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Four [Zionist] Questions for Your Seder

How can we use this moment to come together around a shared destiny, a common mission to shape our future as rooted in our own freedom and in achieving freedom for others?

  1. What does it mean to be “Free”?

The Pesach story is centered around freedom. Our narrative teaches that as a people we went from slavery to redemption. This year, let us ask: what is the true meaning of being free? Was it enough just to be released from captivity, or did something beyond that need to happen?

In beginning to respond to this first question, let us consider the writings of Sir Isaiah Berlin (1909-1997 – a Russian-British social and political theorist, philosopher, and historian of ideas) who sees freedom as individualistic:

Israel “restored to Jews not merely their personal dignity and status as human beings, but what is vastly more important, their right to choose as individuals how they shall live—the basic freedom of choice, the right to live or perish, go to the good or the bad in one’s own way, without which life is a form of slavery, as it has been, indeed, for the Jewish community for almost two thousand years. . . .”

Let us also consider the teaching of Rabbi Shlomo Fox who sees freedom as a collective and entailing obligation:

“The real “freedom” is the ‘going out from…’ and not the ‘entering into….’ Entering the Land of Israel is a serious project that brings responsibility and serves as a test for how we shall act and if we will be worthy of settling the Land, a Land about which it is said “It is a Land which your God יהוה looks after, on which your God יהוה always keeps an eye, from year’s beginning to year’s end.” (Deuteronomy 11:12)

The Exodus from Egypt was the beginning of our national freedom but that freedom was incomplete until we reached Mt. Sinai where we received Torah about which we say that “there [are] no free [people] except [those] that involve themselves in Torah learning.” (Avot 6:2) Our physical freedom is complimented only by our spiritual freedom, and receiving Torah is in fact the reason for being free.”

  1. Do we have a shared destiny or just a shared fate?

“בכל דור ודור חיב אדם לראות את עצמו כאלו הוא יצא ממצרים”
(משנה פסחים י:ה)

“In every generation, each person is obligated to regard oneself as though he/she/they personally had gone forth from Egypt.” (Mishnah Pesachim 10:5)

The holiday of Pesach centers on the most formative moment in our collective history – when we left Egypt. Some argue that this collective experience – that we were all slaves in Egypt – is what makes us Jewish. It doesn’t matter what kind of a Jew we are – Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Persian, Italian, JoC, Israeli, American, etc… we all were slaves. That is our common lived experience, our collective memory, our fate, and our shared covenant beginning at Mt. Sinai, as according to the famous teaching of Rav Joseph Soloveitchik that our Covenant of Fate refers to our shared past (often negative), and the Covenant of  Destiny refers to a shared future based on Torah and Mitzvot.

But question #2 asks whether it is enough only to be a people of fate. Is it enough to define our identity and live our lives based on what happened to us only in the past, or by what others did to us once upon a time?

We were slaves in Egypt and we were at Sinai. We were slaves, and now we are free. As a Jewish community, today we have strength, affluence, and power. We are sovereign in the Land of Israel, our national Homeland, and most of us in the world are free.

How can we use this moment to work towards a common goal and a shared path forward? How can we create our national identity based on our past lived experiences and the values given at Sinai?

“The mission of the State of Israel is neither to terminate the unique isolation of the Jewish people nor abrogate its unique fate—in this, it will not succeed! Rather, the mission is to elevate a Camp-people to the rank of a holy Congregation-nation, transforming shared fate to shared destiny. . . .”

-Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik Kol Dodi Dofek, Listen! My Beloved Knocks (1956)

How can we use this moment to come together around a shared destiny, a common mission to shape our future as rooted in our own freedom and in achieving freedom for others?

As we sit around our Pesach seders, let us consider what our common and joint mission should realistically be?

  1. Dayenu – Enough is Enough – What Will Cause You to Act?

The popular refrain from the Pesach Haggadah is that it was “דיינו” – “enough for us” just to have been taken out of Egypt. “Enough” to receive the Torah, to be given Shabbat, and to be taken to the Land of Israel.

