Passover: A Message of Liberation


This Friday, April 22, is the first night of Passover. Jews will gather, mostly in their homes, to eat a ritual and festive meal called a Seder. Before the actual meal, they will eat a variety of symbolic foods and read the Haggadah, a text that includes a narrative of the Exodus. Among the symbolic foods will be matzah, or unleavened bread, sometimes called the bread of affliction.

The Exodus, the story of liberation from slavery in Egypt, is the foundation story of the Jewish people. It is also an important part of the western cultural baggage. I suspect that our propensity to side with the underdog in any competition has its roots in the Exodus story. An interesting aspect of the narrative in the Haggadah is the absence of Moses, who is such a central figure in the Biblical narrative. Perhaps the rabbis who composed the Haggadah feared that Moses, the hero of the Biblical account, might become an object of excessive reverence or even worship. It happens.

Today there are many variations on the traditional Haggadah that emphasize various ideological or religious positions. There are vegetarian and vegan Haggadot (the correct plural), gay and lesbian Haggadot, humanist Haggadot, and even a Marxist Haggadah.

The story of liberation seems to cry out to be universalized. Jews have long brought supplementary material on contemporary problems to the Seder. Rabbi Brant Rosen of Chicago has expanded four traditional questions posed by children in the Haggadah to include the following:

Your child will ask

Why do we observe this festival?


And you will answer

It is because of what God did for us

when we were set free from the land of Egypt.

Your child will ask

Were we set free from the land of Egypt

that we might hold tightly

to the pain of our enslavement

with a mighty hand?


And you will answer

We were set free from Egypt

that we might release our pain

by reaching with an outstretched arm

to all who struggle for freedom.


Your child will ask

Were we set free from the land of Egypt

because we are God’s chosen people?


And you will answer

We were set free from the land of Egypt

so that we will finally come to learn

all who are oppressed

are God’s chosen.


Your child will ask

Were we set free from the land of Egypt

that we might conquer and settle

a land inhabited by others?


And you will answer

We were set free from the land of Egypt

that we might open wide the doors

to proclaim:


Let all who are dispossessed return home.

Let all who wander find welcome at the table.

Let all who hunger for liberation

come and eat.

Now that Bernie Sanders has broken the taboo among American politicians on mentioning the suffering of the Palestinians, more American Jews might be including such questions at their Seders.

Discussions at the Seder can range over many topics, and usually questions arise about the symbolism of the various foods. It’s traditional to begin the actual Seder meal with each person eating a hardboiled egg in the bowl of salt water. A friend of mine, a Hungarian Jew and Holocaust survivor, always insisted the latter recalled the fact that as they crossed the Red Sea, the Israelites were up to their balls in salt water. It always got a laugh.

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