One of the most resonant moments of the Passover Seder comes about when, according to tradition, the youngest child present asks "The Four Questions. " Does anyone who was ever "the youngest child" ever forget the opening line?
Mah nishtanah halaylot hazeh mi'call halaylot? -- What's different about this night from all other nights?
But as the late Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wrote:
How is this night different from all other nights? Most of us grew up and don't ask anymore and
Others go on asking all their lives, but they do so like people who ask
"How're you?" Or "What's the time?" but then keep going without hearing the answer.
Despite the tendency not really to pay attention to the question in any but a ritualized way, asking "why is this night different from all other nights" poses a real question and merits a real answer. For even as we engage again in a ritual we have may been enacting all of our lives, it's vital to realize that never before have we celebrated this Passover, this special one, this unique one, the only one in our lives that took place on the 14th of Nissan 5773 on the Hebrew calendar, March 25, 2013.
Similarly, to be truly, fully, alive is to be open to this seder, to ask questions we've never asked before, to focus on nuances we may not have noticed before, to engage with its relevance to ourselves and our world differently than we have done before. In this sense every one of us, no matter how old we are, no matter how many Passover Seders we have experienced in our lifetime, we are all still the youngest child asking and open to discovering mah nishtanah ha'layla hazeh: why is this night different from all other nights?
That call for us to be fully alive and fully present is echoed in the chapter of the Torah we read this year on the Sabbath before Passover called Tzav -- "Command." Tzav , which focuses on the laws of the sacrifices, tells us twice that the fire on the ancient altar was not allowed to go out; it was to be kept going. The Hebrew words are tukad bo.
The Jewish Publication Society translation says the phrase refers to "fire kept aflame on the altar."
But the late Israeli Orthodox Rabbi and scholar Pinchas Peli, my colleague when I chaired the Foreign Literatures department at Ben Gurion University, questioned that translation.
Rabbi Peli noted that for the translators of the King James Bible "tukad bo" describes the fire burning not on the altar, but "bo" -- in it, or indeed in the priest himself. It is a spiritual fire that should be burning; it is we who should be fully alive. And, I suggest, it is precisely that flame that we should bring to our Passover seder.
And what can the light of that flame reveal?
I can tell you what it will be for me. And I tell you because I am hoping that my telling will ignite a powerful message in the Passover seder for you -- a message and, indeed, a mission.
As I've written in these pages before, this past year, in August, I joined an AJWS rabbinic delegation to a place called Challenging Heights, in a poor fishing village in Ghana. Challenging Heights was established to rescue -- redeem? -- rehabilitate and educate children who were trapped in slavery. It was founded by a remarkable man named James Kofi Annan, who himself had been a child slave.
In fact, three of James' siblings died in slavery. James miraculously managed to escape after five years. Like the 19th century American escaped slave Frederick Douglass, he found a way to learn to read, managed to get to high school, even to college, get a job in a bank, and then leave the bank to realize his true mission in life: to create Challenging Heights, a place that, with AJWS foundational support, rescues other children from slavery, guides them through a rehabilitation center, reconciles them with their parents, helps their parents set up small businesses with microloans so that they won't need to sell their children, and then vitally, educates them.
The purpose of our time at Challenging Heights was more than to clear a soccer field or mix cement and haul cement blocks to build a small house and outdoor shower, however, and it was not only to bear witness to a powerfully moving and effective AJWS-aided project..
Rather, AJWS took us there to ignite and to keep alive a flame in our hearts and minds -- a flame which, particularly at the time of the Passover Seder, casts fiery light on the injustices all too alive in our world so that we cannot help but to see them. It's the flame that burns, like the Statue of Liberty's torch, for freedom -- and not just for those of us reciting "We were slaves...and now we are free" on Seder night.
Indeed, by insisting that each of us see ourselves as if we ourselves had come out of Mitzrayim, ancient Egypt, the Seder liturgy implicitly also insists that we fully recognize that the oppression of Mitzrayim still exists.
As, indeed, it does, and not just in Ghana.
No. There are more slaves in the world than ever before in history: about 27 million.
Girls from Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia are sold into brothels in Thailand frequented by American tourists or given in Africa to local fetish priests to atone for sins; millions of people in India and Pakistan are trapped in forms of rural slavery that enslave generation after generation; take a five-hour flight from New York to Haiti and you can buy yourself a restavek -- a child slave to clean your house, do your laundry, eat almost nothing and get beaten daily.
As global citizens we eat the foods of slavery, wear the clothes of slavery, and may be driving the cars of slavery, talk on phones of slavery. The materials that make our sinks and our cars may have their origin in the charcoal camps of Brazil, where slaves burn eucalyptus trees to make charcoal which is then used in the smelting of iron.
The inexpensive "bargains" we buy and wear may be so cheap because the cotton for them was picked by slaves and their embroidery sewn by child slaves in India.
The cheap goods sold by stores like Walmart may be made by women working in near slave conditions in Asia.
The intricate, beautiful, surprisingly inexpensive rug we find in a store might have been woven by child slaves in Nepal, India or Pakistan.
The cocoa in the chocolate in that great candy bar can have its origins in child slavery in Africa.
The tantalum that helps our iPhones function or the diamond that glitters on your finger -- mined by child slaves in the Congo,
The tomatos on the tables of millions of American families might have been picked by slaves in... Florida.
The deaf Mexicans begging ...the janitors...the restaurant workers...the sweatshop workers...the thousands of trafficked women....
And, as our dear friends of mine found out, the cleaning woman in the house on their own street in a lovely Los Angeles neighborhood was actually be being held and abused as a slave.
The early 20th century Rabbi Yaakov Yitzhak Ryeness taught that both the first and the last sacrificial offering of the day were communal, not individual -- sacrifices in order to convey the message that the most important thing, the aleph and the taf, of our life, is community. In the 21st century, as we learned over and over again in Ghana, our community is global. Because we want our diamond rings, our mobile phones and cheap clothes, and don't pay attention to how we managed to get them so inexpensively, some child, mother, or father oceans away from us may be in great suffering as a slave.
The Talmud teaches that Passover is the prototype of ultimate redemption, and the future redemption will occur on Passover. This year, when we sat down at our Seder and asked "Why is this night different from all other nights?" one of the answers I, for one, offered was this: What is different is that I'm paying attention.
This year, I'm committing to do what I can to end slavery in my community, the human community on planet earth. I'm buying only free trade chocolate; demanding sweat shop free clothes and fair trade and direct trade coffee. I'm educating myself by going to Freetheslaves.net. I'm committing myself to work for an organization committed to social justice around the world. I'm spreading the word. I'm doing my part to raise awareness.
Now there are slaves. But if we all of us join together to take action against global slavery, not for long. The flame demanding accountability is burning within us too brightly.
Miriyam Glazer, Rabbi, Ph.D., is professor of literature and chair of the Literature, Communication & Media Department at American Jewish University College.