What Every Christian Needs to Know about Passover: What It Means and Why It Matters

What Every Christian Needs to Know about Passover: What It Means and Why It Matters

by Rabbi Evan Moffic


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781426791567
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 02/03/2015
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 1,269,483
Product dimensions: 8.40(w) x 5.20(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Rabbi Evan Moffic is a guide to Jewish wisdom for people of all faiths. A graduate of Stanford University, he is the spiritual leader of Congregation Solel on the North Shore of Chicago. He has been featured in the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Forward and Christianity Today, and appears regularly as a religious commentator on Fox News and CNN. He is an active blogger/vlogger who has contributed to sites such as Beliefnet.com, Huffingtonpost.com, andMichaelHyatt.com. Through his speaking events, he brings new understanding of the Jewish heritage to churches of varied denominations and beliefs. Moffic is the author of several books including What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Jewishness of Jesus, What Every Christian Needs to Know About Passover, and Shalom for the Heart. You can learn more and see dozens of videos unpacking biblical texts and Jewish insight at www.rabbi.me.

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What Every Christian Needs to Know About Passover

What It Means and Why It Matters

By Rabbi Evan Moffic, Paul Soupiset

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 2014 Evan Moffic
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4267-9157-4



The Biblical Exodus

Sometimes our most important journeys begin in tragic circumstances. It may be the death of a loved one. It may be the loss of a job. We can feel trapped by these circumstances, and they can start to define us. I recall a member of a synagogue I served in Louisiana who had lost her husband tragically. She was in her sixties and quite healthy. She had many friends and a successful career. When her husband died, however, her life became defined by this loss. She took all the paintings down from the walls of her house, and replaced them with pictures of him. She changed her stationery to identify herself by her husband's first and last name. She even kept his voice on her answering machine.

Now contrast my Louisiana friend's journey with that of another parishioner from Chicago. She also experienced the loss of her husband at a relatively early age. He was a force of nature, a highly successful businessman and community leader. She mourned deeply. Many of their friends had been through him, and thus she felt somewhat disconnected from the wider community after his death. Yet, after about a year, she began to change. She started volunteering at a hospital and a grief counseling center. She became involved in the synagogue, which had earlier been a peripheral part of her life. She began a new path defined by the future rather than the past.

All of us grieve differently, and I probably should not judge someone for her feelings of loss. But it seems clear that the second parishioner found a healthier and more satisfying path. She experienced monumental pain, but she did not let tragedy define her future.

What meaning do we make out of tragedy and loss? That is the question that my two parishioners' experiences of bereavement pose to me. And it is also one of the fundamental questions of Passover. The Israelites had experienced profound individual and social loss through decades of enslavement, and God miraculously freed them—and then commanded them to observe a holiday in which they were to make some sort of sense, some sort of meaning, from their loss. God didn't tell the Israelites to forget their suffering in Egypt, or to just "move on." Rather, God told them to remember forever that they were slaves in Egypt. The Passover celebration is the medium through which Jews, over the centuries, have remembered and made meaning from the trauma of slavery.

Like my two parishioners, the ancient Israelites' journey began in tragic circumstances. After having lived as welcome residents of Egypt for hundreds of years, they are enslaved by a pharaoh determined to destroy them. They experience four hundred years of bitter slavery. Yet, after God leads them to freedom, they do not define themselves as victims. They do not seek revenge on the Egyptians. Rather, they hold the first sacred Passover meal telling their story of God's redemption. They derive the moral requirement to never oppress the stranger because they had been strangers in the land of Egypt. In other words, they seek to experience the blessing of freedom and not the pain of victimhood.

The ancient Israelites' journey began in tragic circumstances. They experienced four hundred years of bitter slavery. Yet, after God leads them to freedom, they do not define themselves as victims. Rather, they hold the first sacred Passover meal telling their story of God's redemption.

They begin their new journey by gathering for the Passover meal, the oldest religious ritual in Western history, in which they tell a story that redefines who they are.

How did the Israelites transform themselves? What role did God play in their journey? How did they use memory and ritual to reframe the experience of slavery? Let's look at their story.

How Did the Jewish People End Up in Egypt?

