Electricity filled the air as my family and I entered my grandparents’ home in Brooklyn, New York. It was the first night of Passover, the Festival of Redemption, and I eagerly anticipated the events of the evening. Passover has always been an exciting time for me: family, food, and most of all, participating in an ancient and beautiful ceremony.
My grandfather rose to his finest moment of patriarchal grandeur as we gathered around the seder table. When I was a child, he represented the very soul of faith to me. In his eyes I saw the wisdom of our sages, who since the time of Abraham sought to serve the living God. My heart swelled as his gentle voice began chanting the Hebrew prayers. I was proud to be a Jew, one whose ancestors were redeemed from the Egyptian bondage.
This was my first seder since becoming a believer in Jesus. Amid the drone of ancient Hebrew prayers, my thoughts took me to another Passover which took place many years before. My mind’s eye pictured Jesus, seated around his last Passover seder with the disciples. I gazed as my grandfather lifted the first cup of wine, called the cup of blessing,” and cried, “Baruch Atah Adonai Elohenu Melech haolam, borei p’ree hagafen.” (Blessed, art Thou O Lord our God, King of the Universe who hast created the fruit of the vine.)
I recalled Jesus saying,
“I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God…Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Luke 22:15-18).
The gentle gleam of the holiday lights reflected the pensive faces of my relatives. As was the custom, we passed the urchatz (a pan filled with water) from person to person for the ritual cleansing of hands. I chuckled as my uncle once again spilled the water on his lap. My grandfather yelled, “Harry, you’re supposed to wash your hands, not your clothes!” Grandfather’s humor echoes in my mind even yet.
“Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God: so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him (John 13:3-5).” I’m awed by this example of humility.
It was time to dip the karpas (parsley) in salt water. The karpas represented life; the salt water, tears. By doing this, my family and I recognized that our ancestors shed bitter tears during their bondage in Egypt. Solemnly we dipped and ate together.
Grandfather then held up the matzoh-tash. His hand moved slowly, fingering the embroidered satin pouch. He bypassed the first compartment and never touched the third as he took out the middle piece of matzoh. I watched as he cautiously broke the cake of matzoh in half, placing one half back into the matzoh-tash and wrapping the other up in a white linen napkin.
As a child I would impatiently watch as my grandfather walked stealthily across the living room, searching for an obscure nook in which to hide the matzoh, for the real festivities began after the meal when Grandpa allowed the children to search for the missing piece of matzoh. I smiled at my young cousin and knew from the twinkle in his eye that he was remembering the silver dollar Grandpa always awarded to the one who found the afikoman. My smile turned to an awestruck daze as I pondered the broken piece of matzoh and its significance.
The words of Jesus stirred my thoughts, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). A chill surged through my spine as I realized that his body was broken for my sin, buried and yet brought back to life from the dead.
I stared at my family, possibly in the same way Jesus had looked at his own family on a similar occasion. In a curious way, I felt my heart knit to his.
With the yachatz (breaking of the middle matzoh) finished, we all perked up as my grandfather told the Passover story. It began with my little cousin Yitzi asking four questions. My uncle smiled proudly at his son. With firm authority, my grandfather recounted for us the deliverance of our ancestors from Egypt.
Halfway through the story, my grandmother got up and moved confidently toward the kitchen. The aroma of a savory Jewish meal was in the air. She always left at this point, because soon after Grandpa finished she was to begin serving the meal. After Grandpa completed the story, we took the second cup of wine and tasted of the bitter herb (freshly ground horseradish). The herb was to symbolize the bitterness of the bondage that preceded redemption.
Next came the Passover meal itself. One could almost hear the blasts of ancient Hebrew trumpets in the distance as my grandmother brought out the meal. First came a variety of appetizers. Then the chicken soup with matzoh balls. I stared with delight as she passed around the turkey and gravy, cranberry sauce and tzimmes. For dessert, we ate special cakes made without leaven.
My mother passed me a drumstick. Enthusiastically, I clutched the bone and, I must admit, thoroughly enjoyed devouring every last shred of meat on it. Within ten minutes, I put down a clean white bone. My eyes moved from the turkey bone to another bone, also empty and stripped, which rested on the seder plate. This is called the zeroah. It is to remind us that we do not sacrifice the Passover lamb anymore.
I remembered how God told Moses and Aaron to take an unblemished lamb and slaughter it on the 14th day of Nisan (the first month—Exodus 12:6). The blood of this lamb was to be placed on the two doorposts and lintel of the house (Exodus 12:7). The blood protected the firstborn sons of my people from the judgment God was to bring upon the Egyptians (Exodus 12:23). The parallel seemed almost incredible to me as I reflected:
“He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth” (Isaiah 53:7).
“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”‘ (John 1 :29).
“For Messiah, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7).
Our meal ended with the singing of the beautiful Passover songs of both pathos and joy—the torment of bondage and the vitality of liberation. We concluded our singing with the prayer of grace after meal. Then we turned our attention to my grandfather as he lifted and blessed the third cup of wine.
Traditionally, the third cup is called the “cup of redemption.” As the smooth, sweet liquid filled my mouth, I remembered the bitter price Pharaoh’s son paid for the redemption of the Jewish people. The tragic death of Pharaoh’s son provided the final impetus for the release of my ancestors. The glory of freedom required the payment of a weighty and permanent price.
“In the same way, after the supper he took the cup saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you”‘ (Luke 22:20).
How shocked the disciples must have looked as they heard these words fall from Jesus’ lips! The price of this redemption was greater than before, as it cost God the life of his only son. The scope of this redemption was broader—it includes all peoples, Jews and Gentiles, who put their trust in him. His words make so much sense in light of the third cup.
After the fourth cup and the singing of some more songs (Hallel Psalms), my grandfather turned and smiled at the small children at the table. It was at this mysterious moment that they got up from their chairs and opened the front door of the house for Elijah the prophet. Slowly, the door creaked open and the vibrant spring air filled the room. With anxious and expectant hearts we sang:
“Eliahu ha navi, Eliahu ha Tishbi, Eliahu, Eliahu, Eliahu ha Giladi.”
(Elijah the prophet, Elijah the Tishbite, Elijah the Gileadite, may the prophet Elijah come soon.)
Every Jewish family hopes that on Passover Elijah will come to herald the Messiah, Son of David, who will gather us all home to Eretz Yisrael. But Elijah did not enter through the doorway. No one was there to gather us home to Jerusalem.
Yet one did come in the spirit and power of Elijah. His name was Jochanan (John) and it was he who heralded the Messiah’s coming almost 2,000 years ago. My family’s doorway remains empty to this day. And sadly, they’d rather no one be there than hear the call of my Messiah:
“Hineni! (Here I am!) I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will go in and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).