Tuesday, 04 Apr 2023

Written by Rafe Thurstance

When approaching the Passover story, it is prudent to engage with it in its context as a small part within a rich amalgam of the most diverse literary materials. The story begins, as we all know well, with the Israelites enslaved under Egyptian oppression, and ends with them having gained their freedom thanks to God, to whom they are now free to offer praise and worship. The genre of the book of Exodus is a confession of faith expressed through a narrative of origins. Chapters 12 and 13 in particular are the chapters in which the God of Israel institutes the Passover festival, and the narrative incorporates stories with origins in many sources which are then placed within a framework which is seen from an Israelite perspective. The purpose of this is not to reconstruct history for its own sake but to express Israel’s experience of life in a covenant with God, and to further use the narrative as a vehicle for the creation and institution of a new cultural memory.

Although one often may think of memory as a personal and private experience, it is prudent to remember that it is also a part of the public and collective domain. As such, scholars of cultural studies have emphasised the importance of what has been labelled cultural memory. Two schools of thought emerge from these studies; one posits that our understanding of the past is shaped by our present, and the other suggests that in fact it is the past that shapes our actions in the present.

 When trying to understand cultural memory as a phenomenon, it is paramount to make the distinction between memory and actual history, and accept that cultural memory falls somewhere between these two. Scholars of cultural memory tend to agree that the phenomenon has overtaken actual memory and actual history as the go to point for representation of the past.

Through this new method of approaching the past, there has emerged a realisation that actual history could only ever represent one version of the truth, and people have become ever more concerned en masse with what the French call patrimoine, that is cultural heritage. A thorough understanding, and documentation, of a cultural heritage in turn aids the shaping of a national and cultural identity.

Since the French Revolution, there has been an effort across Europe to forge an identity that will bind people together by constructing collective memories, often in the form of commemorations of certain events, their aim to bring together majority and minority groups. The objective of the activity in general corresponds with a national fear of forgetting, and whilst this may be a relatively ‘new’ concept across European society, Jewish groups have been doing it formally since at least the 10th century CE.

Pesach, as it exists as a Jewish festival today, finds its origins in two separate but connected spring festivals from pre-biblical Canaanite culture. The first of these, a pastoral celebration of the lambing season, which was accompanied by an apotropaic rite, conducted by an entire tribe to ensure the protection of individual family homes. In this rite, hyssop was immersed in the blood of a sacrificed sheep and daubed on doorposts to prevent the entrance of malevolent forces. The second of these festivals is an agricultural celebration of the barley harvest, which was celebrated with the use of unleavened bread, and bears a remarkable similarity to motifs found in the Mesopotamian Akitu festival. At some point during Ancient Israel’s history, the story of the Exodus from Egypt (which traditional scholarship identifies as a real event) took precedence, and it could be argued that with the publicising and spreading of the Priestly Code as recorded in Leviticus, these two festivals were merged into one religiously reinterpreted festival with, at its core, an effort to forge a collective memory that would bind the Jewish people together as a nation.

Exodus 12 records the reconceptualisation of these festivals within the framework of the newly promulgated national “memory” of the Exodus where it attributes the “skipping” of the springtime lambs to the skipping over the houses of the Israelites by God (Ex12:23) and further attributes the consumption of unleavened bread to the Israelites’ rushing to leave Egypt (Ex12:39).

From the earliest of times, in whatever form you find it, Pesach and its origin festivals were not only times for public worship, but also for more intimate familial celebrations. Pierre Nora established the connection of memory (as an intangible, temporal phenomenon) to physical, and tangible (objects and) locations which have latterly been called lieux de memoir which ultimately symbolise a piece of a cultural history that in reality remains intangible to the contemporary recaller. For the Jews, this took the form of a celebratory meal in which a lamb was eaten together with unleavened bread (Ex12:8) and bitter herbs.

Cultural memory is not monolith, and it is not absolute. As much as time progresses, so often do attitudes to concepts that have generally come to be accepted as immutable fact –therefore it must be argued that if culture can change, so can our attitude toward our cultural memories and heritage.

One of the best records for our cultural memory is the Passover Haggadah, whose overarching purpose is its use as a vehicle to remember – it is more than a record of our history, it is a tool for our cultural memory.

The entire Exodus story has elements of truth and elements of history, but all of the positive commandments in the text encourage the Israelites to remember, and observe. Regardless of how the events really happened, they were a series of occurrences that galvanised Israelite identity, and in turn, have very much become a part of ours.

The Haggadah serves to remind us that Pesach is a time for community, and collective redemption. Every one of us is commanded to remember that we share the same history, but that the promise of Pesach freedom may be easier for some than others, and that means not leaving people behind.


Rafe Thurstance LBC Rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.