How is this Passover different from all other Passovers?

This is a segment from The “Unsmote, but Smitten Nonetheless” Edition.


Passover is here, or will be soon anyway, and Passover is, maybe more than any other holiday, like I already said, a holiday with a story, a holiday about a story, a holiday the most important ritual of which is telling a story about ourselves to ourselves for the sake of ourselves, most of all for our children.

And the story that we tell ourselves about ourselves for the sake of ourselves, most of all for the children, is first the story of our leaving the slavery of Egypt for freedom in the desert and in the fullness of time, the land of Israel.

It is the story of how, as the Haggadah puts it in the song V’hisha Amda, not just one enemy has stood over us to annihilate us, rather in every generation enemies have stood over us to annihilate us.

And the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands, end quote.

It is the story of threat and violence and oppression under which we suffer, but from which we are ultimately redeemed.

And it is a story of a justice that is hard fully to separate from joy in revenge, from the 10 plagues to the Egyptian soldiers drowning in the Red Sea to the passages where we ask God to quote, “Pour out your fury on the nations that do not know you and on the kingdoms that do not invoke your name, for they have devoured Jacob and destroyed his home,” end quote.

And pour out your wrath on them, may your blazing anger overtake them, pursue them in rage and destroy them under the heavens of God, end quote.

And of course, this year is this year, maybe the saddest year of our lifetimes, and a year that feels almost biblically portentous and wrathful and heroic and awesome and awful and full of meaning.

So Linda, my questions for you are first, how does all that we have seen and experienced this year leave its imprint on what this Pesach means to us?

And secondly, how might Pesach affect the way that we make sense of all we have seen and experienced this year?

First of all, thank you for choosing this topic because it really kind of caused me to have to think about all of this.

I think I want to answer sort of on two levels.

And one of those levels is kind of easier to answer than the other.

The first level is, what do we do this Passover and how do we reflect the reality that we’re all living in?

And then the second answer, which is more difficult, is a theological question of where is God in all this?

And if you’re someone who believes in God, what’s going on?

On the first level, first of all, Passover has always been the holiday perhaps where the most people have added things and changed the ceremony to reflect what’s going on.

I mean, you have a Haggadah.

When I grew up, it was the Maxwell House Haggadah.

Remember the blue ones with the coffee place?

Which by the way, some people say is why coffee is actually not considered kidney oat because they made the Haggadot, so how could it be kidney oat?

But there are thousands and thousands of Haggadot.

I actually did a story for the Jerusalem Post is putting out a special Passover magazine, and I did a story about the Haggadah collection at the National Library and went and met with the curators and saw some of the Haggadot.

And one of the Haggadot that I wrote about is a Haggadah from Kibbutz Be’eri in 1946.

And apparently the Kibbutzim every couple of years would do their own Haggadah.

Different units in the army did their own Haggadot.

And so there’ve always been sort of new Haggadot that reflect the reality of what’s going on.

And some of these Haggadot have the traditional text and some of them have sort of completely different stories.

And it’s all about Zionist history, and it’s all about the creation of the state of Israel and farming and all of this stuff.

So first of all, there is an exhibit.

Some of these are on exhibit at the National Library that you can go see.

So I think first of all, it’s an opportunity for people to innovate and to add new prayers.

A lot of…

So I am going to be at Kibbutz Keturah, which you mentioned at the beginning, with my brother-in-law and sister-in-law.

And they are actually leading the big Seder in the dining room for anybody who doesn’t want to do their own Seder.

And Neil asked us each to choose one of the hostages who we would like to invite to the Seder.

We will have a chair at the Seder for that hostage who each family is inviting, and we’ll talk a little bit about that hostage.

And in my case, it’s easy because Hirsch Goldberg-Polen is a young man who was kidnapped at Nova, grew up with my kids, and Rachel and John Goldberg-Polen are friends.

So it will be a way of sort of bringing in that experience.

