By Rabbi Daniel G. Zemel
I write this with an inner turmoil that surprises me in its depth. It is early March. Russia has invaded Ukraine. Ukrainian resistance is stronger than expected. President Volodymyr Zelensky has become a powerful international symbol of courage and resistance as the future of his country hangs in the balance. What the situation will be as you read these words is unknown at this point.
We do know this: Russia’s Vladimir Putin is this era’s symbol of evil. I am always, and I mean always, more than reluctant to make comparisons to Hitler who set history’s standard for evil. Still, Putin’s attempted land grab of Ukraine cannot help but bring back memories of Hitler and Sudetenland. In the meantime, we must do our part to support the refugee efforts created by this monstrous invasion.
I find that I long for greater clarity and understanding about when our own country should use our own military. I ask myself about our nation’s role in the world as a defender of national sovereignty and the world order. On a more theoretical but perhaps even larger scale, I worry that moral progress is a figment of the liberal imagination—a wish, a desire, but not a reality.
Personally, I long to echo the biblical Song of Songs, which celebrates this season with the proclamation, “The winter is past; the rains are over and gone. Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come…” (2:11)
What shall we sing this Passover?
Passover is, after all, the Jewish season of renewal and recommitment to freedom—for everyone. The basic and essential Jewish story is one of human freedom. People, all people, are meant to be free. So we believe. We see this in our earliest texts and their earliest interpretations. Adam and Eve exercise their freedom in the Garden of Eden. Abraham’s free thinking gains him a new vision of God and alters the trajectory of the human story. We are challenged by our Passover haggadah to see ourselves as newly freed slaves. Freedom is not to be taken for granted—quite the opposite. Freedom is sacred. This is why we ritualize the experience of liberation annually. We are meant to feel it—and feel it so deeply it pierces our souls.
In this era of the American Jewish experience, our faith’s holding of human freedom as a sacred religious mandate informs what we choose to read.
How the Word is Passed, by Clint Smith, depicts how historical sites around our country tell the story of American slavery. The title of the book alone reminded me of the Passover Seder. Engaging the book closely brought me to the Seder table itself, as at one point the museum director of a former Southern plantation-turned-tourist-site describes how the plantation is trying to tell its own slave story and, in doing so, come to grips with its past:
“If you can’t see them for being people, you can’t see me as a person. I want to get you to see them, because I know as a Black woman what my challenges in society have been. It’s stemming from this history, so if I can’t get you to see them, you can’t see the person standing in front of you.”
That is about as close as one can get to the haggadah’s directive that “in each and every generation, each person must see themselves as if he/she went forth from Egypt.” If we don’t try to see people who lived before us as fully as we are able, we simply cannot see or understand ourselves and each other.
Later in the book, another staff member from the former plantation is quoted:
“The problem with [this] country—and also all around the world—is…miseducation… Books are really good, but who can read a book? Who can have access to books? This needs to be an open book, up under the sky, that people can come here and see.”
This is the power of ritual. Passover is not reading a book. Passover is the ritual of a lived experience, from eating matzah for a week to retelling who we are and how we as Jews understand ourselves and our religious mandate. The Passover story reminds us that it was not the Israelites alone that Moses led out of Egypt. Torah tells us that our ancestors left as a “mixed multitude.” No one was left behind. Freedom was meant to be God’s gift for everyone.
If our American understanding of freedom is weak, it is because our American civic ritual life is weak. When and where do we enact our fondest aspirations for all humanity in story and song? When do we ritually recall our past—our glories and our sins—in order to guide us toward a shared future of freedom?
As I write this, the Ukrainian people are engaged in a fight for their freedom and their lives. This Passover, we might each ask ourselves if we were so threatened, would our fight be as valiant as theirs? Thus far, over one million Ukrainians have become refugees, echoing the Passover story’s depiction of our ancestors as “wanderers.”
The haggadah challenges us to open our doors so that “all who are hungry may come and eat.” This year as we celebrate Passover, reunited from the bondage of COVID isolation, let us consider how we might better proclaim our message of freedom to our nation and our world and then, of course, do everything in our power to help those denied their freedom and their homes—to help those who like those of our own past, are forced to wander today.
Chag Sameach—May the sounds of freedom echo from your Seder table.
— Rabbi Zemel