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."

The midwives went against Pharaoh's edict not to bring Israelite children into the world.

"In the desert, Miriam is dancing and celebrating, bringing passion to the experience."

Often as part of the feminist ritual, there is a Miriam cup, filled with water.

"This is a fairly new ritual," Shuval-Weiner said. "There is the idea of bringing women together to participate in the narrative in a unique way to share our stories. These are woven throughout the Seder.

"At many a traditional Seder, you (as a woman) cook the food, then you sit at the table ... the male is head of the table, and the ritual often reflects that male perspective," she said. "Women have brought a different style of creativity and passion to the Seder."

One can look at slavery as anything that has a person confined, she said.

"The gift women have brought is the thought of how are we in the narrow, confined places," she said. "What are our confined places today? What are our hopes and dreams today?

"Many women are facing homelessness or they live in countries where they are restricted or abused. They want to live in freedom, to break out and allow their minds and hearts to soar.

"For everyone, you have to find the power within yourself to break out of these confining places."

Haggadahs look at the Passover story through different lenses, said Rabbi Jonathan Rudnick, Jewish community chaplain of Greater Kansas City, based at Jewish Family Services.

"The rabbinic perspective is that you have to take this story in the Torah and keep telling it, remembering the history but also retelling it from where we are today.

"The mere fact that our lives have changed over the last year means our telling of the story this year will not be the same as last year. We are all in a different place."

This year someone could be facing a health issue or a financial challenge or perhaps someone who was at the table last year will not be there this year, he said.

"This is not just a particular story that happened to a particular people," Rudnick said. "This is a story for everyone who feels they have been pushed or pressed or squeezed. That can be physical, spiritual or social.

"Then you think of what Egypt is today. We have to name it and include that in the telling of the story."

Rudnick said many families have traditions that they add to their Seders. For instance, at his family's Seder, according to an Iraqi Jewish custom, a mirror is passed around the table, he said.

"While looking in the mirror, we say that in every generation every person is obligated to see himself or herself as personally going out of Egypt," he said. "The kids dress up liked ragged slaves and go out and knock on the door. They say they are coming from Egypt and going into the Promised Land.

"Everyone is obligated to see themselves as if they left Egypt. Also, taking this leaving Egypt experience, ask, 'Where am I enslaved in my life today? And have I the intention of getting out of that slavery today, whether it involves, money, job, etc.?'"

Rudnick said that by retelling the story each year and remembering that their ancestors were slaves, Jewish people are motivated to help the less fortunate.

"There are things that unless you experience them yourself, you don't know them," he said. "In order to take care of the weaker elements of society, the message is strong that you know what it is like to be enslaved and can identify with people suffering, like in Darfur."

Seder means "order" in Hebrew, he said.

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"For us today, life gets out of order," he said. "Passover is an opportunity to reclaim some of that order. It provides an anchor. With every step in the Seder, we are re-establishing the order. We are redeclaring there is order."

PASSOVER

Passover is an important holiday and the most widely celebrated one for the Jewish people, recalling the story of their ancestors' deliverance from Egyptian bondage. The telling of the story takes place during a ritual meal called the Seder, held the first night for some Jews and the first two nights for others. Participants use a book called the Haggadah. Passover is celebrated for seven days by Jews in Israel and Reform Jews, and eight days by Orthodox and Conservative Jews.

©The Kansas City Star.