Thursday 10 April 2014

"In Every Generation..." How Passover locks shut the Jewish imagination

For our Passover meal this year (Monday 14 April) I have a fifth question and answer to add to the traditional quartet of the Ma Nishtanah.

Why is this night different from all other nights?

Because on this night we make a meal, literally and metaphorically, of our unique story. Via mouthfuls of bitter herbs, salt water, nuts and raisins mixed with wine, and unleavened bread, we promote the damaging mindset that tells us that we are the world's eternal victims.

I expect an immediate challenge to my liturgical liberties.

"Enough already with your iconoclastic itch! How can you say such things? Surely, Passover is the quintessential expression of our physical and spiritual liberation. Hasn't the escape of the Hebrews from Egyptian slavery become the biblical paradigm of freedom from oppression that has brought hope to countless peoples across the centuries?"

I know, I know.

But my fifth question and answer is true none the less.

This is the night when we are most at risk from locking shut the Jewish capacity for empathy and blinding ourselves to the suffering of others - most notably, the Palestinians.

There will be some around the Seder table who will resent me wanting to recount the woes of another people ("the Palestinians for heaven's sake!") rather than those of my own kith and kin.

"Please can we celebrate the Exodus and our founding mythology of Jewish nationhood without dragging all that stuff into a nice family gathering! Let us enjoy the remembrance of our liberation by a God who intervenes in history with 'a strong hand and an outstretched arm'. Or are you going to insist on playing the part of the 'wicked son', the one in the Haggadah that cannot see the point of the celebration? Now have some more Motza and shut up!"

So, I will have to take a deep breath and try to explain how we have reached this immensely regrettable state of affairs. I may need a fifth cup of wine to get me through.

There are two powerful themes at work within the Seder night service. Two themes that have dominated Jewish self-understanding since at least the Middle Ages when the Seder night service, as we know it today, was first woven together.

The first theme can be characterised by this beautiful sentence that comes early on in our Passover meal:

"Let all who are hungry, come and eat; let all who are needy come and celebrate Passover."

This is the Jewish voice of welcome, of empathy. It marks the Exodus as the ancient anchor of Jewish ethics and reminds us of our timeless belief in a God that bends His universe towards justice and compassion.

The second theme arrives, with a chill air around it, towards the end of our evening of story telling, after the last terrible plague, the death of the Egypt firstborn, has persuaded Pharaoh to (temporarily) end his tyranny.

"In each and every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. And the Holy One, blessed be He, rescues us from their hands."

This is the collective cry of a people that has been oppressed and discriminated against throughout its history. A people left physically and psychologically scarred. A people that feels justice for them has been long delayed. This is our story told as one long pogrom.

It is a passage that reinforces the sense of the Jews under perennial siege all the way from biblical mythology to modern history. From the tribe of Amalek trying to thwart the slaves' escape from Egypt, to Haman's planned genocide of the Jews of Persia in the story of Esther, to Adolf Hitler's near success in making the European continent 'Judenrein'

In every generation there is always another Pharaoh who is out to get the Jews.

It's not difficult to understand how this idea repeated each year, at what is still the most widely observed Jewish festival, has profound emotional consequences for the Jewish imagination. And the resonance of the message does not end with the singing of the final verse of 'Hud Gadyah'.

We leave the Seder table convinced, once again, that we are the eternal victims, outsiders, never accepted, forever threatened. It is the worldview that helped to propel 19th century political Zionism into the 20th century Jewish mainstream. Zionism, brilliantly and dangerously, wrapped together a religious longing for spiritual and physical redemption with a nationalist colonial project dressed up as a rightful 'Return'. It was a compelling and heady mix. The world will never accept us, so the theory goes, so we must have our own state in our own land where we can live in safety and normalcy. And never mind who might be living there now, for our needs our greater than theirs, our story more important, and our ancient Promise more profound than any set of civil rights.

In our post-Holocaust, Israel-centred Jewish consciousness, the 'Every generation...' passage has continued to grow in significance, eating away at our moral sensibility. So much so, that we have difficulty understanding modern Jewish history and politics without constant reference to this paradigm of oppression and threat, or, as it is now more often described, 'Security'.

Benjamin Netanyahu happily taps into all of this with his new demand that the Palestinians accept Israel as a 'Jewish State' with all the implications that has for Israeli Christian and Muslim Palestinian citizens, the rights of Palestinian refugees and the chances of the State of the Jews ever being truly 'Jewish and Democratic'. John Kerry and the Obama administration have failed to challenge the same "In every generation..." mindset and so find themselves acting as Israel's legal team rather than as honest brokers of peace.

And meanwhile...whatever happened to: 'Let all who are hungry, come and eat...'?

In Hebrew, the word for ancient Egypt is 'Mitzrayim'. The same word can also be translated as 'the narrow place'. Today, we Jews are living our lives in a narrow nationalist echo chamber where the chanting of our past suffering bounces off the walls blocking out every other sound to our ears.

It is true, we celebrated many Seder nights in the ghettos and shtetls of European oppression. But we are now in a radically different place and we are yet to adjust to our new circumstances. We have failed to notice that in this generation it is we who have the power, we who have status in every country where we live, we who have a nation state with a great army and Super Power backing. And it is we who have constructed our own apparatus of prejudice and injustice in the very land we call 'Holy'. Today, we have become the Pharaoh we once despised.

