Pesach – A Refugee Story

Pesach is a Jewish holiday that begins on the 14th of the Jewish month of Nissan. This year, April 8. It lasts for 7 or 8 days, depending on where one lives, with the focal point on the first two evenings, when we gather for a  ritual feast called a seder. 

Today, Pesach is the most celebrated holiday in the Jewish diaspora. Jewish holidays often have several names, giving insight into how they are observed. Pesach is also called zman cheirutanu, the Season of Our Liberation. We celebrate our liberation from slavery in ancient in Egypt, and the spiritual journey that emerges from emancipation. This tale is chronicled in the book of Exodus (the third book of Moses). It is a master narrative of the Jewish people, used year-round as guidance for how to treat other people who are still oppressed.

Pesach is also the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Throughout the holiday, we are forbidden to eat regular bread. Instead we eat matzoh, a special flat cracker. The story is that the Israelites did not have time to let their bread rise before they fled Egypt, and we recall their courage by eating only matzoh. Any grain-based foods eaten during Pesach must come from matzoh flour. Typically the food served at the seder meal is so delicious, nobody misses bread.

The seder meal is served between two sections of discussing the liberation story.  If children are present, they play a major role in the ritual, with certain poems, prayers, and songs reserved for them. The book used is called a Haggadah, which means simply “the telling.” There are countless versions in many languages with a rich variety of interpretations and illustrations. It is a text filled with questions and stories. We are supposed to come away from the experience, feeling as though we, ourselves, were liberated from Egypt.

One of the first prayers at the seder is an ancient liturgy in which we invite anybody who is hungry to come and eat. Usually, this is not just symbolic hospitality. Opening our doors to those with nowhere to celebrate is an important aspect of the holiday, but sadly one that we cannot fulfill in this year of the pandemic. Most people will be holding this year’s seder online.

At my seder we will look at texts from the HIAS Haggadah that remind us that Pesach is the first Jewish refugee story. We understand the heart of people on the move, because that is our background. We endeavor never to forget the the needs of those who are experiencing their own exodus story today.

Pesach is also called the spring festival. Our platter of ritual foods includes an egg and green vegetables, reminding us that life renews itself every year. May we all be liberated from the fear of the pandemic, and emerge into a healthy world in which freedom and equality for all are not mere dreams.

Rebecca Lillian is rabbi at the Egalitarian Synagogue in Malmö, Sweden. As long as she can remember she has emphasized the richness of a multi cultural society. She is American, married to a Danish man and live in Copenhagen. 

Download the Haggadah from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, HIAS.

Rebecca Lillian