Passover: Listening as an Act of Liberation

The Jewish holiday of Passover, the celebration of the Israelite slaves’ redemption in Egypt, started Monday evening. It features lots of talking—not surprising, perhaps, for the tribe of Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld. Tonight, we’ll gather for the Seder, a long meal centered around reading and singing the haggadah, or “telling” in Hebrew. According to the story in the biblical book of Exodus, the slaves’ redemption started with talking (“crying out,” to be more precise), but it couldn’t have succeeded without listening. God heard the Israelites’ cries, and this set in motion their liberation.

The Exodus from Egypt is the master story of the Jewish tradition. The Torah (the first five books of the Bible, also Judaism’s primary sacred text) repeats four times that parents have an obligation to teach their children about the Exodus. The haggadah goes even further, and we read there, “In every generation, each individual should feel personally redeemed from Egypt.” Producing this radical shift in consciousness is a tall order, but it’s essential to achieve it. The lesson is crucial for two related reasons. First, it cultivates the essential virtue of gratitude, without which we cannot be fully human. Second, it pushes us towards behavior that respects the dignity of every human being. The Torah repeats this idea numerous times, such as, “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).

So how are we supposed to know what it felt like to be slaves and strangers in Egypt and to have been redeemed? The Seder deploys an impressive pedagogical repertoire towards this end. The Bible’s story is embellished with incisive rabbinic commentary that illuminates the nuances of oppression—like how oppression begins innocuously and how it distorts family life. The rabbis who created the seder pioneered differentiated instruction. They interpreted the command, repeated four times, to teach children about the Exodus as corresponding to questions asked by four different children. So, the rabbis dictated answers appropriate to each child’s unique outlook.

There are also symbolic actions: reclining while eating and openly asking questions, the prerogatives of free people. And of course there’s the food: the bitter herbs, a Jewish wasabi which can bring you to tears and remind you of the tears of the Israelite slaves, and the matzah, the cardboard-like bread of affliction, which Jews were forbidden from eating 24 hours before the seder so its crustiness would make the greatest possible impression. Violators of this ban were sentenced to be whipped until they fainted.

Much about the seder stays the same from year to year—the four questions, the four children, the four cups of wine and so on—but repetition as a pedagogical strategy has its limitations, so seder leaders have always been encouraged to mix things up, to make seder participants curious and receptive to learning the lessons of the holiday. One such strategy is to suddenly remove all the food from the table—so people have to ask, “Wait, what did you do with all the food? I’m hungry. I’ll even eat matzah!” Watching all the food vanish from the table could make us less likely to take our abundant food for granted (hint hint—appreciate Sharples!). The Rambam (an acronym for Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), who lived in the Middle Ages, suggests that a seder leader instructing a small child should convey the message of slavery and redemption by saying, “We were all slaves, like this slave,” indicating one of the household slaves. (I won’t go into how people giving thanks for having been redeemed from slavery could own slaves—maybe when Passover comes around next year…)

As recently as a few generations ago, most Jews had firsthand experience of dire oppression, so the pedagogical goal of Passover was just easier to achieve. My great grandparents, Russian Jews who fled to America to escape pogroms, could probably imagine quite readily that they had been personally redeemed from Egypt. Like most American Jews of my generation, however, I have grown up with significant privilege, affording us opportunities to enjoy the best in education, healthcare and homes. Rabbi Toba Spitzer argues that we must resist the temptation to simply accept these privileges. We must ask ourselves, “In what ways does our liberation come at the expense of others, and in what ways can we alleviate any injustice done? At whose expense have we as a community achieved a remarkable level of economic prosperity? How do we acknowledge the suffering, inadvertent or otherwise, caused to others by the establishment of the State of Israel? How can each of us, as individuals, come into our full selves without diminishing the selfhood of others?”

The answer, I would argue, begins with listening. Only by listening to those who don’t have the privileges we have can we begin to understand what it means to be enslaved and to be redeemed. This may force us to listen to voices we don’t want to hear and look at realities we don’t want to see, but this is the charge of the holiday and of our tradition. I wish all of us the courage to fully celebrate Passover.