When is “Enough” not enough?  Is each step really enough if it had not been followed by the subsequent steps? What, then, is our responsibility to add our own effort to the work of shaping our people’s freedom and future?

As Reform and Progressive Jews, we are often told that we shouldn’t ruffle the feathers too much or push the envelope to alter the status quo. We should accept that Orthodox Judaism is the accepted practice of Judaism in the Jewish State, and only when millions of Reform Jews come on Aliyah (immigrate and become Israeli citizens), then we can talk about change.

The Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs, Yamina Party member Matan Kahane, has been making significant reforms to the official state-sanctioned religious authorities over Kashrut certification and conversion courts. Unfortunately, he sees Israel as an Orthodox state and not a culturally Jewish State for Klal Yisrael inclusive of the entirety of the Jewish people beyond our specific identity with a religious stream.

“…‘The state of Israel, in principle, is an Orthodox state,’ Minister Kahane said in an interview ahead of a meeting with North American leaders of the Orthodox Union. ‘At the same time, Israel is a place that respects the rights of all minority groups.’…”

North American Orthodox rabbis misunderstand that Israel as Jewish State embracing all Jews is first and foremost a democracy that should not acquiesce to the ‘frummest common denominator.’

What does that mean for us? We understand that the Pesach story describes our people as rising up against the Pharoah who refused to acknowledge the rights of others. So too today must we also rise up. That means raising our voices and flexing the strength of our Reform Zionist Movement from North America in league with our Israeli Reform and Progressive movement.

 

  1. What Do We Teach Our Children?

It is fascinating that even before the Exodus from Egypt, we were given the directive to recall this yet-to-happen story and pass it on to our children. On the first day of Pesach, we read:

“וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה יְהֹוָה לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם׃ ” (שמות יג:ח)

And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what יהוה did for me when I went free from Egypt.’” (Exodus 13:8).

What exactly are we to teach our children?

Do we tell all the gory details, or censure some of our story? How can we be proud of our story while also acknowledging that we have not always acted in an exemplary manner?  How can we teach our children to listen to our story, to root it as their own, and have it serve as the foundation of our identity? At the same time, how can we teach our children to listen to the plight of the Other – those who yearn to be free just as we yearned to shake off the shackles of bondage? Hearing our story is not enough. We must use our story to hear the stories of others as well. Renowned educator and Israeli cultural icon Muki Tzur (b. 1938) shared the following reflection:

“Our feelings are mixed. We swore never to return to the Europe of the Holocaust, yet we refuse to lose that Jewish sense of identifying with victims. We, perhaps, are the ultimate contrast to the ghetto Jew, who witnessed the slaughter, felt utterly helpless, heard the cries, yet could only rebel at heart while dreaming about gaining the strength to react, to strike back, to fight. We actually do react, strike back, fight, for we have no choice—while dreaming of being able to stop one day and live in peace.”

How can we teach our children to internalize complexity while taking pride in our story? How can we teach them to be each of the 4 children – the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who does not know to ask? And how can we, as parents, learn to accept them for who they are while challenging them to become the best versions of themselves? How can we teach them that there is something inherently unique and special about being Jewish; that they have been given a gift to cherish; that they should use it as a guide for their lives; and that the more they turn it and explore it, the more they will find? How can we teach our children that sometimes we have to do things that we don’t like and make difficult choices, but that we must always err on the side of morality?

How can we teach them that they are part of a people, with a rich history and culture and that they are responsible for writing the next chapter?

This year, I invite you to consider these four questions and add your own responses!

For more Zionist texts to use at your Seder click here!

 

חג פסח שמח ושבת שלום!

 

 

About the Author
Rabbi Josh Weinberg is the Vice President for Israel and Reform Zionism for the URJ, and President of ARZA, the Association of Reform Zionists of America. He was ordained from the HUC-JIR Israeli Rabbinic Program in Jerusalem, and is currently living in New York.
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