Each year on the holiday of Pesach some 500 Jewish students join my wife, family and me for the Passover Seders. It is an extraordinary scene!
Who would have imagined that on a college campus where the challenges to Jewish identity and practice are many, a place where students for the first time in their lives have the freedom to decide their own destinies, hundreds of Jewish students seek out a Passover Seder.
What is it about Passover that makes it the most universally observed holiday on the Jewish calendar?
I’m sure it’s mom’s brisket or grandma’s matzah ball soup. Yet, here the students find themselves miles away from home in search of a place to observe the Seders.
In the beginning of the Haggadah, we read how “we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but G-d, our G-d took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm.”
This slavery to Pharaoh was physical, psychological and spiritual.
Physically, our sages teach us that in the history of Egypt not a single slave had ever escaped. The Jewish people were subjected to backbreaking labor and unbearable torture.
Psychologically, the Midrash tells us that after the death of Joseph and his brothers their descendants began to assimilate into Egyptian culture.
Spiritually, Kabballah points out that “We were slaves to Pharaoh” means that our sustenance from Hashem came in a way of oreph, from the Hebrew word for “back of the neck,” which contains the same Hebrew letters as “Pharaoh.” Our existence and connection to G-d was hidden, similar to a backhanded compliment or a person giving you a present he tosses at you over his shoulder.
Then, after 210 years of slavery, the equivalent of eight generations, we walked out of Egypt in the sunlight of a Thursday afternoon in the sunny spring desert.
We read in the Haggadah that G-d himself “passed over” and delivered us out of Egypt. “Not through an angel or messenger, but only He, alone, delivered and revealed Himself to us.” We were free. Physically, psychologically and spiritually.
The exodus from Egypt and the Passover Seder remind us of the powerful and unique relationship we have with
G-d. Despite the odds of our exile in Egypt, where no slave ever escaped, and the spiritual level of impurity we reached, G-d bent the laws of nature, revealed his infinite powers and delivered the Jewish people from the confines of Egypt.
We can translate the word “Pesach” as “jump” or “leap”; thus Hashem passed over or jumped over the Jewish homes during the final plague (death of the firstborn) in Egypt. Chassidic philosophy explains that Pesach is also a state of G-dliness that is revealed through G-d passing over all rules and restrictions of nature and order.
This is the essence of the Passover holiday. Just as when a person jumps or leaps he can reach a farther state than walking or running, so too, we can be in a state of total exile or despair and instantly we can jump over, or “pass over” with one leap of courage and faith.
At the time of our exodus from Egypt G-d introduced to us an eternal legacy. He freed us from Egypt and ingrained in our DNA an innate sense of absolute freedom. Passover was the introduction, and 49 days later G-d gave us the Torah, the method to retain our freedom for all time.
This is why each year men, women and children, grandmas and grandpas, and students away from home, gather around the Seder table to relive and recount the numerous miracles that G-d performed for us. We ask the four questions, crunch the tasty matzah and conclude the Haggadah with “Leshana Haba’ah b’Yerushalayim” — this time next year we should be in the land of Israel with the complete and final redemption!
Rabbi Yossi Winner is the University of Arizona campus rabbi and executive director of Chabad at U of A Rohr Jewish Student Center, JewishWildcats.com.