It Is the Season of Our Liberation [1]

In keeping with the Jewish cycle for the public reading of the Torah, the biblical account of the "Ten Plagues" this year was read just as the first volley of Scuds began to make their way towards Tel Aviv.

It was eerie to reread the commands issued to the Israelites at the time: "None of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning" (Exodus 12:22). As we chanted those verses, Israelis confined to their "sealed rooms" were praying that the agents of death would pass over them and leave them unscathed inside.

These events are typical of the innumerable ways in which the lives of Jews are given religious meaning through a reliving of the past. This feeling is most intense on Passover, "the season of our liberation."

For Jews, it is never enough to merely think of ideals like freedom or even to speak them; they must be acted concretely as a part of life, even as Abraham's descendants had to suffer the bondage of Egypt before they could proclaim the ideal of human freedom.

In Passover each year we relive simultaneously the degradations of slavery and the exhilaration of freedom.

The bondage of Egypt influences much of biblical law: It is because we ourselves were "strangers in a strange land" that we must show sensitivity to the strangers among us, and it is because we experienced slavery that we must allow our dependants--and ourselves--a day of rest.

Perhaps the most surprising of these laws is where the Torah admonishes: "You shall not abhor an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land" (Deuteronomy 23:8). Even when fighting for your liberation you cannot forget the humanity of your enemy. Yet sympathy for the enemy does not cancel the obligation of fight tyranny.

The traditional Passover celebrations strive to maintain this difficult balance, expressing our joy over our deliverance, without gloating over the defeat of Pharaoh's armies. Accordingly, the Exodus from Egypt is celebrated on the first days of the festival with the singing of the full "Hallel" passage from Psalms, but on the final days, which commemorate the drowning of the Egyptians at the Red Sea, only a truncated version is recited, expressing the incompleteness of our joy.

Jewish legend describes how God Himself, while allowing the Israelites to celebrate in song their deliverance at the Red Sea, ordered the angels, who had not themselves known enslavement, to refrain from intoning God's praises in the face of the drowning Egyptians.

The Jewish ideal of a human (and never dehumanized) struggle for freedom is neither simple nor simplistic, and must be confronted anew in each generation. This is truly what Passover is about.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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[1] First Publication: The Calgary Herald, March 23 1991.



My e-mail address is elsegal@ucalgary.ca