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"This is the Night," an Interfaith Event

Naomi Weinberg, president of Congregation B'nai Israel in Emerson, supplied this report on the April 3, 2012 event:

Grace Episcopal Church was recently filled with interfaith messages and learning about the connections and distinctions between Easter and Passover. The program, entitled, "This is the Night: What Passover and Pascha (Easter) Teach Us About God, Ourselves, and Each Other" was led by Father Rob Rhodes of Grace Episcopal Church in Westwood and Rabbi Debra Orenstein of Congregation B'nai Israel in Emerson. As the Christian's Holy Week and Passover coincide, almost exactly as they did historically centuries ago, the timing of this program was most appropriate.

Father Rhodes began the evening, expressing the hope that as people begin to understand, know, and respect each other and others' traditions a little more deeply, one can also "begin to understand our own traditions and love them more deeply than we did before." He noted that in every language except English Easter is called "Pascha," a word that means Passover. Connections between the two holidays can clearly be found throughout the liturgy. Noting that Christians celebrate the Last Supper in the context of it being a Passover meal, he further described Passover and Easter as "foundation events" that have shaped each religion. For Christians, the exodus from Egypt (the story of Passover) and the resurrection of Jesus (the story of Easter) are the "two centers of the Bible."

Father Rhodes described the resurrection and Passover as two stories where "God was acting in history to change the course of history and to liberate his beloved people," adding that "each is about the formation of a people." Father Rhodes also emphasized that Christians cannot fully appreciate the liberation, the resurrection, without fully understanding what happened to the people of Israel in Exodus.

Rabbi Orenstein presented additional bases for the "essential commonalities and the essential differences between Passover and Easter," and reflected that both holidays are filled with a "sense of renewal" and a "sense of redemption," noting that the Hebrew word for redemption (g.a.l.), appears consistently in the Bible, daily liturgy, and the Passover liturgy. While one could look at the events of Passover or Easter as the culmination of dramatic events, Rabbi Orenstein noted, "in both faith traditions that's not the end of the story" as each religion continues to Shavuot and Pentecost after exactly seven weeks, counting the days until the next major event. For Jews, the next major milestone is receiving the Torah at Sinai; for Christians, receiving the Holy Spirit. During these weeks Jews and Christians experience a process of preparation and much anticipation.

Both Father Rhodes and Rabbi Orenstein described a variety of meanings of the holidays' symbols, and Rabbi Orenstein walked the audience through passages of the Haggadah, a Jewish text that sets forth the order of the Passover Seder, the traditional meal shared at Passover when the story of Exodus is retold. "Most of the Haggadah," she explained, "focuses on activism, on what we need to do to gain our own freedom." She also touched upon elements of activism performed by Jews over the centuries, including those who fought to support the civil rights movement in the 1960s and the movement to free Soviet Jews in the 1970s. At the same time, the Haggadah includes a second, less visible theme of Messianism, where Jews look forward to a completely redeemed world, "next year, in Jerusalem," when all people will be free in every way, even from the fear of death.

As Rabbi Orenstein explained, Jews re-tell the story of Exodus at Passover as if they, themselves, have been freed from slavery in Egypt, thus bringing the historical and symbolic elements of the holiday to the present day. Father Rhodes complimented this perspective, as he described how through baptism resurrection is made present, an event that is taking place in the present day. Baptism also has a liberating quality and suggested a comparison to the liberation that the Red Sea gave to the Jews as they left Egypt.

While the sense of connections between the religions was clearly visible, the clergy also emphasized some of the deep beliefs that separate the religions. However, the sense of mutual respect, meaning, and integrity were ever-present throughout the presentations.

The evening concluded with a question and answer session and discussion that went beyond the topics of Easter and Passover. Both clergy shared insights, explanations, and issues to contemplate, adding a long-lasting element of appreciation and respect, thus enabling those present to experience, as Father Rhodes hoped at the commencement of the evening, a deeper feeling of one's own faith and a better understanding of others' beliefs.