Rabbi Michael Barclay
Whether a Jew or not, Passover is a good time to assess what we are slaves to
Updated: Dec 22, 2021
Most “religious” films about Passover have little to do with theological understandings of the holiday. (Think “Gods & Kings,” which one rabbi sarcastically renamed “Moses the Terminator.”)
While I don’t think that the producers of the hit movie “The Greatest Showman” realized when they were developing the film that the subtitle could have been “The Hidden Secrets of Passover,” there is a truth found in the movie that echoes some of the deepest teachings of the Passover Seder.
In the movie, there are a group of people who are considered oddities and freaks, outsiders from a society that degrades them. Although persecuted and despised, they have grown accustomed to hiding in the dark and denying their own special beauty.
P.T. Barnum shows up and reminds them that life doesn’t have to be that way, and they flower and blossom as a community outside the narrowness of their environment. At its essence, this is the story of Passover and the teachings of how we must make Passover alive and vibrant in our lives today.
With over 3,000 years of commentary on the Exodus from Egypt, Jewish tradition is filled with an understanding of Passover that is universal to all humanity and in all times.
The slaves are not yet called Jews, but “Ivrim,” translated as “Hebrews” and meaning “those who cross over” as they both physically cross over the Jordan River and spiritually transcend the theological beliefs and boundaries of their time.
They have become slaves in Egypt, called “Mitzrayim,” a country whose name means “narrowness,” referring both to the narrow Nile River and to the narrow spirituality of idol worship.
But as we are taught both in ancient commentaries and in the Passover Haggadah, the real slavery was that the Hebrews learned to accept this narrowness of Egypt. They had become accustomed to being slaves — oddities who were not allowed to be part of mainstream society.
Our ancient sages were clear that the 10 plagues were less for the pharaoh and more so that the ancient Hebrews would reject the theological idol worship of their neighbors and return to their true belief in one God.
Each of the 10 plagues, which are recited during the Passover Seder, the ritual ceremonial meal that includes prayers and commences the Passover holiday, corresponds to a different Egyptian deity. Each plague demonstrates to the people of that time that they are slaves to a false god, and leads them to ultimately reject the Egyptian gods and return to their true faith.
As examples, the plague of darkness triumphs over the Egyptian god of the sun, Ra; and the plague of killing the first born shows the impotence of the false god of the underworld, Osiris.
Each plague allows the ancient Hebrews to start to recognize their own light and get out of the yoke of slavery to falsehoods. Only when they have let go of their false idol worship are they ready to enter into the true freedom that awaits them.
While we may not have those ancient plagues today, and we are not slaves to the false Egyptian deities, we are all still slaves. Passover is a time to recognize what we are slaves to and to become free.
Like the circus performers in “The Greatest Showman,” we need to let go of our darkness and embrace our own true light that God has blessed us with.
In our home and community, when it comes time to recite the 10 plagues and remember what the ancient Hebrews went through, we have each individual around the table recite something that they are individually enslaved to or that is a cultural false deity: fear, bigotry, greed, disease, terrorism and more are brought up during the Seder and discussed as modern plagues.
Following the advice of our great rabbis of history, we make the Seder a “metahistorical” experience, a simultaneous remembrance of an historical event and a modern understanding and application on a personal level. This is the secret of Passover: making it meaningful today.
Whether you are Jewish or not; whether you celebrate Passover, Easter, St. Patrick’s Day, spring solstice or nothing, it is a good time to take an honest look and see what you are a slave to.
As the season of winter starts to be rejuvenated into spring and darkness is transformed into light, the holidays all encourage us to be self-reflective, let go of our false gods and embrace the true light of our souls.
May we all take this time to recognize the slavery that we have accepted in being less than we really are. May we all find true freedom and embrace life passionately, fully and freely.
Chag Sameach, Happy Passover, Happy Easter, and may we all learn to live together in freedom and no longer in the shadows of our self-imposed slavery.
Or in the words of Barnum — as expressed so beautifully by Hugh Jackman:
“Come alive! Come alive! Go and ride your light, Let it burn so bright!”