Passover, like no other holiday, trades in memory, personal and national. Just about every seder* that I have ever attended relies on memories of past sedarim, of family gatherings, of special foods, some which we liked and some which we memorably did not; memories of your funny uncle who would take a sip out of Elijah’s cup when everybody was watching the door, of good times singing Eḥad Mi Yodea and Ḥad Gadya and Dayyenu, of the hunt for the afikoman and of course all the grandparents and aunts and uncles around the table, the people who are no longer with us. And certainly the remembrance that comes with Yizkor at the end of Pesaḥ puts a final flourish on the sense of personal memory that this holiday features.
And also perhaps like no other holiday, Pesaḥ trades on historical memories of our people. Yetzi’at Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, is not only the foundational moment of Benei Yisrael, the people of Israel, but is also an essential statement of who we are as a people. The family of Ya’aqov / Jacob descends into Egypt as a group of 70 people escaping famine, and emerges 430 years later as a great nation, ready to receive the Torah and inherit the Land of Israel which has been promised to them.
But this family becomes a nation by experiencing slavery and subsequent redemption, ensuring from the outset that from generation to generation Jewish people would understand what it means to be a slave, to be oppressed and persecuted, to be subjugated by another and denied our own spiritual means. Pesaḥ is therefore emblematic of all the ways in which we continue to act on that arc of slavery and redemption, in which we seek to bring about redemption for ourselves and the world by highlighting the holiness of the others around us.
And we hear that story replayed over and over throughout Jewish history, with the Babylonian Exile and return in the 6th c. BCE; the Roman destruction and dispersion of the Jews from Israel in the 1st c. CE; the Inquisition, the pogroms, the Shoah / Holocaust, the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
Persecution and redemption. Displacement, dispersion, and return. These are the major themes of Jewish existence going all the way back to slavery in Egypt. That is why the memories of our people speak so powerfully; that is why the Pesaḥ seder is still one of the most-practiced Jewish observances, because it is so deeply laden with history. The Pesaḥ memory machine, every spring, serves up its products along with the matzah and maror.
As you may know, I grew up in a fairly non-Jewish place, in the rustic and handsome Berkshire hills of Western Massachusetts. My parents had to work hard to ensure that my brother and sister and I had a strong connection to our tradition, our community, our customs and rituals, that we would be deeply connected to that memory machine. Our Conservative synagogue was 17 miles away, a 30-minute car ride. The nearest kosher meat market was in Albany, NY, an hour by car over a mountain. My grandparents and many close relatives with whom we spent some holidays were three hours away in Boston. There was no Jewish day school nearby.
Virtually all of my closest school friends were Christian, and many were active in their churches. I was often, if you will, the token Jew: the only one bringing matzah sandwiches on Pesaḥ or missing school on Rosh HaShanah. I was always in some sense an outsider. I did not share my personal and national memories with my friends and neighbors.
But one of the things I have come to understand in recent years is that what unites people of faith is far greater than what divides us. We, the Jews, have the potential to be allies with other like-minded Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists, Bahai, Druze, and so forth.
Consider what we share:
- Commitment to a framework of holy behavior which elevates and enriches our lives and the lives of the other people around us
- Cultivation of the values of respect, gratitude, compassion, charity, community, education, and justice
- Rituals which create meaning for our lives, including regular prayer, holidays, and lifecycle events: birth, coming-of-age, marriage, and death and mourning
- Understanding that the role of Divinity in our lives provides a template for interacting with others
- A textual basis for all of the above
Now, of course there is tremendous variation in style and language and the range of values that we hold dear, and of course theology. As just one small example, Judaism tends to emphasize action, Christianity belief. And of course we differ on matters of religious law, and how we read and interpret our shared texts, rituals and foods and customs and so forth.
But think of all of the potential power contained within all of those which we do share, and how, if people of faith work in concert with one another, we can truly build a better society and a better world.
At the congregational seder last Thursday night here at Beth Shalom, among the 85 attendees were five Christian guests, young adult members of the East Liberty Presbyterian Church who had requested to attend. I was certain that they were quite overwhelmed by the scene.
