In an age when the cement of Jewish tradition, which in more dangerous times held our people together, is crumbling under the assault of secular, modern forces and, today, the Corona pandemic that has so devastatingly intruded on our lives and kept families away from the Seder table, when young people, in particular, have no patience with the old ways, there is an understandable move towards rationalisation of our heritage, but with no corresponding effort to retain the meaning and beauty of the ancient stories. One such tradition under threat is the celebration of Pesach.
In a time of fear, we wonder if the celebration of the Jewish flight to freedom is still relevant. With Corona we have bigger fish to fry, they say. Children in particular find it irrelevant and seem bored by the whole thing. Adults do little to help. There appears to be a tendency, either in an atmosphere of competition, or in the desire “to get the thing over with so that we can get on with the meal,” to show how fast you can get through the Haggadah.
What gets lost in the process is the meaning and beauty of the Seder meal – the celebration of freedom from oppression. I can foresee the time when anyone who still bothers will simply pay deference to the occasion by condescending not to have bread on the table and, very soon afterwards, the reason for that will be forgotten. Give it another generation or so.
It was in recognition of this inclination in my own children and grandchildren and, more latterly, my friends and relatives, that prompted me to compose this light-hearted companion to the Haggadah. It is meant neither to replace that venerable publication, nor explain it. Its simple purpose is to lend it support by way of humour, and in a form that is fun and easy to follow. It attempts to form the answer to the 4-Questions so everything in the Haggadah up to asking the questions is retained. From this point the companion is trotted out and read.
So popular has the first version written some years ago become with my family including, dare I say it, the adults, that I am asked to bring it out each year. Those of us who are able, share in the reading. But, far more importantly, the children listen and, hopefully, have a better understanding of the Haggadah and the ceremony.
Pesach is a joyful festival when Jews all over the world celebrate their freedom. Although it commemorates specifically our ancestors’ deliverance from Egypt and dates even further back to the early celebrations of spring when barley was harvested in Eretz Israel, it has relevance today when the new anti-Semitism and world-wide unrest are threatening to enslave us once more.
The festival starts on 15 Nissan and lasts for eight days. It recalls the Exodus from Egypt where the Children of Israel had been slaves. Pesach means Passover, a reminder that during the final plague of the ten that were visited upon Egypt, the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Israelites.
The principal ceremony of Pesach is the Seder meal. Sederim are special meals at which everything used on the table is specially purified (koshered), many of the items being kept just for Pesach each year.
The customary ceremony before the meal is for the benefit of the children present and is repeated every year lest we forget a time when our ancestors were slaves. We are given an insight into the history of the festival when, soon after everyone is seated, the youngest child asks the four ritual questions, (the mah nishtanah), which seeks to discover why things are done differently on this night. The head of the family answers with the help of the Haggadah and uses the symbols on the table to help explain the history behind the ceremony.
The dinner table has special significance, symbolizing the altar table and the unity of the family. Three whole matzos are placed between three serviettes or a special cover and serve as reminders that the Jews left Egypt hurriedly before their bread could rise and it baked on their backs during their long journey through the hot desert.
Roasted shank bone is a reminder that the sacrificial lamb was offered on the eve of their departure from Egypt and eaten by them before leaving. Roasted egg signifies new life. Small pieces of horse radish or “chrain” (moror) signify the bitterness of bondage in Egypt. Parsley, or any green, leafy vegetable, denotes the first green of spring and also the start of the meal, which in those days only free men could have. Haroset (a mixture of apples, nuts, honey and wine) signifies hope and trust in the future.
The greens are dipped in a salt solution to indicate the tears of suffering and persecution endured in Egypt. A wine cup is placed before every person at the table and is filled and drained four times during the Seder. An extra wine glass is placed on the table for the prophet, Elijah, who may arrive as the messenger of the Messiah.
The Passover Story
The family gathers around for the feast,
Awaiting the first evening star.
The boy, who in years, is considered the least,
Starts off with the “mah nishtanah.”
“Why does this night differ?” he eagerly sings,
“Why must we eat unleavened bread?
“Why eat bitter herbs that a tear to eye brings?
“And leftwards I must lean my head?”
The head of the family then starts his response
As to why this night’s not like the rest.
Why the stranger is welcomed, and asked to ensconce
In our home, where he’s our honoured guest.
The four questions you ask me so well, my dears,
Are of great importance here.
Let me tell of those times much marked by tears –
When good people lived in fear.
If my listeners will bear with me for a while,
I’ll answer all in good time –
How Moses, through courage, survived the trial
Of Pharaoh’s heinous crime.
Why we drain to the dregs four glasses of wine;
Why one glass for Elijah we heft.
And then in our seats we all tend to recline,
And while eating we lean to the left.
Why we eat only matzo and never touch bread,
Bitter herbs must, by custom, suffice.
Why we with salt and a burnt shank bone are fed,
Like a biblical charred sacrifice.
The tale is of Egypt – our ancestors’ plight –
And, although this may sound doctrinaire,
I think that to start it would be only right
To surmise how Jews came to be there.
The story starts earlier, if you will take note,
When Joseph was still in jail.
He of the multicolored coat;
The victim of betrayal.
He earned his freedom through his God-given gift
To interpret the Pharaoh’s dreams –
Through the Pharaoh’s anguished mind to sift,
And to quiet his nightmare screams.
Joseph’s great power in the Nile Delta grew
To a point beyond compare.
This allowed him in time, though at first there were few,
To bring his people there.
The Israelite families in Egypt all thrived,
They multiplied and prospered.
But some evil Pharaohs later contrived
To suppress them – and hard times were fostered.
Now our story strikes a more somber note,
Albeit of bravery.
How the Jews were brutally bullied and smote,
And flung into slavery.
The years have passed, but their fate has grown worse;
They are at their most forlorn.
