Listen: Our forefathers ate this meal in Egypt at night, in urgency, staff in hand, screams of grief ringing through the land. They ate matzah, roasted lamb and bitter herbs.
What is matzah? Dry, flat pieces of unleavened bread.
Now we lift the matzah high, recite: This is the bread of affliction / which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt. / Let all those who are hungry come and eat with us . . . / This year we are still slaves. / Next year may we all be free.
These words float over a candlelit table crowded with sparkling wine glasses, spring flowers and special dishes. Tonight is Seder, the ceremonial meal eaten during Passover week. It is a meal I have experienced in multiple countries and languages every year since I can remember.
Sometimes having matzah at all is a miracle, and sharing it a crime. That describes Vaihingen Concentration Camp in 1945. Vaihingen, Germany, where prisoners worked 12-hour days shifting stone, rubble and sand on starvation diets. In the spring, Allied bombs were falling dangerously near. When an SS soldier walked into the workshop of Moshe Perl, a Jewish prisoner, and demanded dummies for target practice, Perl thought quickly. By requesting five kilograms of flour, Perl had enough extra to bake matzah in secret. He hid it under shingles on the workshop’s roof. Twenty people gathered for a secret Seder in Vaihingen, 75 years ago. Their menu: potatoes, homemade wine, matzah, secrecy, hope. The risk: death.
What is matzah? It is the bread of affliction, the bread of freedom.
Vaihingen was liberated by French troops on April 7, 1945.
What is the Passover meal?
“In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery’” (Ex. 13:14).
Passover is a multi-faced feast: it looks backwards to Israel’s miraculous exodus from Egypt and birth as a nation. It looks forward expectantly to the Messianic age. It looks around and gives courage to face the evil of today.
Passover – the Feast of Unleavened Bread – lasts for seven days, according to the Torah. Diaspora Jews in Babylon added an eighth day, so that Passover lasts from the 15th to 22nd of Nisan, according to the Jewish lunar calendar. In the fourth century, the Council of Nicea decided the church would celebrate Easter at the same time of year (though not always the same week) as Passover.
Passover appears in many Biblical stories of exile and restoration: the exodus, wilderness wanderings, King Hezekiah’s Passover revival, King Josiah’s Passover reform, the Babylonian exile after the temple is destroyed, the people’s purification and dedication after Ezra and Nehemiah rebuild the second temple, and Jesus’ Last Supper in Jerusalem.
Through the dedication of the Pharisees, the “Seder” – the order of the Passover service – morphed into what we still use today. The Seder plate holds foods which retell the Exodus story. Writer and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel says that the entire meal is to encourage curiosity in children. Parsley is dipped in salt water. Children ask: Why parsley? Why salt water? Because in slavery our lives were dipped in the salt water of tears. Why mix bitter and sweet on matzah? Because even slavery is sweet when redemption is nigh.
With the destruction of the temple and exile from the land, Jewish families continued to celebrate the Seder meal in their homes and synagogues around the world. Today the Passover feast encompasses over 3,500 years of history in every country and situation imaginable.
“In the future, when your son asks you . . . tell him: ‘Before our eyes the Lord sent signs and wonders – great and terrible – on Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. . .’” (Deut. 6:20-23).
During the Seder meal, it is tradition for a child to ask the Four Questions, which invite a re-telling of the Exodus story. Before the child asks, however, a parable is told of a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son and a son who does not know how to ask questions. In the Torah-informed parable, each child asks a different question, and each receives a different answer. The wise child places himself in the redemption story. Not only what you ask but how you ask matters. The Exodus story is meant to be experienced firsthand in every generation.
Passover was the last feast Elie Wiesel celebrated with his family before they entered Auschwitz. After Auschwitz, Wiesel still celebrated Passover, but it had changed: “I love [Passover] differently [now]. Now I love it for the questions it raises, which are, after all, its raison d’être. . .. On this evening, all questions are not only permitted, but invited.”
Our Passover Lamb
We who are Gentiles appreciate the history of Passover from the outside. We who believe in Jesus as Israel’s Messiah (and through Israel the Messiah of the world) see a new meaning unfold in Passover – meaning as surprising as trees unfurling into flowers in Springtime.
This meal becomes the context of God entering death, plundering hell. We believe God gives himself to us, his flesh and blood joining us with him for eternity – truly human, truly his. We are free! Paul shouts: a new people, by the blood of the Lamb, dwelling again with God! God is with us, in us, to give us abundant life.
This is Exodus language: this has become our language. Even so, we have questions. We can join in the Feast of Questions. We ask: Where is God now? If Christ truly fulfilled the prophecies, why are things the way they are?
Children begin asking about what they see and touch. And then their questions change, Wiesel says. Later they will want to know: “Why exile? Why suffering? Why evil? And who can explain why evil prevails?”
You might look around the world and ask those questions, too. “Why celebrate freedom when you’re still in exile?” asks Shalvi Waldman.
On April 17, 1943, a man named Egon Redlich wrote from a Jewish ghetto: “It’s Passover – the festival of freedom, of light. Around the city are walls and barbed wire; in the evening, lights are forbidden, and during the day, you cannot go out.” He died in Auschwitz with his wife and son.
Why exile? How long, O Lord, will evil prevail?
The disciples ask, “Is now the time you free Israel and restore our kingdom?”
“It is not for you to know,” Jesus answered.
In Revelations, the souls under the altar cry out, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, until you judge those who live on the earth and avenge our blood?”
“Just a little longer,” they are told.
Sometimes, facing the evil in this world, we are like the fourth child – the one who doesn’t speak. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev would cry out every year, “Doesn’t the Haggadah tell us that it is up to the father to answer the fourth son, even though the fourth son does not ask the question? God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, I am your son. I am not asking you to reveal to me the secrets of Creation, or the mysteries of deliverance. . .. Only that you tell me the meaning of my suffering.”
At Passover, horseradish reaches from the backs of our throats to our eyes. We invite the tears which burn through our face. We recline as only a free man does. We open the door for Elijah, Messiah’s forerunner. We build redemption history – our story – with bitter and sweet together. We end the meal praising God. Even if we are not there yet, this story we live in leads into abundance.
This is why we celebrate freedom in exile, says Waldman. When we personalize the story, we see that even this moment holds potential for communion with our Creator, and “we can see that there is no difference between the bread of affliction and the bread of freedom.”
The world grows darker, and the taste of its coming redemption grows ever sweeter. We eat the matzah of affliction, of freedom, and live in the paradox. Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.
This year slaves, next year free.
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