Two types of memory struggle for supremacy in the Passover seder. There's the memory of degradation and slavery, and that of liberation and freedom.
Which memory shall be uppermost? Which experience shall primarily shape the retelling?
The seder story begins with poverty and hunger — matzah, "the bread of affliction." It descends into slavery — "we were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt"– and turns into degradation.
Then it sinks into genocide — "the drowning of the children."
To remember slavery and genocide evokes deep feelings — of rage and victimization. Our ancestors — Jacob and his children — brought blessings to Egypt. Yet in the end, the Egyptians mercilessly repressed us, enslaved us, killed us.
The anger boils up. All that the enemies deserve from us is death.
"Inscribe this in a document as a remembrance. I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven" (Exodus 17:19).
By this same logic no Jew should ever set foot in Egypt. "You must not go back that way again" (Deuteronomy 17:16).
One can only exult in the downfall of such a vindictive people — and the greater their catastrophe, the better.
In this scenario, slavery defines the people as exploited; they must have a master at all times. When Moses is gone for a few days too long, the people create a golden calf to worship. When there is no water — or no meat — they wish they were back in slavery.
There is a truth behind this approach. The experience of slavery created the Jewish people. In struggling with the oppression, the Israelites proliferated.
"The more they [the children of Israel] were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out" (Exodus 1:12).
Still, in the final analysis, when the memory of slavery is dominant, it drags the people down to servility, to internalized degradation. Such a memory breeds victimization psychology.
When we go wrong, we blame those who distorted our culture and destroyed our lives. We define ourselves in conflict with enemies who still seek to destroy us.
There is an alternative approach. The Jewish people was born in slavery but it was born again in the process of liberation.
"I…take you out from under the afflictions of Egypt…[and] I take you to be My people" (Exodus 6:6-7).
Here, the focus is on freedom. Matzah is the bread of freedom that our ancestors baked when there was no time to wait. It is not that one forgets the slavery — but the memory of Exodus is dominant.
"You remember that you were a slave in Egypt but God took you out, therefore…you are to observe the Sabbath day." You will open your hand to help the poor; wipe out debts of the needy; set an indentured servant free with gifts because "you remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you, therefore, I command you to do this today" (Deuteronomy 15: 1-2, 7-8, 12-15).
The memory of liberation shapes a free people who must act for liberty and equality. God "took them (children of Israel) out of the land of Egypt; [therefore] they shall not be sold into slavery" (Leviticus 25:42).
From now on Jews can only be God's slaves "for I took them out of Egypt."
This is the rationale of the jubilee year in which we proclaim freedom for all the inhabitants and the land is redistributed to give all an equal share (Leviticus 25:10).
From the first remembrance instruction — "Remember this day that you went out of Egypt from the house of bondage" (Exodus 13:3) — to the last — "You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the orphan" because "you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord God redeemed you from there" (Deuteronomy 24: 17-18, 20-22), the Torah came down decisively on the side of liberation, not slavery.
The Haggadah also puts freedom at the center. The core of the seder is that "in every generation a person must see him/herself as though he/she personally came out of Egypt." Responsibility, not rage, is the dominant message.
This even leaves room for forgiveness. Consider the commandment "do not abhor an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land" (Deuteronomy 23:8).
This resolution shaped Judaism into a religion of life. As a result, Passover turned into the most influential holiday of all time. It not only became the core of Judaism, it shaped Christianity, Islam and Western culture with its hope for the triumph of good and the affirmation of the overthrow of evil.
Each generation and each people must resolve this issue again.
After the Shoah, the Jewish people had to decide whether the focus would be on Jewish victimization or the affirmation in the renewed lives of survivors. Jews had to choose between staying powerless or proclaiming a state. They could develop a policy of self-pity and rage toward all non-Jews or take power and act responsibly toward Jew and non-Jew alike.
Choosing life, power and responsibility has been the remarkable achievement of this generation.
Now that anti-Semitism is weakening in this country, Jews must decide whether to cling to a self-definition dependent on non-Jewish rejection or to take up the challenge of freedom. The proper response to acceptance is to develop a liberating, life-affirming Jewish experiential way of life.
To cling to the victim's role, to define ourselves by the nonacceptance of others spells internalization of inferiority and dissolution into assimilation.
To focus on freedom, beginning with celebrating Passover, is the path to life. The revitalization of Jewish life through learning and Jewish growth is the sign that we are free at last.