More than most other Jewish experiences during the calendar year, we love to celebrate Passover. A 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center found that American Jews frequent a Seder in surprisingly high numbers. While only 23% of U.S. Jews said they attend religious services at least monthly, 70% said they participated in a Seder last year. That includes 42% of Jews of no religion (those who consider themselves Jewish in some way, were raised Jewish or had a Jewish parent, but say they are atheist or agnostic or have no particular religion.)
So, what is it about Passover that speaks to American Jews? I imagine that in large part it is because it takes place in the home and can be crafted to meet the culinary, social, and spiritual needs of each host family. It helps us live out the thing that makes life for Jews in America today so unique—that we can create and experience the flavor of Judaism that speaks to us. And yet there is something much deeper about the experience of the Seder which I think speaks to the souls of its participants, which is the experience of transcending one’s current reality to know the experience of someone else from a different time and a different learned reality.
We read in the Hagadah: bechol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo keilu hu yatza mimitzrayim—In every generation, a person is obligated to envision himself or herself having experienced redemption from Egypt. There are two ways that I interpret this phrase. Either, we must connect ourselves with the story of our ancestors in order to connect with our shared past, or perhaps, we must look back into history in order to consider our lives
today. Our perspective on life changes based on our past experience. Are we slaves or free? Additionally, depending on how we experience our freedom, how do we respond to others’ enslavement even in our day?
I have to admit that it is sometimes quite difficult for me to keep those without freedom in mind as I sit at my
Seder table in America, surrounded by the signs of freedom—the finest cuts of brisket, kugle, tzimmus, and other delicious foods (way too much of it, I might add), and four cups of wine, poured for me by other participants at the Seder. Our conversations are up to us: connecting about life, choice of college, job searches, the joys of parenting, sports, politics, etc. Our freedom is enjoying spending time with our families and having fun with our kids.
It is only the juxtaposition of the stories of poverty and enslavement that we read together with signs of freedom which allows us to experience our freedom. Without the Seder, freedom becomes normal. The Seder reminds us that we are fortunate to be free because at one time we weren’t, and today many people are not. One year at a seder I attended, a question brought out this lesson for all of the participants. Someone asked, “Why do we tell a
degrading story of our people? 400 years in slavery? Seems like something we would want to leave out from our people’s story you know? Don’t we get to choose how we relive our memory every year?” She offered a different approach: “Why not speak of the triumphs of the Israelites and the Jewish people over the centuries? Focus on the building of the Jewish state, our influence on world religion, art, politics, and economic theory?”
The question was challenging for many at the Seder table. What does it do to regard ourselves as slaves? Does it ultimately help our cause? Aren’t we just keeping ourselves stuck in a lachrymose retelling of the past?
But for others- beginning our seder with gnut, disgrace, and ending in shevach, praise, helps us build the ability to connect with the suffering of others. And as we become more and more comfortable in our lives, we are desperate for a shot of reality—the telling of a story of slavery and redemption, not only to focus on our redemption, but to focus our attention on the difficult aspects of life.
During Dayeinu, we tell a story of enslavement followed by a slow and systematic redemption from slavery in order to express gratitude in phases. Each stanza is a step toward freedom and helps us acknowledge another gift, another blessing, until we as a people receive the ultimate blessing, to be free as a people in our own land with a unique ability and system to worship God and feel God’s presence.
Working on appreciating the blessings of our lives is very daunting. We often forget and take blessings for granted, unable to recognize and appreciate the goodness all around us. We practice recognizing this for ourselves by counting the Omer beginning the second day of Passover and on Shavuot by remembering the gifts of grain that the Israelites brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. A Jewish text called Psikta DeRav Kahana (Verses of Rabbi Kahana) describes this in a scene where a person is donating an omer (measurement) of barley to the Temple and erroneously congratulates himself on bringing the gift. The midrash teaches that while humans bring an omer of the first fruits to the priest, God is doing much behind the scenes to make sure that the crops grow. Humans think that giving an omer is a lot to ask, but they don’t realize the work that goes on every night behind the scenes.
“R. Pinhas said: The way it is with mankind, when a man washes his cloak during the rainy season how much
trouble he goes to with it and how much he puts himself out in tending it until he succeeds in drying the cloak. Yet while mortals are asleep in their beds, the Holy One causes winds to blow, clouds to rise, rains to come down, dews to bespangle plants, plants to spring up, fruits to grow plump, and you are asked to give Him no more in return than the omer of barley!”
I often think of this idea connected with parenting: Once we put the kids to sleep, we spend time taking care of all of the kids’ needs so that in the morning, they can be up and ready for the day. And do we get a thank you? Not unless we ask for it… The key to learning this valuable lesson is setting our intentions to realize the gifts we receive in life by meditating about our existence in this world. Appreciating life’s gifts can lead us to opening up our hearts to new possibilities, deepening relationships, and personal growth. May this Passover season and beyond open up new gates for us by opening up our eyes to the blessings of our lives.