Passover for Non-Jews

Published over at Sojourners.

On passover I usually play the role of the Rabbi in my family. This year our passover seder will have more non-Jews than Jews. This presents a number of unique challenges. There is the barrier of language – some of the texts that we read are in Hebrew and Aramaic. There is food – some guests are vegetarian, some adhere to Kashrut, still others are Muslims and cannot drink wine. And finally religion – will the guests take offense at the exclusivist and bellicose passages we read? Will the Christians dream about the “last supper”? Will the Muslims give me that “Who’s the pharaoh now” look? Will the atheists’ role their eyes and wonder why we are rehashing these old legends?

But above all, my main concern is how best to convey to my guests the true spirit and essence of this holiday. In the process of thinking about this, I found myself asking: Does the holiday actually have an essence? If so, can it be extrapolated from a single passage of the haggadah (ritual text)? I am pretty sure that the answer is “no” to both accounts; Passover is simply too rich, diverse, and complex of a holiday for that. Yet I still decided to challenge myself and pick a passage, wrestle with it and see what I am able produce.

One of the most interesting parts in the Haggadah is known as HaLachma Anya (Aramaic for “the bread of affliction”). It is read at the opening of the story-telling session of the night.

This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.
Let all who are hungry, come and eat.
Let all who are needy, come and celebrate Passover.
This year we are here – next year, may we be in the land of Israel.
This year we are slaves -next year, may we be free.

“This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt.” The bread of affliction is of course the matzah (unleavened bread) the Jews eat during Passover. The matzah is described as the bread of affliction and suffering, yet we are instructed to feed those who are wanting with this bread. Why? Why offer the hungry and the needy the taste of affliction? Have they not suffered enough? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, chief Rabbi of Britain, has an interesting answer – He reminds us that the rabbis saw the matzah both as the bread of affliction and the bread of liberation. In Deuteronomy 16:3 we read “You shall eat unleavened bread, bread of oni (poverty or distress), for you departed from the land of Egypt hurriedly.” In the Haggadah the same explanation is used to describe the matzah as a bread of freedom. It is the bread of liberation because we took it with us as we escaped the bondage of slavery. It was the food of our emancipation.

So how does the same piece of bread mean two different things? According to Rabbi Sacks, what the text is actually telling us is that the transformation of the matzah from the bread of affliction to the bread of liberation comes as a result of our willingness to share it with others. He writes:

“Sharing food is the first act in which slaves become free human beings. One who fears tomorrow does not offer his bread to others. But one who is willing to divide his food with a stranger has already shown himself capable of fellowship and faith, the two things from which hope is born. That is why we begin the Seder by inviting others to join in. Bread shared is no longer the bread of affliction. Reaching out to others, giving help to the needy and companionship to those who are alone, we bring freedom into the world, and with freedom, God.”

Let all who are needy, come and celebrate Passover. Let all who are hungry, come and eat.” The Bible reminds us, over and over, that we must use our degrading experience in the land of Egypt to sensitize us to the suffering of others. The idea being that the suffering of our ancestors, which we should imagine as our own, is to be seen as an ennobling experience. We are instructed to care for the wanting because we were once wanting in Egypt.

It is interesting to note that the text lets us know that there is more than one way in which we can be wanting. It is for this reason that it differentiates between those who are needy and those who are hungry. What is the difference between the two? Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a leading 20th century Talmudist and philosopher, explains to us that while the hungry are needy, the needy are not necessarily hungry. One can have all the food and wealth in the world and still be needy. One may be in need of love, respect, dignity, family, country, health, truth, happiness etc. It is for this reason that the text enjoins those who are needy to “celebrate Passover”, and those who are hungry to “come and eat”.

