Passover is fast approaching! It may be a week where we go without our usual comfort foods, but it’s also one of the only times it’s considered socially acceptable to pour four glasses of wine at dinner. In short, we love it! Even though it’s an annual tradition, we have the opportunity each year to see it with a fresh perspective and deepened understanding. Here are four ways we can reimagine our Passover celebration:
While Passover is usually a joyful holiday, this year we can’t help but be reminded of the over 1.5 million refugees who fled war in Ukraine and have been absorbed into entirely new cultures, new languages, and lifestyles.1 What the Seder symbolizes for us is all too real for them.
Mark Hetfield is the president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. He writes, “The Passover story is the Jewish people’s original story of becoming strangers in a strange land. It is the story that reminds us that we, too, have stood in the shoes of refugees and asylum seekers in search of safety and liberty. As we lift our voices in song and prayer, we call out together with those who long to be free. This year, there are still many who struggle towards liberation; next year, may we all be free.”2 This Passover, let’s include time to pray during our Seders for peace in Ukraine, and let’s find ways to support those in our world seeking refuge.
Jacqueline Rawiszer serves as the cantor at Congregation of Reform Judaism (CRJ) in Orlando, Florida. She was one of the prominent leaders in starting “The Women’s Seder,” a comparatively recent tradition that highlights the role of women in the Exodus narrative. According to Rawiszer, “It makes a far more personal and meaningful experience … there is a place for me in the story of Exodus.”3
She’s not the only one to feel this way! Attendants of one of these Seders in Baltimore raved about their experience and drew attention to the fact that their Judaism was nurtured by their mothers. Susan Strauss, who attended the Seder with her mother and young daughter, said: “Even though the men always lead the Seder, I got my sense of Judaism through my mother.” Her mother, Ruth Rovner, added, “And I got mine from my mother and grandmother.”4
Rawiszer’s idea and the experiences of those at The Women’s Seder are not at all foreign to Judaism. The reality is that our historical exodus included both our patriarchs and our matriarchs. In the Torah, the midwives are clearly heralded as heroes for saving many of the babies that would have been drowned by Pharaoh (Exodus 1:15–21). In the Talmud, Rav Avira acknowledges, “In the merit of the righteous women that were in that generation, the Jewish people were redeemed from Egypt” (Sotah 11b). This year, what would it look like to expand the focus of our retelling to include women like Shifra, Pua, Jocheved, Miriam, Tziporah, and Bithia?
Asking questions is a primary means of Jewish communication—it’s not abnormal for us to answer a question with another question. Joshua Turnil, director of the Jews for Jesus Paris office, ponders the importance of the practice at Passover especially. “During the traditional Seder, four questions are posed by four sons—some seem sincere and others a little silly. The children’s curiosity is not only not discouraged, it’s made the framework through which we tell the Passover story.”
Turnil goes on to share how a particular question led to an interesting conversation at one Seder, “I often celebrate Passover with Jewish people who don’t share my view of Yeshua as Messiah. At one such Seder, a good friend asked, ‘How is your celebration different from mine?’ I shared with him my personal experience: how investigating the significance of the symbolism in the Seder—everything from the lamb to the afikoman—drew me to the significance of Yeshua.”
In Sephardic tradition, the afikoman represents the Messiah. This resonates with Messianic Jews as well. This is the piece of matzah that Yeshua held up at the Seder to represent his own body—it was broken, pierced, and hidden away, only to be “brought back” from the dead three days later. Turnil says, “In my observance of Passover, I don’t only remember my ancestors’ redemption from slavery, but I reflect on the sacrifice Yeshua made for our atonement, and look ahead with hope to his promise of future redemption.”5
Dara Horn, author of the new, provocative book People Love Dead Jews, points out that the modern American view of time is quite different than how Judaism sees it. Horn says that in the American dream and pursuit of progress, “only the future [matters],” but she describes Judaism’s view of time as more like “a spiral of a spiral, a tangled old telephone cord”6 in which the future, present, and past intertwine. Jewish tradition calls us to look back even as we look forward.
Every Passover, the Haggadah instructs each of us from every generation to view ourselves as though we personally were rescued from Egypt, in reference to the verse, “You are to tell your son on that day saying, ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt’” (Exodus 13:8). Passover is not an ancient fairytale out of our reach—it’s a personal story of survival.
Horn says, “Ancient rabbinic tradition insists that it was not merely our ancestors who were liberated from Egyptian slavery, but that we ourselves were also personally freed by God. When God gave the Israelites the laws of the Torah at Mount Sinai, this tradition teaches, it was not merely that generation of Israelites who were present, but all of their future descendants.”7 Envisioning ourselves in our ancestors’ shoes brings clarity to our present and even our future, highlighting our own need for redemption in our lives and our world.
What is something you’re facing that you could use redemption from? Be bold, and ask God to help you. If He can split the sea, He is powerful enough for you in your time of need.
1 Eric Westervelt, “An ad hoc army of volunteers assembles to help Ukrainian refugees,” NPR.org, accessed March 8, 2022.
2. Mark Hetfield, “HIAS Haggadah,” hias.org, accessed March 13, 2022.
3 Jeff Kunerth, “Women influence Seder tradition as Passover begins,” Capital Gazette, accessed March 11, 2022.
4 Rafael Alvarez, “Building on an old tradition Female view of Exodus: Women’s Seder at Passover offers new ways to express the significant role of women in Judaism,” The Baltimore Sun, accessed March 11, 2022.
5 Joshua Turnil, interview by Rachel Friedlander, March 15, 2022.
6 Dara Horn, People Love Dead Jews, (W.W Norton & Company, 2021), 15–16, ebook.