Last year, we interrupted our Seder-for-three at 8:30 p.m. A WhatsApp message pinging around Israel suggested going outside or opening the window then, so we could all sing “Ma Nishtana.” Alas, we heard nothing.
Disappointed, we returned inside, only to hear, three minutes later, “Ma Nishtana...” My watch was fast. We rushed onto our porch and sang our hearts out – hearing the French family across the street, the new American family catty-cornered from us, and the Israeli-Canadian family down the block.
As our street reverberated with the Four Questions – and two hours later with the shout “Next Year in Jerusalem” – we shattered corona’s isolation. We remembered that millions worldwide were fulfilling this forever Jewish ritual with remarkable uniformity amid some ritualistic and linguistic differences. Our shouts affirmed that when you belong to the Jewish people, you’ll never agree with everyone – but you’re never alone.
This year, as most Israelis enjoy mask-less, unsocially distanced but doubly vaccinated Seders, we still need this message. Our election do-over picked at social and political scabs. A reasonable Supreme Court decision prompted ultra-Orthodox demagogues to libel our Reform and Conservative brothers and sisters. American Jews remain bitterly divided between pro-Trumpers and the Trump-hating majority. And throughout the West, right-wingers keep hardening their particularistic impulses with cynicism and arrogance, while left-wingers keep intensifying their universalism with self-abnegation and self-righteousness.
We desperately need countercultural, healing Seders, nurturing unity. Pharaoh didn’t administer any political tests before enslaving or liberating us all. Passover transcends right-left divides, teaching us what the legendary philosopher Leon Kass, in his majestic Founding God’s Nation: Reading Exodus, calls “the moral meaning of communal life.” We tell our story, recount our triumphs – Avadim Hayinu, Dayenu, where the “nu” emphasizes “our” – and everyone should be encouraged to describe their own personal exodus while taking pride in the Jewish story. But the Exodus also created the universal metaphor for freedom fighting.
In Never Alone, Natan Sharansky and I celebrate Jews’ eternal paschal juggling act between identity and freedom, acknowledging that different Jews at different times achieve different balances. This dizzying diversity is a side effect of freedom.
When Natan viewed the Jewish community from afar, in that desert of unfreedom, the Soviet Gulag, “the community... never looked more united.” He would have scoffed if anyone asked: “Who are you closer to, the Right or the Left? Likud or Labor? Reform or Orthodox?” He ascended from the “disagreement-scarred dialogue” to his “dialogue of one.”
True, he recalls, “it was only in my mind, but it was also one dialogue of one people, united in one struggle.... Every squabbling Jewish organization was now on the same page, listed as anti-Soviet in my KGB file.” It rendered the disagreements “meaningless.”
The Seder is one of Judaism’s greatest bonding rituals. In his compelling, useful, insightful new Haggadah guide, The Telling: How Judaism’s Essential Book Reveals the Meaning of Life, Mark Gerson offers a lovely riff on the Wicked Child’s sneer: “What does all this mean to you?”
Gerson asks: “What is the fundamental principle of Judaism? It is the community: full stop.” While encouraging questioning, the Haggadah warns early that allowing Seder discussions to turn ugly, “to weaken the community, is wicked.”
Gerson urges Jews to look around the table and remember: your “Seder does not represent the full community of believers.” Recalling Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s brilliant challenge: “I don’t care what denomination you are – so long as you are ashamed of it,” Gerson advises: “list several deficiencies in [your] communities that could be improved as a result of having adopted attitudes, customs and practices of the other.”
RECENTLY, I hiked with left-wing friends who think the first name of “settlers” is “evil.” That night, I dined with some right-wing friends who think “leftists’” last name is “traitors.” We talked politics, but didn’t argue. I wasn’t being polite – the conversation just avoided red zones. My Meretz-supporting friends didn’t endorse Nitzan Horowitz’s outrageous endorsement of the ICC’s targeting of Israel, and my Religious Zionist friends didn’t go all Kahane-bigot on me.
I listened, I probed, we learned.
At one point, one settler-type said something extraordinary. When she discovered during the Gaza Disengagement that many of the Tel Avivis they spoke to door-to-door saw the world very differently, she and her family moved to a “mixed” religious-nonreligious neighborhood to bridge the gap. “Ultimately, we all pretty much want the same things,” she’s learned.
I walked away inspired yet depressed. I again felt the power of Jewish peoplehood, of the Zionist consensus, of the Israeli Center. We have common concerns, common dreams, and a common language from history, from rituals like the Seder, from shared Israeli experiences in Israel, including the army, endless electioneering, and corona. But politicians, the media and social media pound wedges rather than build bridges.
I love a good argument. And I get that anger attracts attention – and votes. Nevertheless, my most profound life experiences didn’t come from shouting at others but from singing together, not from emphasizing how superior I am to the person at the wrong end of my argument but from overcoming our differences to embrace each other.
This Passover, even if we don’t run out at 8:30 p.m. to harmonize in a chorus of different accents, let’s pause while reading the four sons’ diverging reactions. Let’s marvel at how many Jews globally are singing the same songs, remembering the same traumas, and dreaming the same dreams – which for me includes having leaders who don’t rip us apart but, rather, pull us together.
The writer is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University and the author of nine books on American history and three on Zionism. His book Never Alone: Prison, Politics and My People, coauthored with Natan Sharansky, was just published by PublicAffairs of Hachette.