At this point I'm hoping that my Seder night companions will turn to me and ask, with at least a hint of humility: "So what is to be done, Rav Micah?"

I have a remedy. But it will not be easy.

A new Exodus is needed to set the Jewish mind free and open our imagination to those that suffer at our hands. The theme embodied by "In every generation..." must be understood anew. It must be claimed for the same Jewish spirit that invites the hungry and oppressed to share at our table. We must see that in every generation, even among ourselves, the narrow vision of 'Pharaoh' can rise up. Our task is is to bring it down in the name of the same God that rescued our ancestors with 'a strong hand and an outstretched arm' and delivered us to uphold a moral universe.

This year - we remain trapped in the narrow place. Next year - may we find our new Exodus to liberation.

Hag Sameach!

P.S. If you found this blog post provocative, stimulating or just plain annoying, then you may like to read 'Occupy the Hagaddah' from 2012  and the poem "On the Impossibility of Passover" from 2013.


  1. this is a beautiful piece. haunting, tragic and desperately important. Thankyou.

  2. Interestingly there is an eschataological (or at the very least Messianic) element to the fifth in elements of questions, cups of wine, etc. Don't forget please that we already have a 5th cup of wine at the table (Elijahu's) and that 4 is heavily symbolic (referring as well to the number of sons, as well as the times the Torah commands us to recount the Exodus narrative). You're in good company trying to envision what the 5th might represent. For the Lubavitcher Rebbe the 5th child was the child who could not attend the seder - those Jews trapped under the yolk of Soviet repression. Your 5th is ahistorical - the post-suffering messianic 5th when all of humanity is united in peace + morality. You are not the first Jew to express impatience that this messianic era has not yet arrived. Like the Rebbe, you enjoin us to recognize that this era is already here (the Rebbe said we must only open our eyes to see that the table of the Messiah is already set). For so many of us, though, it is hard not to notice the elements of the world that still seem unredeemed, particularly in the Middle East. In anglo speaking countries Jews are prosperous + safe, but this is not just historically unique, but geographically unique as well. In other words, Babylon has been good to us, but that doesn't mean that history has quite ended yet.

  3. It is important to read the statement "in every generation" etc. in the context of the paragraph beginning "This is what has stood by our fathers and us." The emphasis is that we are always rescued. Have a kosher and joyous Pesach.

  4. Thank you for shifting the paradigm a bit. I have long added these thoughts to the 4th cup at the seder.

    * * * * * * *
    This, the completion of our final set of fours, is phrased differently. We seem to have turned a corner. We've been "removed" from burdens, "delivered" from bondage, and "redeemed". It may seem that we have been "set free" on the other side to do as we wish.
    But, no, the text continues.

    And I will take you to be my people.

    Enough of this back-patting already. Once we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and we have experienced many other horrors. But we have also been on the other side, both individually and collectively. We've been slavers and oppressors. What shall we make of that?

    We try, not always with success, to learn from our experience of slavery and homelessness. Assassinations, massacres, murders and expulsions frighten us. Our cousins, our neighbors begin to establish their own independent society. Many of us try to understand the plight of the Palestinians, yet we see that still, only a minority of the Palestinian people seem to understand our need and pain. Much of their internal rhetoric remains the same. They still have not changed the text of their covenant calling for the end of our State. And extremists on both sides feed each others' expectations.

    Raise the fourth cup of wine

    Tonight we recline. Our reclining is not a sign of laziness, but of freedom. No one forces us to eat on the run, at our desks, or out in the fields at our work. We can enjoy a meal that includes conversation and song, a meal that focuses our attention on the burgeoning year as it blossoms around us and encourages renewed growth within us. Our meal also intensifies our awareness of the efforts for freedom still pursued by ourselves and others.

    After drinking three of our four cups of wine, we also know that we have come most of the way from the degradation of slavery to the dignity of freedom. But freedom, like wine, can lead to a powerful headiness. Liberation itself is not the goal.

    We have the strength to act according to our own decisions. Yet we understand that not every decision we make is the correct one, merely because it is ours. Though we can act out of strength, we have also learned that not by might, nor by power, but by the awesome divine attributes of justice and mercy will we all achieve wholeness.

    Therefore, before we drink this fourth and last cup of wine, we pause.

    Set down the cup of wine

    As we drink to honor the Jews and other peoples of our own time:
    Those who struggle in so many ways to maintain the Jewish state, Israel,
    sometimes needing to take up arms in defense
    other times daring to extend arms in comradely embrace
    in either case taking chances with their lives.

    And those everywhere who strive to develop a life guided by Prophetic ideas.

    We ask ourselves how we use our power to place other people in the narrow, limiting straits of "Mitzra'yim."

    We will continue our work.

    We understand that our societies are but the basis on which the struggle to create that messianic era, the life envisioned in the Passover Seder, is to be built.

    Blessed are You, Adonai our God, sovereign of all space and time, creator of the fruit of the vine.

    All drink the fourth cup of wine
    * * * * * * *

    You can see the entire Haggadah here:

    May you have a *liberating* pesach!