From the Rabbi - April 2009 Print
From the Rabbi ...
(5769) April 2009

Dear Friends:
Do you know that Pesach is really a double festival? I am not referring to the practice of celebrating a “second day of Pesach” at the beginning and end of the holyday period, but to the earliest ages of our people’s history.
The Israelites left Egyptian slavery in approximately 1250 BCE. It took them forty years to move through the Sinai and the Negev and, eventually to enter the Promised Land of Canaan. There, they conquered the native tribes, eventually settling down side-by-side with the indigenous people. In the earliest phase, they were ruled by Judges (see the biblical book by that name) and then, as the books of I & II Samuel and then I & II Kings tell us, by Saul, David, Solomon and a series of lesser monarchs who governed the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judea. The northern ten tribes were taken captive by the Assyrians in 721, and they disappeared from the annals of history shortly thereafter. The two southern tribes (Judah and Benjamin) were taken into exile by the Babylonians in 587, but returned to Canaan and self-rule in 538.
During the majority of this early history, there were two Spring festivals. The first festival was an agricultural festival, focusing both on planted crops and herds of animals. For centuries, this festival ran parallel to a freedom festival, commemorating the liberation from Egyptian bondage. But eventually, the two festivals merged into the Passover celebration with which we are familiar today. Many scholars date this amalgamation sometime around the time of the Babylonian Exile.
Obviously, the historical references of Pesach trumped the agricultural connections, especially as Jewish life moved into cities and away from a direct linkage to the land. Many of the distinctive items we find on our seder plates have strong historical allusions: the matzah is the bread that the Israelites baked in a hurry as they were leaving Egypt; the shank bone is reminiscent of the lamb’s blood that was daubed over the lintels of the Israelite houses; the charoset ( a relatively new tradition) reminds us of the mortar the slaves had to use; and the bitter herbs and the salt water teach us about the bitterness of slavery.
But consider some of the other things on the seder plate. The lamb bone doubles as a reminder of the spring sacrifices during the agricultural festival; the lettuce and the egg are not used during the seder, but they are connected intimately with the spring growing season and the birth of new life at that time of the year. They are vestiges of the older agricultural festival, but, even while we think primarily of the historical connotations of the seder, they help us recall the dual origins of the festival of Passover.
As you gather at your seder table, I hope you will visualize both aspects of Pesach, the agricultural and the historical, and rejoice both in the bounty of the land that we enjoy and the bounty of freedom which is our most precious possession.
Chag sameach,

Kenneth D. Roseman