Pesah is about identity in a way that no other holiday is. It is the festival that tells us who we are, and that is the essential Jewish question of our time.
Not too long ago, there were very specific cultural and tribal definitions of what defines a Jew. We knew who we were, the non-Jews knew who we were, and there were very clear lines. There was no liminality, no ambiguity around the borders of the tribe.
All of that began to change with Jewish emancipation. From the time that Napoleon first granted French Jews the rights and privileges of French citizenship in 1789, the gradual inclusion of Jews into the wider, non-Jewish society has yielded the situation in which we find ourselves today. Now there are all kinds of Jews in the mix: black, white, Asian, openly gay, straight, transgender, secular, not-so-secular, of course, but also all sorts of combinations that are the product of interfaith relationships. The Jewish world is no longer demarcated by simple, clear lines.
Add into this melange our changing concept of personal identity in 21st-century America. The idea of “Who are we?” in the wider culture is far more fluid than it has ever been. One need not look too far beyond the very-current struggles over who can relieve themselves in a public bathroom to understand this. Are we who we were at birth? Or can we become something else entirely?
Fortunately, for Jews, we have some common themes of identity, and some of the most important aspects of Jewish identity are invoked in the Pesah seder. For one thing, some of our most fundamental, personal Jewish memories involve the seder table – a home ritual that brings friends and family together.
It’s worth noting that, after the lighting of Hanukkah candles, the seder is the second-most observed ritual of the Jewish year: about 70% of American Jews (according to the Pew study of 2013) show up for a seder. That’s a pretty impressive number, especially since only 22% of us have kosher homes and 13% avoid spending money on Shabbat. It is therefore a very strong identity-building ritual, even if it’s just dinner with matzah. Think of your own seminal sedarim: how you may recall your silly uncle’s embarrassingly-loud, horribly off-tune singing, or that time your teenage cousin actually drank four full cups of wine, or checking to see if the wine in Eliyahu’s cup had actually gone down when you opened the door. Think of the lessons learned, how proud you may have felt being invited to engage in serious discussion of tough questions with grown-ups, the sense of community engendered by making your first seder on your own for your friends when you couldn’t get back home, the feeling of togetherness created by having all the people you love together, and so forth. Even the implicit messages — who are we? We are the people that gather to eat traditional foods and to discuss their history.
And all the more so for those of us who spend some time at the seder discussing the themes of the holiday. If you dwell at length on the text of the traditional haggadah, then you have most likely encountered the most relevant statement about what it means to be Jewish. It’s quoted straight out of the Mishnah (Pesahim 10:5):
בְּכָל דּוֹר וָדוֹר חַיָּב אָדָם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עַצְמוֹ כְּאִלּוּ הוּא יָצָא מִמִּצְרַיִם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (שמות יג), וְהִגַּדְתָּ לְבִנְךָ בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמֹר, בַּעֲבוּר זֶה עָשָׂה ה’ לִי בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם
Bekhol dor vador hayyav adam lir’ot et atzmo ke-ilu hu yatza miMitzrayim, shene-emar: “Vehigadta levinkha bayom hahu lemor, ba’avur zeh asa Adonai li betzeti miMitzrayim.”
In every generation, one must see oneself as having personally come forth from Egypt, as it is written (Ex. 13:8), “And you shall explain to your son on that day, ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.’”
When I was growing up, we used to read through the haggadah in English, full-speed ahead, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 sheqels. So I never really paid much attention to this line until I was in my 30s.
But this is in fact the whole reason that we gather and tell the story on the first night of Pesah : to make it personal. To put ourselves into the story. To walk a mile in the shoes of our ancestors, to connect with their struggles. To re-live the formation of the Israelite nation, conceived in slavery and delivered at Mt. Sinai. We went down into Egypt as a family and emerged as a people, as Am Yisrael. And as much as we celebrate our freedom on Pesah, we also celebrate our identity as members of the tribe that left Egypt together and received the Torah together.
And so it is our duty to reinforce that message at the seder, not only to dine as free people in the style of the Greek symposium, reclining and dipping and telling weighty stories, but also to connect ourselves with slavery, and to tell our children about it.
And how do we do that? How do we teach our children, who are mostly, thankfully, being raised sheltered from even the strife and hardships that our grandparents knew, what it’s like to be a slave? While we are reclining in our safe, comfortable homes, in an environment in which food is always plentiful, where debts are mostly politely confined to paperwork, where manual labor is generally an option, how do we continue the generational transmission of understanding oppression?
Here are a few ideas:
- Ask those gathered to discuss what we are “slaves” to (job, mortgage, alarm clock, etc.). Are we really “free?”
- If you have any Shoah survivors at the table, ask them if they were ever slaves, and perhaps to describe their experiences.
- Find some information in advance about slaves in the world today. Estimates vary, but there are many millions. Consider our economic habits and how they may keep people enslaved in distant lands (see, for example, slaveryfootprint.org). Consider what that means in the context of our heritage.
- Consider another essential line in the haggadah, the preamble to the Maggid (storytelling) section of the seder: Kol dikhfin yeitei veyeikhul. Let all who are hungry come and eat. Discuss how our understanding of / history of slavery require us to act in this world?
- Consider that the Torah invokes our having been slaves many times, and uses that statement of our history to justify our not mistreating strangers, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Talk about how that obligation affects our relationships with others.
Your creativity at the seder should not go only into the food! On the contrary! The more that you put into making your first nights of Pesah engaging, informative, and reflective, helping those around the table enter into our tradition, the greater chance that they will carry on that tradition, creating new memories and new opportunities for our collective spiritual growth.
Why have Jews always been at the forefront of issues of social justice? Why did Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and many other Jews, march with Dr. Martin Luther King? Why was the American Federation of Labor founded by Samuel Gompers, a member of our tribe? Why did so many American Jews advocate to help free our Soviet cousins in the 1980s? Why did the Zionist movement ultimately succeed in building a Jewish state? Why did Sigmund Freud seek to liberate the unconscious mind? Why did Jonas Salk work to rid the world of polio?
Because of the identity formed around the seder table, where we see ourselves as slaves and learn about the imperative to help all those who are suffering from persecution and oppression of all forms to gain their freedom. That is who we are, regardless of all of the other ways in which we differ.
And the very foundation upon which this identity has been forged, the one thing that we all have in common, is the Torah. Yes, we interpret it differently. Yes, we disagree over its meaning. But that is simply the way that Jews have always related to our tradition, and it is, in fact, ours. The Pesah tale, the story of our nation’s departure from Egypt, is the seminal moment of identity formation, and it connects directly to Shavuot, seven weeks later, when we celebrate the giving of the Torah. That is the cornerstone of what it means to be Jewish, and perhaps that is why we keep coming back to the seder table every year.
So when you gather with your family and friends tonight, look around the table at the young people there, and ask yourself, “Have I engaged them? Have they learned something? Have I helped them fashion their identities? Have I enhanced that multi-generational connection?
That is what Pesah is all about. Not necessarily the food, not the karpas, not even the Pesah-Matzah-Maror or the four retellings of the story. It’s about identity. It’s about who we are.
Shabbat shalom and hag sameah!
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, First Day of Pesah 5776, 4/23/16.)