We will be reading Exodus 12:15-36 in Synagogue this week.
There are words in this week’s parashah that are both familiar and disorientating.
And it shall come to pass, when your children shall say to you, ‘What do you mean by this service?’ That you shall say, ‘It is the sacrifice of the Eternal’s Passover, who passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, then struck the Egyptians, and saved our houses.’
The words are familiar because we find them in the Haggadah. This service is what has become our Seder night ritual and this verse is the basis upon which the Haggadah was created. Everything we do on Seder Night is designed to prompt a child’s question. The foods on the seder plate, the position in which we sit, the wine, the company – and everything we do is because God ‘passed over’ the houses of the Israelites in Egypt.
But the words are disorientating too. So many passages we read in our annual cycle of Torah readings relate to the festival that is happening at that time of year. When we read of Joseph and his brothers, we are celebrating Chanukkah and the triumph of Judah Maccabee and his brothers. We begin the book of Numbers – in Hebrew Bamidbar - which means ’in the desert’ around the festival of Shavuot which celebrates the giving of the ten commandments on Mount Sinai in that desert. When we read the portion netsavim in the book of Deuteronomy where God sets before us ‘life and death’ and urges us to ‘choose life’ we are in the week before Rosh Hashanah where we are to be judged on precisely that choice.
But now we are reading about Pesach some three months before that Festival enters our lives and this seems rather strange. Except that we are in fact reminded of the Exodus every day of our lives. Yestiat Mitsrayim – the Exodus from Egypt – is the single most important defining factor of our Jewish identity. ‘We were slaves, now we are free.’ That is Jewish history in a nutshell and every day in our prayers, every Shabbat in our liturgy, every time we make kiddush we mention the Exodus from Egypt. It is not a memory to be reserved just for the splendid ritual of Seder night but one that dominates our religious lives at all other times too. All that we do, ethically, morally as well as liturgically is ‘because we were slaves in Egypt.’
So this portion, this story of the Exodus that we have been reading over the last few weeks, - and that comes to its culmination in the crossing of the Red sea in next week’s parashah, - is presented to us out of the festival sequence to remind us, that the Exodus is not just for Passover – it is for the rest of our lives.