Sunday, April 20, 2008

Happy Passover!

From Wikipedia:
The verb "pasàch" (Hebrew: פָּסַח) is first mentioned in the Torah account of the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:23), and there is some debate about its exact meaning: the commonly-held assumption that it means "He passed over", in reference to God "passing over" the houses of the Israelites during the final plague of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, stems from the translation provided in the Septuagint (παρελευσεται in Exodus 12:23, and εσκεπασεν in Exodus 12:27). Judging from other instances of the verb, and instances of parallelism, a more faithful translation may be "he hovered over, guarding." Indeed, this is the image used by Isaiah by his use of this verb in Isaiah. 31:5: "As birds hovering, so will the Lord of hosts protect Jerusalem; He will deliver it as He protecteth it, He will rescue it as He passeth over" (כְּצִפֳּרִים עָפוֹת--כֵּן יָגֵן יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת, עַל-יְרוּשָׁלִָם; גָּנוֹן וְהִצִּיל, פָּסֹחַ וְהִמְלִיט.) (Isaiah 31:5)

The English term "Passover" came into the English language through William Tyndale's translation of the Bible, and later appeared in the King James Version as well.

The term Pesach (Hebrew: פֶּסַח) may also refer to the lamb or kid which was designated as the Passover sacrifice (called the Korban Pesach in Hebrew). Four days before the Exodus, the Israelites were commanded to set aside a lamb or kid (Exodus 12:3) and inspect it daily for blemishes. During the day on the 14th of Nisan, they were to slaughter the animal and use its blood to mark their lintels and door posts. Up until midnight on the 15th of Nisan, they were to consume the lamb. Each family (or group of families) gathered together to eat a meal that included the meat of the Korban Pesach while the Tenth Plague ravaged Egypt.

In subsequent years, during the existence of the Tabernacle and later the Temple in Jerusalem, the Korban Pesach was eaten during the Passover Seder on the 15th of Nisan. However, following the destruction of the Temple, no sacrifices may be offered or eaten. The story of the Korban Pesach is therefore retold at the Passover Seder, and the symbolic food which represents it on the Seder Plate is usually a roasted lamb shankbone, chicken wing, or chicken neck.
At last night's Seder, it was pointed out that this is the first Passover in our lifetime without Charlton Heston, who played Moses in Cecil B. DeMille's epic, The Ten Commandments. Here's an appreciation of the film, by Doron Rosenblum, from Haaretz:
Even at a time when we are flooded with cheap audiovisual stimuli, when movies are bursting at the seams with computerized effects and surround sound makes the apartment shake, it is amazing how much power still resides in this movie. Seemingly this is due to the spectacles: the staff that morphs into a snake, the yellow Nile turning into blood, the creeping green miasma of the "killing of the firstborn" that passes over the houses of the Hebrews, on which the mezuzahs have been marked with blood, the pillar of fire that goes before the camp - and the zenith: the Red Sea divided in two, which no digital effect has yet been able to outdo in the thrill and sense of wonder it inspires.

But these effects reflect the frame of mind in which the film was made, and which still preserves it: abysmal seriousness and a profound faith in sublime values. And those values are, like it or not, the values of the Western world, the Judeo-Christian world, which have been so twisted in vain wars, so subjected to attack from the outside, and have become so outmoded and tattered from inside: namely, human dignity and the right to freedom.

As though to emphasize that this is not just any movie, it is served up with religious solemnity: a long "overture," uplifting music and credits inscribed in marble. Moreover, "before the curtain goes up" the director, Cecil B. DeMille himself, emerges from backstage - a cordial uncle type and surprisingly authoritative - to deliver a kind of papal urbs et orbis, in which he makes it clear that he is not intent on just telling a story, but wants to transmit an ambitious message: "The theme of this picture is whether men ought to be ruled by God's laws or whether they are to be ruled by the whims of a dictator like Rameses. Are men the property of the State or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today."

One critic remarked that this is probably the last time we heard an oration to the masses, in the name of God, delivered in the spirit of humanism and enlightenment, and not in the spirit of revenge, suppression, terror and hatred.

Cecil Blount DeMille, the son of an Episcopalian preacher and a Jewish mother who converted to Christianity upon her marriage - accompanied the cinema from the silent period to the great spectacles of the age of Technicolor, with almost unbroken success. His image - with riding boots and whip (though he never got on a horse in his life) - became a legend in his lifetime. He was reputed to be tyrannical with his actors, a pedant who made sure the last of the extras was properly outfitted and the most negligible element in the set was accurate. At the same time, he was an educated man and knowledgeable about the Bible, and in "The Ten Commandments" he invested not only extensive historical research, but his very soul. During the shooting in Egypt he suffered a heart attack but kept on directing (it would be his last film: he died three years later). Throughout the film his sonorous voice, like the voice of God himself, is also heard in narration, seamlessly blending biblical fervor with the American values of liberty. According to the values of that world, the good, the people whose side God is on, is embodied in the ancient Hebrews; and, by inference (as also expressed in Otto Preminger's "Exodus," from the same period), the new Hebrews, too, meaning the Israelis. God was ours, ours alone.