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Passover’s Universal Message

April 22, 2011

Passover’s Universal Message:

This week I have been absorbed in a discussion regarding slavery and freedom, one that takes place annually among my family, friends and community. It is the topic that is brought forth each year through the celebration of Passover. And while we tend to think of Passover as a Jewish holiday, for certainly it is, the message of the holiday is universal, so much so that it is celebrated by a fair number of congregations in the Christian and Muslim faiths as well.

The basic story: the Israelites were slaves in Egypt, where they were victims of harsh labor and beatings. God, through the messenger Moses, brought them out from bondage into freedom. This essential kernel of the Jewish narrative has the commandment within it to recount the story each year and to teach it to our children, so that they, too, can continue to recount it as they mature.

Why? For some the answer would be: to remember. We must remember our roots. That’s one important reason. But according to Jewish teaching, while significant, remembering alone falls miserably short. For we are reminded again and again in our sacred texts to extend ourselves to the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the elder, the blind and the deaf– individuals who serve to represent all the needy in our community – because we know how it feels to be the stranger, to be the one who is oppressed. In fact, we are commanded to open our homes and our tables so that all who are hungry may come and eat. The value of Israelite slavery, according to Kabbalistic traditions, is to have us break that chain, for through it we learned to be sensitive to those in need and to have compassion for their pain. Having cultivated sensitivity and compassion, we are commanded then to act to eradicate injustice and alleviate suffering throughout the world.

Seders this year and in years past have included multiple faiths at their table to facilitate dialogues to help overcome the narrow understanding that one faith may have of another. The word for Egypt in Hebrew is Mitzrayim, which literally means, “the narrow places.” We go from the narrow place of enslavement to the broad expanse of freedom, not just as a nation, but as individuals, not just historically, but today as well. We must challenge ourselves to examine where we hold narrow, self-limiting beliefs as well as beliefs that minimize or diminish others.

Toward this end, many seders include a fifth question – an addition to the traditional four that explore why the Passover night is different from all other nights. Some fifth questions asked at seders this year include:

  • Why on this night are millions of people going hungry?
  • Why are so many still enslaved and tortured around the world?
  • What steps can we take to ensure greater economic justice in our cities?
  • How can we promote equal rights for people of all races, ethnicities and religions?
  • How can we ensure that our food is produced in an ethical and ecologically sustainable way?
  • What are some things we can do every day to help those around come out of the self-imposed bondage and slavery that they experience in their own lives?
  • How can we continue to honor aiding strangers and family alike with this next year?
  • Why is religion so often a force in politics?
  • How can we make this year different from all other years?

You may find yourself adding your own questions to this list, either from your seder or from your personal commitment to repair our world. Ultimately, the message of Passover is at once simple and complex. Simple: treat all people with justice, kindness and equity; make sure that everyone has enough food, shelter, clothing, health care, love. Treat others the way you’d want them to treat you. The complexity is in the doing. The complexity is in overcoming our fears of people who look or behave differently than we do. It is in addressing the selfishness that impels us to want more even when it means that someone else has less. It is in facing the arrogance that enables us to overindulge use of our earth’s resources without recognizing that we are robbing our own children. It is in overcoming inertia, ambivalence and/or despair that we have regarding taking action to live the lessons that the seder has us pose.

The essence of Passover is that it goes beyond a message to and for the Jewish community. It is a message that can appeal to anyone of any faith or even without a faith tradition. The true essence of this holiday is that no one is truly free until all people are free.

Robin Damsky

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One Comment leave one →
  1. tskraghu permalink
    April 22, 2011 9:39 am

    So well expressed! Can’t be anything else.

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