And I just want to read a very short poem that a friend of mine who is a liturgist named Alden Salovey wrote.

And he wrote…

The poem’s called “Elijah is with the Hostages.”

Elijah, the prophet who will announce salvation and peace, will not visit your Pesach Seder this year.

Don’t fill the cup.

Don’t waste the wine.

The prophet is exhausted, pleading with the heavens for the hostages, pleading with the heavens for the displaced, the grieving and lost.

Find hope in your own hands, in deeds of repairing the world and acts of loving kindness.

Elijah is not coming to your Seder.

The work of healing the world and bringing redemption he has left to us.

I am amazed that you have a friend who is a liturgist.

That has got to be the best profession ever, though maybe ultimately a little bit limited in scope because how many prayers can people say?

How many prayers can you write?

But what a wonderful, wonderful thing.

You mentioned a few things that to me also seem particularly important.

One of the ways that this year seems to be importantly leaving its imprint on Pesach is expressed in posters that I see all over City Hall, near every elevator in City Hall.

There’s a poster that says something like, “Remember those empty places around the table when we all sit down.

Remember the families are sitting down to tables that have empty places and leave an empty place at your table.”

And I find that very moving.

To me, one of the big challenges of this year is a challenge that really always I face on Passover, but this year in a more immediate way than before, which is the challenge of those passages that I talked about in the introduction about “pour out your wrath” and “the nations are always rising up against us.”

It seems to me, it has always felt to me as though that’s too harsh a reality to live under and that one of the successes of Zionism is that it allowed us maybe to say, “Okay, now we’re going to find a place in the world where we will just be able to live without viewing ourselves always through the lens of being oppressed.”

It hasn’t yet entirely worked out that way.

But now, celebrating Passover while what’s going on in Gaza is going on, and this morning I woke to radio reports about how the army is now calling back all sorts of people and sending them back into Gaza, presumably as part of a buildup that might lead to an attack on Rafah, on Rafiq in the south, or might not.

Against that backdrop, it’s scary to me to think of a worldview in which you feel as though you’re always being attacked and that the message of Passover is that you will ultimately, or God will ultimately, vanquish your enemies.

It’s a scary message.

And one of the things when I talked about last week on the podcast, I think it was last week, I talked about the different Passover Haggadot that explicitly relate to this year, and especially the Israeli Haggadah by the Tzion’s, the father and son.

I just bought it.

And so there they quote at length exactly opposite the passage about pouring out your wrath.

And at length, your friend, Rachel Goldberg-Pollan’s speech to the UN, where she talks about how the message that she draws from all that we have learned is that we cannot look at what has happened through the lens only of our own suffering, that we need to see the suffering of other people, which is a moving message in any case, but coming from a woman who’s son is hopefully languishing in Gaza with one arm having been blown off was almost unimaginably of elevated spirit.

And it made me feel as though one of the big challenges of this year is to try to find a way to balance those things, to balance the message of Passover that even in the worst of times you can believe that we will be redeemed, and the message that sovereignty will come, and with sovereignty will come a certain freedom and maybe even a certain kind of peace against the messages that are more universal in their nature.

To me that seems like the biggest challenge that I don’t know entirely how to meet, except I think that we will be reading that passage from Rachel’s UN speech literally, and it appears in the new Haggadah, the new Israeli Haggadah, so it’s easy to do.

Are you making specific changes beyond what you described about coming with your, with Hirsch, with your hostage to the Seder?

Yeah, I think we do, well, I’m not leading the Seder, but I do also want to add certain readings, a prayer for the hostages, which I’m sure we’ll do.

The chief rabbi’s prayer?

I thought it was very beautiful, actually, the chief rabbi’s prayer, and there is, the fact that there are all of these texts, and I think that it’s really an opportunity to say, “Okay, we have this holiday where we’ve been sort of doing the same things for a long time, and now let’s add some traditions that are meaningful for the time that we’re living in.”