When the Pharaoh devises a dreadful curse:
The death of the male first-born!
At this point in our tale, Moses appears
In the form of an infant child.
His mother, in order to allay her worst fears,
Consigns her babe to the wild.
In a basket of straw, protected by pitch,
He’s left in the River Nile,
Where he drifts for some days ’till washed up near a ditch
Where the rushes grow, file upon file.
There he’s rescued at last by the Royal princess
Who hears his piteous cries.
She hurries him home to dry and to dress,
And to warm him, before the boy dies.
The childless princess and the Israelite boy
Form a bond which the Pharaoh can’t break.
Moses fills all her days with such infinite joy,
As motherly instincts awake.
Under her wing he grows powerful and wise,
And rises to fortune and fame.
As a leader of men, or in scholarly guise,
He builds an illustrious name.
But the plight of his people touches his heart
As he sees them oppressed and enslaved.
He asks himself whether, in living his part,
It’s the way that he should’ve behaved.
One day the whole matter is brought to a head
When he sees a man beating a slave.
One blow from his fist leaves the taskmaster dead;
And Pharaoh is angry and grave.
“This man must be punished!” cries the Pharaoh, incensed.
“Such a criminal cannot go free.”
The princess, before any action commenced,
Helps her step-son, her Moses, to flee.
He seeks sanctuary in a faraway land,
Where he makes fair Zipporah his wife.
But the fate of his people is always at hand –
To their freedom he pledges his life.
In anguish he goes to the desert to think,
To meditate (also to pray.)
And the Lord chooses Moses to act as the link
Between Him and those gone astray.
The Lord comes to Moses in a miraculous way,
In the midst of a bright, burning bush:
“Not one moment more must you tarry – don’t stay –
On to Egypt, for Me, you must push!”
Moses goes back to Egypt to plead for his folk
With the Pharaoh, who turns a deaf ear.
“Release all my people! Free them from your yoke,
Or you’ll suffer great anguish, I fear!”
In scoffing at Moses, Pharaoh laughs at the Lord.
And Moshe is distraught and dismayed.
He warns the Egyptian, who thinks he’s adored,
That this issue he should not evade.
“Do your worst!” Cries the ruler. “I fear not your God.
I’m all-powerful and will have my way.”
With that Moses turns on his heel with a nod –
Not one moment longer he’d stay.
He prays all that evening for guidance and help,
And the answer comes, frightening, but just.
If the Pharaoh behaves like an obstinate whelp,
He’ll be plagued for betraying a trust.
With ten plagues the Lord smote him: Blood, Frogs, Vermin, Beasts.
Pestilence, Boils and then Hail.
Did all of that stop him? No, not in the least,
Even Locusts and Darkness did fail.
But the tenth plague of all – a measure so grand,
Wiped away the Pharaoh’s great scorn.
The Angel of Death flew over the land,
And slayed the Egyptian first-born!
“Let us go now!” Cried Moses. “Before it’s too late;
Before the whole land is destroyed.
How much more do you need to reveal your fate
When the Lord, our God, is annoyed?”
“Go! Go!” Cried the Pharaoh. “Lest my mind I do change.
Go! Go! And get out of my sight.”
And so did they slavery for freedom exchange
As they quickly prepared for their flight.
“No time for bread which takes too long to rise,
No yeast must be used in the mix.
Quick! Bake it unleavened, and any old size,
Or we may yet be caught in a fix!”
So the Israelites gathered all chattels and goods
That each could beg, borrow or steal.
For Moses knew Pharaoh – those reprobate hoods
Would soon be hot on his heel.
They soon reached the Red Sea, a barrier so wide
That the strongest despaired of success.
To move all those souls to the opposite side
Would need more than they’d ever possess.
The Pharaoh, meanwhile, had thought the thing o’er,
And regretted the course that he took.
He quickly sent soldiers the country to scour –
For his erstwhile slaves to look.
“They’re coming! They’re coming!” The outriders warned.
“The Pharaoh’s army is near!”
“Stay calm!” Cried Moses. “And none will be mourned –
You have nothing to fear, but fear.”
“Down on your knees and pray to the Lord,
He will show us the way.
A way as to how we this great flood can ford –
A way that will still save the day.”
So a desperate prayer from thousands of hearts
Rose up to the Father in Heaven;
A plea to save children asleep in the carts,
Asleep among unused bread leaven.
Yes, the Father in Heaven had heard their great cry,
And it didn’t take gold, jewels or satin.
All that was needed was faith, (you just try,)
To make a great miracle happen.
The sea was disturbed and the waters rolled back,
Revealing the rocks and the sand.
The Israelites picked up each parcel and pack,
And crossed by that God-given land.
The Egyptians, on seeing this, were momentary stunned;
They could hardly believe their own eyes.
But the generals, determined not to be shunned,
In Egyptian said: “Follow those guys!”
As the last Israelite on the other side stepped,
The soldiers began their attack.
Imagine how girl-friends and wives must have wept
When news of what followed got back.
The waves, which till now, had held themselves back,
Released all their pent energy.
With a thunderous roar they returned with a crack,
As the gap was refilled by the sea.
The pride of the army was lost that dark day;
The dead were sprawled over the quay.
But out of the carnage came joy, so they say,
‘Cause the Israelite masses were free.
To this very day we remember that time,
When the good Lord the waters did dam.
With Matzo, and herbs as bitter as Chrain,
And, of course, the Paschal Lamb.
The Matzo reminds us of leaving in haste,
When the bread had no time to rise.
Bitter Herbs, very often ground to a paste,
Remind us of embittered lives.
And the Paschal Lamb, sacrifice to the Lord,
When the Angel of Death did hover
Over babes, in cribs, awaiting the sword,
When the houses of Jews were passed over.