On his recent historic visit to Israel, President Obama noted that the holiday of Passover is coming very soon, and that this holiday has special meaning to him and his family, as it tells the story of moving from slavery to freedom, which is so integral to the experience of Afro-Americans in the United States. Since he has been in the White House, he has made sure that a Passover Seder is held there each year, and he is an active participant in transmitting the universal values of Passover to his children.
Indeed, the most central event of the holiday of Passover is the Seder, which is celebrated in Jewish homes in Israel on the first night of the holiday, and in Jewish homes and synagogues 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 to retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, in ancient times and in our very own day.
At our family seder, which I have led for many years in Jerusalem, we always bring many different Haggadot and interpretations to passages in the Haggadah, both old ones and new ones, into our discussion. (The Haggadah tells the story of our liberation from bondage and our journey to the Promised Land.) The intellectual and spiritual stimulation is as good and enriching as the wonderful special foods prepared for the occasion.
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 twentieth 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, we see changes in the 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.
Are we who live here 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.
President Obama reminded us of this many times during in his many poignant and inspirational speeches to audiences in Israel during his visit. He often sounded like a mixture of an American Black preacher and a Reform rabbi! For him the message of freedom which emerges out of the Exodus narrative is central to his religious consciousness, as it ought to be for us.
On Pesach, therefore, we know that we will not be entirely free until we treat the minorities in our midst as we would want to have been treated throughout Jewish History, since we were “strangers in the land of Egypt.”