The Jewish people arrived in Egypt 430 years before the Exodus. They came with the support of the then pharaoh, whose kingdom had been saved through the foresight and prophecy of the Israelite Joseph. Joseph was the second youngest of the Jewish patriarch Jacob's twelve sons. After being sold into slavery by his brothers, who were jealous of his special talents and their father's overt favoring of him, Joseph had used his wits and abilities to arrive at a position of power in Egypt. He served as Pharaoh's prime minister, saving Egypt from a seven-year famine that destroyed much of the surrounding area.

For a while, Joseph's descendants prosper in Egypt. Then, according to the Book of Exodus, "a new king came to power in Egypt who didn't know Joseph" (Exodus 1:8). This formulation is the Bible's way of telling us that this pharaoh did not know of the great contributions that the Israelite Joseph made to Egypt. He did not know the history of the Jewish people in the land. He was like a type of person we all know: someone who looks at others and asks only "what have you done for me lately?" Soon the pharaoh becomes paranoid. Fearing the growth of a non-native, non-Egyptian population that could turn against Egypt in times of war and also looking for cheap labor, this pharaoh enslaves the Israelites, demanding they work in building Egyptian cities and monuments. Pharaoh sought to destroy Israelite culture and unity so that they would not pose a threat to native Egyptians.

Despite these efforts to annihilate them, the Israelites survive. According to later biblical commentary, their population actually grows, and they become more unified as a people. They continue to use Hebrew names and refuse to succumb to Pharaoh's destructive policy. Their enslavement continues for four hundred years, but they remain a distinct people. They do not let persecution and hatred change who they are.

Four hundred years after slavery begins, however, a new pharaoh determines to destroy the Israelites once and for all. He decides to throw every male child born to an Israelite into the Nile River, thus draining their strength and eliminating future generations. Despite their efforts at maintaining their inner and outer strength, the Israelites feel despondent. They reach a bottom, seeing their future wiped out before them. In any journey, however, the bottom has one advantage. There is nowhere to go but up. And it is at their bottom that the Israelites cry out to God, and God hears their cry. God answers their cry through the figure of Moses. Moses renews the Israelites' hope. He renews their faith. And he shows them that though they may have been enslaved, faith can set them free.

Who Is Moses?

In Jewish tradition Moses is the greatest prophet the Jewish people ever had. He is the lawgiver, teacher, and scribe of God. He challenges Pharaoh, leads the people through the desert, and guides them to the edge of the Promised Land. His life ends on a poignant note, as God permits him to see the Promised Land from afar but not to enter it. Moses' final resting place is unknown because, according to the Jewish sages, God did not want the people to turn Moses into a divine figure. He is simply the Jewish people's greatest prophet. His story is the story of the Exodus.

Moses' birth seems to suggest he was destined for great things. Unlike the other Israelites, he never experiences slavery. He is born during the time when Pharaoh is killing all Israelite males at birth. Immediately after his birth, however, Moses' mother and sister place him on a basket and send it floating down the Nile River. His sister Miriam watches the basket from reeds beside the river, and she sees the daughter of Pharaoh take the basket and find the Hebrew child. In the Bible, Pharaoh's daughter has no name, but later Jewish commentators call her Batya, which means "daughter of God." Her compassion and humanity lead her to adopt Moses as her own son. She also hires Moses' mother and sister as his nurse and nanny, unaware of who they really are. Moses is raised in Pharaoh's palace, a "prince of Egypt," presumably afforded all the luxuries and opportunities of Egyptian royalty.

Everything changes the day he first leaves the royal palace. His age at the time is unknown, but later interpreters suggest he was fifteen. He sees Egyptian taskmasters whipping Israelite slaves. Although the text does not tell us how and when he learned he was an Israelite, Moses somehow knows the slaves are his people, and he acts to defend them. He kills one of the Egyptian taskmasters. The next day he sees a fight between two of the Israelite slaves. One of them taunts him and says, "Are you planning to kill me like you killed the Egyptian?" (Exodus 2:14) Moses realizes that word of his crime has begun to spread, and he will be a wanted man in Egypt. He flees for Midian, which is a desert land of shepherds and nomads. His first stop is at a well. He encounters a group of hostile shepherds attacking a group of seven sisters. Moses defends them and drives the shepherds away. He returns with the daughters to their home and meets their father, Jethro, a local priest. Moses soon marries one of the sisters he saved named Zipporah.

