Passover for Presbyterians  

It being Easter, David Graham thought it would be good to explain the Seder, the Jewish Passover meal. This is a Jewish holiday dinner for the extended family, but it is more. It is a ritual meal, a parable. This morning I want to explain the Passover meal, the foods, the service and the meaning of the unusual spices and foods eaten during this meal.  

For the Jew, Passover is both true story and a powerful parable.  It is a true story commemorated by Jews each year as it has been for three-thousand years. The celebration centers around a meal called the Seder. Outside of Israel, in what Jews call the Diaspora, or exile, there are actually two Seders – one the first night of Passover, and the second on the second night of Passover. Some say the reason for two Seders is the lower level of spirituality in the Diaspora, or the Exile among the nations. Outside the land of Israel it takes an extra day, or a “double dose” to absorb enough spiritual energy to awaken our spirits to its meaning as a parable, a lesson, for our own lives today.

This morning I want to do two things. The first is to take you through the elements of a Jewish Seder, or Passover meal, and describe the food and drink, and how they relate to the “story”, or the literal narrative of the Passover – what actually happened historically. The second thing we want to do this morning, is to look at the deeper meaning of the Passover meal. We understand that parables, while true in themselves, also point to deeper truth. The Passover Seder is such a parable.

Passover is usually celebrated the same time as Easter. Not exactly the same every year, because of slight calendar differences, but close. The connection between the two holidays of course is The Last Supper. Jesus’ last supper with his disciples the day before the crucifixion was the Seder meal. The final events of Jesus’ Passion happened during Passover.  Passover is there in the foundation of our own Christian faith.

The Passover story itself deals with the events recounted in the Book of Exodus. Since we are looking at Passover for Presbyterians, what the Passover story means for Christians, I’ll look at not only how the Jews got out of Egypt, but also at how the Jews got there in the first place as well as what happened after they got out of Egypt.

Briefly, God promised he would turn a one hundred-year old childless couple into the mother and father of nations. Since the old woman laughed at this promise, they named the miraculously born child, Isaac – which means, “laughter.”  This miraculous event is important. God burst into human history with His promise to this elderly couple. In a sense, God’s Word to this couple was the conception event of the Church.

So, once upon a time, about thirty-eight hundred years ago, this elderly couple’s family grew until Abraham and Sarah’s great-grandchildren and their household numbered about seventy people. The grandchildren, of course, were the twelve boys who became the twelve tribes of Israel. We could ask why God didn’t make their life a paradise on earth. He certainly could have. Since this was the start of the Church, why not make the path easy?  But, God had better in mind. God sent a terrible drought that forced the family to seek food in Egypt. Fortunately, God had used the jealousy of the older great-grandsons to send one of the youngest on ahead into Egypt. Joseph had become the Chief of Staff to the Egyptian King, and welcomed the family into the safety and refuge of Egypt.

The family was given a good plot of land, prospered and grew. Over several  hundred years, in the safety and security of Egypt, the family had grown into a nation.  But, the baby nation grew too big for its diapers. The Egyptians were not happy at the prosperity of their guest nation. Exodus tells us, in the words of the Pharaoh, or Melech Mizraim, King of Egypt:

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph!. And he said to his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we:
Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply, and it come to pass, that, when there falleth out any war, they join also unto our enemies, and fight against us, and so get them up out of the land. Therefore they did set over them taskmasters to afflict them with their burdens. And they built for Pharaoh treasure cities, Pithom and Raamses.  But the more they afflicted them, the more they multiplied and grew. And they were grieved because of the children of Israel.  And the Egyptians made the children of Israel to serve with rigour: And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage, in morter, and in brick, and in all manner of service in the field: all their service, wherein they made them serve, was with rigour.

We don’t know exactly how long the Israelites were treated as slaves, but the total stay in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years until the exodus, or departure. Passover commemorates the circumstances surrounding our departure.  

