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Why Passover is So Different rss

By John S. Ruskay

After an exhausting day preparing our home for Passover, I found myself late Sunday evening going through boxes. Instead of dishes, these boxes were filled with readings, poems, and articles saved from seders past. Adorned with handwritten notes from family members no longer with us, some discolored with wine and food stains, they were reminders of long nights engraved in my memory. As I reread them, the questions that kept coming to mind were: What is so different about Passover? Why does Pesach hold such a special place among Jewish festivals?

For starters, Passover is the only holiday where the central ritual takes place in our homes. Gathered together as families, we witness children and grandchildren maturing far too quickly, tearfully conscious of empty chairs. While each family’s unique dynamic lends a different energy to the table, the basics are the same. The matzah, bitter herbs, salt water, and four cups of wine are before us so we can fulfill the commandment in Exodus 13:8: “You shall tell your child.” In every generation, we are commanded to re-tell the story so we can experience the Exodus “as if” it is our story.

In reviewing the scores of readings that family members and guests had contributed over the years, two themes stood out — the collective and the personal. The events that begin with our Exodus from Egypt, and 40 days later when we receive Torah at Sinai, constitute the beginning of the Jewish people. This is our core story.

Letty Cottin Pogrebin brilliantly framed our annual retelling of the story as a way to “stay connected to human suffering even after we have ceased to suffer,” strengthening our capacity to empathize with the oppressed, the stranger, and the persecuted. Exodus 23:9 sums it up: “You shall not oppress a stranger for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Beyond its collective narrative, Passover also speaks to each of us in deeply personal ways. Many of the readings I found sought to make the Passover story about our own stories. How can I identify the things in my life — the narrow spaces, Mitzrayim — that are preventing me from fully living? What steps do I need to take to embrace life more completely?

Passover offers the opportunity to relive an epoch saga that was not ours directly but can be made ours each year. The text of the Haggadah beckons each of us to this task. This is a holiday for participants, not spectators. And that is why each year, as we approach Passover, many of us search for readings and interpretations to expand our collective and personal quests, providing new perspectives to engage with this extraordinary festival.

I hope each of you and your loved ones have a joyous and meaningful Passover, replete with readings that can be lovingly packed away and revisited in future years. And I hope our Christian colleagues and friends have an equally joyous Easter. Together, let us celebrate spring and the renewal of life.

John S. Ruskay is executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York