Liner Notes for a Freedom Seder: 4 Questions for the Jews This Passover

Before Passover is over, then, let's not pass over the would-be pharaohs of the present age. Let's ask (at least) four more questions, and in asking, remember what history asks of us:
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Ours is a culture of questions. Whenever we're not kvetching, we're questioning, and our culture of questions is sanctified in the Passover seder. There, the youngest Yidele is roped into the ritual singing of Ma Nishtana, song of the four questions. I give you an abridged rendition:

Q: Why eat matzo (unleavened bread)?
A: To remember we were slaves.
Q: Why eat maror (bitter herbs)?
A: To remember we were slaves.
Q: Why recline on Passover?
A: To remember we were slaves.
Q: Why dip twice on Passover?
A: To remember we were slaves.

The four questions invoke the ethics of memory implicit in the Book of Exodus: "And a stranger shalt thou not wrong, neither shalt thou oppress him; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt" (22:17).

Long before the days of King James English, this theme was articulated in the ancient Hebrew of the Jewish Torah at least 36 times, according to Talmudic scholars. And with good reason. Amid the injustices and iniquities of the Diaspora, it called forth in the Jewish consciousness the spirit of justice and resistance to injustice, in place of the spirit of vengeance, of conquest or of war.

From the radical "third seders" of the Yiddish Left to the Freedom Seders of the Newish Jewish Left to the immigrant rights seders of recent years, many Jews have taken the time at Passover to ask questions not only of matzo and maror, but also of ourselves as a people, of our responsibility to the oppressed, of memory as prophecy or as a call to action.

Not so for the settlers at their seders in armed camps throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem this week, amid renewed attacks on Gaza, the "Judaization" of Palestinian neighborhoods, the military closure of the occupied territories for Passover, and the escalating clampdown on nonviolent protesters, Palestinian and Israeli alike.

"God informs Jerusalem," says a thousand-year old Talmudic text, "that it will be redeemed only with peace." In the alternate universe of the settlers and their supporters in the Israeli government (whose actions are anti-Jewish as well as anti-Muslim), the words of the song "Next Year in Jerusalem" are twisted and turned to sanctify another march into the abyss.

To growing numbers of Jews in the United States as in Israel, the growing settler state of "Judea and Samaria" and its supporters represent the closest our people has ever come to the likes of Pharaoh. And many of the same Jews can hear the racist and nativist forces that are gathering anew in the U.S., calling for the return of Pharaoh to our own shores (as if he ever left).

Before Passover is over, then, let's not pass over the would-be pharaohs of the present age. Let's ask (at least) four more questions, and in asking, remember what history asks of us:

1.Why do we eat the bread of our neighbors, instead of inviting them over to break matzo with us and figuring out a way to give each other a place at the table in a free Middle East?

2.Why do we swallow the bitter herbs of ethnocentrism, ultranationalism, and pharaoic fundamentalism epitomized by settlers and tea partiers, Likudniks and Republicans alike?

3.Why do we recline, most nights of the year, when our freedom remains incomplete, so long as the "giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism" are still at large in these lands?

4.Why do we dip into the fountain of forgetting more than we dip into the charoset and the salt water of memory, which are meant to remind us not to do unto others as has been done unto us?

These questions are not unrelated to the traditional four questions that are being asked at
seder tables around the world this week. In truth, they are intimately bound up with them.

Every Passover, after the four questions are asked and four cups of wine are downed, a fifth cup is left out and the front door left open for Eliyahu Ha-Navi, the prophet Elijah.

I suspect that Eliyahu, non-citizen that he is, was detained by border guards on his way to our seder this year. It will be up to us to deliver the memo: Remember you were strangers in the land...

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