The Ties That Bind: Lessons From Passover

April 4, 2020 Updated: April 4, 2020

Into this season of pandemic, quarantine, and hardship comes Passover.

The Jewish celebration of Passover derives from Exodus 12 of the Bible, when the last of 10 plagues visited upon the Egyptians brings about the death of firstborn sons in Egyptian households. To ensure the safety of the Israelites, God commands Moses and Aaron to tell the Hebrews to collect the blood of the lambs they have sacrificed and to smear that blood on the doorframes of the houses and also to eat the lambs.

The sons of the Egyptians perished; the sons of Israel were spared and the people freed from their bondage.

The Signs on the Door
“The Signs on the Door,” circa 1896–1902, by James Tissot or a follower. The Jewish Museum, New York. (US-PD)

And so was born the oldest and most important of Jewish holidays.

From that point on, the Israelites celebrated Passover, “Pesach” in Hebrew. This April, over 3,000 years later, the spiritual descendants of those freed slaves will once again honor that moment in history by gathering together, praying, reading passages from the Torah, and eating foods symbolic of their liberation and their 40-year trek in the wilderness.

Are there lessons for us in Passover?

Let’s take a look.

Freedom Is Not Free

Like America, many countries celebrate an independence day, looking to some point in their history when they threw off an oppressor. They remember liberators like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, Simón Bolívar, Mohandas Gandhi, and Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla.

Of all these celebrations of freedom, Passover is by far the most ancient. The readings, the songs, and the foods eaten at Seder (a ceremonial meal during Passover), all stress the sweetness of liberty and the cost of that liberty. Those who celebrate Passover remember not only the escape from Egyptian bondage but also the time of wandering in the desert, the decades spent in search of a resting place and a homeland. Recollecting the ordeal of those long-ago ancestors reminds the Jewish people that freedom comes with responsibilities and sacrifice.

Though we Americans celebrate July 4 as our Independence Day, how many of us remember the sacrifices of those who gave us this holiday? How many of us remember men like Thomas Nelson, the wealthy Virginian who ordered his men to fire upon the British ensconced in his own mansion? How many of us remember other signers of the Declaration of Independence who lost their homes, their wealth, and sometimes their lives in their bid for freedom?

Freedom, as the Hebrews quickly discovered on leaving Egypt, means accepting the burdens of responsibility and accountability. Like Passover, Independence Day should remind all Americans that freedom comes with a high cost, often including the sacrifice of lives. The men who endured or died on battlefields like Bunker Hill and Cowpens, Antietam and Gettysburg, Normandy and Okinawa paid that cost. When we pause to savor our independence, we should give thanks to those who helped preserve that liberty.

Tradition: Tevye Got It Wrong 

In kicking off “Fiddler on the Roof” with some comments on tradition, the lead character Tevye says of certain Jewish practices, “You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I’ll tell you. I don’t know. But it’s a tradition.”

Baloney. Contrary to what Tevye sings, devout Russian Jews knew why they covered their heads and wore a little prayer shawl. The reasons are in the Torah.

Tradition pays homage to the past. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote, “Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to that arrogant oligarchy who merely happen to be walking around.”

Most of us practice our traditions in small ways. With a sense of reverence, we place the ornaments collected by our great-grandmother on the Christmas tree, the prayers we say at mealtime are those of our ancestors, and we pass along the wisdom and insight of our parents and grandparents to our children in hopes they will someday do likewise in their own families.

Passover gives us a shining example—perhaps the greatest example in the history of our world—of the power of tradition. For 30 centuries, Jews of every land and age have found themselves bound one to the other because of certain beliefs and rituals, one of which is Passover.

These unbroken traditions undoubtedly helped Judaism survive.

And like Passover, our own traditions should draw us closer to those we love.

Mishpacha

With the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and the scattering of the Jews, Passover became an intimate affair centered on the home and “mishpacha” (family). It bound together young and old in a rite of great importance, reminding them of their religious heritage, yes, but also of the many trials of their ancestors. In times of trouble—and trouble for many Jews is never far away, even in our present age—the family became the rock and castle in which the oppressed could find solace, strength, and encouragement.

Raising children and preparing them to become grownups, taking care of the elderly and listening to their words of wisdom garnered from experience, offering one another hope in a crisis: this is the purpose of family.

Haggadah_15th_cent
An early 15th-century manuscript depicting, at the bottom, a Seder. The full-page miniature adapts medieval Christian iconography to illustrate the importance of study and discussion of Passover. Each figure has a book, presumably a Haggadah, a text about the Exodus from Egypt, that is recited at the Seder. University and State Library Darmstadt. (Public Domain)

Until recently, we regarded the family as the cornerstone of society, both the nuclear family and its extensions. Philosophers and theologians, poets and artists, filmmakers and novelists all once celebrated the family in their work.

For years now, however, that idea of the family has been under attack, deemed by some as despotic or unnecessary. Certain lawmakers have sought to replace the family with government programs, and some social scientists attack the family as patriarchal or as fetters on individual ambitions. Yet no institution has risen to take the place of a father, a mother, and children.

Passover reminds us of the importance of mispacha. Strong families mean a healthy society.

The Price of Liberty

Tradition, freedom, and family are not mere words. They are some of the binding ties of our civilization.

Some today seek to cut and throw away those binding ties, eroding our liberties, mocking tradition, and denigrating the family as oppressive or outdated. Take away those evils, they claim, and we can build a paradise. Those of us who oppose them, who are familiar with the ideologies espoused by these radicals, see instead the pathway to a hell on earth, a road traveled by many nations in the last century—countries like Russia, China, Cambodia, and Cuba.

The enslaved Israelites once protected their homes by marking their doorways with the blood of a sacrificial lamb. The doorways of American freedom are also stained with the blood of sacrifice. Should we wish to honor those sacrifices and keep our freedoms, we must be always vigilant, always ready to do battle and prepared to defend our rights to “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.