Rabbi Robinson’s Sermon April 26, 2024

Yair D. Robinson

Pesach 2024

Years ago, one of my teachers in rabbinic school told our class a story about one time when her family gathered around the seder table, much as we did this past week. This gathering included her then young niece, who was maybe three or four at the time. At some point during the proceeding, when she noticed the unusualness of the proceedings, what with all the songs and rituals, she asked what this was all about. The adults gathered told her that this was all to celebrate our freedom, and to remember being slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, to which she responded indignantly, “I was not!”

And of course, we were not. Most of us have lived our lives in relative comfort; we have certainly not been slaves in the biblical sense, but that is not the point of the Seder, is it? The Seder, with all of its unusual practices and quotes from Torah and the rabbis, and even the boring parts or the parts that are hard to read—who got stuck this year with Rabbi Eliezar, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariyah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon?—all of that helps us understand and fulfill the mitzvah  to see ourselves as if (“K’ilu”) we had been freed from Egypt. The Seder becomes a transformational moment, a moment to reimagine our place in Jewish history (or even, to imagine our place in Jewish History at all!), and to understand the miraculous nature of our own redemption, even if it feels not entirely complete. The Seder demands we ask questions, not just the four recited, often under duress, by the youngest at the table, and so we ask: what might it have been like to be a slave to Pharaoh? How did our people suffer? What was it like to witness the plagues, and witness one’s oppressors—but also one’s neighbors—suffer? What was it like to be a rabbi in the Roman period doing the seder while hidden in an attic in B’nai Brak? What have our ancestors gone through so that we might be here? And who else might be suffering now the way our own people suffered then?

In a sense, the seder inspires us to engage in an exercise in radical empathy: Yes, a lot of the various exercises from the seder, traditional and modern—from hitting your neighbor with scallions at the singing of ‘Dayenu’ to pouring out some wine at the recitation of plagues to singing the Frog Song—are not just opportunities to rehearse our own personal and familial history, and not just to have a good time, but also a moment to reflect on the suffering of others.

We cannot fully know what it is like to be an oppressed slave, of course, any more than we can know what it is to be starving in Gaza or held in captivity in a dungeon below it; and truly, we cannot fully know someone else’s burdens, what is in their heart, not really. But we can imagine; we can put ourselves in their position, not for some maudlin purpose, but to better understand our role and our obligations. Astute readers of the Torah know that whenever Torah instructs us to care for the vulnerable or weak in our midst, it is because we were ourselves enslaved in Egypt. More than just an emotional or personal response: our connection to our people’s story compels our treatment of others, especially those most at risk.

Perhaps that is why we are so protective of the Seder; how much we resist it being coopted by non-Jews, be they Christians who want to experience what they think Jesus did (spoiler: it was not a Seder) or progressives who want to shift the focus on others entirely. On the one hand, those acts of appropriation fail to center our story. On the other, they too often fail to understand that the seder does not only focus on our story. No matter how well meaning, these acts, be they Christian Seders or Seders for Gaza (or other groups) lack the exercise in radical empathy, pursuit of questions, and nuance present in the traditional Seder. And as we watch college campuses erupt with open hostility to Jewish individuals and communities at universities. I wonder what might have been if there had been more opportunity for nuance, asking questions, thoughtfulness, and acknowledgement of others’ experiences, all while gathered at a meal together. Perhaps that is too much to hope for, but some of the power of the maror, of tasting the bitter herb, is in sharing it, looking one another eye to watery eye, face to face.

When we tell the story of our redemption from Egypt throughout the rest of the holiday, we should do so with an effort to understand the plight of our ancestors, but also the plight of others who suffer as well. So that when we pray for a complete redemption, we mean for ourselves, our people, and for everyone. Amen. Today we are in bondage to our own viewpoints, next year may we be free to the experiences of others. Amen.