Preparations had been going on for many days. The house was thoroughly cleaned from top to bottom. Actually, I don’t think cleaning” adequately describes my mother’s approach to housework. Watching my mom descend on a room to clean it was like watching an army mobilizing for battle. She would dust, sweep, swab and sponge with a thoroughness that was almost frightening to behold. I quickly got out of the way, lest I too be swept away along with the offending dust! Things that I wouldn’t think to clean in a million years, my mother found unacceptably dirty. Down they came, and she went to work with a will, transforming (what seemed to my young eyes) an already clean apartment to meet her own exacting standards of perfection. Why all the effort? Pesach—the Feast of Unleavened Bread—was coming, and we must make everything ready, lest one speck of leaven be found to mar our celebration.
At the age of seven, I was not too concerned about cleaning the house. I was interested in what I thought was more important—the food we would eat for Passover! In this area as in the others, my mother worked very hard before the holiday. The fragrance of chicken matzo ball soup filled our kitchen. Brisket of beef was cooked slowly in our oven before Mom sliced and froze it to be kept until the first seder night. She also prepared matzo kugel, chopped liver and gefilte fish, using cherished formulas from dog-eared recipe cards. Mom also baked special Passover cakes made with kosher-for-Passover flour and no leaven of any kind. Carefully beaten egg whites made these treats as light as air so they practically floated off the plate. But I was not to have any—not until Passover! I helped for a while, but eventually I got myself chased out of the kitchen for sampling when I should have been stirring. Everything smelled so wonderful! Who could blame me for taking a little taste of this or that?
The day before Passover was filled with anticipation. The special dishes we used only on Passover were taken out of their box, washed and readied. I helped set the table, making sure to leave a place for Eliahu Ha-navi, Elijah the Prophet. Perhaps he would come to our home that evening, just like my Hebrew school teacher said he might. Certainly we were prepared! The table was so beautifully set. Every speck of leaven had been banished from the house. Not a pillow or chair was out of place, and fresh flowers adorned our dining area and living room. The tantalizing aroma of the food was almost enough to drive a little boy mad with longing! My eyes watched the clock impatiently. Only one more hour, and the company would arrive, and our seder would start!
We all gathered around the table, and before we started, my grandfather said the Shehecheyonu, the prayer thanking God for preserving us in life and enabling us to reach this season once more. We followed the service from the Haggadah, the special order of service. I tried to be attentive, but because I was only seven, my mind began to wander. I gazed at the seder plate in front of my father. The traditional symbols of Passover on it told the story of our release from slavery in Egypt. I loved to eat the charoses for its sweetness was the reminder that freedom would soon come to our people everywhere. The bitter horseradish stung my tongue and made my eyes water. I would only eat the bitter herbs under duress. “If you don’t partake of the bitterness, you can’t understand how bitter our ancestors’ lives were when we were slaves to Pharaoh,” my father would admonish.
The most important symbol of all sat starkly on the seder plate. It was the shankbone of a lamb, a reminder of that first Passover lamb. I really liked lambs. Those in the petting zoo were cute, cuddly and friendly. Their fleece was soft and warm, and their faces were sweet. I liked playing with them at the zoo. I became lost in my thoughts. What if I had been born in ancient times, in Mizraim (Egypt) to Jewish slaves of Pharaoh? I was the oldest in my family, the firstborn son. That would have meant big trouble for me, unless my father had obeyed God’s command to kill a spotless lamb and apply its blood to the doorposts of our house. If he didn’t, the Angel of Death would not have known that he should pass by our house. What if I had a special lamb that I was raising as a pet? And what if the little lamb that I loved and took care of was the only spotless one our family had? How could I give up my pet to be slaughtered? What an awful, dreadful idea! The lamb shank gleamed on the plate. At the first Passover our people ate lamb, not beef! I would have had to eat my little pet lamb, roasted with fire, and with the rest of my family prepare for a quick exit from Egypt.
“Steve, it’s your turn. It’s time to ask the four questions!” My grandfather’s voice brought me out of my daydream with a start. “What? Uh—OK, Grandpa.” My voice shook with emotion as I chanted the words. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” I began. This night was indeed different for me. For the first time, I began to wonder about the lamb of Passover. Why was it so special? What did it all mean? Why did God want those cute little lambs slaughtered? What was the point of it all?
With each succeeding Passover, the questions would haunt me. Shortly after my bar mitzvah I succeeded in quieting the nagging thoughts that kept asking “Why?” I made a conscious choice not to deal with the questions of my childhood. After all, most Jewish people didn’t really believe that God had actually parted the Red Sea so our forefathers could cross and escape to safety. If you took the supernatural out of the story, you were relatively safe. After all, if the “myth” were true and God actually had performed miracles for our forefathers, why were there no miracles now? Perhaps, I reasoned, the Almighty had gone on a long “vacation” to some far corner of the universe. Well, as far as I was concerned, he could stay away if he wanted to. If he were knowable and personal, he might demand something from me that I was unwilling to give.
Years later the ancient story about the Passover lamb began to trouble me once more. Yes, I was troubled. Words I could not push away seemed to ring in my ears. “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” Those words of the gospel rang out as if I were there listening to them along with the crowds that heard John’s call to repentance. I was there, knowing that like the others in the crowd, I needed to respond to Yeshua. John called the multitudes vipers and snakes, and they probably were people who followed the Torah much better than I ever had. Hearing John’s message, they had prepared for the coming of the Messiah. They had seen themselves, religious as they were, as unrighteous and in need of repentance.
I saw the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament fit together perfectly, as the two missing pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that suddenly completed a picture and brought sense and order. I saw in the Scriptures who Yeshua had claimed to be and what he had done. Suddenly I found myself weeping as I realized it was all true. To deny the evidence was to commit intellectual suicide. To ignore the need in my own heart (to my discomfort and dismay I discovered that I too had fallen short of the glory of God) was to commit spiritual suicide.
I thought of the yearling lambs that were killed at that very first Passover. So pretty, so innocent and sweet, dying a terrible death so that the eldest sons could be spared. The blood of those lambs on the doorposts said to the Angel of Death, “Not this house!” Then I thought of Yeshua’s death as John’s words rang in my memory. “Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world!” It was not the righteous for whom Yeshua came, but the needy. I came to him then with nothing, needing his mercy. I looked up from prayer, and a miracle had occurred! The blood of the Lamb was now applied to the doorposts of my heart. The peace and joy of meeting the Messiah told me something I had longed for all my life. I had crossed the Red Sea, and now I was on my way to the Promised Land.