Passover is a very sensory and very personal holiday. You notice I used the word “our” describing the departure from Egypt.  The whole story is told during the Seder:  oppression, Pharaoh commanding the death of all Jewish male infants at birth, Moses appearing before Pharaoh, Pharaoh’s obstruction, the plagues, the death of the Egyptians’ first born sons, the “passing over” that spared the Israelites’ sons, the flight and pursuit by the Egyptians, parting of the Red Sea, the drowning of the Egyptian army and finally, freedom from the Egyptian oppression.  The imagery and language of the telling of the Passover story around the Seder table is very personal. “When I was in Egypt, this is what God did for me.” The telling is in the first person, and thus every Jewish child becomes present at the birth of the Jewish nation. This also points to the personal meaning this Last Supper has for every Christian.  In short, all these events happen big and small over again in everyone’s life.  

My first memories of Passover are of the Seder at my grandmother’s house in the  immigrant Jewish enclave of Chelsea, Massachusetts. My parents lived on a farm about ten miles away, but my grandparents, along with aunts, uncles and cousins lived in a three-story tenement built by my grandfather, a longshoreman on the docks of Charlestown.  Israel, my grandfather, who presided at the Seder, was a wiry, bald, tough man. I vividly remember him flicking a drop of wine from the first cup as he intoned the Hebrew name of each of the ten plagues God visited on Egypt. DOM”, he shouted, the word for blood. And so on through each of the plagues, ending with Makat b'chorot, the death of the first-born of Egypt. Along with each plague, another drop of wine flew. 

The foods at Seder are highly symbolic. But the food, the herbs, the dramatically spoken words, have another purpose.  They awaken our senses. As our physical senses are awakened we enter into the event. We personally fully experience this timeless reality as we let it open our senses. The foods, the herbs are very real. As is the drink. There are four glasses of wine drunk during the course of the meal. Traditionally, after the third cup, a special cup of wine is poured for the prophet Elijah, and the outside door is opened briefly to allow him entry as the forerunner of the promised Messiah.  I remember someone always secretly shook the table stirring the wine, and we children would get excited, “See Elijah came and is drinking from it.”  The fourth cup  is very special.  At the Last Supper when Jesus declared, “This is my blood”, he was lifting and blessing the final cup at the conclusion of the meal.

Let’s look at the foods.  There are seven ritual foods eaten. Six are on the Seder plate, a large platter at the center of the table.  The seventh food is a special symbolic stack of three matzos on its own plate beside the Seder plate.

First we eat one of the two bitter herbs which symbolize the bitterness and harshness experienced as a slave in Egypt. One bitter herb is called Maror.  Maror is usually horseradish. It has a powerful taste that brings tears to the eyes and opens the sinuses and awakens our sense of smell. And, this is its purpose. The bitter herb not only recalls the bitterness of slavery, it opens the meal with an explosive awakening of our physical senses. The second bitter herb is Chazeret, perhaps the root of Romaine lettuce, which is bitter. Eating either bitter herb is a fulfillment of the Biblical commandment in Numbers 9:11to eat bitter herbs during the Seder meal.

The next food eaten is Horaseth. This is a brown, rubble-like paste made of  fruit and nuts. It is sweet, but is there to remind us of the mortar we were forced to make to bind together dried straw and mud bricks as slaves in Egypt. At the proper time during the meal, the bitter herbs are dipped in the sweetness of Horaseth.

The third food is Karpas, usually parsley, but it can be celery or another green vegetable. Karpas is hope. It is reminiscent of the hyssop used to smear the blood of the Paschal lamb on the doorposts of every Jewish house in Egypt that terrible night of the death of the first-born in Egypt. The blood of the Paschal lamb smeared on the doorposts covered the family within the house. When the angel of death saw the blood, he passed over the house. I am first-born, and would have been dead without the blood smeared on our doorposts. Among we Ashkenaz Jews whose families came through Europe, the Karpas is eaten after being dipped in heavily salted water. This is symbolic of tears. Hope dipped in tears.  In a sense, the story of Judaism on a plate.  It is also a sensory awakening to the story of any life in “bondage” to sin, or addiction, or anger, or pridefulness, or worshipping material or social success, or whatever it is that constitutes our personal Egyptian slavery.

Every Seder plate features a lamb’s shin bone, Zeroa, symbolic of the Passover lamb sacrificially killed on Passover night, and whose blood saves our lives.

The sixth food, Beitzah, is a roasted egg, which symbolizes the temple sacrifice offered in Jerusalem, and which further links Jews of today with Jews of thousands of years ago. And which links all Christians, through Jesus and the apostles and the early church. We are all linked.

