Although I debated whether or not to stay in Israel for Pesach, in the end the sentimental part of me logged onto Expedia about a month before Passover and booked a ticket to MSP. I love this country, but I also love the way in which, year after year at the seder, time seems to stand still and all the memories that I have as a child on Passover are as strong as the bitter herbs.
A few questions came to mind as I celebrated Passover as an Israeli with my family in Minnesota. Every year we essentially rehash the same event. We recall how we were persecuted in Egypt and we remember the miracles that G-d performed for us. Although we, with every passing year, are able to add new dimensions of understanding to the story of the Jews in Egypt, and thereby increase our understanding, it sort of seems repetitive. Additionally, as a nation, we continued to experience suffering and salvation. Why is the Exodus from Egypt such a focal point of our collective Jewish identities?
I have written before how I am studying for a Master’s degree in Gerontology. After struggling to decipher the entomological root of this word, the question that almost always immediately follows is, “What made you decide to want to work with the elderly?” I usually respond with answers such as that I am very close to my grandparents, that there will be a huge demographic problem that will require creative solutions and that it’s a field that requires people with good hearts.
But this year at the seder, I thought of another answer.
I live a few light rail stops away from the Jerusalem military cemetery, Mt. Herzl. Sometimes, when I feel like living here is too hard and not worth the very difficult effort, I visit Mt. Herzl and pass the graves of 18-year-olds who gave their young, tender Jewish lives for this country. I silently vow to, with all my strength, do my part in building a better Jewish country on the land for which they sacrificed. On one of my visits, I noticed a quote from Prophets on one of the cemetery gates: “The more I speak about him, the more I shall remember him.” When people who we once loved are no longer with us and, with every passing year our memories of them grow hazier, speaking about them is important and comforting. It is also the only way that we can continue to remember.
At the Seder this year, I sat with my family and we recalled how we were once slaves in Egypt and how still to this day we’re persecuted, no matter how free most of our lives are.
But we also recalled memories from previous sedarim and we also talked about those faces who used to be at our seder and we laughed about funny incidents that happened throughout the years. Because implicit in the seder, and implicit in the commandment of Passover—vhigadta lvncha, that we must relay the story of our Exodus to our children—is the need for our nation, on levels both collective and personal to keep our histories alive: as much as for ourselves as for our descendants.
People often complain that the elderly repeat themselves. Whether due to degenerative diseases such as Dementia or simply old age, it is sometimes frustrating to hear the same story over and over again. However, there are those among us who repeat themselves not because of illness, but because of a desire to remember and be remembered.
When we sit at our Passover seders, and we engage in centuries long traditions, and we repeat our histories year after year; we are, essentially, no different than the elderly person who tells us the story of his immigration to America, his survival of Auschwitz, or his memories of the nascent days of the State of Israel. The more we speak the more we shall remember.
On the way back to Israel, I had a stopover in Madrid, Spain. Having just completed the holiday that celebrated a triumph over our attempted destruction, I found myself in the airport of a country that, even more recently than Egypt, tried to annihilate the Jewish people during the Spanish Inquisition. I landed back in Israel on the eve of Yom Hashoah, Israel’s official Holocaust Remembrance Day.
This is the season of remembering. As I’m writing this, we are about to commemorate Yom Hazikaron, a very difficult day in which we remember the deaths and celebrate the lives of those who died for Israel’s independence. And yet, as the Jewish joke goes: “They tried to kill us, we won let’s eat.” Immediately following Yom Hazikaron is Yom Haatzmaut, Israel’s independence day. The beautiful thing about Judaism is that we hope for a better future rather than despair from our difficult pasts.
When we celebrate Passover with our families, we are declaring that stories are important and that everyone has one. When we proclaim, at the beginning of our seder, whoever is hungry let him eat we are inviting ourselves and others to hear and be heard. We reassure everyone that although you may have already heard a particular tale, there’s nothing wrong with hearing it once more and giving someone else the gift of being heard. And, on Passover, along with Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron we tell our families and friends to never forget our tragic pasts. But, just as Yom Hazikaron ends and Yom Haatzmaut immediately follows, just as enslaved people, both in mind and body can heal and be freed; the Jewish people fall and rise, and it is through our remembering of our stories that we have the ability and strength to rebuild.