Passover inspires collective yearning for freedom

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose holds the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair at Congregation B’nai Amoona in St. Louis.

By Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

Even after 21 years in the rabbinate, I am still (pleasantly, of course) astonished by the number of phone calls and emails I receive in the weeks leading up to Passover. 

Many of these queries are from members of our shul and the extended Jewish community who have very specific questions about the Halachot (laws) and Minhagim (customs) of the holiday. Others seek suggestions for how to make their Pesach experience ever more meaningful and consequential. Still others reach out for guidance on how to craft Passover S’darim that cater to a broad spectrum of family members and friends – Jews and Gentiles – who gather at this special time of the year.

My experience has taught me that there are no “magic bullets,”  no pat answers or generic resolutions. Each inquiry warrants a unique response because each question involves individuals with differing worldviews and perspectives, and each questioner is seeking a specific outcome.

So how might a “wise” rabbi provide some spiritual/religious direction in contemporary times, in this heretofore unparalleled era of radical existentialism and hyperindividualism?

Let me propose a few approaches that emerge from the writings of two remarkable 20th century theologians, both of whom taught at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, the fountainhead of Conservative Judaism. Their respective approaches, though dramatically different when considered in concert with each another, go along in answering the challenge of making meaning of our ancient Pesach rituals.

“Judaism is not only a certain quality in the souls of individuals, but primarily the existence of the community of Israel. What we do as individuals is a trivial episode; what we attain as the House of Israel causes us to become part of eternity. The Jew does not stand alone before God as an I to a Thou. It is as a member of the community that he/she stands before God, as We to the Thou.” — Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Professor Heschel posits that our strength as a people is derived from our profound sense of interconnectedness. Despite living at a time that glorifies rugged individuality and the primacy of the sovereign self, Rabbi Heschel challenges us to view ourselves in necessary relationship with the other members of our religious family. We can attain our desired goals only when we tamp down our obsession with fulfilling our own needs in favor of concern for the broader Jewish collective. 

Engagement in sacred and holy days such as Passover, with all of its many communal rites and rituals, binds us together. When Jews the world over partake simultaneously in the very similar religious acts and behaviors, we become a spiritual force far greater than the sum total of our individual energies. And it is this energy that gives us the ability to draw down into our world some much needed shefa elohit, divine abundance.

“Jews are still the victims of oppression. But they have entered into such an intimate relationship with the life of the world about them that they can no longer envisage their own deliverance except as a phase of general human deliverance.” — Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan

Professor Kaplan suggests that our goal as a people is to bring about salvation not only for ourselves, but for all of humanity. Our Jewish rituals, including the annual retelling of our liberation from excruciating Egyptian bondage, are only efficacious if they inspire us to speak out against every form of injustice and actively work to rid the world of evil, tyranny and oppression. 

We will only fulfill our destiny as an am segulah, a special and treasured people, when we advocate and work for the freedom of all who seek release and redemption. Our Exodus from the harrowing narrowness of Egyptian slavery is but one step in the ultimate redemption of the entire world. The Exodus remains incomplete until the Jewish People convince the world at large that freedom and emancipation are the desired state for the entire human family.

As we once again enter zman cheruteynu, the time of our deliverance, I pray that our worldwide Jewish community can truly come together and serve collectively as a radiant beacon of light and hope for the entire world.

With blessings for a zissen – a sweet and inspiring — Pesach.