How will this year's Passover celebration be different?
We need to ask, how can we celebrate a holiday of renewal and rebirth at a moment in which we're killing and destroying? We must address that question in order to have a real Passover seder.
One of the things that Passover teaches us is that sometimes moments of destruction themselves--since, after all, the Egyptians get destroyed in the Passover story--can lead toward renewal. Renewal is messy. We have a Passover seder on the backs of people that got killed. If that's the case, how can we make it a renewal even though people got killed? By never losing sight of the humanity of the people who are dying.
The rabbis tell a story about what the angels were doing when the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea. The angels were laughing and joking and celebrating. God turned to them and said, "What are you doing?" They said, "Well, look, the Israelite people is free." And God says, "They can celebrate; you need to cry, because my creatures have died for this to be able to happen." This is quite profound. It would mean that those who are most pro-war in this society would be crying the most, because we know that going to war is a failure. It may be necessary, there may be no other choice. It may be the only way we can protect ourselves, it may be the only way there can be renewal, it may be the only way there can be democracy. Whatever the reason is, it's a failure, and the more you go to war, the more you have to be aware of humanity itself.
Are there places in the Passover seder where we acknowledge this?
There's an amazing ritual in the Passover seder that almost every Jewish family does. When we say the plagues, we take a little wine out of our cups, [to diminish our joy and acknowledge the other]. There's another important place in the seder when we acknowledge the suffering of the other. When we tell the story of the Exodus itself, most of the time we leave out talking about who saved Moses. This person allowed this whole Exodus story to unfold. Strangely enough, it's the daughter of Pharoah. This is this tradition's way of saying, even in the midst of there being so-called evil, the evil other's own daughter was so human, that it was because of her that your redemption could happen.
Saddam Hussein may well be a contemporary Pharoah, as we celebrate the holiday, but there are Iraqis who are going to be central in any renewal. Their humanity must be protected, and they should be honored and part of the story, just like the daughter of Pharaoh is part of the story. Those are two really powerful ways, especially for Jews right now, to tell the story and not have it simply confirm the status quo view of they're the enemy, and we're the good guys.
This is not a political statement. I'm not saying I support the war or I don't support the war--that's an irrelevant question for the seder. The relevant question of the seder is whatever view you have, are you listening to the other side? If you're a pro-war person, do you understand that war is fundamentally a failure? If you are antiwar, where is there evil in the world? Or if there is no such thing as evil, what do you do with the fear that people really have?
Understanding the humanity of the other is going to be very difficult for Jews to do this year. It's very difficult for Americans to do this year because the only way you can go to war is by demonizing the other. The antiwar people demonize the people going to war. This is the breakdown that war brings--everybody demonizes everybody. In war you have to listen really carefully to the gunfire, because there's a lot of hope that has to be seen inside that gunfire.
In the seder this year we should acknowledge that the destruction is for a purpose. The Exodus happens with the deaths of all those people in the sea, whether you believe it literally or mythically. It happens for a purpose--the people are actually going to be free so they can build a good society. They get free to go to Mount Sinai, to have the first experience of what it means to build a better life. This is very important in America because if we are fighting evil abroad to be free, then we have to build the good here, too. We simply cannot fight evil there and have a straight across tax cut when there's millions of people people hungry, with anywhere between 40 million and 70 million people here without health insurance. That is not what this fight is about. This fight is about the kind of freedom that allows us to build the very best society we can. If you're going to war, then what you have to do is fight evil there, but build the good society here. And there's a big challenge for us to think about at Pesach.
In the biblical story, the first law made is that you should only have a slave for six years; in the seventh year, the slave goes free. Of course, we don't have slaves anymore, but what it's suggesting is that never again could we have slavery the way they had [in Egypt]. That's building a better society, even though there was destruction to get there. That's the kind of thing this country has to deal with. If we can't do that, then this war is really just a weigh station to the next war. And that's what Pesach is really about--to ensure that everyone gets Exodized.
In Isaiah, there's an amazing verse in Chapter 19. Isaiah has a tremendous vision of what the world is going to look like. He says, "A day will come in which there will be three peoples who I choose, the Assyrians,"--an arch enemy--"the Egyptians, and the Israelites. If you're a spiritual person the very enemy that destroyed you can be as chosen and as central to the future of the world as you. That's what a spiritual vision does. And once you get that vision in your cultural DNA, it even shapes the way you go to war.
Why do so many Jewish holidays focus on renewal?
Most holidays in any culture focus on renewal. One of the greatest human longings is that life be better than the way it is now. That gets translated into rebirth holidays, renewal holidays, holidays of light, and holidays of hope. We have some deep yearning inside us that we can start over, that life could be better. That's what makes it sacred.