Saturday, October 16th | 11 Heshvan 5782

April 17, 2019 2:06 pm

Passover’s History in America: A Guide for the Perplexed

avatar by Yoram Ettinger


A Passover Seder table. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

1. The early Pilgrims and Founding Fathers of the US were inspired by Passover’s message of optimism while facing severe challenges and threats. Moses and the US leaders catapulted their peoples from the lowest ebb of spiritual and physical servitude to the highest level of liberty and freedom.

The Passover and Exodus saga is retold annually in order to ingrain the sublime value of morally-driven liberty, faith, and optimism — while defying pessimism and despair — as a prerequisite to freedom and victory over lethal challenges and threats. The annual reciting of the Exodus during the Passover holiday enhances personal and national benefits, which are derived from experience.

2. The Exodus is mentioned 50 times in the Five Books of Moses, equal to the 50 years of the Jubilee — the Biblical foundation of liberty, which is featured on the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land, unto all the inhabitants thereof (Leviticus, 25:10).”

Moses received the Torah, which includes 50 gates of wisdom, 50 days after the Exodus, as celebrated by the Shavuot/Pentecost holiday, 50 days after Passover. There are 50 states in the US.

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3. The Exodus has been an integral part of the American story since the landing of the early Pilgrims in the 17th century. They considered themselves “the people of the modern day Exodus,” who departed from “the modern day Egypt” [Britain], rebelled against “the modern day Pharaoh,” [King James I and King Charles I], crossed “the modern day Red Sea” [the Atlantic Ocean], and headed toward “the modern day Promised Land” [the US]. Hence, the abundance of US towns and sites bearing Biblical names, such as Jerusalem, Salem, Moriah, Bethel, Shiloh, Ephrata’, Tekoa, Bethlehem, Hebron, Jericho, Zion, Carmel, Sharon, Gilboa, Gilead, Rehoboth, Tabor, Pisgah, etc.

4. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense — “the cement of the 1776 Revolution” — referred to King George III as “the hardened, sullen-tempered Pharaoh of England.” John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin proposed the parting of the sea as the official US seal. Ezra Stiles, a president of Yale University — which features on its shield “Urim and Thummim,” the power of the High Priest during the Exodus — stated on May 8, 1873: “Moses, the man of God, assembled three million people, the number of people in America in 1776.”

5. Herman Melville, in his 1849 novel White Jacket, wrote: “We, Americans, are the peculiar chosen people – the Israel of our time.”

6. In 1850, Harriet Tubman (who was known as “Mama Moses”) established the “Underground Railroad,” paving the road to an exodus of black slaves. Paul Robeson and Louis Armstrong reverberated the liberty theme of Passover through the lyrics: “When Israel was in Egypt’s land, let my people go! Oppressed so hard they could not stand, let my people go! Go down Moses, way down in Egypt’s land; tell old Pharaoh to let my people go!”

On December 11, 1964, upon accepting the Nobel Prize, Martin Luther King, Jr., “the Moses of his age,” said: “The Bible tells the thrilling story of how Moses stood in Pharaoh’s court centuries ago and cried, ‘Let my people go!’”

7. Today, the bust of Moses faces the speaker of the US House of Representatives. Eight statues and engravings of Moses and the tablets are featured in the US Supreme Court, one of them above the nine Supreme Court justices. The floor of the US National Archives features the engraved Ten Commandments. Ten Commandments monuments were also  erected on the grounds of the Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas state capitols.

8. According to Heinrich Heine, the 19th-century German poet: “Since the Exodus, freedom has always spoken with a Hebrew accent.”

9. The Hebrew word for “liberty” (Kheroot, חירות) is closely linked to the Hebrew word for “responsibility” (Akhrayoot,אחריות ), aiming to avoid anarchy and dictatorship. The Hebrew spelling of “responsibility” (אחריות) starts with the words “follow me” (אחרי), which behooves responsible individuals to assume leadership in advancing liberty. The Hebrew spelling of “responsibility” starts with the first letter of the alphabet (א), and ends with the last letter (ת), attesting to the comprehensive nature of responsibility.

10. Passover highlights the central role of women: Yocheved, Moses’ mother, hid Moses and then breastfed him at the palace of Pharaoh, posing as a nursemaid; Miriam, Moses’ older sister, was her brother’s keeper; Batyah, the daughter of Pharaoh, saved and adopted Moses (Numbers 2:1-10); Shifrah and Pou’ah, two Jewish midwives, risked their lives, sparing the lives of Jewish male babies, in violation of Pharaoh’s command (Numbers 1:15-19); Tziporah, Moses’ wife, saved the life of Moses and set him back on the Jewish course (Numbers, 4:24-27). They followed in the footsteps of Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, and Rachel — the Matriarchs — who engineered, in many respects, the roadmap of the Patriarchs.

11. Passover is the first of the three Jewish pilgrimages to Jerusalem, followed by Shavuot (Pentecost), which commemorates the receipt of the Ten Commandments, and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles), named after Sukkota — the first stop in the Exodus. The Passover seder is concluded by the declaration: “Next Year in the rebuilt, unified Jerusalem!”

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