This Friday evening, Jews around the world will begin their Passover meals with the ancient story of our journey from slavery to freedom, the galvanizing narrative that has been at the center of our identity and morality as a people for more than 3,500 years.
A “night different from all other nights,” as the Haggadah teaches, the symbolic meal has served as a source of strength, inspiration, questions, and arguments that have animated for every generation what it means to live a life of meaning wherever we have settled—under monarchies, dictatorships or thriving, pluralist democracies such as here in the United States.
Consider just the foods. Matzah, the bread of affliction; Maror, the bitter herb of slavery; Parsley dipped in salt water, tears of oppression drenching the rebirth of spring. And then there are the mythic tellings, dramas wrought to keep the children glued to the table: Ten Plagues, from flies and lice to darkness and the killing of the First Born. And triumphantly, impossibly, the parting of the Red Sea, through which the Israelites narrowly escaped an Egyptian army in hot pursuit. A happy, miraculous ending.
Such triumphs are a precious rarity in our world today, where we are bearing witness to more than 60 million refugees worldwide, the greatest such crisis to confront humanity since the close of the Second World War.
The great war photographer Robert Capa imagined a Passover innovation called Crossover Day, where the children of the soldiers who survived the beach of Easy Red on D-Day, would “after finishing a couple of cans of C-rations… ask their fathers, ‘What makes this day different from all other days?’” And the fathers would then recount their own tale of a very human vanquishing of evil and totalitarianism.
Today, social media is inundated with delicious recipes for seder meals but deeper, more urgent questions and symbols demand a place at the table as well.
Last year, we saw the body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian child drowned alongside his mother and 5-year-old brother, washed ashore. He is asking us, demanding of us, from the other side: “How is this year different from all other years?” Or perhaps he even echoes God, who, when accusing Cain in the murder of his brother Abel, says, “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the land.”
Aylan Kurdi is Syrian. He’s Afghani. He’s from the Congo, from Guatemala, from Mexico, and he’s a Jew from Poland, from Germany, from Egypt. He’s you and me.
Our telling of the Passover demands and the Haggadah teaches that as we hold the Matzah we recite, “This is the bread of affliction. Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Jewish tradition is quite clear that through the year and especially in this season, at this moment, in this time, we are to see ourselves as if we have just left Egypt.
This is radical religious empathy at its best. The Sages who wrote the Haggadah seemed to intuit that the Passover message would resonate for future generations of Jews if they were able to see themselves in others’ struggles for redemption and in so doing, join hands in a greater universal struggle for freedom and justice for all.
The Passover Seder, then, was designed to be prophetic and discomforting, a paradoxically extravagant and joyous meal of comfort and celebration, staged for the pedagogic purpose of moving us to redemptive action that keeps the story by prompting action to save those most in need.
More than a century ago, as European empires gave way to burgeoning revolutionary movements, Jews of Eastern and Central Europe moved en masse, fleeing pogroms and persecution for freedom on safer shores. So many of the more than 3 million Jews who came to the United States between 1880 and 1920 were aided by HIAS, the Jewish nonprofit dedicated to refugee resettlement.
It’s a testimony to the adaptive characteristics of human reinvention that while Jews on the whole are no longer refugees, with the majority of the world’s Jews living in America and Israel, HIAS is one of many organizations which have recast its mission to carry on its values of compassion and hospitality.
“Welcome the stranger. Protect the refugee.” These are the first words one sees on the HIAS website and they speak to this core idea, especially in this Passover season, that none of us are truly free until all are free. This year, the group has a Passover supplement, to encourage discussion and offer avenues for meaningful action. At the 92Y, where I work, we are partnering with the Multi-Faith Alliance for Syrian Refugees to send personal hygiene kits to thousands of people stranded in Greece and Turkey.
Each small action helps prompt and develop a necessary and ongoing awareness of the parallels between our own history as a people and that of others, opening the door not just for Elijah the Prophet but for each of us to find ways to welcome the stranger, who we once were in this land, and build bridges of understanding and compassion and refuge.