Susan and I are busy preparing for tonight’s seder. Having spent the morning finalizing preparations for leading the seder, I now need a few moments to prepare . . . myself. It’s relatively easy to bring together the readings from the haggadah, the jokes collected over the years, the special songs we sing just this once. It’s much more difficult to ensure that I will conduct this seder “b’chavana” – with the right intent, meaning with a mind and heart open to its perennial pronouncement of the dignity of humankind.
Amidst the destruction of their Temple and their capital, Jerusalem, by the Romans; the devastation of their country, such that nothing could be grown; and the slaughter of tens of thousands of countrymen, women and children, the rabbis who created the seder two thousand years ago had the audacity to speak of liberation. They took the age-old story of the exodus from Egyptian slavery and made certain that its resonance was heard in their own day: despite the victory of Rome, our subjugation and degradation is not an eternal one; a future redeemer will come to restore us.
Most often we associate the Pesah celebration with freedom; and rightly so. But it is not freedom as an end in-and-of-itself that we celebrate. No; the first words of the maggid, the telling of the tale, are these:
From slavery to freedom.
From degradation to glory.
From the rule of evildoers to the rule of God.
The rabbis took our ancestors’ movement from slavery to freedom to be concomitant with a movement from degradation to glory. Yet that second transition was not meant to describe the Israelites, much as it seems to. Rather, it was to describe the restoration of God’s glory that accompanied the redemption of Israel.
In other words: while the Israelites were enslaved, God’s image was tarnished. The only thing that could wipe away the dross and restore the luster was their redemption.
That is a fairly bold theological statement, to say that God’s reputation can be diminished at all, never mind by human events.
Yet that is how the rabbis declared it to be. And that is at the heart of the precious legacy that we possess today, that we celebrate with this Pesah observance, with every prayer service we hold, we every act of tzedaka we do, with every Jewish community we form: that each and every time a human being is demeaned, God’s image is demeaned. The degradation of any one of God’s children is tantamount to the degradation of God, Herself.
When we humiliate another with our speech; when a mother and her children are reduced to poverty; when people who are mentally ill sleep in the winter streets of our great cities; when children fear to attend their schools; when men treat women as objects of their own desires, beliefs and values, and not as independent people in their own right; when we characterize others as stupid and senseless and boorish; we have demeaned God’s image.
Where is the place to apply the message of Pesah? Where isn’t it? In our family relationships, in our business dealings, in our political culture, in our national policy. To seek the ennoblement of our fellow human beings is to recognize and declare the glory of God. And to do the opposite . . . is to chase God’s presence from the world.
As you sit around your Pesah table tonight I hope that you will remember this message of the rabbis who, despite the horrors that had been visited upon them, still found the courage and the faith to say that there is a redemption still to come.
And that we, in part, are the ones meant to bring it.