A few days before Passover, I was speaking to a Palestinian who works with me on a project for Palestinian and Jewish Young Adults for Peaceful Coexistence. Through the educational programs of the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel, we have been bringing youth and young adults together in dialogue for the past 12 years, including this year. She told me that she will not be able to come in to attend a study group this week –during the middle days of Passover—since the West Bank Palestinians will be under “closure” during the holiday. Unfortunately, I was not surprised.
In past years, Palestinian friends and colleagues have often told me that they know when a Jewish holiday is coming because of the announcement of a “closure” of the territories. This irony, however, is particularly striking on the festival of freedom. To the Palestinians, it symbolizes that freedom is not yet for them but only for the Jewish people.
What a paradox. The holiday that is meant to be about freedom is just the opposite for our neighbors. In other words, every time that we celebrate, they are constrained.
Nothing could be further from the true spirit of Passover. This holiday is about the journey from slavery to freedom, from sadness to joy. It is the time of year in which we cherish the idea of freedom.
But is this freedom only for our own tribe? Or should not all peoples be able to move from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from servitude to liberty? Is freedom only for us? Will we really be free as long as others are enslaved, or oppressed, or occupied?
Is Passover only about our own liberation? Or is there also a universal message to this holiday?
Fortunately, there are several key moments in our recitation of our history via the Seder ritual, in which we remember that Passover is not just about us.
First, there is the reminder of the suffering of the Egyptians. When we recall the plagues, one by one, we take a bit of wine with our finger and spill it onto our plate to help us remember the famous midrash that we are not supposed to rejoice, even during our process of liberation, when other people have to suffer or even die!
Secondly, the welcome of Elijah into our homes after the meal is the antidote to narrow nationalism. Elijah, the harbinger of Peace, brings a universal message. We can’t have peace by ourselves. We will only have peace and security, when “the other side” also has peace and security. Our fates are inextricably intertwined.
Moreover, when we open the door for Elijah, we open the door to the world. We are part of the human family. We do not want to be “a nation that dwells alone” (even if some of our political leaders on the far right seem to want this). Rather, we want to be part of the international community. Indeed, some of our founding fathers even dreamed that we would be a “light unto the nations” (some of our leaders appear to have completely forgotten this idea), in the spirit of the Biblical prophet Isaiah.
Passover, therefore, perhaps more than any other Jewish holiday, combines Jewish particularism with human universalism. The idea of freedom is not exclusively for us. We pray that all peoples will be able to move from slavery to freedom, from suffering injustice to living a national life based on justice.
Chag Herut Sameach—May this Festival of Freedom be a beacon of light to all peoples who seek to live in freedom.