The story of Passover began with the arrival of Jacob and his family in Egypt to be with son Joseph who had become Viceroy of all Egypt. When Joseph and his brothers died and the children of Israel multiplied in the land of Egypt, King Pharaoh chose to forget all that Joseph had done for Egypt – transforming it into the wealthiest country in the world at the time. He decided to take action against the influence and growing numbers of the children of Israel. He summoned his council and they advised him to enslave these people and oppress them before they grew too powerful.
Pharaoh embarked upon a policy of limiting the personal freedom of the Hebrews, putting heavy taxes on them and recruiting their men into forced labor battalions under the supervision of harsh taskmasters. The children of Israel were forced to build cities, erect monuments, construct roads, work in the quarries and hew stones or burn bricks or dies. But the more the Egyptians oppressed them, the more the children multiplied. Finally, when King Pharaoh saw that forcing the Hebrews to do hard work did not succeed in suppressing their growing numbers, he decreed that all their newly born male children be thrown into the Nile River.
Only daughters should be permitted to live. Jacob’s great-grandson, Amram, who married Yocheved, had a daughter Miriam, later to become a great prophetess, and a son named Aaron who later became the High Priest. When Yocheved bore a third child, she placed him in a basket, which she hid amongst the reeds at the edge of the Nile River in order to escape the king’s soldiers who were snatching all the male babies and casting them into the Nile. When Pharaoh’s daughter came to bathe in the Nile she discovered the baby and, seeing his unusual radiance, recognized that this child was someone very special.
She called him Moshe and decided to raise him herself in the palace. She hired the baby’s mother Yocheved to be his nurse, who also taught him about his rich Jewish heritage. When the children of Israel could no longer endure their terrible suffering at the hands of their cruel overlords, their cries for help coming from the very bottom of their hearts pierced the heavens. God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and decided to deliver their descendants from bondage. Moshe was 80 years old and his brother 83 years old when they entered the palace of King Pharaoh.
Pharaoh asked the two brothers what they wanted. The message sounded like a command: The God of Israel said, ‘Let My people go, that they may serve me. ‘ Pharaoh refused, saying that he had never heard of the God of the Israelites. He further accused Moshe and Aaron of a conspiracy against the government and of interfering with the work of the Hebrew slaves. At Moshe’s suggestion, Aaron then performed the miracles God had enabled him to perform, but Pharaoh was not greatly impressed, for his magicians could do almost as well.
When Pharaoh continued to refuse to liberate the children of Israel, Moshe and Aaron warned him that God would punish both him and his people. First, the waters of the land of Egypt were to be turned into blood. This was followed by the plague of frogs, which covered the entire land. The third plague had lice crawling forth from the dust to cover all of Egypt. Although Pharaoh’s advisors pointed out that this surely was Divine punishment, he hardened his heart and remained relentless in his determination to keep the children of Israel in bondage.
The fourth plague consisted of hordes of wild animals roving all over the country destroying everything in their path. Only the province of Goshen, where the children of Israel dwelt, was immune from this as well as from the other plagues. As with the previous plagues, Pharaoh promised faithfully to let the Jews go on the condition that they would not go too far. Moshe prayed to God and the wild animals disappeared. But as soon as they had gone, Pharaoh withdrew his promise and refused Moshe’s demand.
Then God sent a fatal pestilence that killed most of the domestic animals of the Egyptians. In the sixth plague, boils burst forth upon man and beast throughout the land of Egypt. Now Moshe announced to the king that a hailstorm of unprecedented violence was to sweep the land; no living thing, no tree, no herb, was to escape its fury; safety was to be found only in the shelter of the houses. The next time Moshe and Aaron came before Pharaoh, he appeared somewhat relenting, and asked them who was to participate in the worship the Israelites wanted to hold in the desert.
