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It was standing room only as Rabbi Seth Phillips, a lieutenant commander from the Naval Submarine Base in New London, Conn., leads more than 30 service members in the Seder meal here April 27.

Photo by courtesy photo

Observing Passover in Iraq

28 Apr 2005 | Capt. Rob James

“Passover has a message for the conscience and the heart of all mankind.  For what does it commemorate?  It commemorates the deliverance of a people from degrading slavery, from most foul and cruel tyranny.  It is God’s protest against unrighteousness,” says Morris Joseph in “Judaism As Creed and Life”.

Passover began April 24 and what better place than Iraq, a land long oppressed by the evil of a tyrannical dictator, to celebrate at the Seder table the liberating power of the Passover God has promised his people.

Gathering in a dusty room, at tables set with plastic plates and bowls and paper cups, Marines, sailors, soldiers and a civilian seized the opportunity to reconnect with the Jewish heritage of their faith at a Christian Seder meal here.

It was standing room only as Rabbi Seth Phillips, a lieutenant commander from the Naval Submarine Base in New London, Conn., led more than 30 service members in the Seder meal. 

While the service was a bit more abbreviated and much less formal than the traditional Seder, Rabbi Phillips, one of only seven Jewish chaplains in the Navy, walked the group through the meal. 

As the meal and ceremony that imbues it progressed, Rabbi Phillips took the time to explain the symbolism that pervades not just the steps (the specific actions that compose the ceremonial meal) but that of the various foods themselves.

The meal, steeped in symbolism serves many purposes, a central theme of which is to remind us of our past, Egypt’s oppression of the Israelites and their eventual freedom. Additionally, it reminds us of the constant struggle between good and evil taking place in the heart of every man. 

While we are no longer enslaved by a physical power, as the Jews were by the Egyptian Pharaoh, the meal reminds us that, despite the freedom we enjoy and often take for granted, we remain slaves to our evil desires.

While the deep lessons of the Seder meal have are serious the ceremony was lighthearted.

The service provides a fun and tangible lesson in the history of the Jewish people invoking the many years of slavery they endured under the Egyptians while at the same time demonstrating how a saving knowledge of God provided them true freedom from the most heinous of all bondage, that of sin.

Rabbi Phillips explained that while the lessons of the Seder meal are grave the ceremony is executed with humor.  The ceremony, which would very likely take hours, is designed to keep the interest of any children involved and includes a matzo hide and seek, and a bit of drama with the singing of prayers and story telling.

While an ideal Seder would be very formal, executed following long practiced tradition, Rabbi Phillips explained that it could be held in a fighting hole.  He explained that there are only three absolute requirements that go to the very core of the symbolism of the ceremony.

No matter how simple or formal the Seder meal there are three distinct elements and each must be recognized.  They are the matzo, the paschal lamb and the bitter herbs.  These elements are symbolic of the plight of the Israelites enslaved in Egypt and when finally freed, their forty-year exodus to the land they had been promised.

The first is the bitter herbs that symbolize the bitterness of a life enslaved.  The second is the lamb, a reminder of the tenth plague that befell all of Egypt, the death of the first-born son of every family who did not spread the blood of the lamb on their doorpost as a symbol for the angel of Death to Passover.  Finally, the matzo or unleavened bread recalls the haste with which the Jews fled Egypt.  When the opportunity came to depart Egypt they had to quickly grab the bread they were preparing not allowing it leaven or rise. 

Following the ceremonial meal much of the group who had gathered for the meal adjourned to the dining facility for fellowship.  There they had the opportunity to talk with the rabbi and have him answer their questions.

Thursday night Rabbi Phillips presided over a Seder meal for the Jewish service members here.

Rabbi Phillips was quick to thank Cmdr. Ron Brown, chaplain, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), for all of the preparation that went into ensuring the ceremony went off well.  This was his eighth Seder and according to Phillips, “Chaplain Brown did the best job of preparing for the Seder.” 

Chaplain Brown, in turn gave all the credit for the great experience to Lt. David L. Batchelor, chaplain for Marine Attack Squadron 311 and Petty Officer 2nd Class David G. Oihus, a religious program specialist here.

Rabbi Phillips has been trying for the better part of a year to get to Iraq so that he can minister to the Jewish faithful.
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