While it is a fact often overlooked in local history, Pine Bluff had the first Jewish congregation in the state of Arkansas. As the annual Passover celebration is upon us, it’s fitting that we pause to learn a little about Jewish history and the connections it shares with Christianity.
Pesach, or Passover as it’s called in English, is one of the best known Jewish holidays. It is known as much for its centrality to Jewish redemption and the figure of Moses as it is for its ties with Christian history. Perhaps the most notable bridge is that the Last Supper was likely a Passover seder — a special holiday meal replete with 14 distinct parts.
Passover begins on the 15th day of the Jewish month of Nissan. It is the first of the three major festivals (the other two are Shavu’ot and Sukkot). The primary Passover observances are related to the Exodus from Egypt after 400 years of slavery — as told in the Book of Exodus from chapters 1 to 15.
Passover lasts for seven days (eight days outside of Israel). On the first and last days of the holiday (first two and last two outside of Israel) no work is permitted. Work is, however, permitted on the intermediate days, referred to as Chol Ha-Mo’ed. The holiday takes its name from the Hebrew word “Pesach,” which is based on the root “pass over.” This is a reference to the fact that God “passed over” the houses of the Jews when he was slaying the firstborn of Egypt during the last of the 10 plagues. Passover is also known as Chag he-Aviv (the “Spring Festival”), Chag ha-Matzoth (the “Festival of Matzahs”), and Zeman Herutenu (the “Time of Our Freedom”).
New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler recently published a commentary in Huffington Post titled, “How Easter and Passover Can Make Your Family Happier.” In it Feiler argues that the familiarity of the two holidays makes it easy for us to forget that they are essentially commemoration of the two most difficult times in either religion’s history. As above, Passover recalls four centuries of Jewish slavery in Egypt. Whereas, Easter concerns the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.
Feiler goes on to note, however, that both stories start in tragedy but end happily: “The Bible says the Israelites ultimately escape slavery, and Jesus is ultimately resurrected.”
For Feiler, there exists a broader question of context for the two stories: “But the larger question is still worth considering: What rightful people put their most ignoble days at the heart of their identity?”
His answer, “a people that wants to survive.”
These stories represent pivotal moments in both traditions. The worst days are transformed into the greatest victories. One need not think too deeply to analogize these stories to our own local concerns. We have endured trials and torment. We have been in bondage to economic, social and cultural “slave masters.” Collaterally, we have been chattel to our own self-indulgent and base habits. We have scourged and impaled ourselves on negative thoughts, hopelessness and resignation.
The twined stories of Passover, Easter and indeed of spring itself are a healing balm against these deep old wounds. The season begs that we examine ourselves and ask what positive actions we might take to release us from this ongoing plague. They entreat us to think beyond ourselves, to part the seas of our collective despair and march to freedom.