The purpose of Passover is not merely matza ball soup, but something much deeper.
This Passover indeed feels different from every other Passover. No big seders. No trips. No vacations. For many of us – virtually no leaving our home. In many ways, this Passover actually reminds us of the very first Passover back in the land of Egypt, when the Israelites were confined to their own homes, waiting for the plague to pass. This Passover perhaps provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the original purpose of the holiday.
What is the purpose of Passover, after all? What is the meaning behind all these strange rituals?
The question sounds familiar. Indeed it is the question that underlies all four questions of the Ma Nishtana that so many a Jewish child know how to recite. But when was the last time we took the time to posit a thoughtful answer to this question, beyond rotely repeating the well-worn and wine-stained answer printed in our Haggadah: “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and now we are free”?
In some ways, even this once-thoughtful answer begins to sound like the classic catch-all answer of every exhausted parent and educator: “Because.” Because this is what our parents and grandparents did before us. Why? Because they were Jews. Because we are Jews. But why? Why do we continue to remain Jewish and perpetuate these bizarre traditions? Because. Because we were once oppressed and now we are free. Because we were once oppressed? Because we suffered? That is why we should continue being Jewish? That is why we oppress our bowels with matza for one week every year? Seriously? That answer may have worked for our parents and grandparents, though for millennials and Generation Z it somehow feels less compelling. Yet this still seems to be the most common answer given to young Jews around the world, whether in Israel or throughout the four corners of the Diaspora.
Indeed, the Passover seder is the most widely observed Jewish ritual throughout the Jewish world. According to recent Pew Surveys, for example, generally 70% of American Jews and 93% of Israeli Jews – across denominations – participate in a Passover seder each year, even more than those who fast on Yom Kippur or light Hanukkah candles. What is it about Passover that makes its observance so ubiquitous among Jews? Is it the deliciousness of the matza and matza ball soup, or is it something deeper?
Back to the Sources…
I believe the first key to an answer can be found back in the Haggadah – not solely in the first part of the sentence “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” but rather in its continuation, “and now we are free.” The Haggadah continues on to remind us that if God had not taken us out of Egypt, we and our children and our children’s children would still be slaves in Egypt. In other words, due to no merit of our own, are we able to sit now and enjoy this meal together. We mustn’t take our freedom for granted. It is not solely our past oppression that matters, but our freedom and what we do with it. God took us out of Egypt for a reason. And what reason is that? The key to answering that question lies back in the Passover story in the Bible.
When we look back at the Passover story in the Bible, we find a number of curiosities. When reading about the very first Passover (in Exodus, Chapters 12-13), still back in Egypt, even before Mount Sinai, God gives the Israelite people their very first mitzvah (commandment), and that is to observe Passover. (Sorry, Mom, though I know it’s far from your favorite, Passover is indeed the first mitzvah.) That is, to sacrifice a lamb, to put its blood on the doorposts (lit. mezuzahs), to eat it together as a family (or to share it with others, if we cannot eat it all ourselves; no wasted food, right, Mom?) with matza and maror, and to remember that we were slaves in the land of Egypt. Wait. What? Already when we were in Egypt, God commanded us to remember that we were slaves in Egypt? Indeed, already on that very first Passover, even before God smote the Egyptians and took us out of Egypt, God commanded us that Passover in general – and seder night in particular – should be a reminder (zikaron) “for all generations, for all time” (Exodus 12:14). God, the eternal Jewish educator, always thinking ahead, before performing the greatest miracles ever, is already thinking about how to create a ritual to engage the whole family in thinking about the exodus from Egypt, generations from now, when the Exodus is but a distant memory. But why? Why is this so important? Why is it so critical for us to remember, even generations into the future?
