Tuesday , 5 July 2022

Belief Matters … or Not? Passover: A Festival of Liberation

Passover by Eczebulun
Passover by Eczebulun

It may be that, in some places in the world, there has been liberation and there is freedom. This year, I ask myself, “Exactly how may we understand the concepts of Liberation and Freedom in the context of the frantic flight of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees from their homeland because of the war raging in their land, destroying their homes and livelihoods?”

The original Exodus was the flight of the Israelites from the slavery and oppression of the Egyptians. They were given direct instructions – they had no time to prepare, they had to pack what they could carry – they left with the clothes on their back, “be ready with staffs and sandals on your feet”. “Prepare a meal of roast lamb with herbs; consume every piece and what cannot be eaten, burn it.” There was no time for the bread they were baking to rise, so (according to some legends) it was put into sacks which they carried on their backs and it was “cooked in the sun” – hence the “unleavened bread”, the “bread of affliction”, now represented by Matzot – the flat unleavened bread.

Every year, all Jewish communities all over the world commemorate the hurried Exodus from Egypt by holding a ritual meal, which we call a Seder (meaning literally order in Hebrew), during which the story of the Israelites Exodus from Egypt is recounted and re-told so that our children and our children’s children may learn of our ancient history.

Passover Seder Plate  by Yoninah.
Passover Seder Plate by Yoninah.

In the book of Exodus the story is told that the Angel of Death “passed over” the house of the Israelites because, as instructed by Moses, they had smeared their door-posts and lintels with the blood from the lambs which they had ritually slaughtered, roasted and eaten with bitter herbs, for their final meal before leaving.

The Festival of Pesach originated in the very early celebrations in ancient antiquity of the agricultural festivals of new Spring lambs and the first new harvest of grain – the two festivals Chag ha-Pesach and Chag ha-Matzot. These became conflated as time went on and became the “Season of our Freedom”.

At the Seder, each table has a Seder plate in the centre with different foods to represent different parts of the story of the Exodus.

Zeroah – a lamb shank bone represents the lamb roasted on the fire and the Pesach offering taken to the Temple

Beitzah – a roasted egg which reminds us of the Festival offering taken to the Temple during Pesach

Maror – grated horseradish root or bitter herbs symbolise the hardships and bitter times suffered as slaves

Charoset – a mixture of nuts, chopped apple and red wine to represent the bricks and mortar to remind us of how hard it was to build the pyramids with bricks made without straw

Karpas – parsley or similar herb

The eggs and parsley are dipped in salt water to remind us of the tears shed by the Israelites in captivity.

Chazeret – this is sometimes Romaine lettuce (Cos) added as a second bitter herb which is made into a sandwich (often referred to as the “Hillel sandwich” the horseradish and placed between two pieces of matzah. Hillel was one of the greatest Rabbi scholars & educators who supposedly invented the Hillel Sandwich during one Passover meal.

In recent years other items have been added to the Seder plate to represent different important events or statements.

Olives – to remind us of all oppressed people and

Orange – An optional addition, the orange is a recent Seder plate symbol and not one that is used in many Jewish homes. It was introduced by Susannah Heschel, a Jewish feminist and scholar, as a symbol that represents inclusiveness in Judaism, specifically women and the LGBTQ community (More about these customs may be seen here and elsewhere).

In addition to the items on the Seder plate there is a stack of three hand-baked matzot. One is broken in half and one half (the Afikoman) is hidden and the other replaced between the other two whole ones – this is used later for a game with the children called “Find the Afikoman”. The child who finds the Afikoman which matches the other half wins a prize. The event is very much a family event with children taking part.

We put Olives on the Seder Plate for All Oppressed Peoples
We put Olives on the Seder Plate for All Oppressed Peoples

In my Jewish community in Edinburgh we added olives to the Seder to represent our support and solidarity with all oppressed people, and in particular with the suffering of the people of Syria. Our Syrian brothers and sisters are now experiencing also terrible flight and exodus, just as the Jews did thousands of years ago. In fact, in our Jewish community in Edinburgh, Sukkat Shalom emphasised this connection during our Seder. Along with other Jewish communities in Edinburgh, we are also raising charity to fund and support a Syrian family in Edinburgh and we have opened our homes to Syrian refugees. These refugees, some of them frail and elderly, some women and babies, left their homes in a hurry with very little to carry and eat, just in the same as the Jewish people were reported to have fled Egypt.

What did they find? Just as the Jews thousands of years ago encountered hostile surroundings and unwelcoming deserts, our Syrian brothers and sisters are facing similar difficulties, including facing death threats. Some places have welcomed them and have tried to settle them where they could but many places turned them away from their borders or sent them on to the next country. In some cases we have seen them “bounced” between two borders of the same country. We have seen many pictures, too dreadful to describe, of Syrian men, women and children who have died in the attempt to flee war and oppression. I would imagine that many more died during these last few months than died during the equivalent time-frame when those Israelites of several thousand years ago left Egypt to seek the Promised Land. We would hope that these poor people don’t have to wander for forty years in this unfriendly wilderness of humanity.

Fortunately there have been many people and groups who have come to their rescue and many have been saved and provided with safe havens in which to start new lives.

Seder at Edinburgh last week
Seder at Edinburgh last week

To return to the Orange on the Seder plate: even now there are many LGBTQ Jews who are seeking a safe haven wherein to settle and put down their roots. In Scotland, our community at Sukkat Shalom we try to provide just such a safe and welcoming place where LGBTQ people and their families are welcomed and embraced. Many are already part of our diverse community. I can honestly say that it is THE most welcoming Jewish community in Scotland for LGTBIQ people and we look forward to welcoming more who wish to join us and become part of our colourful family.  This understanding of what it means to be a minority that embraces other minorities has motivated our community in Edinburgh to embrace our Syrian brothers and sisters. This Passover we emphasised the need for our community to not only donate to help Syrian refugees but adopt and house them. 

For us, the intersection of different people from different communities, ethnicities and sexualities coming together is what a promised community is all about. Our community is an all-inclusive and welcoming community, which lives and works together towards a common goal. We believe we are all created equal by God and we come together to honour that existence within an embracing community.

The story of Exodus is about Freedom of self-realisation and self-expression – from slavery to freedom. This is captured by one of the many songs which we sing during the Seder – these songs punctuate the Seder proceedings and add to the picture of what the story is telling.

Wherever or however we celebrate the Pesach Seder, one of the songs we sing is this one which is particularly poignant – “We were slaves, but now we are free!”

Avadim Hayinu – We Were Slaves


Avadim hayinu, hayinu – ata benei chorin, benei chorin

Avadim hayinu – ata, ata benei chorin

Avadim hayinu – ata, ata, benei chorin, benei chorin.

We were slaves – now we are free.

You can hear it here

About Rebekah Gronowski

Rebekah Gronowski
Rebekah is a Jewish campaigner for LGBTI rights, people with disabilities and other Human Rights issues, based in East Lothian. She has been a leading member at Sukkat Shalom, Edinburgh's Liberal Jewish Community, having been one of the founding members in the Community's early days. Rebekah is also member of 'Inclusion Scotland', an organisation for and run by people with disabilities. Co-Founder of the Scottish Rainbow Covenant for LGBT Jews in Scotland and a member of Rabbis for Human Rights, promoting peace and understanding between Palestinians and Jews. She is an Independent Interfaith Rabbi and Spiritual Minister, and was ordained in 2012. Rebekah has been very involved in Interfaith issues and has a particular interest in Ancient Near Eastern Religions and Earth Traditions.

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