Passover is an enormously significant holiday for the Jewish people. Its story winds its way through our prayers and literature in every season and through every context, from the daily services to Yom Kippur. Countless Jews, whether or not they keep kosher regularly, refrain from eating hametz on these days. Passover is at the core of our religious and cultural identity, a timeless tale of faith, liberation, and deliverance. We must not let it die.
Nevertheless, when I recently challenged a misguided family member over what I saw as sexism and homophobia in his synagogue, he said to me, “I am neither a woman nor a homosexual, so what do I care?” I fear that many Jews today, including my family member, have become like the “wicked son.” They tell the story of Passover as if it happened only in the past: as if they were not included in it. Our seder puts an enormous emphasis on the idea that every Jewish soul; past, present, and future; was present at Mount Sinai. In other words, we must each act as someone who was liberated from bondage. Each and every one of us has experienced oppression, and if Pharaoh had succeeded in his genocidal effort none of us would be here today, so we must continue to identify with oppressed populations, whether they are fellow Jews or just fellow people.
I use the word “genocide” because I do not want the parallels between Pharaoh and Hitler to be lost. The former sought to violently murder all male Jewish babies until the Jewish people died out completely. His aim was nothing short of a Holocaust. Passover will die if we don’t recognize the despicable hatred that has been directed against us time and again, if we exclude ourselves as individuals from victimhood, and if in doing so we permit ourselves to redirect that same hatred against others. If we hate the way that Pharaoh hated, and the way that genocidal leaders have hated us for millennia, whether that hatred is based on religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or gender, we become the wicked son. We act as though we were never oppressed ourselves. We let Passover die, and with it, the Jewish people.
That’s why, at my family’s seders, we always have an orange on the seder plate and Miriam’s cup beside it. The orange, which is a symbol of acceptance of the LGBTQ community, came about when Dr. Susannah Heschel found that members of the Oberlin Hillel were including bread in their Passover celebrations in response to someone who had told them that “There’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the seder plate.” The issue with that tradition was that it made the seder plate unkosher and implied that homosexuality was accepted but was still outside of Jewish law, so Dr. Heschel replaced the bread with a seeded orange that stood for renewal, prosperity, and the unity of different segments of the Jewish people (just as the orange itself is segmented, but still one whole fruit).
Miriam’s cup, filled not with wine but with water, recognizes Miriam’s well, which provided the Jewish people with sustenance during their journey through the desert. The Jewish people would not have survived their journey to Israel if not for this heroine, although she is given significantly less credit than her brother for protecting us in the wilderness.
Naturally, these symbols mean nothing on their own. They must be accompanied by real action. While I encourage everyone reading this article to tell the stories of Dr. Heschel and Miriam at their seders, and to include the orange and Miriam’s cup in the ceremony, we must all go beyond symbolism. If we are to truly appreciate Passover, we cannot perpetuate the same hatred perpetuated by Pharaoh and Hitler. We must be feminists, gay rights activists, racial equality advocates, etc. We must defend not only other Jews, but also the others with whom we share this earth. That is such a critical part of the Passover lesson, and yet, no matter how many times we tell and retell our story of liberation, we so often fail to see the oppression all around us.
Every homophobe, every sexist, every racist, every Islamophobe, and every anti-Semite; indeed every hater of any kind; embodies a little piece of Pharaoh. Many use religion to disguise their unfounded aversion to people who are different from them, in the same way that the majority of Egyptians justified their support of Pharaoh’s actions by worshipping him as a deity. Others allow themselves to believe the lie that anyone different constitutes a threat to their way of life, like the millions of bystanders who invited Hitler to exterminate us in the ‘30s and ‘40s.
I recently had a conversation with Kate, a faculty advisor of my school’s Gay Trans* Straight Alliance who also teaches world history. We spoke about the fact that one of Hitler’s first targets, before he began sending Jews to the concentration camps, were members of the LGBTQ community. There were pink triangles before there were yellow stars. And it was the same cowardly, amoral Europe that said (to paraphrase Martin Niemöller) “I am not a homosexual, so what do I care?” that soon after said “I am not a Jew, so what do I care?”
Passover is such an important part of our identity for the same reason that the Holocaust is. Remembering and retelling the stories isn’t enough in and of itself. We remember and retell, over and over again, the same dark tales of killer after killer who tried to wipe out the Jews so that we may never become like them, and so that we may know to intervene when we see them in action. As soon as we begin to hate, to oppress, to isolate, or to discriminate; and as soon as we let another person do any of those things; we become like Pharaoh, and like the Egyptians whom G-d saw fit to punish collectively with the most horrid plagues imaginable. We exclude ourselves from the exodus. We become the wicked son. Our remembrance of that time loses its value. Passover dies.
So let’s remember our liberation from Egypt, the first step to our collective liberation from our own prejudices. As my rabbi pointed out in shul on Shabbat HaGadol, it is said that on Passover we must grant our hospitality to the hungry and the needy. That is to say, the needy are not necessarily physically hungry, but may also be those who are in need of our political and social support, those who we and others have made into outcasts. Let us welcome them and provide them not with food but with kindness, hope, and, consistent with the seder’s theme, freedom.