Passover Is Our Original Independence Day

Passover marks the existential Israeli transformation from a nation of slaves to a sovereign people.

Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg
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Avraham Burg
Avraham Burg

Each generation has a different appreciation of its holidays. Their customs and significance change with time, and it is difficult to pinpoint what exactly preserves the memory of one festival while another date on the calendar is sent into oblivion.

Who today remembers the Day of Nicanor, or can recount what happened to the right hand and head of that Seleucid general after they were severed by Judah Maccabee at the Battle of Beth Horon and proudly displayed near Jerusalem for all to see? Similarly, few people are aware of the significance of the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Heshvan, designated as the first day of the fasting season during a drought year.

On the other hand, Tu Bishvat has witnessed a rebirth: What was once a formal but marginal date on the Hebrew calendar has turned into quite a holiday during the era of modern Israel. Hanukkah, too, has been transformed from a religious celebration of miraculous redemption to an occasion honoring Zionism, heroism and prideful nationalism.

What about Pesach? While seemingly the most eternal of all holidays, it seems to be the next logical choice for a date whose significance will undergo a dramatic change. Passover is our original Independence Day - the holiday that marks the existential Israeli transformation from a nation of slaves to a sovereign people, from a collection of tribes to a nation of law.

The seder and the Haggadah are two prime reasons why Pesach has been preserved. From time immemorial, the holiday and the ceremonial reciting of the Haggadah were the vehicles for a defiant assertion of our national identity, hope and belief in redemption. Our forefathers who were pitted against Pharaoh; our sages who during the Second Temple period had to confront the Romans; or the Conversos in Spain, who by observing Pesach clandestinely defied their inquisitors - all found comfort and redemptive power in the narrative of the Haggadah. It has been this way throughout most of Jewish history: The past has served to shape and explain the present and all the times when we were bereft of sovereignty, and immersed in existential fears.

While it is understandable, albeit somewhat childish, Passover and its customs are imbued with a defensive sort of spirituality and imagined aggression. In one night, 10 plagues are inflated to include hundreds of afflictions, solely for the purpose of allowing us to experience the momentary delusion of the power that comes with sovereign might. We gleefully open the door to the exhortation for God to "pour out thy wrath" upon the gentiles. That act is meant to give the impression of fearlessness when facing any enemy, but in reality it's an expression of fear, as we seek to ensure that none of Pharaoh's local representatives are preparing to ambush us.

This was how Passover became the definitive answer to the question of how to celebrate a holiday of redemption while preserving national aspirations, when we were actually living through eras of subjugation, destruction, loss of independence and exile. Thus we are left to wonder about the significance of such a celebration in the eyes of a generation that has declared itself to be redeemed, its iron shackles long removed. This is a generation that has no qualms about opening the door and going wherever it wishes.

'Pour out his wrath'

Passover as we know it is in danger of dissipating and disappearing during such a generation, much like the Day of Nicanor, unless we do well to ascribe completely new meanings to the holiday. The fundamental existential question posed by previous generations was, "How do we survive and endure in the face of our enemies?" The answer was simple: "V'hi she'amda" - the Lord "will save us from their hand" and will "pour out his wrath on the gentiles."

Passover was the holiday that served as enduring proof that it was possible to survive against the entire world. And what of our generation? It seems that we are at the threshold of an era in which the defining question will be, "Can the Jewish people survive without an enemy from without?" We may be one historic moment away from finding ourselves in a unique place in our history, one in which the overwhelming majority of the Jewish people is beyond the reach of an existential threat.

The advent of peace could possibly usher in our successful return to world history as active players, just as Zionism wished. Do we have the tools to continue our existence as a nation and a culture equipped with full sovereignty, blessed with peace, endowed with global acceptance, and championing welfare and equality? Can we continue to exist without a perennial adversary, without being victims of persecution and pogroms, without a pharaoh?

