“Without memory, there is no identity, and without identity we are cast adrift into a sea of chance, without a compass, map or destination.”
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks from The Home We Build Together
We are about to return to our Seder Table, hoping to see our family after a year’s absence; to rebuild our relationships; and to recover our shared memories after a year that was, for many, one of emptiness, loneliness, and bereavement.
As in years past, we come to the Seder to retell our people’s story to children and grandchildren whom we hope will claim their own place within it. And, as in years past, inevitably one child will ask: “What is this service to you?” “To you but not to me!”
The child’s question presumes a dichotomy at the heart of our Jewish story between the universal and the particular. But the story of the Exodus illustrates how these two elements are perfectly integrated in our foundational narrative.
On one hand, the Haggadah recounts a particularistic, national story; the story of our people’s repression and our response to the oppressor. It is about our God, who liberated us for His sake, to make us His people. The laws explicated in the Haggadah are ritual laws. The narrative is largely the story of our national and spiritual birth — “from degradation to glory” and our complete triumph over our enemies.
On the other hand, the Torah’s account of the Exodus emphasizes the universal. As Rabbi Soloveitchik put it:
“Whenever the Torah wishes to impress on us the Mitzvah of having compassion and sympathy for the oppressed in society, it reminds us of our similar helplessness and lowly status during our bondage in Egypt. The most defenseless elements in society are usually the slaves, strangers, widows and orphans, and we are repeatedly enjoined by the Torah to be sensitive to their plight. The stranger, in particular, personifies the helpless one who has no family or friends to intercede on his behalf. For this reason, as the Talmud indicates, the Torah exhorts us in thirty-six references to treat the stranger kindly.”
This year the discussion of who we are as Jews may be especially tense. Over the past year, our children’s dignity and pride in their identity as Jews was increasingly questioned in the context of “critical race theory” and “white privilege.” On many campuses around the country, young Jews are feeling pressured to abandon their “narrow” and “tribal” particularity and their love of Israel as a ticket of admission to progressive circles. Whereas other, particular identities are granted “safe spaces” and protected from criticism. Jewish history, heritage and identity, and their connection to Israel, are routinely attacked.
In her groundbreaking book, Antisemitism: Here and Now, Deborah Lipstadt reminds us that
“It is sadly true that one of the most pernicious results of prejudice is when members of a persecuted group accept the ugly stereotypes used to characterize them. It can convince Jews that unfounded, inaccurate accusations leveled against them or, by extension, against the Jewish state, are true.”
So, this year more than ever (at least since I asked my own father questions about the universal and the particular in the heated atmosphere of the sixties!), we need to see our children’s questions as an opportunity for deeper discussion of how our traditions integrate the universal and the particular:
- In a time that lacks vision and prophecy and that yearns for meaning, we are carrying an ancient faith in an ancient God so that our children and grandchildren will have spiritual options to fill their lives with light and joy.
- In a time of greed and selfishness, we’re part of an old—a very old—tradition of caring for strangers—love of the poor and oppressed—and responsibility for widows and orphans, the elderly and handicapped.
- In a time of forgetfulness, we’re part of the oldest living chain of learning and literature in the world, inheritors of an ancient and hauntingly beautiful culture.
- In a time of anomie and loneliness, we carry the secret of community making and caring to provide our children and grandchildren a sense of community and belonging.
- In a time of rootlessness and alienation we’re connecting to a 3500-year-old history and an infinite future.
- In a time of religious intolerance, murder and terror we represent a faith that recognizes (in the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks words) the “dignity of difference” and has the potential to foster religious communities that are serious and learned and particular in their spiritual core but also universal in their concern for the oppressed and connected to the network of all humankind.
- In a time of existential loneliness we’re connected by bonds of family and love to people who will welcome us into their homes and families wherever we are in the world.
We are the representatives of a profound 3500-year-old religious civilization that can provide spiritual meaning and purpose for our lives. We are part of communities through which that religious civilization is transmitted. This network of “sacred responsibility” (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner’s phrase) allows us to turn our culture and civilization into transformational action.
Every day, as part of the morning prayer, many Jews say the following words, listing some of our most cherished and comforting Mitzvot:
“Honoring father and mother, performing deeds of kindness, early attendance in the House of Study morning and evening, providing hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, participating in making a wedding, accompanying the dead [to the grave], concentrating on the meaning of prayers, making peace between fellow men and between husband and wife— and the study of Torah is equal to them all.”
This year, all of those comforts have been denied or curtailed: hugging our parents, visiting friends and relatives who are sick, inviting guests to our homes, rejoicing with bride and groom, burying the dead or going to shivas or funerals to offer love and condolences, praying with friends in synagogue. Most of the comforts of community disappeared for a full year. And now, at last, those fortunate enough to have received the miraculous vaccine, will be able to attend a Seder with at least some family members. Ellie and I will see our children and grandchildren for the first time in a year.
On Passover, many synagogues have the tradition of reading Shir Hashirim, The Song of Songs of Solomon, a hauntingly beautiful poem of love and longing that some believe expresses the relationship between God and the Jewish people.
As the pandemic loosens its grip, Spring arrives, and with it the season of our liberation, these words from Shir Hashirim hold special meaning:
Behold, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone, the blossoms have appeared … and the sound of the turtle dove is heard in the land.