Who are You as a Free Jew?
“There was a time when you were not a slave, remember that. You walked alone, full of laughter, you bathed bare-bellied. You say you have lost all recollection of it, remember . . . You say there are no words to describe this time, you say it does not exist. But remember. Make an effort to remember. Or, failing that, invent.”
― Monique Wittig, Les Guérillères
Passover has passed over us; as of sundown yesterday the Festival is over. Passover, or, in Hebrew, Pesakh (which means “skipping over”) is a time when many Jews who may not follow much in the way of traditional Jewish practice nevertheless avoid leaven. Even young children get it pretty clearly: if you are Jewish, you do not eat bread for a week (literally 8 days) every year.
The Torah puts it clearly: those who ignore this prohibition cut themselves off from the community of Israel. And indeed, Pesakh has become a significant identity marker for Jews. Perhaps that’s why there are so many “kosher for Passover” items available for us; during this week, the more different we eat, the more we can feel it.
Now the week is over, all the leftover Passover items are going on sale, and now quickly come days more recently set in recognition of profound post-Egypt aspects of Jewish identity, each one asking, in its own way, who are you as a free Jew? Or as parashat Shemini puts it, the Mishkan is erected and the sacrifice has been brought; what is the content of the blessing? Who are you in relationship to this new sense of we, the Jewish people?
וַיָּבֹ֨א מֹשֶׁ֤ה וְאַהֲרֹן֙ אֶל־אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֔ד וַיֵּ֣צְא֔וּ וַֽיְבָרְכ֖וּ אֶת־הָעָ֑ם וַיֵּרָ֥א כְבוֹד־ה’ אֶל־כׇּל־הָעָֽם׃
Moses and Aaron then went inside the Tent of Meeting. When they came out, they blessed the people; and the Presence of ‘ה appeared to all the people. – VaYikra 9.23
Who are you in relationship to the Holocaust?
Yom HaShoah v’haG’vurah, the day of remembering Holocaust and Heroism, begins next Monday night April 17 at sundown. Our entire community is invited, as one is invited to a funeral; by showing up we demonstrate our support for those mourning the catastrophic losses of a terrible time.
Who are you in relationship to the State of Israel?
Yom HaAtzma’ut, the day of marking the birth of the modern State of Israel, begins Tuesday April 25 at sundown. Israel’s 75th birthday is an excellent time for learning and for discussion. You can learn here: The Torah of Israel and Palestine and here: Jewish Literacy.
Pesakh has ended, the question remains: Who are you as a Jew, who might attend and participate in these observances? Who might you be as a free person who chooses Jewish commitment to our community and the history that informs it?
The central obligation of Pesakh is to free oneself and to help others become free of enslavement. This is not easy; certainly it is easier to avoid leaven – to follow a prohibition – than it is to take a real step toward human freedom. We are not even sure what it might look like, and in his book Escape From Freedom Erich Fromm went so far as to say that we don’t really want the responsibility that comes with freedom.
It’s easier to do what those around us are doing, and so to feel safe and included. But thoughtlessly following what others are doing is the root of fascism. Yet Jews who understand themselves to be part of a living community know that when one is free to truly examine one’s own sense of self and potential, it is exhilarating to find a community that enhances and supports one’s sense of self by offering companions who follow a similar path.
This path that we belong to is ancient, and it is ours: we are re-membering as we go, and when we can’t remember it, we are creating it, together.
Once we were a free people, free from antisemitism, and free to thrive within a tribe where each person counted and was needed. So much has happened to pull us apart and alienate us from each other in the last two thousand years. But our tradition insists that we are still one people, with one path that we walk together, in mutual support and respect and joy.
May each day of our Omer counting bring you opportunities to remember our people’s history, and may that history fill you with the joyful realization that you are part of us, you belong.