On the evening of April 19th, Jews around the world will celebrate the holiday of Passover over a Seder, the ritualized meal that marks the commencement of the holiday. The Seder is also now observed in many churches worldwide as a recapitulation of Jesus’ Last Supper (also a Passover Seder according to Luke 22:7). In this time of political turmoil nationwide, and the institutionalized anti-Semitism that is being propagated by leaders like Representative Omar of Minnesota, it is wise to remember a few of the basic teachings of this holiday that are applicable to everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike.
Passover is often called the “Festival of Freedom” and commemorates the Exodus of the Hebrews from ancient Egypt through the miracles of God. But it is a “meta-historical” holiday: meaning that we were supposed to both remember what happened to our ancestors, and also take the ancient lessons and apply them to our lives today. The ancient Egyptians were idol worshippers, and it is incumbent upon all of us to take a deep look of self-reflection and see what we have placed as “idols” in our own personal modern lives. Have we made a “God” of money, prestige, power, sex, or other false images…taking us away from the core spiritual values of faith and freedom? Passover is the time to remember how the ancient Hebrews rejected the idols of Egypt in favor of returning to their true beliefs and practices. And it is a time for us to take that example and recapture our own freedom in life through rejecting false idols and values.
The holiday is called “Passover” as a result of the Hebrews placing blood on their doorposts so that death would “pass over” their homes in the tenth plague of killing the firstborn of Egypt. We must remember that this action of placing blood on the door was an act of open rebellion based on faith. If the tenth plague had not actually happened, then the Egyptians would know (from the blood on the door) every rebellious Jew who was potentially dangerous; and those Jews would have been mercilessly killed. To truly observe this holiday, we must, like the ancient Hebrews, have the faith and courage to stand up against those who would see us destroyed in our own time no matter what the risk.
Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the actions of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt, which began exactly 76 years ago on April 19, 1943. The Nazis had imprisoned over 400,000 Jews in an area of 1.3 square miles, with an average of 9.2 Jews per room. From this ghetto (officially called Jüdischer Wohnbezirk in Warschau, “Jewish Residential District in Warsaw”), the Nazis deported over 254,000 Jews to the Treblinka extermination camp in the summer of 1942. But on April 19, 1943, the first night of Passover, the Jewish leaders took the example of their ancestors and refused to surrender any longer to the SS. Armed with nothing but their faith, courage, and what weapons they could make, smuggle, or steal, they took on the greatest army in the world at that time. For over a month, these starved people held off the Nazis until the entire ghetto had been burned to the ground. It was the first significant loss to the Nazis, and was the inspiration for countless other uprisings as it irreparably damaged the Nazi propaganda machine. Through their faith and courage, they took the example of the ancient Hebrews of Egypt and used it as a motivation in their own lives.
We too need to take the ancient lessons of Passover, and like the heroes of both the Exodus and the Warsaw Ghetto, have the faith to fight against the evils of hatred, slavery, and anti-Semitism in our time. As we sit at Seders this month, we must remember to have the courage of our ancestors and take a stand against what is wrong and evil in each of our lives, our communities, and our nation. We must make it clear to our leaders that we will not accept anti-Semitism in any form.
We are taught during the Seder that “the real slavery in Egypt was that the Hebrews learned to accept it”. Let us not accept the hatred being spewed by anti-Semites, especially those like Omar and Tlaib who are in positions of influence and power. Like our ancestors, both ancient and modern, we need to take action and stop this new hatred from growing in our communities and nation.
May we each have the faith and courage to stand up against the hatred of anti-Semites, and like those before us, find that positive change and freedom really do happen when we take the first step.
Rabbi Michael Barclay is the Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Simcha (www.NerSimcha.org), and the author of “Sacred Relationships: Biblical Wisdom for Deepening Our Lives Together” (Liturgical Press). He can be reached directly at [email protected]