We live at a time when the individual reigns supreme. We value everyone’s autonomy. We praise everyone’s uniqueness. We strongly espouse an ethic of individual rights. We live by the notion that no two snowflakes are the same; how much the more so when it comes to humans?
When we meet people for the first time, we often begin our line of inquiry from this perspective: Where are you from? Where did you grow up? Where did you go to school? What do you do? That is, we begin with the microcosmic, our focus a tight close-up.
A generation or two ago, it was done differently. The first question would be, “Who are your people?” In other words, your individual life may be interesting, but the more important story is your family saga. How did your family get here?
We are the Jewish people. We share a common story and connect with powerful common symbols and rituals. When we lose that sense of peoplehood – and I think Jews all over the world have lost a significant sense of peoplehood – we lose an existential mooring to a common set of stories that join us together over time and space.
Our current lack of a sense of peoplehood comes partly from our great success in America. We are essentially free as Jews to do what we want wherever we want. Jews in America are prime example #1 of assimilation and acculturation. We have gotten closer to non-Jews – professionally, personally, intimately – than at any time in our history. A sense of expansive Americanness – to coin an awkward phrase – certainly trumps a less immediately accessible Jewishness.
This is not an either/or gambit. We are proud and free Americans. Thank God for that. And our doors open ever wider to non-Jewish partners and friends who want to draw closer to our unique heritage. But as American Jews we can also acknowledge that we come from someone and somewhere else. We can raise up our peoplehood as an essential component of our lives. In fact, our history, our sense of family, our centuries of dedication to justice, to learning, and to tradition, all can make us more sensitive human beings who richly contribute to American life – as Jews.
The Passover Seder is the place where a foundational tribal tale is told and retold every year. We are adjured to see ourselves as the very people who went free with Moses. We are not at the Seder table to tell their story. There is no they! This story is about us! Passover reminds us to celebrate our freedom and to recognize just how hard it’s been to achieve it. Crossing the Sea of Reeds after escaping the Egyptians, and throwing off the bonds of slavery, this was miraculous. Establishing the state of Israel 3 years after Auschwitz, this was the sign of peoplehood.
The Stern Gang wishes you a zissen Pesach, a sweet Passover. Tell our story well: the long version, the short version, just tell it. Celebrate the sweetness of our lives but don’t forget to acknowledge how much bitterness exists in the world. The Jewish people must not only give thanks for where we are. We are obligated to make the world better. Because we were slaves, we know in our hearts that slavery is a sin. There’s work to do.