Pesach is my favorite Jewish holiday. The traditions are so rich and the Seder is the ultimate joyous, jubilant Jewish celebration: the symbols of the Seder plate, the smells and tastes of real Jewish food (I will put Margie’s golden chicken soup up against any in the world), the struggle with matzoh for eight days, the four cups, the laughter, the singing, Elijah. Those are all so memorable.
But it is the message that permeates the holiday that is so important. While the book of Exodus holds perhaps more of the basic concepts, precepts, commandments and narratives of the Torah than any other book, the Haggadah‘s lessons seem much narrower.
There are many different interpretations of the meaning of the story from the manifestation of The Lord acting directly in the world, to the molding of the Jewish people into a nation, to the miracles of the Passover and the parting of the Sea of Reeds itself. Yet to me the most straightforward and overriding message is simple:
- REMEMBER. You were slaves in Egypt
- RELIVE. How it felt to be enslaved. To be oppressed
- REPUDIATE. So that, You, personally, and, Jews as a people, will never become oppressors yourselves
Every Jewish holiday harks back to a connection with bedrock stories from the Jewish community’s past like the recitation of the Akedah and story of Jonah on the High Holidays, the Megillah on Purim, Akadmut and Ruth on Shavuot,, or the rededication of the Temple at Hanukkah. But the Seder and the Haggadah ask something of us that is wholly unique and of an entirely different nature than any other Jewish holiday. It specifically tells us that we must place ourselves inside the story – we must be in Egypt to feel the pain and oppression – and the redemption. This is one of the main lessons of the telling of the story of the Four Sons, which acts as an answer to Mah Nishtanah – Why is this night different from all other nights?
So why is it so important to more than sympathize, more than empathize, but to actually experience being slaves in Egypt? The answer seems straightforward. Each of us needs to understand what it is like to be oppressed so that we will never become oppressors ourselves. We must feel the weariness of the excruciating labor, the pain of the task masters’ whips, and shed the tears of a people without rights or freedom. Having lived through it ourselves, it should be unthinkable for Jews to oppress others. And lest we forget, we are commanded to relive our slavery each and every Pesah. We must understand the pain of the oppressed and the evil of the oppressor – so that we never allow the roles to be reversed.
One of the traditional prayers at the end of the Seder is “next year in Jerusalem”. The problem is that now when I look to Jerusalem, I see Israel occupying Arab neighborhoods. Pushing people out of homes that have been in their families for decades or longer. And beyond that, I see checkpoints, and identity cards, and political prisons. Most of all, I see one people subjugating another. This is not fantasy. This is reality for anyone who cares to take a look. But if an American Jew talks about it, he is told, “You have no right to criticize Israeli policy because you don’t live there. You don’t have to serve in the IDF. You don’t have to dive into bomb shelters when the sirens sound. You don’t have to fear that your children will be killed riding in a school bus.” That is so very true. And I am so sorry that life is indeed that dangerous for those living in Eretz Yisrael. But I am also sorry to say that I believe the Haggadah not only gives me the right, but also the obligation as a Jew, to speak out when I see fellow Jews oppressing another people. As Peter Beinart said when he spoke at Northwestern, “The morality of a people must not be measured when they are powerless. The question is how they act when they have the power.”