Each of these stories is significant because it reveals the core of Moses' character. He could not bear seeing a helpless slave beaten by an Egyptian taskmaster. He could not stay silent as two Israelites fought one another. And he could not stand by as Midianite shepherds attacked a group of defenseless sisters. Moses does not stand idly by as others suffer and bleed. He is present. He is present to suffering. He is present to injustice. And he is present to God.

How God Met Moses

We see this presence to God most clearly in the next formative incident in Moses' life. The Bible tells us that while Moses was out walking with his flock, he hears God's voice speaking from a bush that burns but is not consumed (Exodus 3:1-12). Moses had to be present to hear that voice. In fact, the Jewish sages write that this bush had been burning without being consumed for years. Most people, however, did not notice it. They simply walked by. Moses noticed the burning bush and wondered why it was not consumed. When he turned around and paid attention to it, God spoke to him. His attunement to divine power made him worthy of leadership. Others had their opportunities. But Moses responded. The Hebrew word he used in answering God's voice highlights his readiness to act. Moses says "Hineni, I'm here" (Exodus 3:4).

What does God tell Moses? According to the text, God has now "clearly seen" Israel's oppression at the hands of the Egyptians (Exodus 3:7). God has chosen Moses to lead the Israelites to freedom. God reminds Moses that he is an Israelite and that his ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were God's faithful servants. God tells Moses his time to act and lead has arrived.

Who Is God?

When Moses turned, he had a profound, dramatic, and in some ways quite intimate encounter with God—and the Bible's description of the encounter between God and Moses also reveals a core part of how Jews understand God. In an enigmatic verse, God says to Moses that he can tell the people that "Ehyeh asher Ehyeh" sent him (Exodus 3:14). This particular divine name—Ehyeh asher Ehyeh ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII])—does not occur anywhere else in the Bible. It does not even seem like a proper name. In Hebrew the phase means "I will be what I will be." Some English Bibles translate it as "I am Who I am." Or "I am What I am." The Hebrew is written, however, in the future tense: "I will be what I will be," or "I will become what I will become."

Why does this difference matter? How might it shape our own understanding of God? I believe it teaches us how the Bible wishes us to understand God. God is not static. God is dynamic. God is not defined by the past. God is experienced in the future. What I will be, God is telling Moses, depends on what you and the people do. God is a becoming, and not just a being. In fact, the Hebrew language does not have any word like the English "is." In Judaism, as reflected in the Hebrew language, identity is never static, and never unalterable. Like God, we are dynamic, evolving, ever changing, and ever growing. We may have had a miserable upbringing. We may have done things in the past we are not proud of. But those things do not define us. We define ourselves in the future. And the future shapes how we are remembered.

My favorite example of this truth is physicist Alfred Nobel. He invented dynamite and made a tremendous fortune. When he died, however, he left that fortune to create a prize for a person or group that best promotes peace. And we remember his name through that prize—the Nobel Peace Prize. God is telling Moses—just as he is telling us—your journey is not over. Your people will not be slaves forever. With God's help, they will become free. God cares about who we will become, not just who we have been. God sees our potential and invites us into the future.

God's revelation to Moses also gives Moses confidence. He hears God's instruction, and finds a strength he did not know he had. After God appears to him at the burning bush, Moses is no different physically. Yet, he is different spiritually. After having hesitated and feeling unsure about the work God has for him, Moses accepts God's call, and he returns to the Egyptian royal palace. He comes before Pharaoh and tells him "This is what the LORD, Israel's God, says: 'Let my people go'" (Exodus 5:1). Pharaoh's first response seems to convey genuine shock. This shepherd, whom he had probably known as a boy growing up in the royal palace, is demanding he free a huge population of slaves. He does so in the name of the Israelite God, while Pharaoh sees himself as a god. To put it in contemporary nonreligious terms, it would be as if a farmer from a poor and distant country like Bangladesh demands that the president of the United States do something at the behest of the president of Bangladesh. Pharaoh understandably challenges Moses' request. "Who is this LORD whom I'm supposed to obey by letting Israel go? I don't know this LORD, and I certainly won't let Israel go," he replies (Exodus 5:2).