But I was really somewhat anxious, given these non-Jewish attendees, about one standard passage of the haggadah, which comes deep into the seder, right as we open the door (ostensibly to invite in Elijah the Prophet). We say,
שְׁפֹךְ חֲמָתְךָ אֶל־הַגּוֹיִם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדָעוּךָ וְעַל־מַמְלָכוֹת אֲשֶׁר בְּשִׁמְךָ לֹא קָרָאוּ. כִּי אָכַל אֶת־יַעֲקֹב וְאֶת־נָוֵהוּ הֵשַׁמּוּ. שְׁפָךְ־עֲלֵיהֶם זַעֲמֶךָ וַחֲרוֹן אַפְּךָ יַשִּׂיגֵם. תִּרְדֹף בְּאַף וְתַשְׁמִידֵם מִתַּחַת שְׁמֵי ה
Pour your wrath upon the nations that do not know You and upon the kingdoms that do not call upon Your Name! Since they have consumed Ya’aqov and laid waste his habitation (Psalms 79:6-7). Pour out Your fury upon them and the fierceness of Your anger shall reach them (Psalms 69:25)! You shall pursue them with anger and eradicate them from under the skies of the Lord (Lamentations 3:66).
Now, it is likely that our ancestors added these verses in the Middle Ages to cry out to God for revenge against their non-Jewish tormentors. It was a statement of defiance in the face of powerlessness, delivered when the door was open to show the gentile neighbors that they were not doing anything nefarious. Our national memory of these times is, to put it mildly, not good.
Our ancestors probably could not have foreseen a day when people of different faiths could be allies against the forces of chaos. That idea was simply not a part of Jewish memory for many centuries.
But that is where we are right now, and that is what I said on Thursday night in the presence of our Presbyterian guests. We should not read these lines as a deliberate insult to non-Jews; we should instead absolutely read them as a statement against those who malign religious faith and attack worshippers in synagogues, churches, mosques, temples and gurdwaras and children in religious schools of any sort.
I do not think that I am the only one here who sees that the chaos grows as our society, as the people around us, grow more distant from religious tradition. Without a framework of spirituality, we create a world without rules, without principles, without dedication to the holiness of the other. Truth becomes relative; we worship the idols of politics and money and power. A world without religious tradition becomes one in which each individual is their own highest authority, where there are no guideposts and no guardrails.
The power of allyship across religious lines is extraordinarily important today. United, we are a serious force within our society, and not for the purposes of indoctrinating others into our religion, but rather for improving the condition of all people.
I mentioned in this space on the first day of Pesaḥ that the “swatting” hoaxes of last week, which have lamentably continued, are creating fear in our communities. Last week it was Central Catholic; Monday night it was students at Pitt. Our friend Rev. Canon Natalie Hall’s children were in lockdown, subject to very real fear.
We, the allies in faith, can push back against the forces of chaos, like those who are maliciously causing these security messes. We may not entirely win; chaos has always been with us. But we can do the best we can to build bridges, to heal wounds, to discuss our memories and our history and yes, even our theology and how we read the Torah differently. And that will, I am absolutely certain, go a long way toward helping to cure this fractured world.
When we meet together and learn together and break bread together as allies, we will be prepared to navigate together the many challenges which now plague our society and world. True people of faith know that we accomplish more when build bridges instead of walls, and we must add the sense of allyship to contemporary Jewish memory.
Our grandparents, our parents, the people whom we remember today, came with their families to this country to escape the persecutions of the Old World, to flee the rigid social lines of Europe, where they had always been outsiders. Here we are free not only to practice our traditions, not only to be considered as equals to our non-Jewish neighbors, but also to work together with partners whom our ancestors could never have imagined.
In their memory, together, we can build a better world. Thank God.
And, if you want an opportunity to learn Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) in an interfaith setting, please join us for A Conversation Between Christians & Jews Toward Friendship & Discovery. The first session is this coming Sunday, April 23, 2023, and it will be an engaging series focused on building and strengthening connections while studying our shared texts.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, 8th Day of Pesaḥ, 4/13/2023.)
* The Passover seder (plural: sedarim) is a special dinner and storytelling ritual that is observed on the first two nights of Pesaḥ. It includes displaying and eating special foods and telling the story of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt.