Passover Lessons

Many years ago I was a guest at a large seder in Jerusalem. Around the table, in great Yerushalmi style, was a sampling of all the classic residents and tourists. Some were American, some native Israelis, some Yemenites, some religious, some heretics, some crazy. Old, young, and in between. It was a classic scene, and I loved it. There was lots of wine and drama.

Hours went by until the Passover meal was served and the afikomen successfully hunted down. Right before the 4th cup of wine is blessed and then imbibed, the door is opened for Elijah. From past seders, I remembered singing “Eliyahu Hanavi” – Elijah the Prophet – into the night.

But there is another tradition, that does not include that plaintive song. It is instead a very tough reading that goes: Pour out Your wrath upon those who do not know You and upon the governments which do not call upon Your Name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his dwelling place (Psalms 79:6-7). Pour out Your fury upon them; let the fierceness of Your anger overtake them (Psalms 69:25). Pursue them in indignation and destroy them from under Your heavens (Lamentations 3:66).

At that Jerusalem seder, there was a particular older man, a Holocaust survivor, as it turned out.  He was thoroughly enjoying the food and the wine and the Passover story and all the attendant festivities. But when it got to this particular passage, something happened.

When the door was opened, he quickly elbowed his way through the throng of people to the threshold and began to recite the imprecation above. Actually, reciting is not accurate. He screamed it, he bellowed it into the Jerusalem night, shaking his fist and crying. All those years since the crushing brutality and privation, decades since his liberation from Dachau, the pain of captivity still constricted his soul. I will never forget how he screamed and wept.

When I recall that story, I remember a line from the movie, Forrest Gump, when Jennie, now an adult, comes upon her old, vacant childhood ramshackle home where she’d been beaten and raped by her father. She looks at the place in silence, and then suddenly breaks into a sob, throwing her shoes at the hovel. Out of her mind with grief and anger, she throws stones at the windows and then collapses on the road. Forrest, narrating the scene, only says, “Sometimes there just aren’t enough rocks.”

The liberation from Egypt may have been one moment in history. But just because we left Egypt does not mean that Egypt has entirely left us. The residue of servitude is hard to eradicate. All of the work people put into finding the chametz and cleaning it out before Passover is a metaphor for our own struggles with the past and how it clings to us. We can’t be complete when we are dragged down by remnants of the past.

We keep telling the story of Passover for a dual purpose. First, it reminds us of the bitterness of servitude and the therapeutic value in symbolically casting it out, much like the crumbs of Tashlich. And second, it tells us that we are not the only people who have suffered. Even as we acknowledge our long trek from slavery to freedom and the damage it did—and still does – to us, we see others who are not as far along on the road to freedom.

Some years ago, Solomon Burke sang None of Us Are Free, which includes the lyrics,

There are people still in darkness,

And they just can’t see the light.

If you don’t say it’s wrong then that says it right.

We got try to feel for each other, let them all know that

We care.

Got to get the message, send it out loud and clear.

None of us are free.

None of us are free.

None of us are free, when one of us is chained.

None of us are free.

This is the truest message of Passover. We were once slaves, embattled, beaten, murdered. Avadim hayinu. But now we are free. Ata b’nai horin. We sluff off the shackles of our oppressors. We work out the trauma of our past and enter into history fully present and engaged. And that engagement along with our empathy leads us to work for the liberation of all.

I know – it’s pretty high-minded stuff. But we are here for a reason. We are the hands of God, the outstretched arm helping others find their way to hope. Passover is not only telling stories of the past. It’s also sharing the undying hope that somehow, all of us will be free at last.

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