- Tu B’Shvat
- Lag B’Omer
- Tisha B’Av
- Rosh Hashanah
- Yom Kippur
- Simachas Torah
Pesach/Passover–”the Season of Our Liberation” and the original new year festival–is truly the most important holiday for the Jewish people. Because of its message of freedom, it is also the most universal.
There is no firm historical basis to the Exodus story, but the recurrent message in the Torah that Jews should not oppress the stranger, because we were strangers in the land of Egypt, should be central to our identity as a people. It is in this spirit of human solidarity that we may use the seder as an opportunity to make connections to the liberation struggles of other people, and invite non-Jews to share in the celebration.
Pesach can also be a good occasion to remind ourselves of other exoduses that have brought greater freedom to Jews, among them the mass immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe to North America between the 1880s and 1920s, from Arab lands to Israel in the 1950s and 60s and from the Soviet Union to Israel since the 1970s. We can do this, while at the same time recognizing that Jewish immigration to Israel took place at the expense of the Arab population, and that the Palestinians also have the right to independence and freedom in their own state, along side Israel.
Although the escape from slavery in Egypt is considered the symbolic beginning of the Jewish people, leading to the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai (celebrated on Shvuos), Pesach has primitive origins that pre-date its national or religious significance. The word “pesach” refers to a shepherd’s festival that involved the sacrifice of a lamb and the smearing of its blood on doorposts of tents, as a sign of tribal kinship. The presence of a lamb shank on the seder plate is a symbol of this ancient ritual. The eating of matzo probably comes from a farmer’s festival celebrating the early grain harvest. The seasonal aspect of the holiday is still evident today. The greens and egg on the seder plate have obvious associations with spring and fertility. Only later, in the Second Temple period beginning in the 6th century BCE, was the Exodus story included in the holiday. Conveniently the word “pesach” also means skip, so the priests could say that it referred to the Angel of Death (malakhamovis) that “passed over” the homes of the Hebrew slaves as it wreaked vengeance against the Egyptian first-born.
The Seder among orthodox Jews retains something of a liturgical character. The traditional Haggadah is dry as dust, although the songs can enliven it a bit. It virtually ignores Moses and does not even tell the complete story of the Exodus. Hence the old joke about the fifth question: “Ven veln mir esn?” or “When do we eat?” But among less traditional Jews, including the secular, the writing of Haggadas (Yiddish) or Haggadot (Hebrew) has become a cottage industry. Messages of peace, freedom, social justice and women’s liberation have found their way into various Haggadas. In fact, a heckler’s quip at a gathering of religious Jewish feminists that “women belonged on the bima (i.e. as full participants in religious services) as much as an orange belonged on a seder plate,” prompted these women to start a new tradition!
Pesach is a holiday rich in ceremony, symbols and song, from the four questions (fir kashes), to the four cups of wine, to the welcoming of Elyohu ha-novi (Elijah the Prophet), the singing of Dayenu, and the search for the afikoymen (middle matzah). Many of these elements were introduced over time, reflecting the evolutionary nature of Jewish culture. You can find excellent renditions of these customs in the Haggadah For a Secular Celebraton of Pesach.
Traditional seders end with the call: “Next year in Jerusalem.” Using the seder to discuss the significance of this invocation, and to perhaps develop alternatives more relevant to our lives in the Diaspora, or to our concerns for a just peace for both Israel and the Palestinians, would be in keeping with this spirit.
Among secular Jews, the most powerful extension of Pesach is the commemoration of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which was deliberately timed to coincide with the first night of Pesach, on April 19, 1943. We tell the story of the young Jewish rebels, the remnants of the huge pre-war Jewish population of Poland, led by a coalition of left-wing Zionists, Bundists and communists trapped in the ghetto, waiting for their turn to be exterminated. They rose up against the Nazis without any hope for success, but as an act of defiance and an affirmation of their human and Jewish dignity. With few weapons and little outside assistance, these freedom-fighters held off the Nazis for over a month, in house to house combat. The Nazis, who never expected such resistance from Jews, resorted to heavy artillery, aerial bombardment and igniting fires in the ghetto to crush the revolt.