I spoke at the beginning where I said there are sort of two levels, and one is adding all kinds of readings, and somebody told me they’re buying all yellow paper goods to remind people of the hostages.

The theological question is more difficult for me.

In other words, what does the Seder celebrate?

God taking the people out of Egypt and doing all of these miracles, and bringing the Jewish people through the sea, and all of these things.

First of all, I think that in terms of what Rachel talked about, and the suffering in Gaza, which I think Israelis are not capable of seeing and don’t care about, unfortunately, and I think you can hold two things in your mind at the same time.

But in the traditional liturgy, you take your pinky finger and you take some of the wine out for the plagues, and one of the explanations is that you can’t be totally happy when you know people are dying, and that on the last day of Passover, you don’t say a full halal, you say a shorter halal.

And again, one of the explanations is God said, “My creatures are dying in the sea,” meaning the Egyptians, and you’re singing praise, but you can’t be completely happy when other people are dying.

The question is, where’s God now?

And I can’t really answer it.

In other words, where is God with the hostages?

I certainly hope so.

I mean, I think what I’ve kind of come to the conclusion, which may not be a very religious conclusion is that there’s randomness in the universe, and sometimes God intervenes and sometimes God doesn’t, and for whatever reason, he or she is choosing not to intervene now.

And we’re praying, in fact, the…

I saw something funny, which was during at the height of the Iranian attack, the term that was the most googled in Israel was “Tahillim” or “Psalms” that people were looking to say.

So people are praying to God.

I hoped that God’s hearing our prayers, but a lot of people have died on both sides.

There’s been so much loss of life, and I’m just not sure how you deal with this on a theological level.

Well that’s beautiful.

I think that one of the strongest streams in Zionism, by no means the only one, has been a revolution against that rebellion, against that view of God in history.

I think that probably Zionism sought more to subvert the Haggadah than anything else, though it adopted the Haggadah in many other ways, but by saying, “Well, actually, we are the ones who will determine our fate in history.”

And I think that at this particular moment, we’re seeing both the power and the pathos of that particular view, where there is something horrid about being the masters of your own fate entirely at a moment when you face these dilemmas that have no humane answer, like the dilemmas that we’re facing, like, “What do you do with Hamas?”

There’s no good answer to that.

There’s only bad answers, and it would be nice, and you can see many more people turning toward God in some ways, like you said, like Googling Psalms at this particular moment.

But at the same time, overall, our metaphysics, our view of the thing is, this is us, us, us, us, and there’s something that I find powerful and moving and right about that, and something that I find almost impossible to live with about that at this moment.

At the same time, us, us, us, but to me, what I say is, things happen, there are random things in the world, but how we respond to it can be a religious response.

And the response that we’ve seen in Israeli society of, at least until now, and I think it may be starting to kind of fall away, and that would be sad, and this goes back to what you started with, that very moving speech by the father of that soldier.

But what came out of this war is an unbelievable unity, an unbelievable volunteer effort.

I did a story about people who were baking cakes and halot for soldiers that are being delivered all over, and they’re putting in their phone numbers, and the soldiers are calling them and thanking them for their cakes.

And so there’s a real unity that I don’t remember feeling ever in this country, and this feeling of we’re all in this difficult situation together, and everybody has to do what they can.

And when our kids would come home from Gaza or from the northern border, they would be stopped by restaurants saying, “Here, come have something to eat.”

And people would…

You’d go into a restaurant, you’d see a table of soldiers, and you’d go up to the owner, and you would say, “Can I pay for their meal?”

And they would say, “Well, you’re the sixth person to ask, so no.”

And so there’s some really wonderful volunteer opportunities.

Friends of mine have been going every Thursday morning at six o’clock in the morning to pick fruit in Oteh Faza, in farms, and this feeling of what can we do to help build this country and to respond to the war.

So that, to me, is a religious response as much as anything else.

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