Unexplored dimensions of the modern Passover Seder

By Josh Yudkin

On Passover, we retell the story of gaining freedom and our Exodus from Egypt. “We were slaves in Egypt, and now we are free.” But the Passover story is about so much more: It’s about leaving Mitzrayim, or, translated literally, “from a narrow place.” This narrow place is a place where we are restricted, limited, unable to be our true and best self.

What does your Mitzrayim (narrow place) look like?

Leaving Mitzrayim is not just about leaving a place; it also evokes a reflective process. How are you constrained or marginalized? How do you constrain and marginalize others? As an individual, what parts of your identity can you celebrate and what parts of your identity are still stuck in Mitzrayim? How do you perpetuate Mitzrayim onto others?

The story of Passover reminds us that our story, and any story, never happens in isolation. As Jews, our tradition is based on community. We are a nation among nations. While we gained freedom, our oppressors died chasing us into the sea. The rabbis teach us to remove a drop of wine to remember their loss. Dayenu — is that enough? Is murder justified when we say dayenu, that it would have been enough?

Our tradition teaches us an eye for an eye, and it also teaches us that there is no mitzvah more important than saving a life. It teaches us to love our neighbors and treat others as we want to be treated.

Is it right to celebrate the death of enemies? Just a few weeks back, we see this same theme in Purim and the story of Esther. Do we need to reconcile these ostensibly contradictory teachings?

Moreover, what obligation do we have to ourselves and to others once we gain freedom? We said “never again” after the Holocaust, but how many more genocides have occurred since?

This month is the 28th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. Ideologies of hate were introduced and encouraged by colonial powers who employed many of the same racist policies based in eugenics that the Nazis employed 50 years before in the Holocaust. Neighbors and families who lived side by side for generations ruthlessly murdered each other. Mah nishtanah? How was it different?

Yet, Rwandan leadership provided a different answer to the question of mah nishtanah. Rather than one group blaming another group, the victims rose above that and said they had a moral and national obligation to come together and rebuild the country, together. They removed these divisive identities and brought everyone together as Rwandans.

This response is a Jewish teaching and a Jewish approach. It is my Jewish response. Kol Yisrael aravim zeh ba-zeh; we are all guarantors of one another and all of God’s children.

How do you choose to exercise your freedom? What obligation do you have to others or to God for your freedom? Should we really sit at the Seder table, lean left and celebrate freedom while knowing how many of our fellow brothers and sisters are suffering around the globe?

On a day-to-day basis, what words do we choose to use? In what gossip do we engage, what gossip do we eschew? How do we act to those in our surroundings?

In addition to mah nishtanah, I urge us to also ask the question, mah nishaneh mi-halailah hazeh? What will we change from this night forward?

Joshua Yudkin currently serves as an executive committee member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas’ Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) and is a co-founder of JUST Conversations. He is an epidemiologist by training who was recently awarded a Fulbright research grant and works at the intersection of community building and public health.

This piece first appeared in the Times of Israel.

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