WEST CHESTER, Pa. (Apr. 3, 2023) — The Exodus story is one of the most influential Bible stories of all time, as it discusses the Israelites’ freedom from bondage in Egypt and the migration to a land of milk and honey.
For many Jewish people worldwide, this is the basis of the Passover holiday, which occurs this Tuesday night and lasts for eight days as they recount the events of what their forefathers experienced while in Egypt.
The Exodus story goes that, a long time ago, a new Pharaoh came into power shortly after the previous one’s passing. Historians debate which Pharaoh enslaved the Israelites, but Ramesses II is the most generally accepted one that inflicted slavery on them.
Ramesses II saw how numerous the Israelites were becoming and feared they would revolt against the Egyptians, so he sent out taskmasters to enslave them. To make matters worse, Ramesses decreed that all sons be tossed into the river, while the daughters would be spared.
Among the sons was Moses, whom his mother, Levi, hid from the Egyptians for three months. Then, unable to handle the stress of having him being tossed into the river any longer, Levi put Moses in a “wicker basket” and sent him floating down it. Ramesses’s daughter found him floating toward the reeds where she bathed, so she paid her sister, Jochebed, to raise him behind Ramesses’s back until Moses grew older.
Decades later, grown up, Moses goes up to the “Mountain of God,” where he witnesses a burning bush. God tells Moses about the outcries he heard from the Israelites to Moses and tells Moses to confront Ramesses directly about setting his people free from slavery.
As one might expect, Ramesses declines, and God tells Moses to unleash nine plagues upon the Egyptians and Ramesses daily until he agrees to let the Israelites go.
The nine plagues occurred as follows:
- Swarm of Wild Beasts
- Cattle Disease
The final nail in the coffin was the tenth plague, the slaying of the firstborn. This one required all the enslaved Israelites to take the blood of the “Passover lamb,” and smear it on their doorposts and lintels so that God could pass over their houses, hence the origin of the name of the Jewish holiday.
Pharoah immediately surrendered to Moses and the enslaved people the following day, so the Exodus officially commenced. Everybody packed up whatever they needed and scurried out. Even the bakers could not finish making the dough rise to bread, so it became matzah, the unleavened bread, a symbol of Passover.
Meanwhile, Ramesses had a change of heart; he immediately ordered his men to go and round up all the escaped enslaved people and return them to Egypt. But, having reached the Red Sea, the enslaved people panicked as they witnessed Ramesses and his chariot approach from behind them.
But Moses and God had a different plan. Moses led them through the dry ocean and onto the other side by splitting open the Red Sea.
Moses got Ramesses right where he wanted him to be and closed the Red Sea on top of Ramesses and his army, leading to their death, thus beginning the Israelites’ journey toward freedom.
To celebrate Passover, all food made of leavened bread, known as chametz, must be removed from their house the night before the first night of Passover, and all unleavened bread, matzah, must be consumed instead, as a reference made earlier regarding the bakers leaving Egypt in such a hurry.
Passover is not all melancholy, however. Molli Gordon, a Music Therapy sophomore and president of the Jewish Life Committee at West Chester University Hillel, points out that it takes a group of people to overcome struggles and flourish as a culture.
“It’s a time where we gather as a family or community to support each other,” Gordon points out. “It’s not meant to be a completely happy holiday.”
The first two nights of Passover consist of fun services families perform at home called a Seder, consisting of reading the Exodus story from what is known as a Haggadah, a dinner/dessert break, and followed by prayers.
Located at the center of the table is a Seder plate consisting of various foods, including maror (parsley, or another green vegetable, dipped in vinegar), a shank bone, an egg, charoset (made of chopped fruits, spices, wine, horseradish and nuts). Most of the foods symbolize the hard labor the enslaved Israelites had to endure.
Four cups of wine/grape juice are consumed throughout the Seder, referencing the Redemption God made for the enslaved Israelites during their Exodus from Egypt. We also spill ten drips of it during the Seder “as an expression of sorrow for the pain suffered by the Egyptians during the plagues,” as Alfred J. Kotlach explains in “The Jewish Book of Why.”
During the dinner/dessert break, parents will break pieces of the matzah apart and hide them around the household for the children to find, creating a game of afikomen, essentially a scavenger hunt. The winner that collects the most amount gets some prize at the end.
The Seder then concludes with prayers after the meal, followed by fun songs to sing, such as “Echad Mi Yodea (“Who Knows One?”),” “Adir Hu (“Mighty is He”)” and “Chad Gadya (“One Little Goat”).”
Despite the horrible experiences the Israelites dealt with as enslaved people in Egypt, Passover is a joyous seven-day celebration recalling when God helped take them out of bondage and into freedom.
Benjamin Slomowitz is a fourth-year media and culture student. BS968158@wcupa.edu
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- Goldberg, Nathan, and Z. Harry Gutstein. Passover Haggadah = Hagadah Shel Pesaḥ. 3rd ed., Ktav Publishing House, 1963.
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