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A New Passover?

This year I learned a new paradigm for understanding the Haggadah – that it contains not one narrative but rather two (or three), not one point of view but rather two (or three). The archetypal story, the Exodus – Devarim 6 – from slavery to freedom; or the elaborated narrative, the full Torah narrative arc, from Abraham to Joshua, freedom for the purpose of service (or, as Rabban Gamaliel puts it, from exile to return to the land); or a spiritualized version of this arc, from spiritual exile or distance to closeness to Gd.

But I, in the spirit of freedom of the chag, and as someone who has lived with a very direct sense of this kind of movement from slavery and powerlessness to liberation, from genocide to new life (this is my direct and immediate family story), have been led by the existential realities of this year to contemplate going one step further.

Please don’t misunderstand – I stand with Israel, I have no chutzpah to tell Israel how to proceed in military strategy, I believe any ceasefire must be bilateral rather than imposed by outsiders who are in effect projecting their own genocidal guilt onto the very people whom they attempted to wipe out. I have no illusions about the emergence of the ancient stain of Jew-hatred or its danger.

When I was a child, I had my own paperback Haggadah with a drawing of the Israelites as the wretched of the earth, survivors of the Shoah and also every other dispossessed people, led forward by ‘a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.’ My own parents had been among them, stateless refugees in a post-Shoah DP camp, and in our case that outstretched arm led to the New World. Half the Jews of the world live outside of Israel. The savage massacres of October 7 have perhaps demonstrated –I believe they were designed demonically precisely to demonstrate – that a political nation state may perhaps not ‘solve’ the agony of our existence as Herzl had hoped, that 19th-century notions of political nation states are perhaps not the final stage of human political and social evolution, that even political sovereignty is no guarantee against age-old pogroms and massacres.

Please do not misunderstand me. I believe that in the current state of the world, organized as it is into political nation-states, and especially in the particularly fraught and dangerous geopolitical reality of the Middle East, we Jews also need a political nation state. And must do all in our power to defend it and ensure its continuing survival.

But perhaps we have reached a stage in our history as a people, in this era of transition that seems to me to be as fundamental as the transition from Temple worship to Rabbinic Judaism, to once again use all our creative powers and slowly evolve to a new understanding of the narrative — an understanding that defines freedom in terms other than literal and absolute exile and return, that defines Jewish existence in the land as one among several options, that articulates our identity as one among the peoples of the world in new ways.

I do not intend this to be the kind of critique offered by those who say “As a Jew…” only in order to then demonize Israel. I stand with Israel. But – most ironically – the current reality has led me to finally open my mind to what it has up to now been closed to: that diaspora has been the condition of Jewish life for over two millennia; that much of our current identity, liturgy, practices, and self-understandings, were created in diaspora; and that while Israel sadly remains and likely will remain preoccupied with questions of physical survival, that branch of the family in diaspora may have the privilege of forging new meanings, as we have before, new understandings of what it means to live under the protection, and in the shadow, of that mighty hand and outstretched arm, what our destiny may lead us to in this third millennium since the destruction of the Second Temple.
And so for me the compelling maggid is of ‘the mighty hand and outstretched arm’, that destiny pulling us forward, and the imperative freedom of a range of creative new understandings of what that can mean.

I feel great pain about the need even to offer disclaimers, and to establish my bona fides, and the difficulty here in N. America — but not in Israel — of open and self-examining discourse. But even more, there is deep pain over the gut-wrenching realization that Herzl’s vision, the vision of the early Zionists, that political sovereignty as one among the nation-states of the modern world would ‘solve’ the age-old dilemma of Jewish life, has in fact turned out to be far from the expected panacea.

As a Canadian, where our society is much more a usually genial mosaic than a melting pot, and as the daughter of two sole survivors of large direct and extended families all murdered in the Shoah, myself a ‘stateless’ immigrant to Canada as a baby, knowing as I do the grandeur and sophistication of much of the 1000-year-Yiddish civilization — and especially its last modern iteration, the Jewish confrontation with modernity that is essentially lost to us — that was wiped out, I have never had illusions about lasting freedom in diaspora, nor what has often seemed to me to be a kind of North American exceptionalist innocence about antisemitism and its recurrence. Unlike many North American Jews, I am neither shocked nor even really surprised by the recent resurgence of antisemitism, even if somewhat aghast at the speed with which the climate has turned. Most 2G like me are devastated rather than surprised or shocked by these developments.

I absorbed from the outset, and at a primal level far deeper than intellectual, the potential dangers of Jewish life and the miracle of the return to political sovereignty of the Jewish people. This has made the Oct 7 demonstration of the precariousness of Jewish life even in our own place, and the realization that Israelis will continue to be forced into the role of self-defence warrior just as my father was forced to become a ghetto fighter and partisan, all the more devastating.

As for my own seder table — for many years there has been silence and avoidance of real discussion. My kids, like many of their peers, raised in a Conservative synagogue and school and a Zionist youth movement and camp, having spent summers and then a gap year in Israel involved in ‘reconciliation’ work, are deeply disillusioned by the Israeli experiment, out of real knowledge and experience. This year, for the first time, I may be able to really listen to their perspectives. Like Elisha ben Abuya, Acher, my own ‘bad children’ may be among those whose perspectives will continue to be recorded into the future.

Sometimes it is our children — like the first generation born after the exodus, born in the freedom bamidbar — who lead us into the future. My belief and hope is that their current experience of diaspora, and the privilege of relative freedom and physical safety that it offers, still (sadly) safer than life in Israel, will lead to an important evolution of our thinking and archetypes as a people.

May all our Pesach commemorations this year be as sweet as is possible, and may they comfort and lift up the hearts and souls of the anxious and bereaved. Chag sameach; a zissen pesach.

About the Author
Kitty Hoffman's award-winning writing has appeared in literary anthologies and journals including The New Quarterly, Boulevard, The Commons, and Prism. A spiritual director in Montreal, she is in the final year of rabbinical studies and working on a book of literary nonfiction about her medieval ancestor, the father of European kabbalah, and the weight of her Holocaust legacy. More info at kittyhoffman.com
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