I am deep into it – preparing for the B’Chavana seder, preparing for my own. Themes of liberation and freedom dominate my thoughts. Making these ancient messages live once again for my friends and family predominate.
This, of course, at a time when so much in our country – and Western Europe – seems to be sliding away from precious, hard-fought and not-yet-sufficient recognitions of the dignity of the most vulnerable among us: immigrants, Muslims, members of the LBGTQ community; women. Anyone who is “different”. Acts of violence against our community and others is on a frightening upswing.
Soon, we will recite words of Hillel that occupy a central place in the liturgy of the Haggadah: “B’chol dor va-dor chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mi-Mitzrayim – in every generation, each of us is obligated to see ourselves as if we, ourselves, left the bondage of Egypt.” It is not enough to tell the ancient story; it is only sufficient – dayenu – if we experience it deep in our souls and impress its lessons upon our consciousness. It is only sufficient – dayenu – if we “know the experience of the strangers, having been strangers ourselves in Egypt.” It is only sufficient – dayenu – if we can utilize empathic imagination in order to understand others and their suffering.
In the Torah, we are commanded to love our neighbor and the stranger. This mitzvah grows out of our learning from our own suffering. The Jewish-French philosopher Simone Weil gives us a clue as to how: “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say to him: ‘What are you going through?’ . . . The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.”
We who are safe; we who are privileged; we who possess some degree of power; we are called upon at this season not only to think of those who are not and have not, but we are called upon to act. And, lest we despair, I bring to mind these words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, z’l, spoken in January, 1963, at Chicago’s Edgewater Beach Hotel:
There are those who maintain that the situation is too grave for us to do much about it, that whatever we might do would be “too little and too late,” that the most practical thing we can do is “to weep” and to despair. If such a message is true, then God has spoken in vain . . .
History is not all darkness. It was good that Moses did not study theology under the teachers of that message (of surrender); otherwise, I would still be in Egypt building pyramids. Abraham was all alone in a world of paganism; the difficulties he faced were hardly less grave than ours.
The greatest heresy is despair, despair of men’s (sic) power for goodness, men’s power for love.
It is not enough for us to exhort the Government. What we must do is to set an example, not merely to acknowledge the Negro (sic) but to welcome him, not grudgingly but joyously, to take delight in enabling him to enjoy what is due to him. We are all Pharaohs or slaves of Pharaohs. It is sad to be a slave of Pharaoh. It is horrible to be a Pharaoh.
This is z’man cherutenu – the time of our liberation, as the rabbis termed it. And the choice is ours: between being observers on the sidelines or players in the game; between remaining within the four walls of our own lives and interests or opening the doors in order to acknowledge the suffering of others; between being a victim of Pharaoh or a Pharaoh ourselves.
The ancient messages of Pesah ring true to me. I hope they do so for you, as well.