Now the Matzo. Matzo is bread made without yeast or any other leavening. When Pharaoh said “Go!”, we went. There was no time to let bread rise, so a simple cracker-like bread was made from unleavened flour and water, and baked on the hearth. This is the bread of our flight to freedom. We eat Matzo to remember the release from Egypt and from forced servitude to pagan life. There are three Matzos. The top-most Matzo is eaten after the first blessing – hamotzi - the blessing over the bread. It is for the whole loaf.

The bottom Matzo is used to complete the tradition of two whole loaves being used on festivals and Shabbat.  A second blessing is said over it later in the meal. The middle Matzo is very important. This is the Afikomen. We say a special blessing over this Matzo – the asher kideshanu. This is the broken Matzo. The commandment is to  eat Matzo this night, but, there is only half a Matzoh – half is missing!

Before the Seder, the middle Matzoh is broken, wrapped in a linen cloth and hidden somewhere in the house. At the right time, the children will go in search of this Matzo and whoever finds it receives a reward and praise. This is the Afikomen. As a child I was taught the Afikomen symbolized the Messiah who was to come. As Moses told us, One will come after me greater than me. Listen to him.  This is the Moshiach, the Savior of the Jewish People and the Savior of the world. This is the Christ.

This is Jesus. This matzoh is the bread of which Jesus spoke when, holding it up before his apostles he said, This is my body. Jesus is the Afikomen, the Savior of all the nations and of the Universe. He who was hidden is now revealed. The Afikomen is eaten at the end of meal, as Jesus and the disciples ate it after Jesus prayed the special blessing. This is the last, the final food consumed at the Seder.

The Seder table setting I just described should be familiar because one of the most famous paintings in the world is of a Seder table. The Last Supper was the Seder meal Jesus shared with his Jewish disciples on the night he was arrested. Da Vinci somewhat stylized the table, substituting leavened bread for the unleavened Matzoh, and chicken for the traditional lamb. I suspect Leonardo Da Vinci did this for a reason. There was no need for lamb at the table since Jesus replaced the Paschal lamb sacrificed for us.  And, no need for the traditional Matzoh, since the Bread of Life himself, Jesus, the hidden Matzo was presiding at the Seder.
A tradition at the Seder meal is to discuss the meaning of the Seder. A formal way of doing this is to have the youngest capable child ask the Mah Nishtanoh, the four questions. The questions lead off with, “Why is this night different from all other nights, or Mah nishtanoh?” In answering this question the older children or the leader of the Seder meal explain the essence of the feast in terms that the youngest child present can understand.  The questions remind all at table of the message of Passover. The questions and answers explain why we dip one food into another, why we eat Bitter Herbs, why we eat unleavened bread and why we recline at table. It is also traditional to raise points of discussion with the older children and the adults. These tend to be more profound questions and answers.

What precipitated the catastrophic events that befell Egypt? What freed me and my family -- and you and your family?  Isn’t it amazing? Amazing how God chose that time, that moment, those events to bring about his purpose?  

And why? The “why” of it all is the answer to the last of the traditional four questions posed by the youngest child, “Why on this night do we recline at table when other nights we eat sitting up straight?” The answer is this; reclining at table is the sign of free men.  And, it was God’s purpose that all mankind be freed from bondage.  God wants all of us to be released from slavery to addictions, to false gods, to evil drives and impulses of all sorts, and finally, to be released from slavery to the fear of death.  The question-and-answer at Seder can lead to this kind of theological discussion.  And to deeper discussions.  But today we are focused on the Seder itself and the meaning of Passover. So now is a good time for you to ask any questions on your mind about the Passover or the Seder…

(Q&A time)

As a final thought, I would add a  specific lesson for Presbyterians from the Seder. The Jewish religion has persisted for millennia. Among the reasons for its continuity is the family tradition of not just sitting down to a family meal with football or basketball following, but focusing the holiday meal discussion on G-D and his power and mercy and what he has done for each of us personally. I would just ask us to reflect on our last Easter dinner conversation. Think about our family discussions at Easter or Christmas dinner,  then consider what the Jewish family discusses at their Seder. It is more than a brief blessing.  And it strengthens faith.