As the preparations for Passover reach a fever pitch, Jews all over the world are preparing for the seder meal. We clean, prepare, cook, and we anticipate the celebration of our liberation from slavery -- our zman simchateinu, the season of our joy. The Passover seder is the single most enacted ritual of the Jewish calendar regardless of denomination, affiliation and geographic location. When we all sit down on Monday evening, we will join together with Jews all over the world in the telling of a profound story of redemption.
On the one hand, all of the preparations really do enhance the ritual. I can remember living in Israel on Kibbutz Ein Tzurim in my senior year of high school, working with my classmates to prepare for the holiday: scrubbing the kitchen, blowtorching the ovens, and then the morning of the seder eating outside the dining hall on paper goods because everything had been kashered (prepared appropriately) for the holiday. I can remember living in Jerusalem in 1996 waking up to the smell of burning bread outside my apartment building as my neighbors were gathering to burn the last of their hametz (leavened products) before the holiday began. And I can remember the first time my mother ever made gefilte fish from scratch -- even without our own carp swimming in the bathtub.
On the other hand, as a Reconstructionist Jew, I am perpetually asking questions of our observances that seek to understand how these practices teach beyond the moment and penetrate us in multidimensional ways. What does this ritual mean for us today? How does the reenactment of a story of slavery to freedom awaken us to the ethical dilemmas of our time, and how do we as modern Jews who are already free redeem the people and the world around us? Over the years there have been so many ways to connect this ancient tale of redemption to our contemporary enslavements, whether we are talking about the relationship between African Americans and Jews, Soviet Jewry, women's liberation, the inclusion of gays and lesbians in Jewish life, or the plight of Immokalee workers in Miami.
Rabbi David Hartman, z"l, who died just recently, was a giant of a teacher, a man who straddled many worlds, was thoughtful and loving about Judaism, but impatient with petty answers to the challenging questions of the day. An Orthodox rabbi, Hartman was deeply influenced by the rationalist tradition in Judaism and drawn to Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionism. Hartman wrote in 2010:
"Passover is meant to celebrate and sustain our deep yearning for freedom, not necessarily to show that God can change the order of the universe. Passover is a holiday that inculcates the belief that man will overcome oppression, that freedom will reign throughout the world. The faith that tyranny will ultimately be vanquished is deeply embedded in the significance of Passover..."
In other words, it is up to us, as the Haggadah teaches, to see ourselves as if we came forth from Egypt. Jewish ritual is meant to be experiential -- something that simultaneously catapults us backwards in time and propels us forward in anticipation of the future. When we sit at the seder we are attempting to connect with the Power that makes for freedom, identify that force within ourselves and the Universe to bring about redemption.
Redemption for us today is not a supernatural occurrence as it is imagined in the Torah. It is as Rabbi Hartman taught, in the name of Mordecai Kaplan:
"...an individual's growth into a complete human being, a person who fulfills all of his or her aptitudes. Redemption is not an abstract philosophical or theological construct, but a fine-tuning of the human soul that helps us to love more and to be more sensitive. It creates a meaningful pattern of self-fulfillment."
Ha'lailah hazeh -- on this night, what will you ask of yourself to bring us all a little closer to redemption?