Every year on Passover, Jewish communities the world over read from the Haggadah to hear the story of the Jewish people’s enslavement and to celebrate our liberation.
The story doesn’t change year to year, but as local rabbis explained to the JT, its deep meaning is multifaceted, and the Passover story continues to have essential relevance in a complicated world.
Whether it’s calling the community to action on refugee issues, celebrating one’s relationship with God, connecting with tradition, inspiring interfaith initiatives or continuing activism around the oppressed communities of today, the Passover story inspires a variety of interpretations.
The JT reached out to six area rabbis for their thoughts on what Passover means in 2017.
— Marc Shapiro
Rabbi Motzen of Ner Tamid – Greenspring Valley Synagogue, a modern Orthodox synagogue in Northwest Baltimore, takes a more restrained approach to Passover. He often dedicates his sermon to a Jewish historical figure or movement, wanting to connect the story of Passover to Jewish history and lives. This year, he plans to incorporate the Chasidic movement.
“Passover is about as classic and relevant a story as it gets,” he said, because it is a story of change and the ability to change throughout the ages.
People are often looking for a way to make seders more fun or interesting, he said, but, in reality, that can often be found by looking to the past and connecting with tradition. “At the end of the day, people want to go back to the seder of their family,” he added.
Motzen stays away from getting overtly political with Passover. People who walk into synagogue have 99 percent of the time made up their minds politically, he said, so he chooses to talk about the themes and values, not just of Passover, but of Judaism as a whole.
They are themes that never go away. For instance, it was the unity of the Jewish people that helped them escape Egypt, but unity can prove more elusive these days. And oppression, well, “in terms of oppression,” Motzen said, “I think that’s an endless fight.”
— Hannah Monicken
Rabbi Goldstein of Temple Beth Shalom in Arnold takes an academic approach when it comes to interpreting and explaining the modern-day lessons of Passover.
For Goldstein, president of the Anne Arundel County Board of Rabbis, sharing the story of Passover and its connections to the world at large today starts with the refugee crisis.
“In every generation, we have to imagine that we were the ones who were coming from slavery ourselves,” Goldstein said. “To me, that means to be mindful, thoughtful, caring and compassionate and serve as advocates to the many millions of people who are either refugees or displaced.”
As tensions rise over immigration reform, Goldstein said the idea of exodus is a more widespread notion than one focused on specific individuals.
Comparing the ancient Egyptians’ enslavement of Israelites with the current refugee crisis that encompasses more than 65 million people — the highest number ever recorded, according to the United Nations — Goldstein said it is important to acknowledge that slavery continues to plague society.
He sees the fleeing victims of bonded labor, forced marriage and sex trafficking as similar to what the Israelites went through as they sought food, water and shelter in their journey to freedom.
“For us, when we are thinking about the Pesach experience and the seder, we shouldn’t do so without recognizing the fact that slavery is not a thing of the past,” Goldstein said. “Rather, it is still very much a thing of the present.”
At a time when he feels President Donald Trump is doing more to turn away those seeking asylum, Goldstein said it is important for Jews to stand united.
“In our current political environment, we have a president who is trying to close the door to various people who are needy,” Goldstein said. “If we don’t try to open the door for them, then what does that say about us?”
— Justin Silberman
Perhaps the most important commandment that Jews are reminded of on Passover is God’s command to remember the stranger, for we were strangers in Egypt. Passover directly embodies this theme, with Jews opening their door and inviting in both Elijah and strangers seeking shelter.
Rabbi Grossman of Beth Shalom Congregation in Columbia said that although this theme is particularly important on Passover, it is “an overarching theme that repeats itself throughout Jewish scripture and tradition.”
“These messages are a call for our moral conscience,” she said. “In a very complicated world today, where there are so many strangers seeking open doors for safety and security, we have a responsibility in the Jewish community to act. That has been one of our charges from our earliest times as a people.”
