Reflections on Our Foundational Holiday

Reflections on Our Foundational Holiday

By Eugen Schoenfeld

The Megillah was read, the hamantaschen were eaten, and some persons, I am sure, followed rabbinic recommendations to imbibe until they did not know the difference between Mordechai and Haman. I hope for those who had a seudah that the banquet was as sumptuous as I and my family enjoyed in Europe.

Eugen Schoenfeld
Eugen Schoenfeld

Back in my shtetl, as a teen, I would have already climbed the stairs to the attic and retrieved the multigallon blue-and-white enameled pessadik pot. Each year this routine marked the beginning of our Passover preparation.

At the vegetable market Mother bought the many pounds of boorakes (red beets), which were peeled, quartered and placed into the big pot to ferment for four weeks and become the stock for the wonderful borsht, a staple for the week of Pesach.

Each day, a part of the house was cleaned, repaired and painted, as though we were to welcome the most important guest of our lives; in this instance, it was the holiday of the spring, Pesach.

To me, this holiday — Passover — was and continues to be the most significant commemorative holiday, even more significant than Shabbat. I consider this holiday to be the infrastructure of the Jewish moral system. It’s the raison d’être because, I believe, it is symbolically the most important event in Jewish history.

Of course, I deviate from the rabbinic perspective, which elevates Shabbat above all holidays. I also deviate from the perspective held by most Jews that Yom Kippur is the holiest day — the Sabbath of all Sabbaths. Yom Kippur is the only holiday that propels most Jews to attend synagogue, based on a lingering fear associated with human life: that our life events are determined and sealed on that day.

While Yom Kippur is indeed an awesome and fearful day, it does not have an impact on the moral ideals that affect interpersonal and social life. That impact arises out of our interpretation of the experience of slavery.

Today archaeologists and historians challenge the reality of the Jewish experiences in Egypt as well as the history of the departure from Egypt. Their argument is that no physical evidence has been found that would support the biblical story.

Be that as it may, even if the Egyptian experience is merely an aggadah — a nation-building legend — the social-psychological dictum still applies to it. If we believe that the experience is real, its consequences are also real.

So what is important, to me at least, are the consequences of that reality: the establishment of a statehood founded on morality. And for that reason I consider Passover to be the most significant holiday. It is a holiday that commemorates an event that compelled a nation, a people, a religion to establish a social-moral perspective. No other event in Jewish history (real or not) stresses the memory that we were slaves in Egypt and the resulting necessity to adhere to a worldview based on social equality and justice.

Jews, and for that matter Christians, claim that Shabbat was ordained by G-d as a day of rest because He rested on that day from his labors. If we accept this view, we continue to perceive G-d in anthropomorphic terms: G-d worked, tired and rested, so we must not only rest, but also must elevate this day and call it holy.

But the Torah itself, on another occasion, attributes the existence of Shabbat not to the creation experience, but to the Egyptian experience. Deuteronomy 5:12, which repeats the Decalogue, explains the commandment to observe the Shabbat not because G-d rested, but because we remember the inhumanity of the Egyptian slavery.

The Torah states that we shall observe Shabbat, and none of our household should work — us, our children, our female and male slaves, our oxen and donkeys, our cattle, or any stranger in our settlement — so that our slaves may rest as we do. Why should we do this? “Remember you were slaves in the land of Egypt, and therefore G-d commanded you to obey the Sabbath day.”

The memory of our own slavery, we are told, should propel us to become a humane people and not to treat others as we were treated as slaves. Indeed, here we find the roots for our hallowed ideal of the dispensation of justice to all: the brotherhood of mankind under G-d.

Even more important, Passover establishes our moral ideal of tzar-baal-chai, the idea of not causing pain to living things. Unlike religions that exclude the idea of treating animals with human empathy, Passover, at least as it is stated in the Ten Commandments, clearly ordains that we should treat all living things from a humanistic perspective.

My grandfather, for instance, rose at dawn even on Shabbat. Before he put on his Shabbat clothes — the fur hat and the caftan — he donned his working clothes to carry a washtub full of water with salt and vegetables to the cow, climbed the hay loft and spread hay before her, and performed the most menial task, cleaning the stall. After all, as he put it, “The cow must not suffer just because it is Shabbat.”

If we do all this for a cow, how much more important is it that we treat all human beings from a humanistic, moral perspective, one whose roots lie in our Egyptian experience? We must learn from the slavery story that all human beings were endowed by the creator with an inalienable right for justice.

But at the same time we must learn that justice is not unidirectional; it is reciprocal. The fundamental essence in human relationships is the principle of reciprocity: Your right is my duty to you, but in turn my right is your duty to me.

It took my parents and grandparents four weeks of preparation for Passover, and most, if not all, of that effort was the physical labor of cleaning and cooking.

But this holiday, if we are to observe it in its totality, also requires that we fully understand its moral meaning. The Passover experience, at least to the Jewish people, contains the fundamental ideal of morality, so its observance should include a discourse on how the teachings of the holiday should serve as the infrastructure for present-day morality in politics.

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