Tomorrow, on the full moon, Jews all over the world will sit down around dinner tables and celebrate the pre-dinner ritual of retelling the story of the long-ago journey of the Israelites from bondage to liberation starting with the words, “We were slaves unto Pharaoh in Egypt…” Whether they hold that story to be literally true or not, that exodus is the core story of the Torah and Jews continue to reinterpret and contemporize that message. The ritual reading of the story varies in different communities but, in my experience, it always includes saying, “Tell this story as if it happened to you.” In my family, as in others, the pleasure of being with family and friends doing a familiar ritual is comforting and gratifying. The injunction, “…as if it is happening to you,” is what makes it exciting and inspiring. “How am I not free?” “Even if I am physically safe, what limitations, or beliefs of limitations, hold me hostage?” “How can I move forward into more freedom in my life?” “What am I doing to help others move towards freedom?”
When my children and then my grandchildren were young, we told the story as history: “These are the people we came from and we are proud of them.” My own children were young in the nineteen-sixties so the Civil Rights Movement was part of our discussion as well, and we sang, “We Shall Overcome” and “Let My People Go,” as part of our Seder ritual. As my grandchildren grew up, they dramatized the story, playing the parts of groups of people seeking freedom trudging through our living room. I have a photo of my grandson Collin, now an adult, crouching behind a potted plant speaking as the invisible voice of God. Now, as adults, we talk about refugees all over the world, all seeking freedom, seeking the liberation of not having to worry about their own safety and the safety of their children, of being able to put down roots in a place that welcomes them. We talk about what we, personally, can do to make the world a safer and more welcoming place, a place where everyone can feel at home.
Tasting bitter herbs as a recollection of tears shed in the world’s collective memory and in our personal memories, eating sweet mixtures of fruit and nuts (the recipes for which vary depending on regional ancestry), and opening the door to the outside as a symbolic way of welcoming the stranger (the Prophet Elijah in traditional circles or any stranger as many families now do), are all part of the ritual. We eat dinner together and then end the evening by saying together, “Next year, may all people be free.”