The Eternal Is...
The lights are dim. One bare bulb reaches out, pushing back the darkness. There’s light over the table. It’s Seder, the meal held on the first night of Passover. A makeshift collection of strays and wanderers gather – men and women, Jew and Gentile, all foreigners living in Austria. In downtown Vienna, we fellowship around a mass-produced Swedish table, while three Scottish Terroir's lie at our feet.
We open the Haggadah, and recite ancient texts handed down through the generations. For a few hours we link hands with the past, the present and with families scattered across the globe. We speak of the Creator, the Eternal, the Holy One.
“And it was evening and it was morning, the sixth day,” our host recites. He continues, “Then the Heavens and the Earth were finished together with the Divine alignment. And on the seventh day God finished the Divine work … Blessed are You, our God, Monarch of the Universe, Who has preserved us alive, sustained us, and brought us to enjoy this season.”*
We move from creation, through Genesis, to Exodus. We wash our hands. We dip parsley into salt water, we break unleavened bread. We recite these words, “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt; let all those who are hungry enter and eat; and all who are in need, come and celebrate the Passover.”
We name the ten plagues God brought against Pharaoh and his people – blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, pestilence, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, the slaying of the first born. We flick drops of wine out of our glass, one drop per plague.
We tell the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, and in the telling we relive the night when darkness fell, blood was shed, and God’s people waited: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and our God brought us out with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm … And we cried out to the Eternal, the God of our fathers, and the Eternal heard our voice…” It’s God’s command to Moses, to tell your children what the Lord did for you in Egypt (Exodus 13:9), living and active and obeyed.
We move through each ritual, retelling, reliving. Through it all we return to this refrain: God, the Eternal.
“The Eternal is God Who grants us light…”
“High above all nations is the Eternal, Whose glory is above the heavens…”
“The Eternal is gracious and just, and God is merciful. The Eternal preserves the simple; I was miserable but God saved me…”
The phrase “the Eternal” sticks with me. As a child I learned the legend of “Mr Eternity.” For 35 years, Arthur Stace walked the streets of Sydney, Australia, a piece of chalk in his hand. In the pre-dawn light, he scribbled “Eternity” on footpaths, on walls, on a city needing to hear this truth: That God wrote eternity on our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11). God, the Eternal, sets himself on our hearts. With every beat, our hearts seek the Creator.
At the end of Seder, that first night of Passover, I look around the table. I see a diverse crowd: a Jewish-American millennial, a Catholic woman from Mexico, an LGBTQ Christian, a conservative Evangelical and a Gen-X Protestant finding her way in a foreign country.
We live in a world in love with conflict. Across Europe and America an ideology of hate is gaining strength. Its fuel is fear – fear of difference. It thrives on division – on creating an us versus them culture. That night, as we sat around the Passover table, we didn’t know a week later, on the last day of the Passover festival, a gunman would walk into Chabad of Poway synagogue. The parishioners came to worship the Eternal. The shooter came to kill.
All we knew that first Passover night was this: At the Passover table we were a family. We came to the table with diverse beliefs, experiences, and cultures. On it, we laid our worries, our hopes, and our prayers. We brought our hearts, moulded and made by God and stamped with eternity.
In that dimly light room, the Eternal, the Light of Life, stood near, as together our diverse little family praised His name: “And the Eternal brought us out of Egypt, with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great terror, and with signs and wonders. ”
We cry for the Chabad of Poway synagogue, and for all who are hounded by hate. Together, our hearts beat for the Eternal, the Almighty, the one who was and is and is to come. We turn to the Lord. We keep watch, and we wait.
“Blessed is the person who will trust in the Eternal, because the Eternal will return the trust.”*
*Extracts taken from the Maxwell House Passover Haggadah, 2012, © Kraft Foods, Inc.