By Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried
Dear Rabbi Fried,
Perhaps you can explain why Pesach seems to be so central to Judaism, far more than the other holidays, just judging by the level of participation by Jews that otherwise don’t do very much Jewishly. Just about everyone I know either hosts or participates in some Passover Seder even if they don’t go to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. Do you have a reason for this?
— Micheal G.
I also have wondered about this phenomenon over the years, and I think there may be a number of factors which puts the Passover Seder so high on the Jewish pedestal, some of them cultural, others spiritual.
One point I have always felt is a key factor is the centrality of Passover events to our belief system. The core of our belief in God is based upon the miracles which our people witnessed in Egypt during the 10 plagues, followed by the splitting of the sea.
When God “introduces” Himself to us by proclaiming in the Ten Commandments, “I am the Lord, your God,” He does not end the introduction by saying “who has created the heavens and earth” or “creator of the universe,” or any of the sort, which would seem to be the logical ending of this crucial introduction when He spoke to us directly for the first time. God, rather, chose to end this statement with the words, “…who has taken you out of Egypt, from the house of bondage.” Why would God choose to introduce Himself as one who has performed one isolated event rather than the much greater identity as the one who is creator of all?
The answer is, seeing is believing! The entire Jewish nation were witness to the miracles of Egypt; nobody was there to watch the Al-mighty create the universe. Although we believe He created the universe, it is an issue of belief not knowledge. The Jews of that time knew about the miracles of Egypt — they, themselves, had seen them with their own eyes. That is why God introduces Himself as the One who performed the miracles which they had recently experienced personally. From that they could extrapolate further and draw their own conclusions about creation. Although the Torah clearly spells out that God is the creator of the universe, the belief that this is true is predicated upon the knowledge of God’s power to do so by what He performed in Egypt. Hence, God’s introduction is as the doer of that one isolated event, the deliverance from Egypt. From that flows everything else we know about God.
This explains what seems to be a very strange passage in the Kiddush we recite over the wine every Friday night. In the Kiddush we say, “…gave us His holy Sabbath as a heritage, a remembrance of creation … a memorial of the exodus from Egypt…” The question is obvious: the creation predated the Exodus by thousands of years, how could Shabbos, which is a remembrance of creation, be a memorial for the Exodus which was long after the creation? The answer is implicit in our comments above — our belief that creation stems, in fact, from our historically verified knowledge of the Exodus from Egypt!
I feel that the universal observance of Pesach is somewhat connected to the appreciation the Jews have, deep down and often subconsciously, that all we believe as Jews has its foundation in the story we tell the night of the Seder. It is, therefore, very important that we get this point across to the participants and especially the children, to be the torch bearers of this message into the next generation. That is the mitzvah of the night: “V’hidgadta L’bincha B’yom Ha’hu” — “and you should tell your sons on that day…”
A wonderful, joyous and meaningful Pesach to all the readers!
Rabbi Yerachmiel D. Fried, noted scholar and author of numerous works on Jewish law, philosophy and Talmud, is founder and dean of DATA, the Dallas Kollel. Questions can be sent to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.