When they told him that everyone without exception, young and old, men and women were to go, Pharaoh suggested that only the men should go and that the women and children, as well as all their possessions should remain in Egypt. Moshe and Aaron could not accept his offer and Pharaoh became angry and ordered them to leave his palace. Before leaving, Moshe warned him of new and untold suffering. But Pharaoh remained adamant, even though his advisors counseled against further resistance.
As soon as Moshe left the palace, he raised his arms toward heaven and an east wind brought swarms of locusts into Egypt, covering the sun and devouring everything green that had escaped the hail and previous plagues. Then followed the ninth plague. For several days all of Egypt was enveloped in a thick and impenetrable veil of darkness, which extinguished all lights kindled. The Egyptians were gripped with fear and remained glued to their places wherever they stood or sat. Only in Goshen, where the children of Israel dwelt, there was light.
Finally at midnight on the 15th of Nissan all firstborn in the land of Egypt began dying, from the firstborn of King Pharaoh unto the firstborn of the cattle, exactly as Moshe had warned. There was a loud and bitter wail, for in each house a loved one lay fatally stricken. Then Pharaoh called for Moshe and Aaron during that very night and said to them: Arise, go out from among my people, both you and the children of Israel; and go, serve God as you have said, and go, and bless me also. At last the pride of the stubborn king was broken and he realized that there indeed was a God.
Meanwhile, the Jews had been preparing for their hasty departure. With beating hearts, they had assembled in groups to eat the roasted paschal lamb, together with the unleavened cakes (matzoh). The sun had already risen above the horizon when, at the word of command, the whole nation of the Hebrews poured forth from the land of Egypt. Thus the children of Israel were liberated from the yoke of their oppressors on the 15th day of Nissan, in the year 2448 after the creation of the world. There were 603,550 men between 20 and 60 — military age — who, with their wives and children and flocks, crossed the border of Egypt as a free nation.
Many Egyptians and other non- Israelites joined the triumphant children of Israel, hoping to share their glorious future. The children of Israel did not leave Egypt destitute. In addition to their own possessions, the terrified Egyptians had bestowed upon them valuables of gold, silver and clothing in an effort to hasten their departure. Thus, God fulfilled in every detail His promise to Abraham that his descendants would leave their exile with great riches. Leading the Jewish people on their journey during the day was a pillar of cloud, and at night there was a pillar of fire, giving them light.
These Divine messengers not only guided the children of Israel on their way, but also cleared the way before them, making it both easy and safe. After three days, Pharaoh received word of the progress of the children of Israel. The unexpected direction of their march made him think that they were lost in the desert. Pharaoh now regretted that he had permitted them to leave. He mobilized his army and personally took the lead of his choicest cavalry and war-chariots, in hot pursuit of his former slaves. He reached them near the banks of the Red Sea and pressed them close to the water, in an effort to cut off their escape.
Moshe led the Israelites onwards until they came to the very borders of the Red Sea. The pillar of cloud now changed its position, retreating from the front to the rear of the Hebrews, floating between the two armies. Then God spoke to Moshe: Lift up your rod, stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it; and the children shall go into the midst of the sea on dry ground. Moshe did as God ordered and a strong east wind rose and blew all night and the waters of the Red Sea were divided and gathered into a wall on either side, leaving a dry passage in the midst.
The Israelites marched at once along the dry path, which extended from shore to shore and reached the opposite side in safety. The Egyptians continued their pursuit, but Moshe stretched forth his staff and the waters resumed their usual course, closing over the whole army of Pharaoh. Thus, God saved the children of Israel from the Egyptians and Israel saw His great power; they recognized God and believed in Him and in His servant Moshe — the first redeemer of Israel.
This is the story of Passover — or Pesach — which recounts the birth of the Jewish people as a nation — a nation called by God a beloved treasure — whose ultimate goal is to be a light unto the nations. This will become evident in the immediate future when Moshiach — the final redeemer — gathers us together from throughout the world and brings us to the promised land of Israel, and all the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.