of all the plagues, it is the smiting of the firstborn which breaks Pharaoh’s recalcitrance, so the Israelites depart hastily [b’hipazon], not leaving time for their dough to rise, which results in unleavened bread. The commemorative seder celebrated to this day incorporates elements of this narrative through the Haggadah, which is composed of: telling the story of redemption to the next generation [magid]; consuming matzah at nightfall; eating bitter herbs of maror; enacting the plagues by spilling drops of wine. The last three of these ten plagues spilled are in memory of those visited upon the Egyptians: locusts swarm the crops; thick darkness envelops the land; firstborn smitten at the stroke of midnight on the 15th of Nissan.
It is telling at this moment of liberation that the Israelites are commanded to restructure their understanding of time through the establishment of a monthly rebirth by the lunar calendar. The Israelites are also instructed to bring a Passover offering as a slaughtered lamb or kid, with its blood sprinkled on the lintels of every Israelite home. In addition to the annual commemoration of Passover, reminders of the Exodus abide daily with the donning of phylacteries on the arm and head which symbolize the ongoing human-divine covenant.
– Rabbi Aubrey Glazer
Artwork note: This week’s illustration is inspired by the tenth and final plague. “It came to pass at midnight, and the Lord smote every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who is in the dungeon, and every firstborn animal.” (Exodus 12:29) Because contemporary readers are so familiar with the story, we too often ignore or diminish the horror of this plague. Illustration by Christopher Orev Reiger.