Passover: Seeing Yourself as if you Left Egypt

03/30/2015 04:46 pm ET | Updated May 30, 2015

On Friday night this week, in Jewish homes and synagogues in Israel and around the world, Jewish extended families will gather together on the first night of the holiday of Passover to recite a version of the history of our people, or at least the foundational narrative of our people. We can do so with any one of hundreds of haggadot (the Haggadah is the "telling of the story") that have been printed over the centuries. And more are produced each year. There is one for almost every form of Jewish identity in the contemporary world, from secular to religious, from Zionist to non-Zionist, from kibbutzim and from cities, from women to gays, and more.

Passover is undoubtedly the most universally observed Jewish holiday, since it appeals to all Jews in one way or another. Why is this so?

It seems to me that the answer to this question is threefold.

First, the meal and discussions surrounding what we called "the Seder" (literally the order of the Passover ritual on the first night in Israel, and for two nights in the Diaspora) represent the quintessential family gathering. In my family, it has always been our favorite Jewish holiday. This year, as in previous years, everyone in the family who will attend the Seder will get a part to prepare. They can do it with words or with songs or with skits, or all of them.

Secondly, it is a child-centered educational event. The adults attempt to tell the basic outline of the founding of our people -- from slavery in Egypt to receiving the Commandments at Sinai to arrival in the Promised Land of Israel -- to the children in creative ways. The Traditional "Four Questions" are sung by the youngest children and they are a stimulus for others around the table to ask questions. By the end of the evening, we realize that as human beings we have more questions than answers!

Several years ago, b.g. (before grandchildren), one of the guests at our Seder was Msgr. Pietro Sambi, of blessed memory, the Vatican's nuncio (ambassador) in Israel for eight years, with whom I developed a close professional working relationship and abiding friendship. He came three times to our Seder in our home in Jerusalem. One of the years, I assigned to him the task of creating four new questions for us to think about. He took the assignment very seriously, and pressed us for answers to his burning questions. At the same Seder, Msgr. Sambi told us that he had met the Pope at his summer residence during the previous summer at which time he told the Pope all about our Seder, especially about how we retell our history with our children in our homes and how, in doing so, we share our most precious values with our children, extended family, close friends and guests.

Thirdly, as Msgr. Sambi noted, the Seder ritual helps us remember who we are today, what our most important values are and who we would like to be as Jewish individuals and as a people. In my experience, the most important verse in the Haggadah is this one:

In every generation, each human being must see himself or herself as if he or she personally experienced the Exodus from Egypt

This verse -- which we in my family all know by heart and which we sing to a contemporary Israeli melody -- represents the central eternal and contemporary value of Judaism. For us, the Exodus was not only a historical event (even though historians in recent years are debating its historicity) but also a foundational idea. Just as we Jews moved from slavery to freedom, from darkness to joy, from depression and despair to exaltation and happiness, so should every human being -- and every people -- in every generation, be able to enjoy this process of liberation.

In addition, for us Mitzrayim (Hebrew for "Egypt") can also be interpreted as "the narrow places", the times in our lives when we suffered physical and emotional pain. Every human being seeks to escape from the difficulties of these "narrow places" and to enjoy a world of personal, communal and national fulfillment and self-actualization. We all want to move from the darkness of "Egypt" to the light of "the Promised Land", both metaphorical and physical.

I would add that for myself and my family, celebrating Passover in the reborn state of Israel has special meaning. In a physical way, we have made the journey to Israel. We are here, when so many of our ancestors were not able to get here. But we must be careful. We must be mindful that being here physically is not enough.

A passage that I read every year at our Seder from a Haggadah of the Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz movement does a good job of reminding us of this:

This year, we (in Israel) are the redeemed of the people Israel; next year, it shall be all the people of Israel. This year, we are still slaves; next year we shall be free people.

We will not be completely free as long as we are enslaved to old habits of thinking and action, and as long as other peoples in our region and in our world are oppressed. Even though we are "here" in Israel, and other Jews are "there", outside Israel, we do not have a monopoly on truth or on Jewish wisdom or on the only way of interpreting and explaining Jewish history to the younger generation.

It is because of these Jewish values that Passover has become the holiday that celebrates and venerates freedom not only for us, but for all human beings and all peoples. This is why this holiday has so much universal appeal for Jews, but for so many other people in our troubled world.