Celebrating Passover

It's the time of freedom in Israel, a nation dedicated to co-existence and tolerance

By Rabbi Levi Duchman

Published: Mon 22 Mar 2021, 8:57 PM

Passover is a celebration of freedom and the preservation of our unique rich identity and heritage. It is a reminder of the importance of living together in tolerance and coexistence. 

That's why, as the UAE's first resident Rabbi, I feel truly humbled to have been able to lead Passover celebrations for almost a decade with the local Jewish community along with visitors and tourists from around the world. The UAE is a country whose vision, idealised by His Highness Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, is something we especially share and celebrate at Passover.  

The Passover celebrations last for eight days (seven in Israel), and this year it begins at sunset on Saturday, March 27 and concluding at nightfall on April 4. It is a time to show gratitude to God for the many miracles He brings to our lives and those around us. The Torah refers to this time as a time of teaching and generational interaction, as we educate our children and future generations about our history and guide them how to live their lives in the future.

The History

Passover celebrates how God took the Jewish people out of the ancient land of Egypt, where they had been enslaved by the Pharaoh. 

The story begins with a cautionary tale of what can happen when jealousy and intolerance take root. Our forefather Jacob, also known as Yisrael, (the grandson of our great ancestor Abraham) who lived in the land that would bear his name -Israel - bore twelve sons, but Joseph was his favorite.

Jealous of Joseph, his brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt, where he rose to prominence until he became the vizier of the country and second-in-command to the Pharaoh himself. When a famine struck the region, Joseph's brothers came to Egypt to buy food, where they met the vizier who eventually revealed himself to be their brother Joseph. Rather than taking revenge upon his brothers, Joseph invited them to live in peace in Egypt.

Years later, Joseph and the Pharaoh died while a new king arose over Egypt, one who did not remember Joseph and his great contributions to saving the economy of Egypt at that time. Fearful of the growing Jewish people with their distinct culture and customs, he decided to beat them down through enslavement and persecution. The Jews were enslaved for 210 years - their families torn apart, their men beaten, their women violated and their children murdered. 

After long years of suffering, a leader arose the aforementioned named Moses. A prophet of God, he was instructed to demand the Pharaoh that he free the Jewish people, so that they may serve their true master-God himself. The Pharaoh refused, and so God sent a succession of plagues, ten in all: 1) Blood - the waters in Egypt turned to blood. 2) Frogs - Egypt was swarmed with countless frogs and reptiles. 3) Lice - Egypt was infested with lice and other biting insects. 4) Wild Beasts - Hordes of wild animals descended upon Egypt, destroying all in their path. 5) Pestilence: A plague struck and killed the Egyptians' livestock. 6) Boils - Painful boils burst forth on people and animals alike. 7) Hail - An unprecedented hailstorm of fire and ice tore through the land. 8: Locust: Swarms of locusts ate the Egyptians' crops. 9) Darkness: A thick, penetrating darkness enveloped the land. 

For the tenth plague, God instructed the Jewish people to bring an offering of a lamb, and smear its blood upon their doorposts. God would smite the Egyptian firstborns during the tenth plague. However, the homes with blood on the doorposts would be passed over, and the firstborn of the Jewish people would be spared. Hence the name of the holiday, Pesach-literally to spring, or "Pass over."    

After refusing to allow the Jews to be freed despite each of the first nine plagues, the Pharaoh finally relented and set the Jews free after the tenth plague-the death of Egyptian firstborn. In fact, the Jews left Egypt so hastily, they didn't even have time to allow their dough to rise and bake bread. 

Not long after letting the children of Israel go, the Pharaoh had second thoughts, and he chased after the Jews, catching up to them on the shores of the Red Sea. And just as many of the Jews were starting to despair, God performed a great miracle: He split the Red Sea and the Jewish people crossed through on the dry seabed. When the Egyptians pursued them onto the seabed, the sea crashed down upon them, drowning them and saving the Jewish people.

