Passover began as a celebration of spring for the Jewish people; a time for the celebration of life. With the rabbis it became a commemoration and celebration of a biblical exodus and escape from slavery in ancient Egypt. This familiar story, contained in the traditional Haggadah, a text that sets forth the order of the Passover ritual or seder, is retold each year.
Because most historians can find no really concrete evidence that the Exodus occurred or that the Hebrew people were in Egypt in the numbers described, I feel more comfortable with what I will call a secular celebration. I tend to think of the biblical Exodus story as a powerful myth or legendary folklore if you will, but one that relates to the courage and determination of a people fleeing slavery for freedom, and one that calls for the celebration of the modern, as well as the ancient quests for freedom. So, as I run through the legendary tale of the exodus from Egypt at our considerably shortened seder, I like to think of and remember other exodus stories.
Rather than confining ourselves to this ancient tale (can’t you see Charlton Heston parting the Red Sea?), I intend to emphasize the themes of human freedom and dignity, the power of human beings to change their destiny, and the power of hope.
In addition to ancient times, I believe Passover should also become a celebration of recent times and events when people left their homes for a new life where human dignity and courage are honored. Events of the 20th century record the courage of not only millions of Jews who left the land of their birth to escape persecution and seek freedom, but also the struggles of millions and millions of people of all ethnicities to overcome oppression to achieve freedom, equality and opportunity. Think of the ethic richness of this country resulting from immigration.
Memories of the immigration from Eastern Europe to America, perhaps the largest Jewish exodus ever, I believe should be a powerful part of Passover. Maybe even more significant, the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis in 1943 began on the first night of Passover. Including a commemoration of that deadly struggle provides a meaningful true story of a peoples’ fight for dignity. The departure of “refuseniks” from the former Soviet Union for Israel and America is another example.
And why not include the march for freedom of black people during the past 50 years and the immigration of desperate Latino people to this country? And what about the almost unbelievable yearning and demonstrating for freedom in awakening, Muslim countries and those now fleeing the ethnic “cleansing” in various African countries?
All of these kinds of events should be recalled and discussed in the total Passover story. So, again, this year I intend to treat the ancient tale with less theistic leanings as I address human efforts and achievements for equality, freedom, dignity and opportunity.
And now, as in the Haggadah……….
Why is this night different from all other nights?
Arnie Silverman is president of Laguna’s Veterans of Foreign Wars chapter.