Pesach is perhaps the most important holiday on the Jewish calendar. As a Holocaust survivor, this holiday reflects my personal experiences — my own journey from slavery to freedom.
But even more important to me is that this year I will experience the transmission of my cultural values with my third generation. I’ll spend my seders with my grandsons.
Each of the two nights I will celebrate in one grandson’s home. Each night I will listen to the Four Questions asked by my great-grandchildren. Each night I will answer these questions from my personal journey from slavery to freedom and thereby transmit my Jewish heritage to a fourth generation.
But Passover has a more important meaning than just reinforcing my personal story. Passover is the most significant holiday because it marks Judaism’s transition from a cultic religion to a moralistic religion — from a religion emphasizing ritualism and sacrifices to one founded on moral dicta, a religion that seeks to develop justice in human relationships.
For this reason, I consider this holiday to be a universal event in the development of human moral consciousness.
Each year the Christian world performs pseudo-seders to commemorate Jesus’ “Last Supper.” But hardly any of those seders recognize Passover’s significance as a symbol of human freedom or celebrate the idea that it is each human being’s G-d-given heritage to be subject to the moral principles derived from the yetziath Mitzrayim — the departure from Egypt.
The Torah gives us our watchword: Remember Egypt. Even the observance of Shabbat has become associated with the Egyptian experience.
Passover provides our moral awareness that all humans are responsible for one another, that the answer to the question posed in the Book of Genesis is that we are our brothers’ keepers.
Of course, some still seek to reduce G-d to an anthropomorphic image.
Those who cannot comprehend the idea advocated by Maimonides of G-d’s noncorporality are also unable to conceive that there are intrinsic moral values, and they cannot elevate themselves to the idea of the social creation of morality. Their concept of morals will remain dependent on the dictates of a higher force, not the product of human insight.
For them, Shabbat must be observed because G-d sanctified the day and endowed it with the quality of the sacred, making it an object to be feared and to be set aside for special treatment. For me, Shabbat is intrinsically bound to Egyptian experience, as evidenced in the Ten Commandments as they appear in the Book of Deuteronomy, where it states:
“On that day you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, not your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest as you do.
“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your G-d brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, the Lord your G-d commanded you to observe the Shabbat Day.”
In this latter version of the Ten Commandments, we are advised to obey the Shabbat ideals, as stated in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), not because of expected reward, but because Shabbat has an intrinsic value.
This version of Shabbat observance reflects a moral universal and humanistic perspective. This is unlike the injunction based on a more primitive reasoning that proposes obeying Shabbat because the Lord has sanctified it and endowed it with a power to do harm if mistreated.
What is the intrinsic value of Shabbat?
It was derived from the ideals reflected in the Egyptian experience: Slavery is evil because it deprives a human of the right to rest. This is a fundamental ideal derived from the universal moral principle of tsar baal chay, of not causing pain to any living thing, let alone to human beings.
Slavery, from a Jewish perspective, is an evil condition, and we bless G-d every morning that he keeps us free and not enslaved. The redemption of slaves is considered an essential human act of rachmanut, of having sympathy. Communities in the past had special funds for the redemption of Jewish slaves.
So when we sit at the Passover table celebrating our freedom, we should take special care to look at the salt water, the item that symbolizes the tears shed in slavery.
There are various forms of slavery, and one of them is poverty. We are informed by our sages that a poor person should be seen as living in a worse state than slavery; he could be considered a dead person, for poverty deprives people of access to life itself.
Indeed, in recent weeks our elected representatives have faced the issue of whether we the people of this country should provide all human beings the right to live or reserve that right as the prerogative of only the wealthy. Will we give all people the means to be free from pain and from the devastation of illness?
We are again faced with the question of whether we will extend a hand to all those who shed tears of poverty, who are deprived of freedom by the horrible human conditions that result from poverty.
What will this country represent? Shall we advocate and remain a country that provides freedom to all or become a country that advocates the right of the wealthy to enslave us to a life in which only they are free?
As you sit at the seder table, remember that we wish to celebrate not only freedom from slavery, but also freedom from want — to be a country unlike Egypt and especially unlike the immoral practices of Sodom and Gomorrah.