During the traditional liturgy of the Passover meal, the haggadah, we lift up the matzo and say aloud, “This is the bread of affliction, let all who are hungry come and eat.”
When I was a child, my particular affliction was literal-mindedness. My family followed the 3 + 1 branch of Judaism — going to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, celebrating Chanukah, and holding a Passover seder. For Chanukah, there was no liturgy, and most of the words the rabbis and cantors mumbled during High Holidays were Hebrew — arcane and mysterious to me then.
But the genius of Passover is it brings the service to the home and fuses it to a meal. The congregation shrinks and the rabbi becomes that person whose questions or answers move you most.
In that intimate setting, the words hit home to me. More than anything else, seders shaped my Jewishness. I had time to read and re-read the words and, as I was prone to do, take them seriously. When it said to question, I questioned.
Oy, did I question. My uncle, an observant Jew, ran a very traditional seder. I asked him, “Why do I have to wear a kippah?” Why not a baseball cap? Did God really find the Dodgers so offensive?
Then it came to the part of the seder when we dipped our fingers in our wine glasses, then tapped our plates to symbolize our sorrow at the Egyptian blood God had to spill to free the Jews. Why, I asked my uncle, did he lick the wine off his fingers afterward — wasn’t that taking enjoyment from the Egyptians’ blood? That poor man. For years, he had to watch me make a show of wiping — not licking — the wine off my fingers like I was a murderer, erasing evidence.
Years later, I continued my antisocial habit. The haggadah declares, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” “Why,” I asked my college Hillel rabbi, “don’t we go out and invite all who are hungry to come and eat?”
My liberal rabbi changed the subject.
Even more strange and mysterious than the Hebrew was why I believed some words I read to be true and others to be just fiction. I never thought for a second that the sea really parted, that the Nile turned to blood, or even that 600,000 Jews ran into the desert all at once.
Yes, what I’m saying is, much of the Passover story we just spent two days reading always struck me as fake news. The story lacks hard evidence. But I still believe in its meaning and guidance.
At Passover, we 21st-century Jews slip into our pre-modern minds, when the facts of what happened don’t matter — there was no Wikipedia to record them, or Siri to recall them. What matters is the meaning.
“Since the eighteenth century, we have developed a scientific view of history; we are concerned above all with what actually happened,” Karen Armstrong explains in “A Short History of Myth.” “But in the pre-modern world, when people wrote about the past they were more concerned with what an event had meant. A myth was an event which, in some sense, had happened once, but which also happened all the time. Because of our strictly chronological view of history, we have no word for such an occurrence, but mythology is an art form that points beyond history to what is timeless in human existence, helping us to get beyond the chaotic flux of random events, and glimpse the core of reality.”
The genius of Passover is it brings the service to the home and fuses it to a meal.
When the haggadah tells us to remember the stranger because we were once strangers, I take it to heart. When I read that we have to think of ourselves as if we were slaves — even though there is no historical evidence we were — I embrace the ethical imperative of empathy. There is so much wiggle room for the facts in the myth of Passover, but none for the truth.
“A myth demands action,” Armstrong writes. “The myth of the Exodus demands that Jews cultivate an appreciation of freedom as a sacred value, and refuse either to be enslaved themselves or to oppress others.”
In a series of interviews with Laure Adler, published this month in book form as “A Long Saturday,” the philosopher George Steiner zeroes in on this essential truth of Passover.
“Don’t forget (people forget this all the time),” Steiner said. “In ancient Greek the word for ‘guest’ is the same as the word for ‘foreigner’: xenos. And if you were to ask me to define our tragic condition, it’s that the word ‘xenophobia’ survives, and is commonly used, everyone understands it; but the word ‘xenophilia’ has disappeared. That’s how I define the crisis of our condition.”
This Passover, I am hoping we Jews do all we can to bring that word, xenophilia, the love of the stranger, back into existence — and do I really have to explain why?
The Exodus may be a myth, but when it comes to its lessons for this holiday, which comes to a close next week, it tells the God’s honest truth.