The Passover Hagada from the Guenzburg collection of ancient Hebrew manuscripts and books is pictured at the Russian State Library in Moscow, Russia November 7, 2017. .
(photo credit: TATYANA MAKEYEVA/ REUTERS)
Every year before Passover a subconscious memo goes out to some people: “How to transform this holiday into a depression-ridden, hand-wringing, guilt-ridden occasion devoted to self-flagellation over some cause we have not done enough for.” The memo includes a series of clichés to be used in op-eds, social media posts and discussion about the holiday.
The problem is that all the focus on transforming Passover into a day devoted to feeling guilty about how “we” oppress others, such as Palestinians or refugees, is that it misses the real message of Passover. Caring about “the stranger” on Passover should not abrogate responsibility to do something the rest of the year and it shouldn’t mean taking this one day and changing its central message to a different focus.
“As we approach the holiday of freedom, we must ask why we are denying others freedom” is one of the frequent talking points we hear before the holiday. Or it might be something about “we were once strangers in the land, now on this Passover we must remember all the strangers we oppress.” Or “we as Jews have a historic mission to always fight oppression, Israel does not embody that, it is a state of oppression and abuse.” Then come the long list of evils that “we” have supposedly engaged in. We suppress Palestinians. We are racist. We abuse African refugees.
After the social media posts and op-eds comes the depressing Passover Seder. “This year we tell the story of freedom from slavery in Egypt, of how we were humiliated and suffered – but look at the hundreds of thousands of Gazans who today suffer at our hands.” Someone asks why we as Jews don’t think about Passover from an Egyptian perspective. Someone else praises the person who spoke out for African refugees and Palestinians. “I thought I was the only person who dared to speak up, I’m so proud that you do too!”
Then Passover ends. The abuse of the holiday ends and people look forward to the next Jewish holiday that can be transformed into some sort of modern cliché and everyone can post on Facebook about how bad “we” are.
At the heart of the illogical display of Passover self-flagellation is a bizarre bait-and-switch. The people who claim to care the most about Palestinians, Egyptians, refugees, or other groups use the “we” tense when they don’t actually mean “we.” They claim “we” oppress strangers and millions of people. But what they really mean, usually, is “they.”
The State of Israel becomes a stand-in for “we” even though the voices shouting “we” the loudest don’t identify with the State of Israel.
They pose as the most patriotic “we” only at the time of year when they feel the least connected to “we.” Oddly many of the “we” activists don’t even live in Israel. They live in places like America. But they don’t want America to fulfill their values. They don’t care as much about the war in Afghanistan or about Puerto Rico or undocumented workers when it comes to fighting for “our values.”
The essence of the depressing Passover is to ascribe to “us” policies that we often have the least control over. This absolves us of actual responsibility but allows for the constant reference to “our” role in a litany of abuses. The end result then is that the ritual of self-critique actually reinforces the self-righteous feelings of supremacy. The more people shout “we are abusing the stranger,” the more they feel that they alone are fighting for social justice, without the burden of actually having to fight for any social justice outside of the Passover Seder. Social media posts take the place of doing anything the other 364 days of the year. “During our Passover Seder we remember the refugees and Gazans.” And what will you do tomorrow? Nothing.
A more logical approach to Passover would be one in which the holiday is celebrated as it was intended to be, a holiday that is mostly about Jewish suffering and Jews fleeing Egypt in a miraculous series of events. If the Passover Haggada wanted to say “on this Passover we remember all the slaves and suffering in the world and we must be critical of our own role in oppressing others,” then it would have said that. Couldn’t the other 364 days of the year be reserved for caring about all the other groups and wouldn’t a more healthy approach to Passover be one in which people look at the holiday on its own merits. Wouldn’t that also be more effective in helping the other people who suffer?
If you only remember Gazans or refugees on Passover, you fail them the rest of the year.
The problem is that we are not asked on Passover to care about everyone in the world. But we might devote the rest of the year to doing something better, making society better and more just. If you just transform Passover into a festival of depressing anecdotes about how bad “we” are you miss the forest for the trees. You transform Passover into the opposite of what it is, while missing the point of Passover the rest of the year. A good lesson of the Haggada is that one should care about its values the rest of the year.
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