As much as people resonate with the Passover Seder as a major Jewish observance in their year, I wonder how many appreciate the role of the Exodus in establishing Judaism’s unique character as a structure for creating a society of kindness, caring and compassion. Throughout the Torah we are reminded to do what is right and good especially for the widow, the orphan and the stranger as a response to remembering we were slaves in Egypt.
While many confine their Jewish ritual connections to Passover and the Days of Awe, the Passover story is far from being a once a year focal point. It is included as a constant thread throughout Torah to remind us that our beginnings as a people that escaped such oppression must always be in our consciousness, not just during the holiday.
Prophets such as Amos and Isaiah remind the people (as we read in the Haftarah of Isaiah on Yom Kippur Day) that more important than the ways we pray and do Jewish rituals are the actions we take to benefit those must vulnerable and needy in our society, on a daily basis. Mention of the Exodus so many times, that we remember what it was like to be strangers in a strange, i.e. inhospitable land, reminds us that we are to attend to our daily doings mindful of the blessings we have to freely choose to do good as much as we can in the course of a day.
The fact that in the 1950’s and 60’s, even unobservant Jews, those with no particular connection to synagogues and Jewish life nevertheless knew in their kishkes, in their inner essence, to be involved in the Civil Rights movement indicates how strong the mores of Judaism mandate responsible behavior i.e. doing mitzvah, even when one is not consciously mindful of the roots of their moral compass.
The message of Amos and Isaiah is that more important than the rituals are the actions: pursuit of tzedek, what is right/just, chesed, caring/nurturing and rachamim, compassion.
However one observes Passover, the origin of these attitudes, and what created the context and readiness to receive the Torah and the teaching of detailed responsibility for our world and the creatures that inhabit it, particularly humankind, all emanates from the birthing of our people in the middle of the night, on the run, escaping Egypt. The end of one period of our existence in a society that first welcomed us and then enslaved us resulted in the beginning of a new era. In the wilderness of Sinai we were given a challenge to accept a Higher Law in response to that lengthy period of enslavement; we are to bring into the world an unprecedented system of community based values predicated on welcoming the stranger and devoting its full attention to support of those most vulnerable in the society.
As we observe Passover in our times, we do so mindful that the ceremony has different meaning for each of us: for some it is a time honored custom connecting them to their Judaism and its roots; for others it is a dynamic reminder of the birthing of the principles of a society that is to benefit all of its members, with balancing assured by commitment to Tzedakah. It is about helping people enough that they too can be strong enough to be of help to others, and in so doing creating a society that assures safety and security for all.
As we observe Passover in our times, we do so mindful that the price we pay for relegating Jewish rituals and ceremonies to rites of memory and maintaining of identity i.e. keeping Judaism alive through times we gather to observe such ceremonies…the price we pay is in not knowing and appreciating that Judaism exists in order to be a societal system offering a blueprint and example of consciousness, day by day, in remembering that who we are and what we have are gifts to treasure and to share in building and growing ever stronger communities.
One tangible way for each B’nai Israel member to carry forth this message of Passover is to add participation in Common Ground, our synagogue’s shared infrastructure with the broader nonprofit and faith community, to her/his schedule. While initial efforts at B’nai Israel in Common Ground involve holding House Meetings to share stories and develop stronger connections within B’nai Israel, the broader purpose in growing our synagogue is to enable and inspire us to bring our Jewish identity to the next level, as it applies in daily life and touches the lives of all our partners in Common Ground, and well beyond.
Chug Sam each v’Kasher! I look forward to all of us successfully leaving the enslavement and constriction of Mitzrayim, as we continue our loving efforts to build community in all the wonderful ways our holidays teach us and inspire us to do so.