Moses and Aaron repeat their demand. Pharaoh refuses, and chides them for distracting the Israelites from their labor. He demands they leave and then tells the chief Egyptian taskmaster to toughen the Israelite labor requirements. In particular, he tells the taskmaster to take away the straw the Israelites used for making bricks, but still require they make the same number of bricks each day. They would have to go out and find their own straw, making their labor longer and more strenuous. Pharaoh seems to be trying to turn the Israelites against Moses by punishing them for Moses' impetuous behavior.

The ploy works. They blame the messenger. They beg Pharaoh to relent, and he tells them they are lazy. They swear at Moses, telling him God will judge him harshly for his actions. These criticisms are the first of many Moses receives as he leads the Israelites out of Egypt. He pleads to God for guidance, and God tells him to keep doing what he is doing. God is telling Moses to be patient because God has larger plans. God is setting up the confrontation with Pharaoh that will lead to freedom. God then tells Moses to return to Pharaoh and demand once again that Pharaoh free the Israelites.

An emboldened Pharaoh responds by daring Moses and Aaron to prove the power of their God and perform a miracle. Aaron takes his staff and turns it into a snake. Pharaoh's magicians do the same thing, but their snake is eaten by Aaron's. Still, Pharaoh remains unmoved. He rejects Moses' demands to free the Israelites. God then inflicts the first of ten plagues upon the Egyptians. He turns the Nile River into blood. The Nile is the life source of Egypt. It waters its crops and serves as Egypt's source of influence. Turning it to blood undermines Egypt's strength. Yet, Pharaoh dismisses it as an amateur trick his magicians could do. His heart remains unmoved.

God's next plague is to cover the land of Egypt with frogs. Pharaoh begs Moses to stop it, promising to free the Israelites when the frogs are gone. Moses does so, but then Pharaoh reneges on his promise. In describing these events, the Bible emphasizes that God knew Pharaoh would renege. Indeed, God hardened Pharaoh's heart, ensuring he would resist letting the Israelites go free and the plagues would continue.

I have always been troubled by this idea that God hardened Pharaoh's heart. Does that mean God takes away Pharaoh's free will? Does that mean God desired the plagues to continue so as to inflict massive destruction on Egypt? It seems that way. What kind of God would do that?

These questions have stumped Jewish interpreters for centuries. The most accepted answer is that God hardening Pharaoh's heart allowed Pharaoh to continue to follow his heart's true desires. He did not want to give in. But the harshness of the plagues and the growing opposition of his courtiers tempted him to simply accede to Moses' requests. God therefore preserved Pharaoh's free will—his desire to continue to enslave the Israelites—by hardening his heart and making him incapable of turning back from confrontation with Moses.


Excerpted from What Every Christian Needs to Know About Passover by Rabbi Evan Moffic, Paul Soupiset. Copyright © 2014 Evan Moffic. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Why Passover Matters to Christians ix

1 From Slavery to Freedom: The Biblical Exodus 1

2 Rituals of Freedom: The Celebration of Passover During the Lifetime of Jesus 17

3 Around the Table: Why Passover Is a Holiday Celebrated Primarily at Home 31

4 Cleanse Your Spirit and Cleanse Your Kitchen: How to Prepare for a Passover Seder 41

5 The Seder Plate: How Ritual Objects Connect Us to One Another and to God 59

6 Blessing and Questioning: The Seder Begins 77

7 "As Though You Yourself Journeyed from Slavery to Freedom": Telling the Passover Story 97

8 Praising and Singing: The Seder Concludes 111

9 From Ancient Israel to Contemporary America: The Universal Story of Freedom 131

10 Celebrating the Passover Seder Yourself: A Haggadah for Home Use by Christians and Jews 143

Epilogue: Your Letter in the Scroll 173

A Study Guide for Individuals and Groups 175

Acknowledgments 189

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