No seder of ours is complete without the singing of Zog Nit Keynmol (Never Say), written by Hirsch Glik (1920-1944). He was a poet and a partisan, who wrote this song in the Vilna Ghetto when he heard about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Although he perished in the Holocaust (he escaped from a concentration camp, but died fighting the Nazis in the forests), his words live on. This song has become the anthem of the secular, progressive Jews throughout the world.
The first two stanzas are in Yiddish. The English is from a translation by Aaron Kramer. The first line is provided in a number of other languages to demonstrate its widespread appeal.
ZOG NIT KEYNMOL (NEVER SAY)
Zog nit kaynmol az du geyst dem letstn veg
Khotsh himlen blayene farshteln bloye teg,
Kumen vet noch unzer oysgebenkte shoh,
S’vet a poyk ton undzer trot – meer zaynen doh!
Fun grinem palmen-land biz vaytn land fun shney,
Meer kumen on mit undzer payn, mit undzer vey,
Un vu gefaln iz a shprits fun undzer blut,
Shprotsn vet dort undzer gvura undzer mut.
Never say that there is only death for you
Though leaden skies may be concealing days of blue -
Because the hour that we have hungered for is near;
Beneath our tread the earth shall tremble: We are here!
From land of palm-tree to the far-off land of snow
We shall be coming with our torment and our woe,
And everywhere our blood has sunk into the earth
Shall our bravery, our vigor blossom forth!
We’ll have the morning sun to set our day aglow,
And all our yesterdays shall vanish with the foe,
And if the time is long before the sun appears,
Then let this song go like a signal through the years.
This song was written with our blood and not with lead;
It’s not a song that summer birds sing overhead.
It was a people, among toppling barricades,
That sang this song of ours with pistols and grenades.
So never say that there is only death for you.
Leaden skies may be concealing days of blue -
Yet the hour that we have hungered for is near;
Beneath our tread the earth shall tremble: We are here!
FIRST LINE OF ZOG NIT KEYNMOL
Al nah tomar, hinay darkee ha’akhronah, (Hebrew)
Ne dis jamais: c’est mon dernier chemin, (French)
Sage nimmermehr, du gehst den letzten Weg, (German)
Nemysli, ze jdes cestou posledni, (Czech)
No digas jamas que tu camino es el postrer, (Spanish)
Nie mow nigdy, ze to twoj ostatni krok, (Polish)
Nie skazhi, chto ty idyesh v posledni put, (Russian)
Although not widely appreciated, Pesach also has an erotic side. The Song of Songs is read in synagogue to coincide with Pesach. The rabbis said that it is all about the Jewish people’s love for God, but its real meaning is unmistakable. It is exquisite love poetry that gives equal voice to male and female sexuality. There is no other book like it in the entire Bible, and one that should be incorporated into our practice.
The Exodus story has its dark side as well. According to the Torah, it is God’s will that Jews should suffer as slaves in Egypt for 400 years. When God finally gets around to liberating them, He insists on punishing not just Pharoah and his agents, but all Egyptians with ten nasty plagues. However, after the first few plagues, Pharoah is willing to give up and let the Jews go. So what does God do? He goes out of His way to “harden Pharoah’s heart,” just so He can prove what an awesome force He is by inflicting more spectacular punishments. The last plague–the death of all first-born Egyptians–explicitly includes “the first-born of the slave-girl” and “the captive who is in the dungeon…” (Exodus 11:5, 12:29) This utter disregard for the oppressed and abused among non-Jews is especially disturbing. Rather than pretend that these obnoxious passages do not exist, we must explain them as a product of their times, and insure that our commitment to freedom and justice extends to all people.
More modern innovations, such as the introduction of African-American spirituals and freedom songs, honoring the fighters and martyrs of the Warsaw Ghetto, placing an orange on the seder plate, and recognizing that the Palestinians also have a right to be free, are all part of an ongoing process of change that can only strengthen Jews as a people. The role of secular Jews in the development of Pesach is one we can be proud of.