The next pieces to the puzzle can be found strewn throughout the continuation of the Passover story. Still in Exodus Chapter 12, in the first commandment of Passover, God tells us that Passover should be observed by the whole congregation of Israel (kol ‘adat yisrael), stranger and citizen alike. There must be one law for the stranger and citizen alike. (See, for example, Exodus 12:19 and 12:49) Wait. Huh? While we’re still strangers in the land of Egypt, God is already telling us how we should treat our strangers when we are in our own land? Yup. Pretty much. While we are still slaves in the land of Egypt, God is already getting us to think about how we will treat strangers, immigrants and minorities differently in our own community. We mustn’t oppress them, fear them, enslave them as Pharaoh did to us. We must treat them differently, as equals, as members of our congregation. Certainly easier said than done, and definitely something interesting to think about on our last night of slavery, before we embark on a new journey into freedom.
Moving forward into our journey toward freedom, we get to Mount Sinai and revelation. Still in the middle of the desert, far from the Promised Land, God reveals our ethical purpose, the laws that will guide the new society we will build. Already in the Ten Commandments, in the first positive commandment (i.e. the first “do” rather than “do not” commandment), the commandment of Shabbat, God tells us that on Shabbat “you shall not do any work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your gates” (Exodus 19:10). In this first positive commandment, God tells us that in our society, no one is to be an absolute slave. Everyone deserves a rest from labor, whether a born-Israelite or a stranger. Labor will not be the sole purpose of any one’s existence in our society. We will not build a new Egypt.
Moving forward into revelation, still at Sinai, just a couple chapters down, God gives us even more explicit, specific commandments on how we are to treat the stranger and the most vulnerable in our new society: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not ill-treat any widow or orphan. If you do mistreat them, I will heed their outcry as soon as they cry out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword, and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans” (Exodus 22:20-23). Unlike Egypt, we are not to build a society that takes advantage of the vulnerable, for if we do, they will cry out to God as we cried out in Egypt, and God may smite us as God smote the Egyptians.
In the very next chapter, God reiterates, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the life of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Having just come out of the trauma of slavery and strangeness, we might naturally want to put up walls, to defend and protect our own, while keeping out or putting down others, as the Egyptians once did, out of fear of the Israelites. But no. We must behave differently. We must have empathy with the stranger. We must tap into the feelings of what it means to be a stranger, an immigrant, a minority, and not grow drunk with our own power.
Again and again we are reminded to protect the stranger, to love the stranger, not to harm the stranger, to treat the stranger equally – a total of thirty-six times in the Bible (and some say forty-six, depending on how one counts), a commandment repeated in different ways more than any other in the Torah. In discussing the repetition of this commandment, Rabbi Natan asks (in Baba Metzia 59b in the Babylonian Talmud), “Why is it written ‘Do not wrong a stranger and do not oppress him for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt’ [Exodus 22:20]?” In other words, why doesn’t the Bible just tell us not to oppress the stranger. Period. Why does it remind us again and again that we were strangers in the land of Egypt? Rabbi Natan answers his own question by saying “Do not accuse your neighbor of a blemish that is in you,” or in other words, people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. Don’t be a hypocrite.
Rabbi Natan’s answer can be interpreted in a number of ways. We could view the blemish as the blemish of strangeness. We shouldn’t oppress or make fun of strangers, of their accents, of their difficulty in acculturation, because we too were once strangers with strange accents and customs. Alternatively, and perhaps more logically, the blemish is the blemish of xenophobia – the natural human fear of that which is different, a fear that is all too often transformed into hatred and oppression, as by the Egyptians and by so many oppressors of Jews throughout all times. We would like to think that we are different from the Egyptians. But in reality, we are not all that different from them. We, like they, are human. We, like they, have within us a natural tendency to fear the stranger, to take advantage of the vulnerable. We may not be able to change our innate human fears, but we can change what we do with them, how we act upon them. We can choose to overcome our fear of the stranger and tap into another natural human capacity, the capacity for empathy. To see immigrants and “strangers” not as others but as ourselves, as fellow human beings. We must build a society built on empathy, not on fear. Otherwise, our actions are no better than the actions of the Egyptians and all who have oppressed us, and we become hypocrites the minute we sit down to our seder each year and bemoan how the Egyptians embittered our lives. We are not inherently different from the Egyptians who oppressed us, but we can be different in the way we choose to act, in the values we pass on to our children, and in the community we build.
