Beliefnet
This article originally appeared on Beliefnet for Passover 2003.

Hanukkah is the Jewish festival that celebrates a military victory, but Passover, too, celebrates the conquest of a foe. Many of the words that swirl around the current Iraq conflict--liberation, slavery, tyrant, freedom--are central to the Passover story. As Jews, we are extremely sensitive to these issues in our own history, and one hopes, in the histories of other subject people. As the holiday approaches, many Jews wonder: what is it to celebrate a seder in wartime?

The question is not new. Jews have seen war from the beginning of our history. What is different (although not unique to Jewish history) is to commemorate the Passover holiday at a time when we are among the ones who are prosecuting and winning the war. Jews are schooled in reacting to our own tragedy. How do we react to the sufferings of others?

Passover gives us guidance. Although we should be careful of drawing false analogies--after all, the Jews were not enslaved in Iraq, and God, not the allied forces, liberated them--there are enough similarities to help us make this Passover special.

Just as we take a drop of wine out of our cup for each of the ten plagues, we should consider taking a drop out for all those Iraqis, soldiers and citizens both, who have died in this war.

First we are enjoined to recognize the sufferings of our enemies. Iraqi soldiers in this sense are like Egyptian soldiers: young men raised in a corrupted society and enlisted to fight. They are not guiltless, yet they are also in a sense victims. They must be defeated; understanding is not the same as ignoring. But just as we take a drop of wine out of our cup for each of the ten plagues, we should consider taking a drop out for all those Iraqis, soldiers and citizens both, who have died in this war.

We remember with special poignancy the children who were injured and who died. As in every generation, the innocence of those who do not make decisions but must suffer for them touches us as Jews very deeply. As the Ponovezah Rebbe taught, "A person without parents is an orphan, but a nation without children is an orphan."

We must also recognize the obligations of freedom. Isaiah Berlin famously discussed the difference between "freedom from" and "freedom to." The first is purely negative. It explains what cannot be done to us. The second is a freedom that expands possibilities. A child who is freed from slavery is no longer under the burden of coercion. An educated child is free to choose an enriching career, to read great books, to understand art and science and music.

Passover represents both freedoms. We were freed from slavery, and freed to Sinai. Our task is to do the same for the Iraqi people. We seem to have succeeded in freeing them from. Now we must commit ourselves to helping free them to. The seder should be a celebration of possibility, which is another way of saying freedom to.

Passover represents two freedoms. We were freed from slavery, and freed to Sinai. Our task is to do the same for the Iraqi people.

So on this Passover we should not only talk about how we are grateful for our freedom, but what we intend to do to contribute to the freedom of others. Jewish history has never seen blessings the like of which are enjoyed the American Jewish community.

A man once asked a rabbi why we say "why is this night different from all other nights?" on Passover, but not on Sukkot. After all, on Sukkot we live in temporary huts, blown by the wind and rain, and that is far more unusual than simply eating matzah!

The rabbi answered that in Jewish history it is not so strange to have to live in a temporary dwelling without knowing what the future will bring. The truly rare thing is to sit to a full meal, as we do on Passover, with family around, celebrating freedom.

We are the generation that knows blessing. We are seeing some of those blessings being shared by others in the world. This Passover should be animated by the faith that the blessings of liberty will prove ultimately good not only for the Iraqi people, but for everyone in the region, including Israel.

To see war is always to witness tragedy. There can be no arrogant, raucous celebration of victory. There should be deep joy for those who were spared, and for those who are free. Our Passover celebration should reflect the same mix of sobriety and deep joy.

Yet it is tinged with sadness. Our sisters and brothers in Israel still face an uncertain fate every day. The world is still besmirched by tyrants and tyrannies. As we are grateful, so we should be wary. As we thank God for the blessings of the past and the present, so we should turn our efforts and our prayers to the future. May this be a year of plenty and a year of peace.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus