We should praise God for the deliverances that He has given us. We should thank Him for the grace He has shown us. But what benefit is provided by a constant, yearly reminder of the slaveries of our checkered pasts?
Sometimes, the secret to the meaning in our rituals lie in the questions we fail to ask of them. Fortunately, such questions are inherent to the Passover story. They are programmed into the event by the Torah itself. They are part of the ritual.
“And when your children say to you, ‘What does this rite mean to you?’ you shall say, ‘It is a Passover sacrifice to the Lord who passed over the houses of the sons of Israel in Egypt when He smote the Egyptians, but spared our homes.'” (Ex.12:26-27)
It’s a question but it’s also a statement.
The crux of the ritual of Passover is not really the act of praising God for deliverance. Rather, it is a clouded time; a few hours where the sick and healthy, rich and poor, single and married, old and young, and even Jew and non-Jew, gather together, at night, and commemorate an extremely dark hour in human history; an hour when God visited the iniquity of those who rejected him, and whom had persecuted His people, by bringing death on a wide scale…It is an hour that brought much death. Any within Egypt’s borders, any who did not have the blood applied to the lintel and doorposts of their dwelling, and who made the mistake of wandering the streets when the death angel passed over, was subject to the ordinance of the death of the first-born. The Torah tells us that the wailing cry of the people who lost a child overwhelmed the land.
“…and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was no home where there was not someone dead.” (Ex.12:30)
But the Torah commands that every year, at this time, this event is remembered. And it tells us why: To educate the next generation. To what end?
“The LORD said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers; and this people will arise and play the harlot with the strange gods of the land, into the midst of which they are going, and will forsake Me and break my covenant which I have made with them.” (Deut.31:16)
The warning in these words come near the end of Moses’s final words to the people. It is a sobering message, and lies at the heart of the ritual of Pesach.
It is a reminder to never forget where we came from.
It is one thing to achieve victory and to overcome. It is quite another, in the midst of this triumphalism, to stop and sit for a time in the deep, penetrating remembrance that we are very small indeed, and came from humble, even shameful pasts. That we were delivered from lives and from circumstances and from sins that we were and surely are not proud of. To wallow in this for even a short time, and to eat the bitter herbs of bondage, is to humble oneself before your community and to remember that we have nothing to boast of except in the power and goodness of the God we serve.
Now, some would say that it is wrong to be reminded of our past. This can be very true.
We don’t appreciate it when a person humiliates us before others by bringing up the sins of our past. It is rude and hurtful to do so. It is especially true when it comes to shaming those who stand to lose much from this shaming. The Mishnah declares as much:
“Just as there is exploitation in business transactions, there is also exploitation in speech…If he is a penitent, no one should say to him, “Remember your prior deeds.” If he was the child of converts, no one should say to him, “Remember the deeds of your ancestors,” as it says, “Do not exploit a convert and do not oppress him.” (Ex.22:20) – Mishnah of Bava Metzia, 4:10
But there is a far different feel to such remembrance when it comes to family. Brothers and sisters laugh with joy and fondness as their father tells humorous stories of childhood foibles to the grandchildren, as they look back and forth between the grandfather and their parents for confirmation, and experience the affirmation which comes from belonging. This is a profoundly meaningful and even restorative process for our sons and daughters, as we give them a tangible way to connect their past to their future.
However, such exploitation of the past takes on an entirely different connotation when it is meant to shame, to discredit and to cast shade upon the wholeness of the present; as though any goodness and light which shines today is somehow tainted at the edges, or propped up artificially for the sake of appearances. It is like trying to drink sour milk.
This is how it can feel for a stranger who seeks to draw near to the covenants and promises of God. A Gentile who seeks to experience the wonder of the ritual, is shamed and exploited when they are told that it is not their history, not their ritual, and has nothing whatsoever to do with them. This is like taking someone to a movie and telling them that they are not allowed to cry when the hero dies. Worse, it’s like inviting dinner guests and then spending the entire evening speaking in a language they cannot understand. It’s not fair. It’s tantamount to abuse.
We are our best selves when we are allowed to experience the empathy of putting ourselves in the place of another in their suffering. To project oneself into the story is to love the one in the story, and to love the one telling it. And it is the telling of the story, and it is in the context of the darkness of death, from which springs forth miraculous life, that the beauty of Passover shines through.
In this aspect of humility that God commands His people to commemorate every year, we see a true expression of the beauty of the Jewish people, and the true light that is to shine to the nations; a light born out of faith towards God in the midst of affliction, and the praise of Him Who delivers. To rob the Gentile who seeks to draw near to this light of the experience of the light, is to commit sin.
“…nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.” (Matt.5:15)
As Dena Weiss, of Mechon Hadar, eloquently states,
“Telling our own story with all of the difficult pieces intact reminds us to be sensitive to others in this way. The penitent never fully “moves past” his old ways, and therefore it is cruel to remind him of his past behavior. The child of converts never forgets where they came from and are always concerned about belonging. What you think of as old scars and topics that can be referenced lightly might still be felt as acute and festering wounds by the person who bears them. A person can be in a new stage of their life, look and feel fine, when all it might take to bring them back to their most painful moment could be an offhand comment that you make to them…When we tell the story of our redemption from the beginning, incorporating the suffering into our narrative, we make the telling real….The story of our freedom includes the story of our shackles.”
– “Telling the Real Story”, Dena Weiss, http://www.hadar.org
This is such an important lesson to remember. Perhaps the most striking difference between Easter and Passover celebrations, is this aspect of reflection. Certainly, the resurrection of the Master is undoubtedly the single most important event in the faith of a follower of Christ, and represents our hope. Therefore, the story of the Passion invites deep reflection. But this reflection does not necessarily involve the community sharing of the pain of our past;
the ritual of Passover says to us that we were delivered together, and we must remember together.
The really hits home for me. I had my great spiritual awakening alone in my dorm room at college; there was no else there. I went home and read my Bible, again, alone. But I really could not give context to my experience, or really even legitimize it, until it had been shared with and reflected upon, by others.
The lessons in this are wide-sweeping, and one of them is articulated beautifully by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks,
“Unless children know how freedom was fought for and won – in the case of Judaism, unless they remember Egypt and the exodus – they will not understand the entire concept of law-governed liberty. They will not grasp the fact that Judaism is an infinitely subtle set of laws designed to create a society of free individuals serving the free God in an and through the responsible exercise of freedom. Freedom lies in what we teach our children.” – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “Exodus: The Book of Redemption”, pg.83, Maggid Books, 2010
This is, in a capsule, what the Jewish people are supposed to teach to the nations. But the lesson, like so many other lessons, must be imparted through story, and legacy. If the Gentiles are not welcome into this narrative, then how is the lesson to be shared?
So much talk about legal issues: Are Gentiles supposed to participate in a seder? Is it strictly a Jewish ritual?
Much is made within Judaism of beautifying observance: Taking the mundane and adding elevation and refinement to it to give sanctity and an enhanced importance. But at the core of the Exodus story is the concept that God took what was filthy, his idolatry-stained people, and picked them up out of the muck and mire and called them His own. How is this concept uniquely Jewish, when God has chosen to use this as an example to all people?
Shalom and Chag Sameach.