In between cleaning out chametz, and cooking batches of knaidlach (matzah balls) and charoset (the wonderful sweet concoction on the seder plate that looks like mortar and tastes like freedom), I want to invite you to put the festival of Pesach in a big pot and simmer slowly until you have boiled off the complex and intricate ritual web, so that what is left is the core essence: one single, central, compelling message that bespeaks the entire festival. What is the residue in the bottom of the pot?
You might well be thinking that the suggestion that Pesach boils down to one single, unified message is absurd. If so, please consider the image of a tree: the trunk of the tree is the structural core. It has roots sunk deep into the soil that stabilize the tree and suck up nutrition. It has branches that spread out and sprout leaves to absorb energy from the sun. But the trunk of the tree is the core. If you drill into the core, or take a cross-section, you see everything—ideas, rituals, meaning, values—passing through the cambium, which connects the xylem (inside tissue) and the phloem (outer tissue); the vascular cambium creates a channel for nutrients to travel from roots to branches and the sun’s energy to travel from leaves down to roots. You might think of the residue at the bottom of the Pesach pot as the trunk of the tree.
Each spring, Jews around the globe gather to re-enact the story of the Exodus. But even more than re-enact it, we attempt to experience both the slavery and the redemption of our ancestors anew. What was the experience of our ancestors like? How did it feel to be a slave? Pesach is an exercise in national empathy. We ingest not only knaidlach and charoset, but even more importantly an ancient memory that we convert into the ultimate spiritual nutrition: empathy, compassion, and moral obligation toward others. This is the core of Pesach, this is the trunk of the tree: to shape ourselves into empathetic and compassionate human beings—individually and communally—who, having tasted the bitterness of slavery (even if only through ritual acts and foods) turn from the seder table toward the world around seeking to free those still in bondage.
What are the roots of the tree? The experience of slavery in Egypt, powerfully recorded in the Book of Exodus, elaborated upon in midrash and commentary for more than 2,000 years, and recounted at every seder table. Other peoples claim to be descended from kings, magicians, warriors, or gods, making it nothing short of remarkable that our ancestors locate our beginnings in the degrading and barbaric arena of slavery. Our origin, tradition holds, is not merely humble; the nation Israel was spawned in the brick pits of Egypt and arose out pain and suffering, human degradation, and the aspiration for liberation—thanks to God’s redemptive power.
The branches of the Pesach tree are the lessons and imperatives we learn from our experience: first and foremost, redemption is possible and it does happen; second, to cherish our freedom and all its blessings by living in covenant with God; and third, we are obliged—religiously responsible—to empathetically recognize that others are still enslaved and lend our help so they can leave their Egypt.
Everything about Pesach derives from this root and leads to these branches. Each element trains us to be attuned, sensitive, and empathetic to others; to spot injustice; and to seek ways to reach out to those in pain. Just a few examples:
- Everyone who has been to a seder knows that near the beginning we hoist a young child onto a chair, whence the child recites four scripted questions and everyone applauds. It is not the hours the child spent learning to read or recite the Four Questions in Hebrew that we applaud, or at least it’s not what we should be applauding. It’s question-asking itself: Asking insightful, penetrating, challenging questions is the beginning of all learning, and the first step toward seeing that the world is not as it ought to be. We train our children to ask questions (especially difficult questions) and not to accept the status quo, especially when it entails human enslavement in its many, many guises.
- We dip twice: first we dip the sweet karpas (something green and leafy, usually parsley) in salt water: the bitterness of slavery covers over the hopeful green promise of spring renewal. But that is not where we leave things: later in the seder we then dip the marror (bitter herbs) in the sweet charoset; the sweetness of liberation wipes out the bitterness of slavery. The direction of the world is toward repair, improvement, and redemption. If we can see that, if we can believe that redemption is not an unreachable ideal, but a very real goal, then we can be among those who bring it nearer. Elijah’s cup sits out on the table all evening, a reminder that redemption can come, will come.
- The Haggadah is structured around Maggid—the section of the service in which we are to recount the story of the Exodus. Yet the story is not told in the Haggadah. Yes, there are a few passages from the Torah and some lore from the Talmud, but the substance of the story is not there because it is the job of the grownups present to tell the children around the table the story (1) in their own way, and (2) in a way that is appropriate of those seated around the table. This means that the adults must consider carefully the ages, natures, and needs of the children, as well as the needs of the adults, and determine how best to convey the story so it enters not merely the head, but lodges deep in the heart. Some people dress in costume. Others act out the story, scene by scene. Some write and perform musicals or operas. Most people sprinkle the telling with additional questions and topics for discussion. Whatever it takes to feel that pain of slavery and the ecstasy of redemption is what is called for.
Pesach is all about learning to be empathetic and compassionate. But it’s not easy to be empathetic. We build walls against feeling the pain of others without even realizing it. We think of others as “strangers” so that we don’t have to feel their pain. In her book, Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen writes about a physicist and Holocaust survivor named Yitzak who attended a retreat at Commonweal for people with cancer. Yitzak found himself feeling vulnerable and uncomfortable amidst strangers; he didn’t like what he described as “all dis huggy-huggy.” Yitzak’s self-protective wall went up to keep him apart from these strangers. Finally, Yitzak took a walk along the Pacific Coast beach and asked God what his role should be at this retreat. God’s response? In Yitzak’s words: “I say to Him, 'God is it okay to luff strangers?' And God says to me, 'Yitzak, vat is dis strangers? You make strangers. I don't make strangers.'"
Torah implores us: You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt (Exodus 22:20 and 23:9). The prophet Zechariah (7:10) warns us not to ignore or oppress the most vulnerable amongst us: Do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the stranger or the poor, and do not plot evil in your hearts against one another.We make people strangers; God doesn’t. There it is—Pesach in a nutshell, the trunk of the tree: when we cultivate in ourselves empathy, there are no strangers, only people whom God loves and whom God wishes us to love and help, in turn.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman