I am convinced that in the future, we will commemorate the Holocaust as part of our Pesach celebration. At first glance, Pesach and the Holocaust seem entirely unrelated. The Holocaust was the most tragic Jewish experience in two millenia, while Pesach is the archetypal redemption. Yet Pesach is also the most appropriate place to call to mind moments of slavery and oppression. The Freedom Seders and the cries of Let my people go!” of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry were themselves ignited by the Eichmann trial of 1961. The struggle for the liberation of Russian Jews was ignited by greater awareness of the Holocaust (and the passivity, ineffectiveness, and sometime complicity of Jewish communal leadership in that tragedy), and these activists took Passover and Exodus as the central motif of their struggle. Since that time, the Seder has become a main stage for expressions of solidarity and protest of oppression, and many rituals have been invented to highlight these causes. Miriam’s Cup, adding an orange to the seder plate, or a potato, or coffee beans symbolize the struggles for women’s rights, GLBTQ rights, the Ethiopian exodus, and the ongoing challenge of forced labor around the world. African-Americans have also embraced both the language of Exodus and the ritual of the Seder to commemorate their cultural history of bondage, liberation and ongoing struggle.
There are two dynamics we can consider: how the story of Exodus and its language has been appropriated, reinterpreted and deployed for one, and how the Seder and Passover itself has evolved, and see a convergence. Passover and its themes has been adapted to stand for moments of great triumph that are nonetheless followed by painful, slow and ongoing struggle. Passover is the incomplete redemption, and the call for renewed activism to overcome oppression. Is that the story of the Holocaust?
In Exodus 13:18, the Jews are described as leaving Egypt and heading to the desert:
| יח וַיַּסֵּב אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָעָם דֶּרֶךְ הַמִּדְבָּר, יַם-סוּף; וַחֲמֻשִׁים עָלוּ בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.
||18 But God led the people about, by the way of the wilderness by the Red Sea; and the children of Israel went up armed out of the land of Egypt.
The word chamushim, translated as armed, is an unusual word, and its similarity to chamesh, five, birthed an infamous midrash that claims that only one-fifth of the Israelites actually came out of Egypt. The rest has perished there. What follows in our tradition is a flurry of arguments, apologia, interpretations and ponderings on this strange and difficult midrash. But I think the matter can be understood simply. For hundreds of years, the Israelites had been enslaved in bitter conditions. Babies were drowned in the Nile, while men and women performed back-breaking labor under the whips of cruel taskmasters. The bondage in Egypt was the first Holocaust, and Pharaoh’s intentions were as genocidal as Hitler’s (though Pharaoh was more comfortable with the notion of Israelite assimilation into the Egyptian race).
With the Passover story so many years in our past, it is difficult to truly evoke the horrors of Egyptian slavery, especially in the face of the mighty redemption by a revealed God that follows. Yet the Hagaddah does its best to bring to light the full measure of depravity that was the Egyptian bondage. The Hagaddah interprets every word of the verses describing the cruelty of the Egyptian slavery, and expands upon it. If we fail to bring the evils of slavery fully to life, the failure is not in our seders, but in ourselves. And that’s where I find the Holocaust. Millions of Jews were killed, and not just during the war. Christian Europe was a Mitzrayim – a Metzarim – a strait and narrow place for the Jews. Over the course of nearly 1000 years, from the earliest pogroms committed during the First Crusade, Jews lived in bondage and oppression. The liberation of the concentration camps and the repudiation of anti-Semitism as a legitimate government policy flowered into statehood in Israel and the breaking down of barriers to Jewish advancement and freedom in the US and elsewhere.
This Pesach, I encourage you to view Pesach expansively. Our most recent bondage lasted for nearly a thousand years. And our Exodus from Europe did not happen all in one moment, nor did we all go to the same place.But for us, the Holocaust was just the final intensification of a long period of exile – exile not from a land or a country, but exile from membership in the human race. Our redemption was not a journey to one geographical region, but a journey from the ghettos,the shteltls, and the margins of human history and society to the very center of world culture. Judaism was once again relevant, vibrant, honored, and appreciated. It may take more time for the scars of the Holocaust to fade, so that we can see it in the larger context of our history and our narrative, but those scars will fade, and this new vision of exile and redemption will take the stage at the Seder, on Pesach.
Chag Kasher v’sameach to everyone