As our eight days of Passover reach the climax, I thought this would be a good time to reflect on one of our major Jewish holidays and the impact it has had for both Jews in America and all Americans. We all know the story of Passover, a story of freedom, justice, and cultural identity, as we retell it each spring during the Seder. However, the significance of the Passover story extends far beyond the reaches of our Seder plates and dinning rooms, as it has become a living ritual and symbol for the struggle for freedom of people everywhere. In my own experience attending a Seder at the University of Vermont Hillel this past weekend, I realized something else I hadn’t seen before; Passover is about community. While there are many facets to what the word “community” means, Passover captures the entire essence of this word in its rich ritualistic symbolism and meanings. It’s a message which resonates with both Jews and non-Jews alike, and a message that remains important as ever today in our society. To build genuine community means to confront challenging subjects such as freedom and justice, and in doing so recognize that these are issues that our society continues to wrestle with. Passover is a significant aspect of Jewish identity, while its message has also found its way into the cultural consciousness of America.
While to claim that Passover is a celebration of community might seem a bit obvious at first and confusing since all holidays technically celebrate community as well – I’d like to make an important distinction here: Passover is not just a celebration of the community, Passover is a celebration of what community is and means. This becomes clear during the Seder itself; a ritual which is celebrated communally at the dinner table, rather than in synagogue or elsewhere. The dinner table setting is unique to Passover in Jewish holidays, albeit for Shabbat (which is also a celebration of community). The story of Passover involves the struggle of the entire Jewish community in their search for freedom, a struggle which we continue to experience in eating the bitter herbs and parsley. Although Moses tends to be the star of the show, the story is about how the entire Jewish community overcame bondage together. The values that are demonstrated by the Jews in their exodus from Egypt; courage, unification, hope, and more are exemplary to peoples throughout the world seeking freedom.
During this Passover Seder at Hillel I brought two of my friends who are neither Jewish nor American to be a part of a unique ritual experience and garner a deeper understanding of what Jewish values are. They were both entering the evening with different eyes than I and thus saw the Seder differently than how I saw it. What I thought was obvious, an understanding of the ritual and the symbolism, I soon found I took for granted having grown up with Passover in my life each spring. Yet, their unaccustomed eyes picked up on aspects which my eyes had never learned to see. One observation my friend made was how welcoming and open the Seder and Jewish community was to receive him that evening. Whereas he thought he might be an outsider, that was never the case during the night. There was no distinction made between Jews and non-Jews, and our conversation meandered around explaining and discussing the various elements of Passover. Although I had heard it stressed many times before about the importance of welcoming the stranger, I had never had a living experience which demonstrated this value until that night. To me, it had never occurred how radical it could be to welcome the stranger with open arms and make them no longer a stranger in your home, until I could witness my friends have that revelation.
Part of what contributes to the welcoming and open aspect of Passover is the universality of the values and meaning of the Passover story. Although the story pertains to the Jewish people, the meaning can be understood by anyone anywhere. Whether facing an internal struggle for liberation or systemic oppression, Passover’s message can resonate to anyone throughout their life and is a reminder that there are people around the world who still have yet to attain freedom. For many Jewish Americans, the significance of Passover plays into more than just the Jewish rhythm of life. The holiday and story have been an integral part of America’s story since before the nation’s inception. The Pilgrims at Plymouth were thought of akin to the Jews leaving Egypt, as they escaped religious persecution in England to reach their manifest destiny on the shores of America. Eulogies of George Washington refer to him as “America’s Moses”, as he led the revolution against the oppression of the British Empire. Inscribed upon the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia are Moses’s words “Proclaim Liberty thro' all the Land to all the Inhabitants thereof”, which became a symbol for the abolitionist movement in the 1800’s. Moses has served as a symbol of rights, empowerment, and freedom for African American’s and all American’s struggle towards freedom. Both Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. are likened to Moses in leading the way towards liberation of all Americans. In one of his speeches, MLK referred to Moses, saying "The struggle of Moses, the struggle of his devoted followers as they sought to get out of Egypt. This is something of the story of every people struggling for freedom".
While for many the march towards freedom from oppression is still ongoing, the holiday of Passover serves both as a reminder of the Jewish people’s liberation and a symbol of hope for all peoples of the world. For Americans, this holiday has had immense influence on American society and has been compared to many of the pivotal points in American history. A holiday about community, Passover to me symbolizes the importance of developing our communities to be inclusive, free, and just spaces – and that each of us has it within ourselves to bring about the change we want to see in the world and in our own communities. Whether it’s through inviting the stranger to the Seder or marching for civil rights, Passover is a living ritual which reminds us why we fight the fight for freedom, why it matters in our community, and how we can play a role to make society a free and open system for everyone.