The Jewish people were now ready to receive the Torah - the book that guides our lives - from God at Mount Sinai. And every year since then, we celebrate Passover as our liberation from Egypt. 

Observing Passover Today

Passover is currently the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday. Its observances remind us of the miracles God did for us and encourage us to teach the next generation about the important messages of the holiday.

A key observance of Passover is eating matza - unleavened bread made from just flour and water and baked before it even has a chance to rise. The matza reminds us of the unleavened bread our forefathers ate as they left Egypt. To recall this unleavened bread, we are also commanded to abstain from eating - and even owning - anything leavened. So before Passover, Jewish families clean out the house, getting rid of all of the chametz -leavened food and drink. Many will set aside leavened food they don't want to destroy and sell it to someone who isn't Jewish, and then "buy" it back from them after Passover. To sell your chametz (and have it bought back after Passover) visit Chabad.org/SellChametz.

Once Jewish homes are clean of all leaven, it's time to gather for the Passover Seder-a royal feast that includes reading, telling stories, eating special foods, singing, and other Passover traditions. The Rebbe - Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and considered one of the most influential Rabbis of the 20th century-encouraged the creation of large public seders, which are joined annually by thousands. 

Here in the UAE, as a Rabbi to the UAE Jewish community and Rebbe's emissary to the country, I have had the privilege to lead many community seders where families are able to join together to celebrate the holiday of Passover, some for the first time in many years, freely and openly. Our country's leadership demands only that we live by the rules. Within that, we can thankfully practice our faith as we wish.

During the Seder, we eat the matza and recall the unleavened bread our forefathers ate as they left Egypt. We eat maror, bitter herbs as we remember the bitterness of slavery and recommit ourselves to the cause of tolerance and respect, avoiding enslavement of others, however delicate, by our own actions. We drink four cups of grape juice as we recall and celebrate our own freedom and redemption. We retell the story of our exodus from a book known as the Haggadah-which means "Telling" and is perhaps the most widely-printed Jewish book ever. 

Each step of the Passover Seder is designed to especially pique the curiosity of our children; to encourage them to ask questions and hear the answers as we build another link in the golden chain of our heritage. The Passover message is all about educating our children about tolerance, respect, and freedom. And we are reminded of the tolerance we experience in this very country. This is something that truly resonates with the vision of the leadership of the UAE to show the world and teach the future generations this message of finding things in common with others, learning to find opportunities in working together, and building a better tomorrow while maintaining our own uniqueness and heritage.

It is written that what kept the Jewish people united as a nation throughout the long period of slavery in Egypt was that they did not assimilate. They kept their Jewish names, their Jewish mode of dress. They preserved their very inner identity. And on Passover, we celebrate that along with their successful struggle for freedom.

As the Rebbe wrote in a Passover message in 1983: "In this blessed country of freedom and opportunity (referring to the US), such total identification with the spirit of the Season of Our Liberation' pertains more to the inner self than to outside factors which are often beyond one's control."

Here, in the UAE, there are no external constraints or limitations to getting involved with Jewish causes. It is only a matter of setting one's goals high enough to meet the challenges and opportunities of the times. Given the will and determination, the opportunities are limitless.

This Passover message is not something that the leadership merely believes in- but something that has been acted upon time after time. What the historic Abraham Accords, emphatically supported by Sheikh Mohamed, did, not only for Israel and the Jewish People but for the world - indeed for all our children - was to teach them this message of how crucial it is to be who we are while learning from each other and growing together. Yes, we all have our own unique identity and our personal heritage which we value, but this Passover, let's infuse this with respect, tolerance and coexistence. Living in the UAE today, one truly recognizes the beauty of those principles that the UAE has fostered. So many diverse people call this great country their home. And thanks to the vision of the country and the leadership, each culture is able to preserve their unique heritage and coexist, bringing the gifts of community and togetherness to all.

Rabbi Levi Duchman is the Rabbi of Jewish Community Center, UAE


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