The priest piously swings the censer that doles out spurts of white smoke, saturating the entire church with fragrance. The silence graced by the regular, gentle click of the chain of censer charges the atmosphere with holy fear. I‘m thrown into adoration. Isn’t the same feeling of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah when they tasted the splendour of God at the beginning of their prophecy? But there is another thing that connects me to this past.
We are celebrating Easter, the liberating act of God started with the Jews; in fact, they too are celebrating Passover –quite the same thing. This is good reason to rejoice together. But then a phrase from a familiar psalm echoes in my head: We have no place to offer sacrifice or find mercy. I become sad, feeling with many among Jews still lamenting in this way. They cannot celebrate Passover as they would have love to.
Through their sad history Jews have lost the Temple ; affecting in consequence other important elements of their religion such as priesthood and Sacrifice. Not only is this a shame to the religion but also to their sense of pride as a nation.
The disappearance of such aspects has therefore lamentably modified, if not wounded, the religion. Awareness of this fact, possibly, not only makes you understand them but also change your attitude towards them.
The Exodus, that took place on 15th of Nisan 2448 according to one calculation, is the point of departure in the Jewish people’s relationship with God. It’s not just some historic reference but the very hinge on which swings their hope for the future despite their oppressed history. That’s why Passover is the most celebrated feast among Jews, especially for those in Diaspora. After the freedom from the slavery of over 200 years a Jewish nation was born.
The verb pasàch means “he passed over” which contextually means “he hovered over, guarding.” Burrowing from Isaiah: “As birds hovering, so will the Lord of hosts protect Jerusalem; He will deliver it as He protects it, He will rescue it as He passes over” ( Isaiah. 31:5).
Pesach, as noun, also refers to the paschal lamb (Korban Pesach) whose blood was smeared on the lintel of the houses of the Israelites and the meat eaten by the family before the march for freedom. Since then Jews have celebrated this event. The Passover holiday begins on 14th sunset of Nisan, the 7th Month in Jewish calendar, and continues for seven days. This year, the Passover starts on 2nd April.
At the time of the Temple , on the afternoon of the 14th of day of Nisan, a family offered a lamb which was slaughtered in the Temple and given back to the family that roasted its lamb in a portable clay stove and ate it that night on 15th.
Today, in the absence of the Temple, some Jews use symbolic food like roasted shank bone of a lamb, Others deeply marked by the absence of the Temple use chicken wing or neck; which they eat with unleavened bread, Matzo and bitter herbs, Maror. Why unleavened bread.
One explanation is that there was no time to allow the dough to rise and thus flat bread, matzo, is a reminder of the Exodus. Others say matzo was bread for the journey for it preserved well and was light to carry. But its other name is profoundly meaningful, Lechem Oni – or poor man`s bread. In this way, Passover is reminder of the poverty of being slave and thus an invitation to be humble, appreciate the freedom rather than being puffed up in oneself like leavened bread.
The Seder meal, which is festival meal, is eaten in a certain order during which four different cups of wine, or grape juice, are drunk each linked to something meaning.
The First Cup is for Kiddush, a prayer of blessing over a cup of wine before the festival meal; the Second Cup is connected with narrating Exodus story – and you shall tell the story of the Exodus to your children and to your children’s children (cf Ex 12:26-27), hence, the head of the family narrates the story; the Third Cup concludes Birkat Hamazon, a grace after meal –And you shall eat and you shall be satisfied. And you shall bless YHWH, your God, for the good land he has given you (Deut 8:10); and the Fourth Cup is associated with Hallel, which is the joyful chanting of Psalms 113 through 118, as an expression of joy.
The situation of the Jews today is a bit like the question of Isaac to his father Abraham: we have the fire and the wood, where is the lamb? Jews are not short of lambs, and they have the priests but the Temple .
Jews have not offered the sacrifice from 2nd century. They stopped in 70 A.D after the Romans destroyed the Temple and resumed for some time from 132-135 AD during the war. They can’t offer the sacrifice wherever they want.
Hence, the Temple occupied a special place in the lives and faith of Jews. It’s a sign of God’s presence among them. Even in exile, it was a motivation for returning, to reconstruct it and organize their lives around it.
Today Jews go to the synagogue, which was not a traditional, official place of worship. It was used by those who lived far from Jerusalem where they could only read the law, pray but no sacrifice. That is why people came on pilgrimage to Jerusalem especially on important feasts.
The sacerdotal ministry is another victim of the circumstance. There are still priests in Judaism, those from the tribe of Levi – the Cohen, those descended from Aaron, the priest ordained by God. But they do not exercise their priestly duties causing a vacuum as people have teachers of the Law who are not officially presidents at prayer. And the rituals that remain possibly are those adapted to circumstances like when they were in exile.
Some Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, pray for the restoration of the Temple and the ritual sacrifice.
The Wailing Wall –western side of the Temple Mount is that all the Jews can access of their sacred place. There, they do their frantic prayer, certainly, employing God who promised to give them land where they will not only prosper but worship him as well. At the site of the Temple stands an imposing Mosque where Jews would dare not approach; it is heavily guarded by police.
Witnessing this reality, you appreciate better the complexity of the problem. No longer victim of media propaganda; you are restrained from rush judgment; you feel with the people and instead of condemning you extend a helping hand in restoring peace for all the people of the land rather than advancing prejudiced, partisan position.
Now, when the young Jews come chanting in loud speakers full blast, through the Old City to the entrance of the Mosque esplanade; the words we have no place to offer sacrifice or find mercy soak my heart and I just can’t afford getting irritated as before for their cause, without playing down many other issues of concern involved, is certainly greater than my petite pre-occupations.
Evans K. Chama 2007
Missionary of Africa studying Theology in Jerusalem