Our children have played many roles at our family seders over the years. When they were small, they were at the center of our seder, for teaching them our people’s story is the core goal of the ritual. As they grew, they delighted us with their creative re-enactments of the story and amazed us with their insights into the text of the haggadah.
Now, our adult children are all devoted social justice activists, each in their own way. Preparing for this year’s seders, I can anticipate my daughter’s question even before she articulates it, challenging us to go deeper. “Aren’t we a little too comfortable in our experience of the seder?” she often asks us. Sure, we powerfully articulate the message that we Jews are commanded to be champions for justice in our own day, having known the pain of oppression. But we don’t really open our home to welcome and feed homeless folks.
We taste the bitterness of the bitter herb and maror, of course. But is there something self-congratulatory about our progressive seder — proclaiming our beliefs about social justice without committing ourselves to work more consistently for social change?
The key passage of the haggadah for me has always been the declaration: “In every generation, each of us must see ourselves as if we were freed from slavery in Egypt.” Reflecting on this passage, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv (a revered leader of the Mussar movement) writes: “The Torah tells us, ‘If you lend money to one of My people, the poor person among you’ (Exodus 22:24), imagine that you are the poor person and then you will lend the money willingly.” On that verse in the Torah, the great commentator Rashi writes, “Look upon yourself as if you were the poor person” (Haggadah of the Mussar Masters).
Rabbi Simcha Zissel is telling us that the haggadah, too, is commanding us to engage in a radical act of empathy. Just as we are to concretely imagine what it would be like to be the person in need of a loan when we encounter a poor person needing our help, so too are we to enter into the lived experience of the enslaved. Only then, he writes, will we grasp the brutality of our ancestors’ experience and feel profoundly grateful to God for our freedom.
Rabbi Abraham Twerski writes in a similar vein: “One should meditate and then create the various scenes in one’s mind. One should see oneself in the straw pits, clearing the straw, mixing it with mud … in the tropical sun. One should hear the scolding of the Egyptian taskmasters, and feel the lashes of their whips on one’s back. … Then one should see oneself as part of the throng leaving Egypt. … Finally, one should be standing at the edge of the Red Sea … and then see the glory of God as the waters of the sea divide” (Haggadah from Bondage to Freedom).
Again, Rabbi Twerski is asking us to take an enormous imaginative leap of empathy into the experience of our Israelite ancestors in order to feel the full power of the gift of liberation and the obligations that flow from it.
Only if we enter into an embodied experience of the slave will we be sure to act out the imperative of the haggadah, that we are to devote ourselves to the struggle against contemporary oppression. Perhaps in preparation for the seder (if not at the seder table itself), we should read a first-person account of an immigrant mother, terrified for herself and her children as ICE officers knock insistently at her door. We should interview an American Muslim woman who has been spat on or verbally assaulted in response to her hijab. We should invite an African American teenage boy to our table and ask him to tell us what it is like to fear for his life anytime he encounters a police officer.
There is so much injustice in our nation and in our world. This Pesach, may we take to heart the haggadah’s command to work for the liberation of all in the year to come.