April 13, 2023
Last Wednesday and Thursday evenings, my wife and I joined with family and friends to celebrate Passover. The tradition is that on the first two nights of this eight-day holiday that over a meal (Seder) we try to follow an ancient injunction to remember that “In every generation, everyone is obligated to see themselves as though they personally left Egypt.”
The challenge for us has always been to figure out what this actually is asking us to do and how it has meaning to us now.
Our first tries, decades ago, began by recreating the traditions we had grown up with. We used a very traditional Haggadah, “a written guide to the Passover seder, which commemorates the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt. The Haggadah includes various prayers, blessings, rituals, fables, songs, and information for how the seder should be performed.“
But it left us with a reminiscent echo of past observances and with little other meaning, and with even less relevance to the many challenges we were facing in a world filled with inequity.
Year by year it became clearer that the importance of these nights could not come from looking back and remembering what supposedly happened to “my people” thousands of years ago and celebrating our good fortune to be living here and now. Our Seders could have meaning only if we looked around at our world as it is today. We wanted to translate this from the past to the present. If we had once been slaves, who was now suffering as we did and what must we be doing about it? .
Our Haggadah was transformed into a billboard upon which we could post the stories of those being left out, left behind, and persecuted. Unfortunately, those people whose stories needed inclusion were not hard to find. Those were the marginalized in our neighborhood, nation, and world. They included: Soviet Jews, who for many years were not allowed to leave the Soviet Union. People starving in countries beset by economic plundering and environmental disaster. Iraqis caught in a war we started. Palestinians living under Israeli control.
This year I began to wonder if the decades of Seders, decades of protesting, letter writing, and advocating was actually accomplishing anything. There was no shortage of issues to be added to our Haggadah. And there were few that we could say had been resolved and whose harm had been ended. Looking back over the years it is easy to see that we are still calling attention to the same inequities, and more.
While the Soviet Union is no more and Soviet Jewry has long ago been let free, Palestinians remain shackled and persecuted. At a moment when Al-Aqsa Mosque is under siege and daily battles are taking place in occupied villages, it is still important to read the words of Israeli novelist Amos Oz, words we have been reading for so long. “I see no validity in the annexation of populated regions to the bounds of the State of Israel without the agreement of their inhabitants. The residents of Nablus and Gaza are not ‘human material’, nor ‘human dust’, nor ‘sub-human’ rabble who have to be expropriated so as to create living space”.
In the week that the Tennessee legislature expelled two African American duly-elected state representatives for daring to speak out of turn, on an issue they chose to ignore, it is important to keep front and center the words of Patrisse Cullors, a Black Lives Matter leader: “I know I can speak for most of us. We have fought like hell for our freedom and we will continue to fight like hell. Because we deserve more than what we have been given. Because we deserve the healing and the transformation and most importantly we deserve to be free.“
And then I came back to the voices of hope that have crept into our readings and felt some comfort.
US Senator Cory Booker, speaking to now Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, in the midst of her being treated shabbily by Republican Senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee who sought to have her nomination fail, was still able to tell the world that “This country gets better and better and better. When that final vote happens, and your ascent onto the highest court in the land, I am going to rejoice,” that he saw the progress in the very darkness of that hearing.
I am encouraged to keep on by the words of Senator (Reverend) Rafael Warnock, “I believe that democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea: the sacred worth of all human beings, the notion that we all have within us a spark of the divine and a right to participate in the shaping of our destiny. Reinhold Niebuhr was right: “[Humanity’s] capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but [humanity’s] inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
James Baldwin continues to sit on my shoulder reminding me that we cannot give up, we cannot isolate ourselves. “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”
And then I come to a vision that we have had in our Haggadah almost from the beginning, the words of a young teenage girl, living in hiding as the world around her is destroyed. Anne Frank tells us we cannot give up. “That’s the difficulty in these times; ideals, dreams and cherished hopes within, only to meet the horrible truth and be shattered. It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually turned into a wilderness. I hear the ever-approaching thunder, which will destroy us, too. I can feel the suffering of millions – and, yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think it will come out all right, that this cruelty will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.
In the meantime, I must uphold my idealism for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.”
So, as we complete this Passover, and pack up our Haggadot for another year I know we cannot cease the work of calling out inequity. We cannot rest in our comfort and the warmth that once we were slaves, but NOW WE ARE FREE. As long as we are all not free, the work must go on.