Let Our Children Live: A Haggadah for 5778

JEWISH LIGHT EDITORIAL

For centuries, “Let My People Go” has been the enduring principle of Passover, which commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. But Passover 5778, which Jews the world over begin observing this weekend, must add a new demand to the holiday’s vocabulary: “Let Our Children Live.” 

At Passover seders, the traditional Haggadah lists 10 plagues with which the Almighty afflicted Egypt and ultimately persuaded the hard-hearted Pharaoh to allow Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. The plagues include blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, killing of the cattle by pestilence, boils, hailstones, locusts, darkness and,  finally, the most harsh: the killing of the first-born children. 

Some may wish the killing of children to be an unthinkable ancient concept, but we are living constantly with a new plague that involves that very act: the plague of gun violence that has taken the lives of too many children in places like Columbine, Sandy Hook and Parkland. 

Thankfully, the response to the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., has been different from the usual hapless pattern of elected officials’ “thoughts and prayers” that quickly fade away. 

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Hundreds of thousands of children — with parents, teachers and other supporters — took to the streets across the nation Saturday, fed up with empty thoughts and prayers that have gone unmatched by meaningful action to curb gun violence. Marches took place from St. Louis to Washington to New York to Parkland, where 17 students and staff were gunned down on Valentine’s Day.

The massive turnout should be a wakeup call: If elected officials remain beholden to the National Rifle Association and refuse to pass even the most basic common sense laws to require background checks and to ban the sale of assault weapons, then they risk being voted out of office at the local, state and national levels.

Through the years, the traditional seder has added elements to focus on specific contemporary issues. 

During the height of the Soviet Jewry movement, a “fifth cup” of wine called attention to the plight of the millions of Jews who demanded the right to immigrate to Israel and the West. Those efforts, which also included a March on Washington, ultimately led to the opening of the gates by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and allowed 1 million Soviet Jews to move to Israel and 250,000 more to the United States and Western nations.

A number of specially prepared Haggadah supplements also address other modern plagues:

• The Freedom Seder, published in 1969 by Ramparts magazine, became the model for many other Haggadot, affirming freedom for such groups as women and the LGBT community, as well as support for environmentalists and opposition to war.

• Other Haggadot note that the Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which also means ben-ami “narrow places” — places that restrict and enslave individuals and entire groups of people. Their prayers focus on such modern plagues as addiction and alcoholism, which is an especially acute problem in view of the current opioid crisis; the plague of human trafficking, in which women and girls are forced into prostitution; the plague of homelessness; and the plague of about 60 million refugees worldwide from places like Congo, El Salvador and 10 million from Syria alone, where 400,000 people have perished, many of them helpless children.

Today, as political discourse in Washington and elsewhere creates far more heat than light, the scourge of hateful rhetoric, Passover observances should take note of the poisonous discourse that has undermined civility and the ability to discuss the issues of the day across a bitter partisan divide.

This Passover, our own children have helped show us the path back to enlightened action, not indifferent platitudes. We must not be satisfied with pious and empty expressions of concern. The issue of passing common sense gun control measures should be neither complicated nor impossible to accomplish.

This year, let us add to our ancient demand to “Let Our People Go” the modern imperative: “Let Our Children Live!”