The Passover Seder ritual is known for its myriad questions. It is an interactive experience modeled, according to some, after the Greek Symposium, highly Socratic. It is perhaps the ultimate …
The Passover Seder ritual is known for its myriad questions. It is an interactive experience modeled, according to some, after the Greek Symposium, highly Socratic. It is perhaps the ultimate educational experience in the Jewish calendar, a veritable teachable moment; some 80 percent of all Jews engage in some form of Seder ritual.
It begins with four questions usually asked by the youngest child in the family, with the lead-in line, “How is this night different from all others?”
Needless to say, this year’s seder will be different from all others; the usual extended family will not be present on account of the COVID-19 pandemic and our need to “shelter in place.”
These barriers to sharing and celebrating together lead me to ponder the very origins of Passover: a time of deliverance from the Egyptian bondage that afflicted the ancient Israelite people over a period of 210 years.
It was actually a fear of the other, or a deep-seated sense of distrust and xenophobia, that led to these oppressive measures imposed on the Israelites by more than one Pharaoh. At the beginning of the Book of Exodus, we read of a desire to “deal wisely with the Israelites, lest they become too numerous and rise up against us and drive us from our land.”
My teacher, the noted professor Dr. Nechama Leibowitz, saw in these words the origins of anti-Semitism. In her words, “when the Israelites began to take up the box seats at the theatre,” a plan to marginalize them was put into place. Irrational fears of being supplanted by a people they had actually once known well, and who under Joseph’s leadership as Egyptian Viceroy centuries before, had saved Egypt from economic ruin, had gripped Egyptian society; so much so that they saw the need to enslave and debase them.
In this vein, one cannot ignore the linguistic similarity between the Hebrew words for Egypt “Mitzrayim” and another word “mitzarim” which means “straits” or “narrows.” The implication here is the tragic outcomes in society that result from narrowmindedness and unfounded fears of the others with whom we share society.
Sadly, this scourge continues in our own times and is played out in various ways on different landscapes. Rather than enrich ourselves by the crosscurrents of culture we often see, it as safer and more expedient to lock out those we do not know. We limit our horizons and stunt our growth all in the name of a perceived need to protect our hegemony and prevent the incursions of other “elements” into our country and manifest destiny. “America first” carries an ugly echo back to ancient Egypt.
Our global community may have decreased physical distance in travel and communication, but it has not eliminated the pervasive fears of and fright for those who are different and unfamiliar. And tragically, this narrow thinking persists in our own backyards. Untold cases of animus for and degradation of immigrants—with their brains, brawn and unlimited energies directed to succeeding in and contributing to the growth and progress of this great democracy—persist and prevail even today.
As such, the Passover narrative endures with a message for all ages. And the Seder ritual by no means glosses over the ignominies that the Jewish people suffered under the whips of their Egyptian taskmasters. Our freedom is only real when we consider its painful antecedent.
This year, in the midst of a crisis of yet unknown magnitude, it behooves us to take to heart the lessons of Biblical and political history, and to develop and demonstrate an expansiveness of heart and generosity of spirit that can both celebrate difference and recognize our commonalities.
It is explained that the ninth plague experienced by the Egyptians, that of darkness, was not the normal darkness of night but a form of social darkness, in which “one person could not ‘see’ the humanity of his or her neighbor.”
Let us at last emotionally unmask ourselves so that we might see the light and bring a new and much-needed measure of love and understanding to a world that has become crippled by narrow knowledge and thin thinking.
Rabbi Lawrence S. Zierler is the president and CEO of Sayva Associates, an elder-care practice based in Sullivan County. He has served as a pulpit rabbi, hospital and hospice chaplain, Jewish educator and communal executive.