Opinion

Why the Passover Story Is a Jewish Rejection of 'Make America Great Again'

For American Jews, the message of the Exodus story - that justice overcomes the oppressive powers of the day, and that faith is not a demagogic return to the past - has rarely been so relevant

President Donald Trump reacts to the crowd as he arrives for a campaign rally in Moon Township, Pa for Republican Rick Saccone, who lost the election. March 10, 2018
Keith Srakocic/AP

The climax of the standard Passover Haggadah is the declaration, "In every generation, one is obligated to see themself as if they, themself, left Egypt."

However, an alternate tradition, most famously recorded by Maimonides in the 12th century, says instead, "to make themself seen" as if they left Egypt.

This is the root of the custom observed in many seders conducted in the Spanish or Middle Eastern tradition to pick up the matzot and walk around the table with them, acting out the Exodus, instead of just retelling the story.

This difference - just one Hebrew letter - actually implies two very different framings for the Passover seder.

According to the standard text, the seder’s primary focus is the feeling of redemption from oppression that the participants are to be experiencing in the moment.

According to the variant text, it doesn’t so much matter what the participants are actually thinking and feeling, as long as they accurately reenact what happened in the past.

These are not just two ways to conduct a seder; they represent two broad approaches towards religious tradition. In high-profile speeches to Israeli audiences, Mike Pence and Barack Obama each used very similar language, as they referenced the Exodus.

Upon further inspection, though, Pence tended towards Maimonides, whereas Obama took the more consensus view.

Speaking particularly about the Exodus narrative in his recent address to the Knesset, Mike Pence said, "In the story of the Jews, we've always seen the story of America.” Likewise, speaking of the Exodus in Jerusalem during his 2013 presidential visit, Barack Obama said, "It is a part of the three great religions...it is a story that has inspired communities around the globe, including me and my fellow Americans."

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks at the Knesset in Jerusalem on January 22, 2018
ARIEL SCHALIT/AFP

For Pence, though, the story is one marked by the confidence and assuredness of faith already rewarded and of prophecies already fulfilled.

Speaking of Israel, he concluded in the past tense. "It was the faith of the Jewish people that gathered the scattered fragments of a people and made them whole again; that took the language of the Bible and the landscape of the Psalms and made them live again. And it was faith that rebuilt the ruins of Jerusalem and made them strong again."

Likewise, when he spoke of the Exodus as inspiration for America, he invoked the pilgrims and founding fathers.

In both cases, Pence’s frame of reference is similar to one celebrating after the fact, recalling and expressing thanks for what happened long ago.

Donald Trump’s "Make America Great Again" slogan, like Pence’s speech, also looks back towards a glorious, if not illusory, and miraculous past. Perhaps this, more than anything, explains Trump’s popularity among those who subscribe to an "originalist" reading of America’s founding documents and a "conservative" mindset that, in the words of William Buckley Jr, "stands athwart history and yells 'Stop.'"

It also, perhaps, explains Trump’s appeal, despite his apparent personal moral failings, to a Christian nationalist movement whose outspoken leaders see America’s birth and ascendancy as biblically foretold and divinely ordained.

However, as precisely as we may retell the story of the Exodus, it is essentially impossible to truly put ourselves in the literal sandals of Israelite slaves in ancient Egypt. It is nearly as difficult for a 21st century American to truly reinhabit the 1700s.

In fact, the effort to do so may accomplish little than encouraging suspicion, or even hostility, towards anything or anyone that codes as inauthentic.

For Obama, though, in his 2013 speech, the Exodus is more than a singular event in the past; it is a paradigm for the present.

President Barack Obama in Jerusalem, March 2013
Jason Reed, Reuters

In particular, after invoking how its power "helped people weather poverty and persecution, while holding on to the hope that a better day was on the horizon," he said, "even as we draw strength from the story of God’s will and His gift of freedom expressed on Passover, we know that here on Earth we must bear our responsibilities in an imperfect world. That means accepting our measure of sacrifice and struggle, and working - through generation after generation - on behalf of that ideal of freedom...So just as Joshua carried on after Moses, the work goes on - for justice and dignity; for opportunity and freedom."

In similar fashion, America’s liberal tradition values its founding documents, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg has said, for their "growth potential."

America, from this perspective, has always been a work in progress, seeking to extend its lofty founding ideals ever-further, protecting rights and freedoms that the founders could never have considered, for people whom they would never have included.

Likewise, for the vibrant American tradition of progressive religious leadership, Egypt is not an ancient country, but the oppressive power structures of the day.

The Exodus is not something that once happened, but our own bending of the moral arc of the universe towards justice. As Obama put it, "responsibility does not end when you reach the promised land, it only begins."

In her "Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence," religious historian Karen Armstrong documents how religious belief and practice are formulated to either reinforce or undermine the prevailing political and social establishments.

Perhaps the difference between the two comes down to whether you are looking backwards or forwards. Judging by the standard text of the Haggadah, the overwhelming weight of the Jewish tradition has opted to look forward.

Judging by the current administration's approval ratings, the American people largely agree.

Rabbi Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY. Twitter: @AvBronstein