One of the most curious and oft-skipped commandments in the Torah is the commandment, “You shall not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land” (Deuteronomy 23:8). We are commanded to have empathy not only with the strangers in our land because of our memory of oppression as a minority, but we are commanded also to have empathy with those who oppressed us. As frightening as it is, we must realize that we are not inherently different from the Egyptians. We too have the capacity to fear and oppress those who are different, once we have the power to do so. We must always remember that – and this, perhaps, is the hardest commandment of all. God did not “choose” us because we are inherently better, or take us out of Egypt because we have a different human nature, but rather because we are the same. We only have a different experience, a different story to tell, and a different purpose.
Back in Exodus Chapter 13, in the first Passover commandment, while still in Egypt God tells us that one day, when we are free and in our Promised Land, “You shall explain to your child that day, it is because of this that God acted for me when I came out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:8). We do not merely observe the seder in order to remember that we were freed from Egypt. But actually, the opposite. God took us out of Egypt so that we could have a seder every year, and remember what it was like to be a stranger, to have empathy with all who are oppressed (as well as all those who oppress), to appreciate the freedom and privileges that we do have, and to use those freedoms and privileges to make sure that we build a better society, a society that does not oppress the vulnerable, but protects and loves them as equals, as fellow human beings. This is not only the purpose of Passover, the holiday that celebrates our birth as a people, but our very purpose of existence as a people in the first place, the reason God took us out of Egypt.
Back to the Present…
We are arguably now at a time when Jews, as a whole, are more free and more privileged than ever before. Throughout most of the Diaspora, Jews are able to practice their traditions and live their lives freely, and for the first time in thousands of years, we have a Jewish state, a political entity where Jews are a majority and free to dictate the rules on which their society will be built. And indeed, in many ways, many Jews in Israel and throughout the world, are using their freedom and privilege to support those most disadvantaged. At the same time, however, we do not always act this way, most especially in Israel, where Jews are the majority and, in theory, most free to make their own rules.
Although 93% of Jewish Israelis attend a Passover seder every year, only 37% of Israelis support welcoming refugees – one of the lowest rates in the Western world. Though we follow the rituals of the seder, we seem to have forgotten their purpose. How did we Israelis come to be this way? How did we come to be like those Egyptians, so fearful of those who came to us for refuge, so eager to embitter their lives just so they’ll leave. Perhaps because of our history of oppression and war, we have become so fearful. Perhaps we have become as Rabbi Natan warned – guilty of the same blemish as the Egyptians once we are in a place of majority and power. But whatever the reason we came to be this way, we must change the way we act, and we must change it now.
There are today in Israel, approximately 30,000 non-Jewish refugees and asylum seekers from Eritrea and Sudan – men and women who just like us, fled oppression in search of refuge. Because of COVID-19, an estimated 90% of these men and women have become unemployed, but unlike Israeli citizens, most are not eligible for unemployment benefits, welfare, or even health care. For nearly two years, the Government of Israel, has deducted roughly 20% of their wages into “Deposit Accounts”, accounts which are held aside until they leave Israel, as a method of embittering their lives and forcing them to leave. There is talk of releasing some of these deposit funds, but only a little, so as not to “unembitter” their lives too much. We may not have become like the Egyptians in every way, but in too many ways, we already have. Perhaps we cannot change human nature, but we can and must change the way we act, lest we have a humanitarian crisis on our hands and their cries reach up to God above, while we bear guilt for their pain.
This Passover, as we sit at home, let us be reminded of that very first Passover, and think of all those who had to flee their home because of oppression, violence, climate change, economic hardship, or any reason at all. Let us take action today to help refugees and migrants in our midst and around the world. And once we are free to leave our homes once again, let us use that freedom to interact differently with our world, and strive to build a world where no person will be a slave or a refugee ever again.
Chag Cherut Sameach. Happy Festival of Freedom.
For ways to support refugees and asylum seekers in Israel, see, for example, Right Now: Advocates for Asylum Seekers in Israel.
For ways to support refugees and asylum seekers in the USA and around the world, see, for example: HIAS.