At sundown this evening Jewish families around the world will gather to observe the first day of Passover.
The observance of Passover is an important moment in Matthew Lopez’s play, The Whipping Man.
All through our rehearsal process, our dear friend Hilary Bernstein, community director of the Anti-Defamation League Pacific Northwest Chapter has graciously acted as our “Passover consultant.” She has kindly fielded questions about meaning, ritual, and Hebrew blessings.
We asked Hilary to share a personal reflection on Passover so that we could gain a clearer understanding of the poignancy behind the practice. This is what she shared with us.
Hilary Bernstein, Pacific NW Community Director, Anti-Defamation League
I remember feeling an awesome responsibility to get it right. Only 7 years old, I nervously began singing the Four Questions in Hebrew. I had practiced them over and over in preparation for my family’s Passover seder (SAY-der). “Why is this night different from all other nights?” I began. My voice quavered a bit until everyone else at the table joined in. As I finished singing the fourth question, I proudly thought about how Jewish children around the world were reciting the very same questions in their homes, too.
Many years have passed, and now each of my own 3 children has experienced that same excited nervousness of being the youngest person at the seder table, charged with posing the Four Questions in the Passover Haggadah (hah-gah-DAH). These four, very specific questions and their proscribed answers get to the core of the holiday’s theme and the meaning behind every item on the table.
Passover commemorates the Exodus from Egypt. If you’ve seen Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Ten Commandments,” then you know the story of Passover, more or less. Passover is celebrated for eight days starting on the night of a full moon, typically in April (this year, however, Passover begins “early” on the full moon of March 25). The eight days usually overlap with Easter, though occasionally Passover occurs several weeks after Easter. Most (though not all) American Jews avoid bread, baked goods, and grain products throughout the eight days, in memory of the fact that our ancestors left Egypt in a hurry and didn’t have time to wait for their bread to rise.
The most important theme of Passover focuses on moving from slavery to freedom, and the awesome responsibility that comes with freedom. We are taught that none of us is free until all of us are free. And moving from slavery to freedom isn’t just about physical slavery … it’s also about spiritual and emotional slavery (How many of us are slaves to the clock? How many of us feel trapped by our jobs? Who among us is not limited by self-doubt?). The Passover seder has many layers of meaning and opportunity for self-reflection.
The Hebrew name for Pharaoh’s Egypt is mitzrayim (mitz-RYE-yim). Interestingly, mitzrayim translates to “narrow place.” The Israelites traveled through a narrow place – like a birth canal – to leave slavery behind and to be reborn as a free people with a responsibility to others and to God.
The characters in The Whipping Man are keenly aware of the detailed aspects of a seder – the food, the prayers, and the important themes which are addressed year in and year out. They know that according to the Haggadah “each generation must imagine that they personally departed from Egypt.”
While Passover rituals and foods (matzoh balls, gefilte fish, and hard boiled eggs) stay the same, each passing year brings new experiences to ponder and new hurdles to overcome. Each year, I think about the narrow places I have moved through in order to grow and become a better, more responsible human being.
There is a saying in Jewish tradition: Knowledge acquired in childhood is not soon forgotten. I’m guessing the characters in The Whipping Man would nod in solid agreement.
Note: On Tuesday April 9th the Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Anti-Defamation League is celebrating the ADL Centennial with a special evening of theatre and thoughtful conversation at Taproot Theatre’s The Whipping Man. Contact the Pacific Northwest ADL office for tickets! email@example.com or call (206)448-5349