Passover is the holiday of spring. The connection between the changing of the seasons and the story of Jewish bondage and emancipation has been an integral part of western civilization since time immemorial. President Barack Obama, who arrived with the vernal equinox, underlined this linkage in his memorable speech in Jerusalem on the eve of Passover this year. He also highlighted the critical role both of the human spirit and of human agency in ensuring that the promise inherent in this message be transformed into reality. It is this tie between what we do, how we live and who we are that is the enduring lesson of this holiday season.
Spring in the Middle East – as recent events so powerfully demonstrate – is short-lived. It is a period of transition in the fullest sense of the word: the weather shifts on a daily basis, constantly providing a reminder of winter and abruptly offering a glimpse of summer heat. But it is always the harbinger of new beginnings: its buds invite an emergence from hibernation, its longer days bring more light, its water springs give color to the countryside, and its air provides renewed energies.
Everything about spring radiates freshness. As flowers spring up, people move with a spring in their step, more inclined to spring into action. New ideas spring out, while even spring cleaning is tackled with a spring. In this atmosphere, many are struck by that marvelous malady known as spring fever. In multiple ways, these days provide a springboard for future action. Most significantly, time and again, spring is associated with freedom – with springing from incarceration, enslavement, persecution, discrimination and harassment towards a remodeled and improved existence.
Herein lays the inextricable bond between Passover and the movement of the seasons. The story of the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt has always been the ultimate tale of the emergence from bondage to liberty. It has served as the pivot of Jewish history throughout the generations and has defined its traditions. This is why every Jewish woman and man is enjoined to recall the emancipation of their forbearers from the tyranny of the Pharaohs as if they themselves had just escaped from slavery.
The seder, on one level, offers an annual opportunity to relive the exodus. But its message is far more profound. It makes what has become the most essential and lasting connection between the belief in a better future and the realization of freedom, identity (both personal and national) and the notion of home. It is this promise, as President Obama so poignantly stated, which “helped people weather poverty and persecution, while holding on to the hope that a better day was on the horizon.” Human history, in many respects, is a shifting iteration of the quest of both individuals and communities to attain this vision. Pesach has therefore come to symbolize the experience of peoples throughout the world. For Jews it serves as a timely reminder of their own history and of the values that guide their lives. Its universal appeal rests in the capacity of human beings to resist tyranny, retrieve their dignity and empower themselves.
The lesson of Passover is, if possible, even more powerful. It is not only about fundamental ideas of social justice and equitable organization; it is also about how to achieve these lofty goals. Two principles inform the process: rules and responsibility. Order (seder) is necessary to regulate human interactions and to promote progress – as the handing down of the commandments at Mt. Sinai signified so compellingly and as the development of legal systems continues to do ever since. Fulfilling the obligations inherent in these rules is the flip side of emancipation, as no enduring liberty is possible without self-restraint. Democratic freedom is all about creating and upholding normative boundaries that respect the other. Central to the achievement and the maintenance of free societies is, hence, human agency.
It is precisely here that Passover and spring come together. Throughout the ages, the failure of human beings to live up to their responsibilities and to adhere to their laws has created complex and cruel forms of repression. These increasingly oppressive challenges, in turn, have triggered a desire to move away from the status quo towards a better tomorrow. The work of individuals – separately and together – endows this spirit of renewal and reinvention with concrete forms (just as Moses and the Israelites carried out the exodus from Egypt, the American colonies revolted against British overrule, hundreds of liberation movements in Latin America, Asia and Africa rejected colonial domination and individuals and groups continue today to struggle against subjugation, racism and discrimination). People remake their surroundings just as spring renews nature after the darkness of winter.
This spring, on the eve of Passover, President Barack Obama reminded Israelis that they hold their destiny (and that of their neighbors) in their own hands. “I can promise you this: political leaders will not take risks if the people do not demand that they do. You must create the change that you want to see.” As the spring is ushered in and the story of the exodus is recounted in different ways and with so many interpretations, the recommitment and reinvention that lies at its core assumes new meaning. The responsibility for molding the reality of an Israel free not only of external threats but also of domination over another people and over minorities in its midst is reaffirmed and the next generation is recruited to join in making this happen.
This year, at every seder table, it would be apt while ending the reading of the Haggada and looking forward to next year in a reconstructed Jerusalem, to recall that the desire for a just and lasting peace can become a reality if we make it so. To cite Obama’s sage summary of this festival: “Sometimes, the greatest miracle is recognizing that the world can change. After all, that is a lesson the world learned from the Jewish people.”