The Jewish festival of Passover, or Pesach, begins next Friday evening. Passover commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, and the journey of the Israelites from slavery to freedom. During the festival, Jews experience both of those extremes. We recall our ancestors’ oppression in Egypt by eating matzah, unleavened bread, for the duration of the festival. But we also celebrate our freedom – by reclining, rather than sitting upright, at the Seder meal; by drinking four cups of wine; and by singing psalms of praise each day.
The Jewish year swings from the festivals of the autumn, which deal with universalist themes of creation, judgement, and harvest-time, to Passover in the spring. Unlike those autumn festivals, Passover commemorates one particular moment in Jewish history. Why is the Exodus worthy to be ranked amongst such grand, universal ideas?
The answer lies in the radical reframing of the Exodus undertaken by the Torah. It states in Leviticus:
“When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God.” [Leviticus 19:33-4]
This commandment to love the stranger is the most-repeated precept in the Torah, and so it is easy to read it without appreciating its subversiveness. It is not in fact obvious why the experience of being strangers should imply that one must love the stranger. Why should those who have suffered welcome others into their land as citizens?
By rooting the need to love the stranger in the experience of the Exodus, the Torah elevates the Exodus from a historical event to a moral foundation. Remembering the Exodus at Passover is no longer only about remembering one’s own suffering, or one’s own liberation. It is about connecting those experiences to the suffering of others, and working for a time when all will be free. It is not enough to think only of ourselves. We must love the stranger, the marginalised and oppressed, of all religions and nationalities. This is perhaps summed up best in the declaration near the start of the Passover Seder:
“Let all who are hungry come and eat;
let all who are needy come and celebrate the Passover with us.”
This year, many are still enslaved and oppressed; but next year may we all be free. Wishing all those celebrating a chag Pesach kasher v’sameach.