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Mitch Edelman: Lessons in Passover rituals

First, let me wish all of my readers a happy Easter or Passover, as appropriate. These holidays are bound to each other because the Last Supper was a Passover Seder. Eastern Orthodox churches call the holiday "Pascha," commemorative of this fact.

The lessons contained in the ancient Passover rituals remain relevant today.

Early in the ceremony, the leader of the Seder speaks these words as he displays the Matzah, the cracker-like bread eaten during the 8-day festival: "This is the bread that our fathers ate in Egypt. Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat."

Each day, 50 million Americans, one in six of us, makes the bitter choice between eating or keeping the lights turned on. Not including the $94 billion tab for federal nutrition programs, the impact of chronic hunger on the nation's economy is estimated to be more than $167 billion annually.

A 2011 study conducted by Harvard and Brandeis universities claims that just the cost of illness attributable to hunger exceeded $130 billion in 2010, and that bill is going up by about 10 percent each year. It is intolerable for this, the most prosperous nation in history, to allow children to suffer the consequences of malnutrition, but we do. In fact, the House of Representatives proposed a budget that cuts food subsidies to the poor by about $13 billion.

The Seder continues with an invitation to those in need to share our meal, and a reminder that we were strangers in a land not our own. About 11 million illegal aliens live in the United States. More than a million of them were brought here as children and have spent all but the first few years of their lives in the United States. They are not strangers, but they live in a land not their own. It is intolerable for this nation to continue to punish innocent children who, through no fault of their own, are made to live like criminals.

Four glasses of wine are filled during the course of the Seder. Three of them are drunk; as we recite the 10 plagues that tormented Egypt, we spill some of the wine from the other cup. A full cup symbolizes a full measure of happiness; emptying the cup before we drink from it reminds us that the Egyptians paid with their lives for our redemption.

An ancient Rabbinic story relates that the angels in heaven rejoiced as the Israelites finished crossing the Red Sea. As the Egyptians' chariots were swallowed up in its waters, an angry God rebuked the angels, saying "How dare you celebrate while My children are dying in the Red Sea?' It is intolerable that this country sits on its hands, doing nothing while assault weapons kill our children in movie theaters, on the streets, in shopping malls and in schools.

Another glass of wine is set on the table, but not drunk at all. This glass is to welcome the prophet Elijah who, according to tradition, is the forerunner to the Messiah and whose presence will lead to an age where men will "beat their swords into plowshares and their swords into pruning hooks."

It is intolerable that Department of Defense costs you, me, and every other American $600 billion each and every year, even as our roads and bridges remain in need of repair.

Jesus knew the Seder's symbolism and the commitments it asks of us. He was especially aware of the message to ease the burden of the poor, to welcome the stranger in our midst, and essentially and fundamentally to create a caring, civil society. That message is central to all religions, not just the monotheistic faiths of Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

It is worthwhile for us to remind ourselves of that which we share, and not to be consumed by that which divides us.

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