Why is this Passover different from all other Passovers?


By the time you read this, we will be deep into setting up the Passover Seder table and cooking the many dishes we will be serving our 14 guests. Our 13- year-old granddaughter Dalia will recite The Four Questions which are the prelude to retelling the story of our liberation from Egypt, and her father Ben will be leading us in singing the rousing songs contained in the Haggadah, the text for the evening’s recitations.

It has always been, hands down, my favorite Jewish holiday in the year’s cycle – a combination of bringing together friends and family, the symbols that articulate so clearly the meaning of the holiday, the unique array of wonderful food and the uplifting message of liberation at the heart of the day’s celebration.

All of what I’ve said so far is pretty garden variety stuff that describes what 80-90% of American Jewish households might say about the approaching 8-day holiday. But as a result of the Israel/Gaza war this Passover is indeed different from almost all its predecessors. The war has cast its long shadow over so many aspects of Jewish life, both here and in Israel, and has confronted us with a plethora of dilemmas about appropriate ways to celebrate the holiday in a distinctly uncelebratory moment.

Just last month Jews faced a similar dilemma about how to engage with the holiday of Purim, usually a raucous occasion, embellished by irreverent costumes, celebrating the victory over an arch-villain, Haman, when Jews are encouraged to drink until they don’t know the difference between Haman and Mordecai, the hero of the story. It’s significant but not always taken note of that the last chapter of the book recounts the slaughter of Haman and his entire family, and, symbolically, all of the enemies that have sought to destroy us. With the death tolls mounting in Gaza, should we be partying and enjoying this bloodshed in the midst of such suffering? Some Jewish groups recommended omitting the reading of those final chapters or curtailing the usual festivities. My sense is that, for the most part, tradition has won out. In our group, all the chapters were read, as they have been for centuries, though the celebrations were a little more subdued.

To return to Passover, the central question about the conduct of the seder is the extent to which it should center on the war and the tragedies of loss on both sides. There’s a long history of theme-based seders, each of which is represented by a Haggadah – civil rights, feminism, climate change, gay rights, labor and dozens of others, some of which reside in our own bookshelves. In each case, there are readings appropriate to the topic and variations of the original text that spotlight the issue at hand. Much as I admire the attempt at contemporary relevance, these thematic variants seem to me toreflect an absence of faith in the timelessness of the original text and its ability to encompass all these issues of the moment. It’s as if we saw a need to sprinkle into the text of Shakespeare’s Othello readings about the psychology of jealousy and envy.

There’s no way in which the events of the last six months won’t find their way into ourevening’s conversation. Not a day has gone by since October 7th when the horrendous loss of lives of innocent people on both sides and the deteriorating prospects for the hostages haven’t obsessed me. I’ve been saddened by the lack of empathy in too many of the voices, individual and collective, of my fellow Jews. And I’ve taken issue with the formulaic pronouncements of those who think that slapping the term “settler colonialism” on Israel’s culpabilitysuffices to capture the complexity of this tragic situation.

As the Seder approaches, I ask myself how can I  be celebrating our liberation while denying that liberation to others.  At the same time, I want to be mindful of the primary purpose of the Seder — to tell the story of that historic liberation. I hope that whatever lessons we derive from that telling will be the subject of lively, respectful conversation as the dinner courses arrive at the Seder table.

As I was pondering how to capture my hopes for the seder, we received a fundraising letter from the American Friends of Hand in Hand. If you’re not familiar with this admirable organization, it runs a network of schools in Israel where Arab and Jewish children learn side by side in both Hebrew and Arabic. I would like to quote at length from the words of Alon Shalev, the organization’s director. His simple words capture what I’m after.

“Like many who celebrate Passover, I have always looked forward to the Seder and sharing the story of the Israelite’s emancipation from slavery…. It feels like this coming together, in whatever form, forges a link and everyone at the table has a place and an opportunity to share their story.

Of course, there can be tension. Finding the right balance of narrative and ritual, ensuring that everyone is heard, and that dinner is served soon enough.

In our Hand in Hand schools, finding a place for everyone’s voices has been critical since October 7th. The dynamics of the holiday dinner table play out in the playground and the staff room. There are Jewish students who lost family on that terrible day or afterwards or know someone who is a hostage. There are Arab students and staff who have lost family in Gaza in the ensuing conflict.

Yet when the schools reopened, the students and teachers returned. Each campus went to great lengths to allow everyone a safe space to express their sorrow and fears. They did it – and continue to do it – with grace, empathy and humility. Difficult feelings were expressed, listened to and acknowledged. Not everyone agreed with each other, but that is the consequence of a shared society.”

If the students and staff of Hand in Hand, so close to the center of the conflict, can do it, I’m confident that those of us at the Seder table can too. I wish all those who celebrate a deep, meaningful and respectful holiday experience.

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Marv Hoffman

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