Passover 2021: Moving Towards Liberation for All

Our Passover this year isn’t just about the ceremonies inside the synagogue or in our homes, but about adjusting our world to more clearly express these values.

Passover, Z’man Cheiruteinu, the time of our liberation, is a time to think about what liberation might look like for our world today. The mitzvah to imagine that we ourselves were present for the Exodus from Egypt is not simply a game of “what-if,” but is instead a call to each of us to imagine which Mitzrayim, which constricted places, we have moved through and out of in our life. But to what end? 

Rabbi Kauffman Kohler of Blessed Memory, former Rabbi of this institution and former President of the Reform Rabbinical school Hebrew Union College, wrote in 1907: “We, who behold in religion an ever-progressive force working through the inner consciousness of man, first collectively and afterwards individually must ascertain the origin and purpose of each and every ceremony in order to find out whether appealing to our minds and hearts it fulfills a religious function or whether it has become an empty shell with the kernel gone.”

We should, then, investigate more closely the origin and purpose of the Passover ceremonies to understand what it is that our holiday is representing. The Torah portion Rabbi Sapadin just read recounts the story of the first Passover, when the Israelites slaughtered lambs in order to use the blood as a marker on their doorposts, warding off the Angel of Death that was about to kill the firstborn Egyptians. After telling the elders about this apotropaic ritual, Moses goes on to tell them that they must continue observing this rite forever after they have entered the Land God has Promised them. 

I’m not sure about you, but neither I nor any Jewish people I know have painted their doorways with lamb’s blood and hyssop for Passover, so how do we square this with the Torah? The commentators tell us that this is referring only to the Passover lamb, which some Sefardi and Mizrahi traditions still eat as part of their Passover meal, and which Ashkenazim still represent with a lamb shankbone on our seder plates. But if you read the plain language and context of the quote, it appears that the whole ritual is being prescribed forever. 

Rabbi Chaim Ben-Attar, a 17th century sage from Morocco, interpreted the language closely, suggesting that Moses was referring to his contemporary generation with regard to the blood, whereas for לבניך עד עולם,  for descendents observing this rite forever, only certain details of the Passover ceremony in Egypt will apply - namely, the Passover lamb, and only in the Promised Land, meaning that once the Temple in Jerusalem were destroyed, even this eternal piece of the rite is subject to change. And change it did, into the Seder we observe, and the service we are leading today. 

Implicit to Rabbi Chaim Ben Attar’s estimation, and explicit in Rabbi Kohler’s estimation, is that Judaism writ large is about responding to the needs of the day through ritual action that centers the individual’s need for meaning in the world. This is all the more true for Passover, the celebration of our redemption. The greatest principles of Torah, our sages teach us, are “Love your neighbor as yourself." (Leviticus, 19) and "This is the book of the descendents of Adam" (Genesis, 5), meaning all people come from the same source, and therefore you must love all people as yourself. And, the ceremonies of Passover remind us that not only are these our core human values, the Divine charges reality with these values - the story of our ancestors slavery in Egypt, and their miraculous liberation, are a bellwether of this essential element of Creation. Our rituals, ceremonies, celebrations, and texts for Passover all point to these truths, and it is up to us today to make sure that they speak in languages understood by Jews of our time and place, as well as push us all towards those principles. 

So, what do those principles look like today? Let us turn to adrienne maree brown, a brilliant thinker and activist who is addressing these very issues both in writing and in work. In her book, Emergent Strategy, she tells us:

All of [the] imagining, [of] the poverty of our current system, is heightened because of scarcity economics. There isn’t enough, so we need to hoard, enclose, divide, fence up, and prioritize resources and people. We have to imagine beyond those fears. We have to ideate—imagine and conceive—together.

Passover was once a ritual of blood smeared on doorposts out of fear, a moment in time in which our ancestors suffered greatly, and were lifted out of their bondage on eagles’ wings. As we see the dawning of Spring, as the z’man cheiruteinu, the time of our deliverance is at hand, let us imagine better what world we might want to build based on these core values. We, today, have an opportunity to realign our future with higher values. Our Passover this year isn’t just about the ceremonies inside the synagogue or in our homes, but about adjusting our world to more clearly express these values. Just as the Israelites were provided a new calendar and new practices as they left their burdens behind in the constricted place of scarcity that was Mitzrayim, or Egypt, we too are beginning to see the glimmer of a new world before us. As the vaccines continue to roll out, and we begin to re-emerge from the constriction of the pandemic, it may feel attractive to attempt to “Get back to normal.” Instead, let us view this opportunity to re-envision the world. 

What experiences of scarcity and constriction have you experienced in your life? What blood sacrifices have you had to make in your life to ward off violence? Have you accepted them as having been necessary? Are you, in that acceptance, willing to inflict them upon others treading the path behind you? Just as the rituals of Passover changed with time, so should the machinations of our society. Just as our ancestors moved from a place of constriction and lack to a land flowing with milk and honey, so should we move from a perspective of scarcity to a perspective of abundance.

No longer do we need to daub our doorposts with blood, to physically sacrifice a lamb - no longer should we place economic efficiency, traditions of power hierarchies, or scarcity-driven models of profit, but instead let us reflect as if each of us are going out of Egypt today, and working to build a world focused on liberation of all people; a world focused on making sure no one is forced into situations of pain and suffering merely out of a projected fear of future scarcity, or a desire to dominate and hoard resources. Let us, piece by piece, begin enacting the message of our Passover ceremony in our world, piece by piece. Chag Pesach Sameach!