It is the season of song in the Jewish community. The season of anthems, as it were.
Among the most potent weapons for the valiant fight against slavery and oppression we Jews have ever deployed has been our collective voice, raised up in song, remembering our trials and triumphs each year at Passover.
There is no time like the present to remember the past.
The present: A world-wide refugee crisis; the on-going scourge of radical Islamist terror; an opioid epidemic and massive, uncertain shifts in the world economy as tensions rise between national political priorities and those of the family of nations. For us Americans, this is all playing out against the backdrop of a horribly divided nation, a deeply ethically challenged President, and a wrenching, uncertain future.
The past: Once we were slaves, now we are free. The ancient sages of the Jewish tradition, like their Greco-Roman contemporaries, were fond of distilling complex messages to the briefest of truths. “Avadeem Hayeenu,” once we were slaves, exemplifies a radical truth of Jewish history that has animated our existence as a people and faith community for more than three thousand years. And consequently, this notion of having once been denied our essentialness as humans made in the Divine Image (a privilege shared by all of humanity) we open our telling of the Passover story at Seder meals around the world to embrace this status precisely because its ethical and moral implications are quite clear. “You know the heart of the stranger, because you were strangers in a strange land,” it says throughout the Hebrew Bible—the most repeated injunction in the entire Jewish tradition.
To be free, in other words, is to make oneself radically responsible to the other. To remember our own past and celebrate our freedom is to embrace the existential challenge for facing all those still “yearning to breathe free.”
And so we sing. We sing Four Questions to begin our Seder, making a song of our inquisitiveness. Why is this night, this season, this year, different from all others? What distinguishes our time from the past and what must we do to create a better future?
We sing of our enslavement and we rejoice in our freedom.
And we sing in thanksgiving and gratitude for each of life’s blessings that if only one of them had been bestowed upon us, it would have been “enough.”
Dayenu, perhaps the most famous of all Passover songs, retains this exalted status because its message is clear: Our freedom is ultimately a humbling reality. It is enough. And yet how fortunate we are that we are not only free but we have the Law, a Day of Rest, a land in which to live. It’s an embarrassment of riches and it demands from us a recognition of our shared fate to “know the heart of the stranger,” to share in his burden, to shelter her from the storm, and to sing in anthemic joy, that “this land was made for you and me.”
It is powerful to consider that one idea at the center of the Passover story is the question of idolatry and the power that images have over our existence. Pharaoh of Egypt was not only a mere human enslaving other humans but an idolatrous man claiming to be a god. This doubling of self-worship and self-aggrandizement is a powerful message for our own day.
As Americans, whose founders saw themselves breaking the chains of Great Britain’s oppression, we have our own national anthem, which this week was brought into stark contrast with the songs we Jewish Americans will sing at our Passover meals.
Singing aloud before sporting events, rallies and other public gatherings about the explosions briefly illuminating our flag is deeply problematic, as those bursts of light blind us from the clarity needed to view war and discern its meaning after its fog clears.
We ought not be blinded by the rockets’ red glare ignited one time in Syria at the behest of President Trump, who has offered no broader vision at all for that terrible war and who has heartlessly striven to close borders, who has pledged to refuse shelter to those most in need.
So if our Jewish National Anthem is the Passover Songbook, I want to argue that we would be better served as a country if our American National Anthem was Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.”
The penultimate verse of this heroic song ends with a question each of should be asking of ourselves in this most historic of springtimes:
In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people,
By the relief office I seen my people;
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking
Is this land made for you and me?
A stirring notion: If my neighbor is hungry, so too am I.
And the Passover Matzah, the Bread of Affliction, means precisely that. On Passover eve when we grab hold of the first piece of matzah we will sing, “This is the bread of poverty and persecution that our ancestors at in the Land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat. This year we are still slaves. Next year, free people.”
That’s a song I can sing. This land, this bread, was made for you and me.