One possible answer is no. In that case, the Jewish people will not continue to exist. It will assimilate among other nations as befitting our multicultural, contemporary reality.

The other option is seclusion and the building of even higher walls to separate the Jewish people from the rest of the world, all the while creating perpetual conflicts that will repeatedly prove that "the entire world is against us." In that case, modern-day Passover will closely resemble its forbears. It will be a holiday that perpetuates the endless clash between Israel and the world.

Is there another way? Is it possible to attribute a significance to the holiday that would appeal to the modern, emancipated human being? To do so, one needs to adopt a new interpretation of the Exodus from Egypt. Rather than being seen as a simplistic, nationalistic conflict, a mythical-fictitious struggle between "God" and "the gods of Egypt," or an escape of a nation of slaves from a nation of overlords, Passover can be seen to represent a fundamental clash of worldviews: a victory of human rights over a lust for conquest and the trappings of wealth; a victory over the fear and terror that are integral to all power-based relations.

The exalted call of "Let my people go!" would not have been made possible without the conception of freedom held by five courageous women: Yocheved, the mother of Moses, who defied Pharaoh's orders to cast all male children into the Nile; the two midwives who assisted her; Miriam, Moses' sister; and Pharaoh's daughter, who also joined the rebellion. They were among the first to understand the crux of the issues, and this led them to spearhead the first-ever revolution that was nationalist, feminist and humanistic.

These women said to themselves: If Pharaoh - that male Egyptian tyrant - really possesses absolute power, then that means that we do not exist. Our freedom will emerge and spur the entire human race to blossom, only if his absolute tyranny is smashed to pieces. The freedom of "I" will emerge only if we can set limits to the absoluteness of the "other."

This will be true for the relations between an individual and a regime, as well as between one human being and his or her peers. It should allow for the freedom to "make room," to create dialogue with, and acceptance of, the "other" who opposes me. Freedom is tantamount to respect for other human beings, for the "other." Without it, we would not have won redemption from Egypt. Without it, the world will not be rectified and cleansed of its slave-driving Egyptian-ness, discrimination and the hatred that still nests in every aspect of our lives.

The women of Passover are trailblazers who inculcated new holiday symbols. The revolution for equality has yet to be completed for many, too many - even people living in the most advanced societies today. The woman is still an "other." She is like us, but still different, inferior and unequal. Thus the equality of woman is the first, supreme "test of Passover" for every society.

There is no need to wait for a holiday during which God descends from the heavens and rescues us. This will not be just another festival in which the entire world order changes, and we reap the benefits of positive experiences while our adversaries absorb only calamities and distress. The new Pesach will be more chaste, humble and compromising. A holiday of universal law that encompasses human rights for all. It will be a celebration of man's responsibility from the bottom up rather, rather than of God's redeeming hand from above.

The existential Egyptian-ness is within each and every one of us, as a nation and as individuals. And redemption from this Egyptian-ness will be derived from the spirit of Maimonides, who in the Middle Ages wished not just for our own personal salvation, but for a new, ubiquitous reality, in which nation does not conquer nation, a people does not exercise control over another, human beings do not oppress the "other," man does not discriminate against woman, and the majority does not harass those in its midst who are different.

Not only will the new Passover teach us about the limitations of the power of the mighty by making room for the weak: The lesson it embodies is even more deep-rooted. Only the liberation of the "other" from my enslavement of him will bring about my liberation from his slavery. The lord and the slave, like prisoner and prison guard, are both captive in the same facility.

Those who read ancient texts as they were written, while looking beyond the filtered layers piled on them mainly by generations of men, will see the Exodus from Egypt as constituting another sort of redemption - one more attuned to the present day: as the redemption of equality among sexes, races, beliefs and ethnicities. Passover will represent, for men and women alike, a celebration of the wide spectrum of equality. Four sons, four daughters, four foreigners and four "others." Four answers. All of them are different and all of them equal. All of them are children of this place.



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