Finally, notice that the text refers to “all” who are needy and hungry. It does not refer to all Jews who are needy and hungry, but to all people. It is true that the text was written by Jews and for Jews, but I want to suggest that the inclusive language is deliberate. As mentioned above, the ethics of Passover, in actuality the ethics of Judaism, revolve around the concept of radical sympathy and empathy for those who are suffering. This call for identification and compassion is not reserved for Jews alone. The universalism of Jewish ethics resulted in the Torah instructing us only once to love our neighbor (who surely was Jewish), while commanding us in no less than thirty-six places to care for the stranger (who surely was not Jewish) “because you yourself know how it feels to be a stranger – you were strangers in Egypt.” [Exodus 23:9]

To love the stranger is a revolutionary concept – revolutionary in the ancient world with its ethics of tribalism, and revolutionary today with the scrooge of violent ethnic, religious and national divisions. Of course, for these words not to ring hollow, for them not to be an exercise in self-indulgence, we need to ask ourselves what does it mean to be a stranger? Who is today’s stranger? And Am I, as a Jew, acting with empathy, compassion, and love towards those who are deemed to be strangers.

This year we are here – next year, may we be in the land of Israel. This year we are slaves -next year, may we be free.” This is a passage born in exile. It literally speaks of a people who are not at home. It is written in Aramaic, and scholars suggest that it was composed during the time of the Babylonian exile (beginning 586 BCE). There is symmetry to these lines: to be in exile is to be enslaved, to be in the land of Israel is to be free. Of course the text has also a symbolic meaning – we are internally enslaved when we are alienated from our true selves. Israel, in this understanding, is not a place, but rather a symbolic psychological and spiritual state of internal freedom. It is in this sense that Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1722-1811) had famously stated: “Wherever I go, I am going to Eretz Israel.”

Passover is known in Hebrew as Zman Herutinu (Time of our liberation). It is a holiday of freedom. As such it asks of us to meditate on the meaning of freedom. In his essay “Two Concepts of Liberty” the intellectual Isaiah Berlin distinguished between what he called Negative and Positive freedom. Negative freedom meant freedom from being physically constrained. While positive freedom meant freedom to act in accords with my own true nature – to be one’s own master. Throughout history, thinkers have tended to favore one type of freedom over the others.

Passover celebrates both types of freedom. We celebrate our liberation from bondage in Egypt, but we know full well that we are still slaves. Mordecai Kaplan, the father of Reconstructionist Judaism, expressed this idea in the following manner:

“Pesach calls us to be free, free from the tyranny of our own selves, free from enslavement of poverty and inequality, free from the corroding hate that eats away the ties which unite mankind. Pesach calls upon us to put an end to all slavery! Pesach cried out in the name of God, “Let my people go.” Pesach summons us to freedom.”

A close look at the HaLachma Anya leads us to the two pillars of Pesach: freedom and responsibility. In Judaism, the concept of freedom without responsibility is meaningless. So is this the essence of the holiday that I wish to convey to my non-Jewish guests? Perhaps? Certainly many secular Jews, like myself, would like to think so. But as some of you may have noticed, I picked a passage that made no reference to God. Yet God, who had liberated the Jews from slavery, is central to the Passover narrative. It is through God that whole drama of Jewish history unfolds.

In the end, perhaps the essence of Passover is not to be found in the meaning of a particular text, but rather in how we approach the text. The genius of the Jewish people, the secret to their longevity and vitality as a people, has been their paradoxical reverence for tradition and irreverence for dogma. I can only hope that my guests will get a glimpse of that genius as we come together and celebrate the festival of freedom.

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5 responses to “Passover for Non-Jews

  1. Pingback: Passover for non-Jews - Blog Post

  2. interesting way to look at it i say. i find it always hard to convey such things as holiday to foreigners and try to understand other’s holidays by the same thought in mind. there is so much beauty and wisdom in the old text but the right setting of mind is necessary to value it.

  3. Thanks. Yes, the right setting of mind is essential – something that is hard to establish when you have 25-30 guests. But hopefully your guests come with an open mind as opposed to an empty stomach 🙂

  4. I bet your in USA, wish we could be at yoir passover table, the mix of guests sounds wonderful.

  5. Pingback: Passover for non-Jews | Palestine Note

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