In Every Generation: The Blessing of Responsibility
By Julie Schonfeld
Passover is widely considered to be the most celebrated Jewish holiday. By any measure of what makes Jewish rituals “work,” Passover is a study in virtuosity: we gather the community; we tell the sacred story; we are nourished by its sacred symbols, we grow spiritually and communally, and become part of the future.
For many, the seasonal change of Passover is also replete with other rites of passage. In our family, one of the annual events that coincides with this time of year is that the au pair who shares our home returns to her country and a new student comes to join our family.
The coincidence of this arrival with Passover preparations provides a rapid immersion into the rhythms of Jewish life for a person with little previous exposure to Judaism. As our family and community undertake together a rigorous and rapid transition of our physical and spiritual lives, I lightheartedly assure our new friend that her time in our home will not be lacking in the “cultural exchange” she was promised when she signed up for the program. The experience is usually more or less the same: the rituals of the Seder are greeted with fascination, the story of the Exodus studied with appreciation, and the food ways of the Jewish people encountered with an open if puzzled mind.
When I opened the folder provided by the au pair agency, however, I was struck by the extent to which the story of Passover with its rescue from servitude is a real and lived reality. In the folder, alongside health insurance information, a CPR handbook, and sample schedules, was a brochure from the U.S. Department of Justice containing information and emergency hotline numbers for victims of human trafficking in the United States.
The young woman sitting across from me – optimistic, idealistic, and eager to begin a year she hopes to remember for the rest of her life – is joined by countless other young people moving across the globe testing their mettle and seeking their futures. Tragically, for millions of young people, especially those from developing countries, they find themselves caught inextricably in a nightmare web of deception, abuse, and enslavement. Both the United States and Israel are among the many destinations where these young people will live their nightmares.
ואלו לא הוציא הקדוש ברוך הוא את אבותינו ממצרים, הרי אנו ובנינו ובני בנינו משעבדים היינו לפרעה במצרים.
And if God had not taken our ancestors out of Egypt, then we, and our children, and our children's children, would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.
- Passover Haggadah
The Haggadah teaches that the profound moral injustices of human society must be confronted in every generation. Our tradition is one that must be practiced and not merely remembered so that we can refine ourselves to the become people and societies strong enough to address them. Conservative Judaism has always held that religious practice must go hand in hand with engagement in the broader society. Matzah is not merely a symbol, the Haggadah not only a collection of stories, the Seder more than a family reunion. By observing the sacred rituals of our tradition we have an opportunity to recognize our responsibility and our agency to fulfill Judaism's mandates to seek justice and protect the vulnerable. May we all be blessed with new insights and a deeper sense of purpose this holiday.