We’re currently in the week of Passover, one of my favorite holidays of the year. Part of the reason I love Passover so much is that it’s one of the few holidays I celebrate that doesn’t feel like it’s been completely claimed by Hallmark and Walmart as a celebration of commodification. And that’s not to say that Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, etc., are to blame for their commercialization, but it is nice to experience a religious event without having to wade through capitalism to get to where you need to go spiritually.
But more than anything, I love Passover because of what it stands for. Passover is a celebration of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery in Egypt, but it’s also a reminder that slavery and oppression still exist in the world today. Or, in the words of one Haggadah:”Tonight, we celebrate [the Israelites’] freedom and ours. But we also remember all those of our generation who are not yet free. May this seder kindle in us the zeal to work for the freedom of all. May this seder inspire us to light the torch of freedom for all the world”.
This theme, of simultaneous celebration and somberness, resonates throughout the seder, even to the point where, when we remember the plagues inflicted upon the Egyptians in the book of Exodus, we reduce the wine in our cups to demonstrate our sorrow at their suffering. The message of Passover is clear: we are free, but the joy of our freedom will never be full until all humanity can share it with us.
I love this, especially since it is such a quintessentially Jewish sentiment. It would be an understatement to say that being the “Chosen People” has not been easy, but a millenia of persecution has had some positive effects on the Jewish people. Not only are we known for our excellent senses of humor and our success in white collar fields (I’m guessing this comes from centuries of being barred from many other occupations), but generally speaking, Jews are some of the most empathetic people I know (the tragic treatment of the Palestinians being one horrible exception).
This empathy is probably partly due to the fact that Judaism, as a religion, is (frustratingly, I might think, for many Christians who want to co-opt the Torah for their own eschatological purposes) incredibly unconcerned with the afterlife. In addition to being raised as a Christian, I’ve been lazily observing Reform Judaism for most of my life, and not once have I heard a rabbi address the issue of Heaven or Hell. This isn’t to say that the afterlife isn’t addressed in Judaism, but could you imagine growing up in a church and never once hearing a sermon on what happens to you when you die? Judaism, or at least my experience of it, is more concerned with how you treat God, your fellow man, and animals (I can’t speak for Orthodox, Conservative, or Reconstructionist Judaism) than anything else.
Even if the Torah weren’t as laser-focused on human behavior, I believe that Judaism would still have evolved to be a religion of empathy just because of what the Jews have gone through over the past thousand years. The memory and understanding of our people’s persecution is intrinsic to our identity as Jews (so many Jewish holidays are in remembrance of some great atrocity committed against the Jewish people) that it is almost impossible to turn a blind eye to the suffering of others (again, the Palestinian people seem to be an appalling exception to this).
I know it’s a big part of the reason why I feel the need to defend the Muslim and LGBT communities in America so vehemently. For so many in this country, mostly WASPs (but of course, I generalize), persecution is evolution being taught in the classroom or getting your insurance from a company that subsidizes birth control. Or, as Jon Stewart (my favorite Jewish comedian) so accurately pointed out recently, when many religious leaders cried that insurance-provided birth control was religious persecution comparable akin to Hitler’s Third Reich, “Hitler did not ‘start small.’ His deliberate annihilation of a religion didn’t kick off with insurance reform.”
For me, persecution means all of the aunts, uncles, and cousins I will never get to meet because my grandmother’s family was killed in the Holocaust. And when I hear about the demonization of Muslims and the LGBT community in America today, my blood runs a little colder.
After all, how different is this:
And that’s why I think the message of Passover is as important as ever. We need to remember the truly heinous things that can happen when one group of people oppresses or acts with hatred toward another, to recognize that this sort of oppression is still happening in our own backyard in many forms, and to do what we can to fight it. Because our freedom is diminished by every person in chains and our happiness is reduced with every act of discrimination.
At the end of every seder, it’s customary to wish that we will all meet “next year in Jerusalem”. I believe this refers to a state of mind as much as a geographical location. This wish encompasses the hope that the Jewish people have carried with them through the darkest of times, a hope that we now want to pass on to others who are still in the shadows of despair. May we, this time next year, reside in a holy place, communing with every child of God as free and equal men and women.
Next year in Jerusalem.