The Irony of a Political Passoverby Rabbi Jacob Rupp April 3, 2017
I discovered something amazing once I stopped linking Jewish oppression to other human suffering in the world. Granted, this took me more than 20 years. Like many other Jews sitting down to the Seder, our family would find another group that unfortunately has or is suffering and during the meal, we’d work to connect our national story with theirs. Every year, new Haggadahs come out in support of this effort, highlighting the plight of African Americans, women, farm laborers.
But why? Perhaps its because we long to make Passover relevant. Ironically though, by linking Passover to current events, we kill the very message we were meant to receive. The theme of Pesach is eternal and specific to the Jewish people; the more we try to modernize and universalize it, the more we lose the point.
One of the opening scenarios of the traditional Haggadah is the image of four great scholars in Bnei Brak meditating, the whole night, on the theme of Pesach. From this, we understand that the idea of going out of Egypt itself requires contemplation and study. What does it mean? What are the implications?
Unlike me, my wife was a Jewish outsider. Raised in Hungary, she looked at the entire American Jewish scene without an emotional investment in one movement or another. As a result, she asked me a fundamental question that forever altered my journey of Jewish self discovery.
I was trying to figure out which of the Jewish Movements best spoke to me. Julie asked, “Before we can reform, conserve, or reconstruct something, don’t we have to know what it is?” So, I started my search for meaning in an Orthodox yeshiva, where I felt Judaism was the least altered. I found I didn’t need to reform or conserve anything – I just needed to live the original message.
The Haggadah narrates a simple but formulaic episode. We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt. G-d took us out with a mighty hand. If He hadn’t taken us out, then we and our decendants would be slaves until this day.
Stop here for a second. From the outset, we aren’t talking about a normative slavery/oppression experience. The very fact that we attempt to end social injustice suggests that it is, at least in a case by case basis, solvable. And while suffering is part of the human condition, the groups oppressed or oppressing change over time. Empires rise and fall and seemingly no injustice against one group or another lasts forever.
Time solves all problems. But not the Jewish problem, apparently. The oppression the Jews suffered wasn’t time bound or circumstantial. It would have endured forever had G-d Himself not freed us. The reason we endured slavery and liberation is that it was a necessary stage for us to prepare for our destiny. The promise of the Jewish people being enslaved and redeemed goes back further to when G-d promised Abraham that his children (us) would be enslaved and freed.
G-d made a covenant with Abraham that the Jewish people must inherit the land of Israel because it was the place where we could pursue our national mission. Our national mission is to bring an awareness of G-d into the world through our personal example of doing the actions that G-d commanded.
That’s the deep secret about the Jewish connection to the land of Israel; close to half of the 613 Mitzvoth we were commanded to do are dependent on us being in the land. Our national mission to reveal G-d in the physical world can be accomplished only through doing the commandments. It is a massive responsibility that we as Jews were selected to do long before any of us or our ancestors were born.
As such, our personal and collective lives were never meant to be our own. We were forged in an environment of slavery because ultimately our national mission is to focus on the big picture of why we came to the world. We learned how to be slaves to a physical master so we could learn how to be slaves to a spiritual master.
The modern person (and the ancient person) cringes at the message. What about self-determination? Where am I in this equation? Where is the individual? This idea crushes the conscious in such a profound way that we often reject it and bury it before we even consider if it is to be true. Is it possible that Jewish identity means something more than lox, bagels and “Fiddler on the Roof”?
Rabbi Elchonon Wasserman, a great sage who perished with his students during the Holocaust, said that in the modern day, G-d gave the power of prophecy to the enemies of the Jews. As such, we find even our greatest adversaries speaking about the national responsibilities of the Jewish people. Hitler famously said, “Conscience is a Jewish invention, it is a blemish like circumcision.” Even those who would destroy us said we created morality and consciousness. Since we were forged in Egypt, we dared to say that humanity is bound by rules beyond our own creation; that there are some things that are always true, always right, and always wrong. The Mitzvoth are eternal.
Being people, we try to wrestle back control from G-d by finding our own moral systems and codes to swear by. But that’s not why we are here. At one amazing point in the Haggadah it says, “It is because of THIS (point to the matza) that G-d took us out of Egypt.”
Because of matza?? Here we might have thought that we eat matza because we came out of Egypt, but it’s the opposite; we were brought out to eat matza! The Haggadah’s point is profound; the mitzvah of the night is to eat matzah. We were freed to do the mitzvoth, the actions determined by G-d from before the world was created to be good, true, and just, and not live life by our own devices. That’s why G-d had to free us and not all men, or historical or political processes. We exist for a supernatural purpose. If it was up to us to live by our own code, removed from G-d, we never would have been subjected, and we wouldn’t have been redeemed.
That’s the message of Pesach. And it’s not up to us to make a new message, it’s a up to us to relate the message in a unique way. Not to pick and choose, but to personify, to the best of our ability and in our unique ways, G-dliness.
I recall a moment of realization I had in high school. For my whole life I learned about tikkun olam. What I thought it meant was cleaning up a beach and helping poor inner city kids. I never learned we had to keep kosher or Shabbat. I never knew or thought I had to pray three times a day. I found out that FYI, tikkun olam isn’t one of the mitzvot. It isn’t even in the Torah.
I started to wonder why we used the Torah as the guide for our actions, but then chose not to follow what it said in its entirety. Not to minimize the importance of environmentalism or liberalism, but rather to point out that it’s more important to follow the rules than to make up new ones and then say that was the original intention. The proof is that the Torah itself says things like “Honor your parents” and “Don’t oppress the stranger,” and also “Don’t change any rules (don’t add or subtract)” and “You have to follow the rules.”
Recognizing lives that are not our own, and realizing that we are part of a master plan to elevate humanity in the service of G-d is rough. It’s a huge responsibility. So it needs constant repetition and reliving in the form of the Seder to bring the message from an intellectual theory into an emotional and physical practice. The more we try to make it about others and the more we try to find the similarity we have between us and everyone else, the more the message is completely unrecognizable.
So this year, take one day off from worrying about everybody else, and start to think about yourself and your Jewish identity. How will you grow as a Jew this year? What can you do to make the world a more G-dly place? Keep in mind G-d is very individual-focused. He never says things like “save the world.” He says much more difficult, minute things like “don’t hold a grudge” and “don’t speak behind your neighbors back.” At least in His mind, that’s more important than cleaning up a beach or discussing current events.