Shannon Jensen/The New York Times

April 10, 2024

The Irony and Gravity of This Year’s Passover

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Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, is one of the most important and beloved Jewish holidays. Passover is usually a joyous affair; it begins on the 15th of the Hebrew month of Nissan — sometime in March or April in our calendar — meaning it is also a festival of spring. Celebrating the beginning of the agricultural season and freedom from slavery, characterized by family and friends coming together, there is usually little to be sad about during Passover, though my caring grandmother did always shed a tear for the animals lost throughout the story. However, as Jews across the globe anticipate the beginning of Passover on the sundown of April 22, this holiday will inevitably be seen in a different and much more somber light. Given recent events, the story and message of Passover is more critical than ever — and undeniably ironic. 

Passover commemorates an event which occurred over 3,000 years, making it the oldest continuously celebrated holiday in the Jewish calendar, having been celebrated since at least the fifth century BCE. This eight day holiday revolves around the story of the Exodus, when God helped the Jews escape from slavery in Egypt. The story goes that God sent the prophet Moses to guide the Jews out of Egypt, parting the Red Sea to allow for their escape, and then lead them to the promised land: Israel. 

During these eight days, the Jewish people have many important traditions. We clean our pantries and houses of wheat products, chametz, and go eight days without eating anything leavened — remembering how our ancestors had no time to let their bread rise before fleeing slavery, forcing them to eat unleavened bread: matzah. Jews usually have a seder, a huge family dinner, on each of the first two nights. The word seder means order, because there is an important order to the seder with many different steps, including prayers, songs, food and more. Some of these specific steps and stories in the seder highlight the irony and importance of the year’s events. 

Let My People Go

One of the most important parts of the Passover story is when the Torah states, “Moses and Aaron went and said to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the God of Israel: Let my people go.’” Throughout the Passover seder, we sing songs about this moment, remembering Moses’s pleas for the freedom of his people. The Hebrew name for Egypt is “Mitzrayim,” which means limitations or obstacles. Jerusalem on the other hand means “city of peace.” When we sing let my people go, we sing not only about freedom from Egypt, but freedom from all obstacles on the road to peace. 

This line will hold a very different weight at Passover seders this year, as, 3,000 years after Moses, we have taken up his call for the freedom of our people. For the last six months, Jews internationally have begged for the return of our 133 hostages from captivity in Gaza. Somehow, even all these years later, innocent people are still being held against their will, and detained from returning to their holy land, simply for being Jewish. 

The Ten Plagues

Despite Moses’s pleas, Pharaoh refused to let the Jewish people go. The story goes that God then subjected the Egyptians to 10 plagues: water turning to blood, frogs, bugs, wild animals, disease, boils, hail, locusts, darkness and death of the firstborns. Passover received its name because of this plague; the word Pesach in Hebrew means to “pass over,” because God passed over the homes of the Israelites with the death of the firstborns. 

Many online have been bringing up comparisons between these plagues and events in the world. From the earthquake which hit New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and more, to the floods in Pittsburgh and other cities along the Ohio River, to the solar eclipse across North America on Monday the 8th; these strange events seem coincidentally timed with a holiday characterized by end-of-days events. This is especially ironic given that these plagues were sent after the refusal to let the Jewish people go. 

The Promised Land: Israel 

Another critical part of the Passover story is the ending, when the Jews finally reach the Promised Land: Israel. Passover, when simplified, is a celebration of Israel. Jews thank God for the homeland given to us long ago, a place where we are promised to always find safety and live freely. It feels ironic that, while celebrating the annual holiday about our return to Israel 3,000 years ago, we are still fighting for the right of this land to exist, and having our indigenous ties challenged

The Jews lived in Israel before slavery in Egypt, having first settled in the land then called Canaan in the 17th century B.C.E. The Jews were forced to travel to nearby Egypt due to famine, as Egypt was prepared for the lack of food thanks to Joseph (but that’s a story for another time). However, when a new Pharaoh came to rule who did not know Joseph, he was fearful of the many Jews in his land and enslaved them. They would only be able to return home in the 13th century B.C.E, after centuries of slavery, the exodus and a few decades wandering in the wilderness. After this return, the Jews created the Kingdom of Israel

Every seder for the past thousand of years has concluded with the line “L’shana haba’ah b’Yerushalayim,” “next year in Jerusalem.” For centuries, this was a wish by Jews scattered across the world after the conquest of Israel and their subsequent exile, to return home. Now that Israel has been reestablished, “next year in Jerusalem” still includes this wish, but holds even more weight. Since Oct.r 7, Jerusalem and the Jewish people as a whole have been very far away from peace. This Passover, these lines will cut much much deeper, as we continue the many thousands of years old Jewish wish for peace, praying that next year our people will be free and our country will be free from threat. And so we will say, as we always have and always will, “This year we are here, next year we will be in the Land of Israel. This year we are slaves, next year we will be free.” 

Jenna Ledley is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected].