The holiday of Passover begins tomorrow night. Its most central event is the Seder, which is celebrated in Jewish homes in Israel on the first night of the holiday, and around the world on the first two nights of the holiday.
The night of the Passover Seder has always been very special for my family. On this very unique night, we gather together with family and friends in our homes to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, in ancient times and in our very own day. The book that we use to do this is called the Haggadah, literally the "telling" of the story of our liberation from bondage and our journey to the Promised Land of Israel.
At our family Seder in Jerusalem, we always bring many different interpretations to passages in the Haggadah, both old ones and new ones, into our discussion. The intellectual and spiritual stimulation is as good and enriching as the wonderful special foods prepared for the occasion.
The Bread of Affliction
One of my favorite passages, that I bring to the discussion each year, is the re-interpretation of the Ha Lachma Anya ("This is the Bread of Affliction") text that we recite early in the seder ritual (from a kibbutz haggadah that I bought when I was here as a student in 1970):
This is the bread of affliction which our forefathers and foremothers ate in the land of Egypt.
Let all who are hungry come and partake. Let all who are in need, come and celebrate Passover.
There was a notion in early Zionist thinking, in the early years of the 20th century, as reflected in this kibbutz haggadah, that only by living in Israel will we be redeemed. And therefore the hope was that all Jews would see the light and come to live in Israel. So, the next two lines show a new interpretation of the original text:
This year only we are the redeemed of Israel. Next year it shall be all the people of Israel.
This year we are still slaves. Next year we shall be free men and women.
But does living here make us fully redeemed? No, says this new text. Rather, we are still slaves! We are still enslaved to so many bad habits that we brought with us from our 2,000 years of Exile, such as seeing ourselves only as victims of persecution, rather than people with power who now sometimes victimize others. Only in the future will we really be free!
In addition, we are still slaves because we have not reached the peace that we yearn for and we are ruling over another people by force. Until we end this situation, we will not really be free.
Welcoming the Prophet Elijah
Another one of my favorite sections of the seder is the Opening of the Door for Elijah, after the meal. We open the door for Elijah, the harbinger of the messianic era of peace, and we pray that he will enter our homes and our hearts and our world. We seek peace. We yearn for it. We want Elijah to help us heal the world. We want to open ourselves to the world, to be part of it, and not to live in ghettoes any more, whether self-imposed or imposed by others.
At the same time, we recite certain biblical verses, which were inserted in the Middle Ages, which begin with the words "Pour out your wrath on the nations." This verse was originally an expression of anger against pogroms by Christians in the medieval period. But this verse has been reinterpreted by many contemporary thinkers in our day. For example, in the Haggadah called "A Different Night," by Noam Zion and David Dishon, there is an alternative text found in a manuscript from Worms in 1521, which begins with the words "Pour out your love on the nations who have known you and on the kingdoms who call upon your name." The editors of this Haggadah see this as a reference to righteous gentiles who saved Jews during the Middle Ages and later, during the Holocaust.
In another Haggadah, by the well-known Jerusalem artist, David Moss, there is a reference to the opening of the door for Elijah and the recitation of the biblical verses mentioned above as "the doors of paradox." What is the paradox of the contemporary Jew?
We have nothing to fear; we have everything to fear. We are a chosen people; we are a despised people. And the door is the ideal symbol of that always unsettling, primary, and intuitive knowledge deep within every Jew of what 'Jew' means to every other people, and what 'Jew' means to Israel. For the door is the interface, the threshold, the meeting place between the inner Jewish world and the outer non-Jewish world. How it opens, when it opens, when it closes and how it closes has in a sense created Jewish history. (David Moss, The Moss Haggadah, p. 53)
Pesach, therefore, is a time that we open ourselves to the world, and we welcome the non-Jew into our midst. Since the establishment of the State of Israel, we are no longer afraid of the stranger, and do not need to hide in our homes.
In the spirit of the opening of the door for Elijah, the harbinger of peace, Passover is a time that reminds us to not only seek peace, but to also open our hearts to our neighbors. Ultimately, there will be no peace and security for us, as Jews in Israel, if there is not also peace and security for our neighbors, the Palestinian people. If we end the state of war and reach peace with our neighbors, it will actually benefit all the citizens of Israel, and will make life easier and more secure for Jews around the world.
May I take this opportunity to wish all our Jewish friends in Israel and around the world a Chag Pesach Sameach -- a happy, joyous and meaningful holiday for you and your families and communities.