Over the Rabbi’s Disk

Rabbi Howard S. Herman, D.D.

Passover Reimagined


The story we tell from the Passover Haggadah and during the Passover seder reminds us, repeatedly, that we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. Part of the celebration of the seder is feeling pride that we broke the bonds of slavery to become a free people. It is imprinted within us never to enslave anyone and to take care of the stranger  -- because we too know what it means to feel the degradation of being a slave/stranger.

We hear about hunger and homelessness and oppression. We read “this is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” Yet we function in a society where forms of slavery and treating strangers poorly are the norm. We sometimes pay it lip service. We sometimes rise to heightened awareness of its existence; we even sometimes write letters to the proper authorities to create a civic awareness that some things need to change. And that my friends, is the essence of Pesach. CHANGE!

Rabbi Harold Kushner, in his book, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly In An Uncertain World, tells us that “change is unsettling; we crave the familiar. Our brains register serious discomfort when things aren’t what and where we expect them to be. It is a lot more efficient to be able to do things the way you have always done them, without having to think about it.” Like it or not, change is life’s only constant. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus put it more than a couple of millennia ago, “Nothing endures but change.”

We live in an age of uncertainty and doubt. I find it fascinating and revealing that the question—one of unknowing—shares its origins with the distinct feeling of the Israelites throughout the Passover story. Imagine yourself in their situation: being told they have to leave all that they knew, and to travel through an unknown desert, led by an individual they were not sure that they trusted.

Being enslaved in Egypt wasn’t pleasant. Egypt was oppressive and scary. Facing a complete revolution of time and space feels dangerous and scary, too. The Israelites might have hesitated because it was scary. As a popular expression reminds us, “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.”

This year, as we relive the story of our own liberation, we can also think of how the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated so many of the inequalities facing vulnerable communities around the world—deepening the challenges of poverty, violence, discrimination, and other afflictions. Passover must inspire us to take a more meaningful role in hastening freedom for women, girls, LGBTQI+ people, indigenous communities, religious and ethnic minorities, and other marginalized groups around the world.

The essential message of Passover is one of freedom and the will to persevere with faith against all odds. The story of the Exodus is a metaphor that is appreciated by Jews and all people of faith. It teaches us, as we are reminded in A Haggadah for Justice, that “the Babylonian Talmud reminds us that it is imperative for us to take care of all in our community, even the poorest person, during Passover and throughout the year.” It is imperative for us to remember those who are in need of a second chance—have strayed from the path—who have wandered away.

The Jews from Egypt who limped away from their captors, with the Egyptians hot and heavy on their heels, looked to build a new society based on the values and ethics that were inherent to their souls. Crossing the Red Sea was scary with the walls of water on either side keeping them alert, anxious and focused. They came through as a community. We too, need to move forward as a community. A community where justice and equity, so sorely lacking today for so many, is the focus of our march, so that it is indeed possible to live in a better, more honorable, and just world.

A zissen Pesach to all!

Rabbi Howard Herman DD
Naples Jewish Congregation