Why Passover is a Universal Holiday

What happened to the Jews can and does happen to others. The Jews are not alone.
March 26, 2021
Children warm themselves by a fire in a Rohingya refugee camp on January 23, 2020 in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

There was once a group of people who worshipped a different God than their neighbors. Their ancestors came from a different country, and they spoke a different language. The government oppressed these people, controlled their every move. They begged for their freedom, yearned to control their own destiny. But the rulers would not bend. Eventually, in desperation, they fled in the dead of night, crossing the sea into a barren land and pitching makeshift tents in the hopes of one day finding a promised land where they could worship their God in freedom and raise their children in pride and dignity.

This is the story of the Rohingya, hundreds of thousands of whom have fled Myanmar. This is also, of course, the story of Exodus and the story of Passover. The key point of Passover is to remind Jews of their history. “In each and every generation,” the Haggadah says, “a person must view himself as though he personally came forth from Egypt.” It is a story at the very heart of Jewish identity: “Once we were slaves in Egypt, but now we are free.”

Too often, however, we read the Haggadah as a story of wonders, of plagues of locusts and a parted Red Sea, of miracles and destiny. But in reality, the people living through were refugees. Like the Rohingya, they left in desperation, preferring an unknown and barren desert to oppression. They made it across the sea because there was no other choice.

Biblical sources do not give us precise details about the plight of the Jews in Egypt. We learn of their oppression and enslavement, about creating “mud bricks” for inhumane projects ordered by Egypt’s pharaoh. Archeologists believe that pharaoh was Akhenaten, who reigned from approximately 1353 to 1335 BCE and built the city of el-Amarna with forced labor. The Israelites are likely to have fled Egypt shortly after his death, during the reign of Tutankhamun, some 3,350 years ago. The Egyptians have no record of the slavery of the Israelites, nor their flight across the Red Sea. Oppressors rarely document their crimes.

The escape from Egypt was not the last of the oppression suffered by Jews, of course. There is the story of Haman, enshrined in the festival of Purim. There is the Shoah, which we will commemorate just a week after Passover. In each generation, Jews have experienced persecution, slavery and genocide. This is why the Haggadah takes its readers back in time together around the table: to explain why the Jews are the Jews. In the best form of oral tradition, elders reenact the legends of their forebears for their children. The lesson of Passover is that the Jews survived, and they continue to survive today. There is no holiday that is more fundamental to what it means to be Jewish than Passover.

What happened to the Jews can and does happen to others. The Jews are not alone.

Yet it is also a universal holiday. What happened to the Jews can and does happen to others. The Jews are not alone.

Indeed, despite the progress of the last three and half thousand years, in some ways, not much has changed. Governments still oppress minority ethnic groups, disenfranchise the economically disadvantaged, exploit the vulnerable in factories for a pittance and strip religious and civil rights from the oppressed. The Rohingya are still pitched under tarpaulins in Bangladesh, hoping for a place to call home, reliant on the United Nations and NGOs to feed and clothe them. The Uyghurs from Xinjiang, China, are treated as foreigners in their own homeland, as I have previously described, robbed of their rights and identity and subject to genocidal policies.

It is time for Passover to become a festival for everyone and about everyone. I celebrate the holiday with my Jewish wife and her family and with all our non-Jewish extended family. And each person at our Seder, Jewish or not, sees something of themselves in the Passover story. This year, as we celebrate the Passover Seder alone, or over Zoom, or in small, safe family groups, we might pause and add, “In each and every generation, each and every person must see himself or herself through the eyes of others who still suffer today, who need our help and who deserve freedom every bit as much as we do.”

Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi Executive Director Chair of the USC Shoah Foundation. He is also the UNESCO Chair on Genocide Education.

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