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March 28, 2012
Our Jewish brothers and sisters
By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *

Next week, Jews throughout the world will observe the feast of Passover, their most sacred of the year. It is the time when they recall, relive, and celebrate their deliverance by God from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land.

On the first night of the memorial Seder Meal, Jews will listen attentively to the centuries-old narrative of the Exodus event and answer the question: why is this night different from all other nights?  As the Chosen People with a complex history, Jews have always had the will to be themselves because, regardless of the country they inhabit, first and foremost, they are Jews.

The Passover Event

At the time of the Exodus, the Jews had been enslaved by the Egyptians for about four hundred years.  Their escape was hurried: the angel passed over Jewish homes marked by the blood of the lamb to save them from massacre.  Then to make their escape, they hastily baked unleavened bread, ate and consumed the roasted lamb to seal their union with God.  This act completed the blood sacrifice of the Old Covenant, for to eat the sacrificial victim was to partake of the fruits of the sacrifice (Jer 11:19-20). 

Henceforth, the Feast of the Unleavened Bread was to be kept as a sacred memorial, for the blood of the unblemished lamb spared the Israelites. The first Passover meal was no ordinary drama but a crucial turning point for the Jews. The Exodus prepared the nation for two events: the covenant on Mt. Sinai and the anticipation of the heavenly banquet in the kingdom of God.

To Be a Jew ...

The story of the Exodus, which happened once and for all in history, has been handed down through sacred tradition in essentially three stages: first, the dramatic event itself experienced by those intrepid Jews enslaved in Egypt. The oral tradition came next, through which one generation after the other listened to and reflected on the significance of their deliverance.  The final stage came in the formulation in writing of the Torah itself (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures) from about 600-400 BC. 

In subsequent Passover banquets, Jews have listened attentively to the Haggadah (the story of the Exodus) with blessing and thankfulness as it again takes hold in every Jewish soul. To be a Jew is to commit oneself to this sacred history and to experience personally those same events in ritual.  Today the stages of past celebrations are reversed beginning with the sacred texts of the words and events as interpreted, reformulated, and lived by the Jews.  The Seder Meal proper does not begin until the Haggadah has been retold.  They reflect on the sacred narrative. Accordingly, “Each of us must see the deliverance from bondage that happened to them (Ex 12, 13). “In every generation each Jew looks upon himself as though he personally was among those who went forth from Egypt.  Not our fathers alone did the Holy One redeem from suffering, but also us and our families” (Deut. 5:2-3). Finally, they experience the event achieved in and through the Seder ritual prayer. The mystery of the Passover event happens personally to every Jewish man, woman, and child.  God lives among them, and like their forebears, each of them is delivered from slavery to freedom. Though the Psalms of blessing, "Berakah tur Adonai" (Blessed are thou, O Lord), have been prayed daily, at the Passover banquet, they hold a special significance for the Jews.  Because of this event, to be a Jew is to celebrate the annual Passover with exuberant joy. 

The Human-Divine Relationship

God’s gift of Self to the Chosen People is the absolute recognition and true communion of God and man (Deut 6:5; 12ff; 10:12ff; 11ff)   God has initiated, established and guided this relationship. This Covenant embraced the whole life of the Jewish nation and the individual, every aspect of prayer, observation, and work.  Every thought, activity, deed was an act of fidelity and love. Their act of worship was most simple in its origin, yet pure and vital–a political, liturgical and personal bond.

God’s Fidelity and Israel’s Unfaithfulness

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, but particularly in the Torah, the word “listen” features prominently. God speaks to the Jews directly or through their prophets beginning with the Q & A: “Who are you?” “I am who am.”  At times the people listen to the divine commands.  More often than not, they turn a deaf ear to the Lord whose miraculous deeds continue saving them.

The pattern repeats itself through the centuries of salvation history. God’s does wonderful things for the Chosen Ones and tests their fidelity.  When adversity comes, they complain bitterly, set up false gods and worship them; they repent, beg, and entreat the Lord God to deliver them from all their troubles. And again God does marvelous deeds for them.  God fulfills his promise: “You see ... how I bore you up on eagle’s wings and brought you here myself; keep my covenant” (Ex 19).  The cycle is complete. Then it begins anew. Despite their infidelity to the Lord throughout their difficult history, the Jews remained “the garden of delight” to the Lord (Is 5:7).   They are called “God’s faithless bride” (Ez 16:14) despite the fact that God deems them as exceedingly beautiful.  All the while, God’s fidelity remains constant.  It is a universal story, the invitation to communion with the divine.

Learning from Our Jewish Brothers and Sisters

Next week, Christians will enter into the observance of Holy Week.  (This year, Passover and Good Friday are observed on April 6th). Beginning with Palm Sunday through Holy Week to Easter Sunday, Catholics, in particular, will recall, relive, and celebrate the world’s salvation through one man, the man-God. The faithful as the Body of Christ will listen attentively to the centuries-old narrative of the Exodus event, to that of the prophets foretelling the adversity of the Suffering-Servant-Messiah, and to the witness of the disciples to the Resurrection of the Lord.  Why is the world-wide celebration of Holy Week different from all other weeks?  We shall see next week.

A blessed Passover to our Jewish brothers and sisters!

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].
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