I spent Passover of 2001 in Dharamsala, India, the exile capital of Tibet.* I have shared Seders with Tibetan sages and the Dalai Lama, but a young Tibetan kitchen worker asked a question then I think about every year. Peeling potatoes with my friend Donna Mussarra, he wanted to know what the seder was about. She said, “We tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.”
“Do you do that every year?”
“Don’t you know it by now?”
Donna laughed and said, “Well, we do it to teach the children.”
The young man looked out to the main hall. “I don’t see any children here.” It was true. Most participants were young adults, Jewish and Israeli travelers. So Donna explained, “We do it to remember.”
“Remember what? To hate the Egyptians?”
“No we don’t hate the Egyptians.”
“Well I hate the Chinese.”
As we said evening prayers, the full moon rose over snowy mountains to the east. That young Tibetan, and over 125,000 others, had crossed those mountains from Chinese-controlled Tibet to freedom — and exile. Their modern story made our ancient Exodus vivid in my mind. The Seder offers a universal message of hope: Slavery does not last forever, freedom will overcome oppression.
Still, the young man’s question was a challenge. Why have a Seder every year? Don’t we know it by now?
And how could I tell the young Tibetan, who had lost his home and family, that he shouldn’t hate the Chinese? Especially when many American Jews hate and fear Palestinians, or more generally, Arabs. Far too often, through our emotional connection to Israel, we have suffered violence and the bruising of our hopes. And many of us have hardened our hearts—haven’t we?—and put our faith in violence. Yet on Passover we tell how God, not military might, delivered us from slavery. Do we believe it? Don’t we know it by now?
We have to experience the Seder at a deeper level. The Haggadah insists that the liberation from Egypt occurred not just for my ancestors but for me. Pesach is not a history lesson, but a recurring dream. It is personal. It speaks to the many times I find myself in the same dumb tight spot—emotionally constricted, enslaved by my stubbornness, insensitivity, arrogance, greed. I understand why our great teachers made the connection between Mitzrayim (Egypt) and metzarim, narrowness. I feel trapped in a narrow spirit, with a hard heart and a closed mind.
In this big dream of Passover, I’ve played every part. I’ve been a frustrated slave trying to make bricks without straw. I’ve been the taskmaster whipping the slave on. And most of all, I’ve been Pharaoh, coldly logical. As Pharaoh said to Moses, I’ve said to my heart, “I am not aware of this God you are talking about.”
If only at the moment of crisis — the Red Sea before me, Pharaoh’s chariots at my back — I could hear a voice of strength and wisdom, Moses responding, “Be not afraid. Stand and witness the salvation of the Lord.”
Then the sea would part before me and I would have nothing to fear.
Don’t I know the story by now?
No, not really, not deeply enough. That is why this year, I will tell it once again.
*Note: The seder in Dharamsala was organized by Azriel Cohen, z’l, a young artist and all around generous soul who left us way too early. I’m dedicating this piece in his memory. A memorial fund in his honor is being created at https://www.tifereth-passaic.org/azriel