I skipped Passover this year. There was a lot going on–Anime Boston was that weekend, and my food processor was broken so I couldn’t make the sauce for the lamb, and so on–and I didn’t think I would miss it. After all, it’s an empty, meaningless ritual dedicated to the worship of a being that doesn’t exist, commemorating events that never happened. Except, of course, that it’s an empty, meaningless ritual I’ve participated in every year of my life except this one.
Oh, and except that it’s not empty or meaningless at all.
Passover is the only time I say prayers. Sometimes in Hebrew, sometimes in English–depends on who I’m celebrating with–every year, I ask call God the King of the Universe and ask hir to bless the matzo and the wine. I sing about how any one of the miracles God performed in the course of freeing the Jews from Egyptian bondage would have been enough, but zie kept on performing more.
The rest of the year, if I find myself somewhere that people are praying (a religious wedding or funeral, say), I keep my head down and my mouth shut. I don’t join in, because that would be dishonest. But on Passover I say the prayers and sing the songs, because that is what you do on Passover.
The prayers and songs, considered in isolation, are meaningless. But they are part of the package of Passover for me, and that package is deeply meaningful, because of its central theme, which as far as I am concerned is the central theme of Judaism: Because I was a slave in Egypt.
I wasn’t, of course. No Jews ever were; the story is just that–a story, not history.
But when I was a kid, my parents used to tell me about their participation in the civil rights movement. Stories of my mother fighting apartheid in her native South Africa, my father hitchhiking thousands of miles from Arizona to join the March on Washington. They did this, they told me, because “never again” means “never again to anyone.” They taught me that, because of the Holocaust, because of pogroms, because of the Inquisition–because of all the times and places in which Jews were persecuted–Jews have a special responsibility to aid other persecuted peoples.
This is a pretty problematic attitude, of course. Everyone has a responsibility to help the victims of persecution, especially if you yourself are among the privileged. But still, there’s something worth pursuing there.
You see, I’ve never been persecuted for being Jewish. Oh, there was apparently some time in elementary school when I came home crying because some other kids accused me of killing Jesus, and there was a nasty kid a few years later who broke one of our windows, but these are isolated incidents. There was no pervasive pattern of intolerance; I’ve never felt less-than because of being Jewish, or missed out on a job opportunity, and I’ve certainly never been put in a labor camp or chased out of my home. Why, then, should I feel any sort of kinship with the victims of persecution?
Because I was a slave in Egypt…
You see, every year at Passover, we recite the story of Passover. There’s a bit in there where it says you are supposed to tell the story as if it happened to us–not our ancestors, fictional or otherwise, but to us. It doesn’t matter that the Egyptian bondage never happened to me–I am still to take the lessons of it to heart. I am still to open my doors to any in need.
“Never again” means never again to anyone.
I don’t recall my parents ever explicitly drawing the connection, but it’s clear to me. So the Exodus never happened? Well, the Holocaust didn’t happen to me, either. My family left Europe decades before the Holocaust began. As far as my own experience is concerned, both events are equally just stories.
But not meaningless. Because I was a slave in Egypt, I support gay marriage and immigration amnesty. Because “never again” means never again to anyone, I oppose the mistreatment of the Palestinian people by the Israeli government.
Of course there are excellent secular reasons to do those things. I like to think that, if I weren’t Jewish, I would still do those things for the secular reasons. But as it is, I do them for the Jewish reasons: Because I was (never) a slave in Egypt.