Stephen Daniel Arnoff
Author, Teacher, and Community Leader
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Hope is mandatory

This Passover, learn from Rachel Goldberg-Polin's conviction, for our destiny depends on the capacity for profound and rapid change for the better
Rachel and Jon Goldberg-Polin at the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center. Photo used by permission.

We are on the cusp of the Festival of Freedom even as we feel the squeeze of history, politics, violence, and the world’s oldest hatred more fiercely than we have in generations. The Passover Haggadah has a plan for that, and here is its mandate:

We were slaves to Pharaoh in the land of Egypt. And the Lord, our God, took us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched forearm. And if the Holy One, blessed be He, had not taken our ancestors from Egypt, behold we and our children and our children’s children would be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. And even if we were all sages, all discerning, all elders, all knowledgeable about the Torah, it would be a commandment upon us to tell the story of the exodus from Egypt. And anyone who adds in telling the story of the exodus from Egypt, behold he is praiseworthy.

No one can deny the unbearable anguish of witnessing hostages held by Hamas for more than half a year, the brutal loss of life, the antisemitism, and the abiding sense of dread exacerbated by Iran’s hostilities and hubris. Yet the Haggadah draws a line in the sand against despair between the time of the Going Out of Egypt and every day, month, and year that follows. Long ago we were taken out of Egypt, the narrow straits. Once that miracle was performed, as long as we tell and retell it, we are welcomed on the side of freedom forever.

Just as all of the four questions ask, you can ask yourself this year: “Do you truly believe what the Haggadah is saying? Do you really believe that hope is mandatory?”

One of the songs of praise – Hallel – that I like to sing on Passover is the reggae hymn by the great Bob Marley, “Redemption Song,” in which he teaches:

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery; None but ourselves can free our minds.

We cannot deny the narrowness and pain of our reality, but we can also use our imagination to do two things that release us from the gloom and fear of the undeniably impossible parts of the world. 

First, we remember that once a person has tasted freedom, there is no going back to bondage. It’s a fact that always grounds us. It used to be one way and now it is another. We were slaves, and then we were free. The miracle happened and cannot be reversed. 

Second, knowing how hard it can be to maintain belief in that miracle, we can use our imagination to expound upon the story, to expand it to give us evermore reasons to revel in the joy of knowing that the Holy One saw our pain and brought us forth into a new world. “And anyone who adds in telling the story of the exodus from Egypt, behold he is praiseworthy,” the Haggadah teaches. 

While the gift of freedom celebrating during Passover never precludes more suffering, it does command witness to the fact that anything is possible even in the narrowest of straits. This is true for the African on a slave ship in Bob Marley’s imagination just as it is true for all of us praying daily for release of the hostages as well as peace in Israel, our region, and the world. 

Sprawled across my room in the wee hours Saturday morning, after Israel’s Iron Dome had shot down Iranian missiles in the skies above us, one of my kids said that Sunday would be a “missile snow day.” That meant a brunch of pancakes, movies, and freedom from any plans because school and youth group trips were canceled. My daughter went back in her mind to a day many years ago where the world of day-to-day drudgery was suddenly covered in white by a mysterious force that made everything stop in its tracks. There are powers greater than us, and this is a good reason to eat something sweet and celebrate. 

We do not deny the suffering around and among us. But despite our troubles, each year we return to the comfort of Jewish myth and history that offers a ritual to remind us that our destiny is shaped not only by our sorrows, but by the possibility that in a moment, something profound can change our lives for the better. It has happened before, and it will happen again.

Perhaps there is no text more powerful this bittersweet season than that of my beloved friend Rachel Goldberg-Polin, who shares her wisdom with the world despite the unfathomable pain of a parent longing for a child held captive.

“Hope is mandatory,” she said, having been chosen as Time‘s 100 Most Influential People of 2024. “I believe it, and I have to believe it, that he will come back to us.”

Tell your Passover story at the seder table this year with prayers for Rachel and Jon and all of those who are suffering in your heart. Let’s come out of Egypt together by choosing the mandate of hope over despair once again. 

About the Author
Dr. Stephen Daniel Arnoff is the CEO of the Fuchsberg Jerusalem Center and author of the book About Man and God and Law: The Spiritual Wisdom of Bob Dylan.
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