To that end, Beth Shalom has a program in collaboration with a number of interfaith partners in which teens of various ethnicities and backgrounds gather to educate each other about traditions and foster mutual understandings. Grossman hopes to expand this reflective mindset to the community through the message of Passover.
“I hope that the seders will inspire introspection from the community and will stimulate more activity on the part of the organized Jewish community to become more involved in protecting and cooperating with other ethnic groups and minorities in our community,” she said. “We must participate in issues to protect immigrants and those seeking haven from threats of tyranny. We are directed by the message of Passover to continue seeing that intolerance is limited and understanding is fostered in its place.”
— Daniel Nozick
While the story of the liberation of the Jewish people is not lost on Rabbi Schusterman of Harford Chabad in Bel Air, he believes there is another crucial storyline in Pesach.
“The big deal is that we were oppressed and we got free,” he said. “There’s a whole different way of looking at the Passover story, which is that the relationship between people and their creator changed completely.”
It was during this time God decided to have a true relationship with the Jewish people, Schusterman said.
“The reason why you do what you do is not because you care about brownie points, but because you care about the relationship,” he said. “And I think that’s more relevant today than at any time ever in history because today we have everything, but the Talumd says ‘he who is free is he who toils in Torah.’
“You call that freedom? To sit and study and connect yourself with a whole bunch of rules? Is that freedom? Liberation? Yes, because you have a relationship with God as opposed to being technical,” Schusterman continued.
He explained that when it’s about the relationship, the technicalities are liberating and deepen the relationship as opposed to hindering. It’s not that the Jewish people have to study Torah, it’s that we get to.
“It’s not a religion as much as it’s a relationship with God,” Schusterman said, and quoted his late uncle Rabbi Shlomo “Schwartzy” Schwartz: “‘Don’t observe Judaism, celebrate Judaism. You don’t got to, you get to.’ And Passover was the beginning of that.”
— Marc Shapiro
For Rabbi Pinsker of Beit Tikvah, a Reconstructionist congregation in Baltimore, the Passover story is more than resonant in 2017 — it’s essential.
“I think the thing that captures people’s attention right now is people being trapped, being caught up in social, political, economic conditions that are demeaning their humanity,” he said. “[Passover] is not just relevant, it’s screaming at us from the pages of the newspapers.”
In these turbulent political times, Pinsker said, the Passover story urges Jews to take real action, to seek liberation from oppression, to make a difference. Freedom requires “perpetual guardianship,” he said, “whether it’s intellectual, physical or spiritual.”
Pinsker gave an example of seders he conducted when his children were younger, where all in attendance would bring one object to represent something they were doing that had an impact. For example, one child brought a toy bike to show how she was riding her bike to school so that her parents would not have to drive and would therefore use less energy. Another brought a bonsai tree to represent how she had helped clean up a park. The adults got in on it too with one person, an immigration lawyer, bringing a case file to represent those he was helping to find homes.
“We have values worth defending,” Pinsker said about the importance of Passover these days. “We do want to be a people known for our generosity and championing of the ability of people — not just as Americans, but as Jews.”
— Hannah Monicken
Rabbi Joseph of Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills believes that each generation interprets Passover’s themes of freedom and oppression in their own way based on the nature of the time in which they live.
“Our role as Jews is to understand [that] we must put ourselves into the story and look at it as if we were slaves in the land of Egypt and use that point of empathy to go out and make the world a better place,” she said. “Every generation makes the story relative to themselves. It is not a story of passivity, but rather a story that encourages us to be active in the present and into the future.”
Har Sinai hosted a seder exclusively for women ahead of the start of Passover to provide the opportunity for women to talk about their roles in the world today and the struggle for equal rights. At the multigenerational seder, grandmothers were able to talk to children about the struggles they went through and the issues they see that still need to be addressed.
“Today, we have a lot of societal issues that can be addressed through the same themes,” she said. “Poverty, injustices of race, LGBTQ issues — there are many different things that we can discuss at our tables about the need for people to be free from oppression.”
— Daniel Nozick