MODESTO — Passover begins at sundown Monday, a major observance in Judaism that looks back to the time when God delivered the Jews from slavery in Egypt and first established them as a nation, eventually leading them to settle into portions of present-day Israel.
The story, found in the biblical account of Exodus, tells of how the descendents of Abraham generations after Joseph became Pharaoh's right-hand man had become oppressively enslaved.
"God selected Moses to be our spokesperson," said Rabbi Andra Greenwald, who attends Congregation Beth Shalom in Modesto. "When Pharaoh refused to let us go, the 10 plagues ensued. After the killing of the firstborn males, which was the 10th plague, Pharaoh let us go."
The historical account will be retold when CBS puts on its annual Community Seder on Tuesday.
In the story, Greenwald said, the people who later would become known as the Israelites were told to take a lamb on the 10th of Nissan (a month in the Jewish calendar) and keep it until the 14th, when they would slaughter it, roast it and eat it, sharing any extra meat with their neighbors.
"When we slaughtered it, we were told to take some of the blood and put it on our doorposts," Greenwald said. "We were told to eat it with shoes on our feet. We know in that time, people didn't eat with shoes on their feet in their houses, so that told us it was an anomaly, that we'd have to make a fast exit."
With Pharaoh's permission, the ex-slaves hurried away en masse as the Egyptians were grieving for the loss of their firstborn sons and their firstborn male cattle. They were all killed in the 10th plague as the "angel of death passed over the homes with the blood on their doorposts," Greenwald explained. Later, she added, the Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his troops after the fleeing slaves, but "the Red Sea closed over them," thus saving the Israelites, she said.
That's why, Greenwald said, that during the Seder meal "when we retell the story, we fill our wine cups four times. During different times, wine represents joy. But during one point, we put our pinkie finger into the wine and put a drop of wine onto our plates. It (symbolically) diminishes the wine and it shows we diminish our joy by the fact that others died so that we could get our freedom. We're reminded to respect and value and sanctify life, no matter whose life it is. There's a divine spark in each person. We're all children of God. So when one person is lost, it saddens us."
The practice of honoring even the deaths of their enemies, Greenwald said, is explained in commentary on the Torah by a rabbi who lived in the Middle Ages. He wrote, "Israel's cup of joy cannot be full if Israel's triumph involves suffering, even to its enemies."
Other aspects of the Seder include bitter herbs and salt water, to remind people of the bitterness of slavery and the tears of the slaves. Every part of the meal is a symbolic part of the Exodus story.
"All are visible, tangible reminders of what it was like," Greenwald said. "Sometimes we need things to see and touch to get to the point where even when we don't have something to see and touch, we know it is there. Sometimes we don't see God or feel his spirit, but we still know he's there."
Another big part of the Passover holiday comes before the eight-day observance begins.
"We're told in the Torah that we have to get rid of everything with leaven, or a rising agent," Greenwald said. "Some things we take for granted. Many of the things in our pantries contain corn syrup, and corn is a leavening agent, so we can't use anything with corn syrup in it."
It's a very big deal. Sometimes, she said, some foods are marked as having ingredients OK for Passover use, but they've been made on equipment that has been used for nonpermissable foods.
"Most traditional Jews buy food that are clearly marked 'For Passover,' " she said. "Many of us prefer to shop locally, but we sometimes have to go to larger cities to get Passover food. Of course, fruits and vegetables don't have to be marked. And we use a lot of eggs; they don't have to be marked."
What happens to the dishes and food and other items that have to be put out of the house for Passover? Everyday plates, housewares and similar items can be stored in a garage or storage facility. But other items, such as cans and boxes of food with leaven, are donated to local food pantries and similar agencies. This year, the youth group at CBS gathered the food last week and took it to Interfaith Ministries.
"One important message in (the Exodus story) is we're told in the Torah that if a family is too small to consume the whole lamb, we would share it with our neighbors. The lesson was, we didn't want to waste anything. Our story today is that we don't want to waste the resources we have, and if we do have more than we need, we should share it."
Another message of Passover, she said, is this: "Some of us take this time to look at our emotional, psychological and social aspects, too, and see if we need clean out things to prepare for a new era in our own life. Some of us are working on an Exodus on our own narrowness, whether it be narrow-minded or close-minded. This is a wonderful time on how can we be open to the blessings in our own lives, cleaning out things to make more space for the good things to reside in us."
Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2012.
AT A GLANCE
WHAT: Community Seder
WHEN: 6 p.m. Tuesday
WHERE: Congregation Beth Shalom,1705 Sherwood Ave., Modesto
TICKETS: $30 adults, $15 children
PHONE: (209) 571-6060
DETAILS: The Community Seder lasts about three hours and is a retelling of the Exodus story through the symbolism of the meal. Although lengthy, it is a family-friendly occasion and children are welcome.