On Friday evening, April 15, Jews will usher in the festival of Passover, which celebrates God’s deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage some 3300 years ago. The highlight of the week-long festival is the Seder, a ritual meal. The Hebrew word Seder means “order,” emphasizing the regularized structure of blessings, prayers, hymns and readings, accompanied by the consumption of ritual foods, all structured around a festive meal.
The formal text for the Seder is found in a book called the Haggadah, meaning “telling” (i.e., of the biblical exodus). In truth, it is not really a narrative of the biblical events but a series of ritualized experiences intended to explore the meaning and significance of those events for each later generation. The Haggadah text is not intended to be a mere liturgy but a scaffolding around which the Seder participants reflect on and discuss the meaning of the liberation God wrought for their ancestors and, most especially, its meaning for Jews today. Indeed, one of the central Haggadah teachings is to “see yourself as if you personally went forth from Egypt.”
If one engages the Seder honestly, it will be readily apparent that we are not exactly the same people we were a year ago. While current concerns, issues and experiences are unlikely to be identical to a year ago, we bring them to our confrontation with the same core text repeated each year. This Passover finds Ukraine in the midst of the horrific ravages of war. Most of us are so accustomed to relative comfort and affluence that we cannot truly relate to the cataclysmic upheavals confronting that eastern European nation. Millions are displaced internally, and millions more find themselves foreign refugees.
Perhaps the images and stories from Ukraine can, in a certain way, help us envision and understand the story of the exodus anew. What were the daily trials, tribulations and experiences confronted by the Israelites during their centuries of Egyptian captivity? What did it mean for them to have limited options, resources and hope? What was it like to depart one’s home at a moment’s notice, with a vague destination, a hardship-filled journey and countless unknowns (even as they were traveling towards a promised land)?
Perhaps this year, not only can the travails of the Ukrainians help us better grasp the experiences of the ancient Israelites, but maybe the biblical exodus can help us today clarify how we each think we should respond personally to the tragedy unfolding on the northern shores of the Black Sea.
The Jewish tradition teaches that we should be partners with God in the ongoing improvement of the world. The Seder experiences can be more than merely a time for celebrants to praise God and retell the ancient redemption of the Jewish people. And regardless of our faith, with the guidance of God’s teachings, perhaps we all can use the messages of the exodus to explore what it can mean to be partners with God in redeeming those in need of a present-day deliverance from affliction and suffering.