Passover's message is for everyone

By Helen T. Gray

McClatchy Newspapers

Published: Friday, April 15 2011 9:00 p.m. MDT

An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man examines a Matza, a traditional handmade Passover unleavened bread.

Associated Press

It's a familiar story to everyone, evoking images of Charlton Heston as Moses with his arms outstretched as God opens the Red Sea for the Israelites.

After a series of plagues, God passed over the Israelite houses, sparing their firstborn sons and finally persuading Pharaoh — whose son died — to let the Israelites leave Egypt, and their bondage.

Every year Jews retell the story at the Seder ritual meal. Now many Jewish families are in the process of readying their homes in preparation for the festival.

Only unleavened bread is eaten at the Seder to symbolize that the Israelites left Egypt in such haste that they didn't have time to let their dough rise. Passover begins this year at sundown April 18, when the first Seder takes place.

The basic dramatic story remains the same from year to year, as told in what is called the Haggadah. But what are the messages for today? Several rabbis shared their views.

Like the Israelites, people in many parts of the world are crying out for freedom, said Rabbi Scott White of Congregation Ohev Sholom in Prairie Village, Kan.

Today's technology is showing people living under autocratic regimes what they have been missing, and they want freedom, he said.

"I think it is an unstoppable tsunami of the yearning to be free," White said. "I think it's just a matter of time for those regimes to fall, for those people to rise up, with support from the free world."

He said he believes this eventually will include Iran and North Korea.

"You can't stop masses of people who want to be free," he said. "They now know what freedom is, and they want it."

White said a discussion of freedom will be part of the discussion at his Seder, and he said he hopes it will be at others.

"The Seder should apply the lessons and principles of our story to today," he said. "It is the Exodus story for these people as well."

Among the challenging aspects of freedom is for young people to learn how to think for themselves, he said.

"The more you think for yourself, the less likely you are to be enslaved to causes that are not in their own interests," he said.

Rabbi Alexandria Shuval-Weiner said women's voices in Jewish ritual life had long been questioned. In fact, a story evolved, in classic folk practice, that women's involvement was like placing an orange on a Seder plate. (Oranges are not among the Passover symbols.)

In the past 20 years, a custom developed — as one of several feminist rituals — to include the orange. Today, many Jewish families do this as a symbol of women's involvement in Jewish life, she said. Others use the orange to symbolize the place of any marginalized people lacking a voice in our society.

Women have come a long way, she said, with more and more taking prominent roles, such as becoming rabbis in the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements.

"Passover is the most celebrated ritual within Jewish life," said Shuval-Weiner, associate rabbi at Congregation B'nai Jehudah in Overland Park, Kan. "It brings together family, friends and traditions."

But she said there has been a sense of women's voices being left out for many years.

"The traditional Haggadahs have a very masculine telling of the story," she said.

It is important that women continue to discover their voices because, "Passover is the core of our biblical story."

"In the biblical narrative, Moses leads the people out of Egypt," she said. "But there also is Miriam. As a child, she guided Moses along the Nile and let Pharaoh's daughter know where he came from."

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