This year the Jewish festival of Passover, the most widely observed Jewish holiday, begins on March 25 at sundown. Passover, or Pesach, commemorates the story of the Exodus when the ancient Israelites were freed from slavery in Egypt. The holiday is celebrated for eight days, with a Seder marking the first two nights. The themes of the Passover Seder that hold great meaning for Jews can also be both significant and meaningful to other groups who are oppressed. The similarities between the Jews of Egypt more than 3,000 years ago, and the Buddhists of Tibet today are a case in point. Here are five examples of the commonalities these two groups share, and the way in which the Passover Seder can serve as a source of both hope and inspiration for freedom today.
Both Jews and Tibetans have shared a history of oppression. In biblical times, the Israelites were slaves in Egypt subject to the dictates of Pharaoh. Since the 1950 occupation of Tibet, the Tibetans have become enslaved by the Chinese occupation. During the 1959 Tibetan uprising, the Dalai Lama -- the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetans -- found his life in danger and fled to Dharmasala, India, where he has remained with his government in exile ever since. All told, 1.2 million Tibetans have died as a result of the occupation. Just as Moses tried repeatedly to negotiate with Pharaoh, so too has the Dalai Lama, for more than five decades, sought to negotiate with the Chinese while holding fast to his philosophy of non-violence in moving toward an Autonomous Tibet.
The Passover Seder speaks of the yearning of a people in exile for their homeland. For most of Jewish history, Jews have lived outside of Israel and longed to return to the Promised Land, described as the land flowing with milk and honey; the land that is both sustaining and sweet. They had to figure out how to keep a people, a culture, a religion and a tradition alive while being scattered and living outside of the land that defines their physical and spiritual home. This is also the task of the Tibetans. For the past 50 years, the Tibetans in Tibet have seen the destruction of more than 6,000 monasteries while losing their land. Public teaching of Buddhism is forbidden, and it is illegal to have a picture of the Dalai Lama, who is their revered spiritual leader. They have been made a minority in their own homeland, and are restricted from practicing Buddhism. For those living in Tibet, they are experiencing a spiritual exile in the midst on an ongoing cultural genocide. For the Tibetans who have fled, they are living a physical exile.
In 1989 the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his effort to free Tibet through nonviolent means. That same year, he turned to the Jewish people to ask them the following questions: What is the secret of your Jewish spiritual survival in exile? In his 1994 book, "The Jew in the Lotus," Rodger Kamenetz chronicles the trip to Dharmsala between a group of Jewish scholars and His Holiness the Dalai Lama with a major intention of the journey being to dialogue about this very question. A great insight from this weeklong meeting dealt with the importance of keeping one's people, tradition and culture alive while in exile through memory and story telling. Growing from the similarities of the Jewish memory of slavery and oppression in Egypt, and the current restrictions on religious freedom today in Tibet, a special Passover Seder was held in 1997 in Washington D.C. with the Dalai Lama in attendance along with rabbis and U.S. dignitaries. In a letter to those who had gathered at the Seder, the Dalai Lama wrote:
"In our dialogue with rabbis and Jewish scholars, the Tibetan people have learned about the secrets of Jewish spiritual survival in exile: one secret is the Passover Seder. Through it for 2000 years, even in very difficult times, Jewish people remember their liberation from slavery to freedom and this has brought you hope in times of difficulty. We are grateful to our Jewish brothers and sisters for adding to their celebration of freedom the thought of freedom for the Tibetan people."
The Hagaddah is the religious text used during the festival meal, which sets order to the Seder. Hagaddah means, "telling," and refers to the commandment to tell your children about the Jewish liberation from bondage in Egypt to freedom. Memory and story are central to our lives. It is through the retelling of stories, whether individual stories, family stories or stories of a people, that we live again, allowing our past history to help define and redefine ourselves today. Stories carry power, wisdom and energy. As the Jewish scholars shared the ways in which Jewish survival relied upon acts of remembrance the Dalai Lama stated, "Yes, always remind. Telling one's story strikes at the heart of how to sustain one's culture and tradition. This is the Jewish secret..."
The Passover Seder is both a story of history, and an experience of where we are today. Just as both Jews and Tibetans can look at the external story of oppression and the hope of freedom, so too does the Seder offer the opportunity for each participant to look deeply within themselves to see where they may be living in slavery or bondage, and how they can transform those places of constriction to places of expansion within their own hearts and minds. The Passover Seder traditionally ends with the words, "Next year in Jerusalem," remembering the yearning of the exiled to return home. Adding the words, "Next year in Lhasa," speaks to the yearning and hope that soon the Tibetans in exile will be back in their homeland, and the Tibetans still living in an occupied Tibet will be able to practice their Buddhist tradition freely.
In so many places today, we have seen the struggles of people across the globe to move from oppression to freedom. While there is much work to be done, sometimes it is the stepping back and the sitting together with family and friends over a meal to recall our past, reclaim our deepest values and re-ignite the flame of hope that burns inside. This Passover provides an opportunity for Jews and non-Jews to come together in the spirit of hope and freedom. Together, it is possible to experience the "OM" in shalOM" and to experience the blessing of peace.