By Vincent Calabrese
This week, Jews around the world will gather with friends and family to celebrate the Passover festival, which we also call, after its central theme and its most central ritual, Zman Heiruteinu and Hag Hamatzot–the Season of Freedom and the festival of Unleavened Bread. A commemoration of the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, Passover has long been understood also as a prefiguration of the future redemption which is to heal the brokenness of this world. A family meal has served as the locus of Passover celebration since ancient times, but the character of that meal has changed. While in the days of the Temple the Passover meal centered on the consumption of a sacrificial lamb, accompanied by songs of praise, since the advent of Rabbinic Judaism our celebratory meal–or seder–has had at its core a ritualized discussion of the Exodus story and its themes.
The atmosphere of this meal is meant, according to Rabbinic law, to evoke an atmosphere of comfort, or even luxury, befitting liberated people. Notably, the Rabbis insist that this standard is to be applied to all Jews, without exception – in the chapter of the Mishnah (the earliest Rabbinic code of law) which details the seder, we read: “Even the poorest of Jews must eat reclining [as was typical for wealthy people during the Rabbinic era], and should have no fewer than four cups of wine – even if they are someone sustained by communal charity.” Thus the seder aims to create a space where, at least for an evening, the divisions of class are overcome. We can draw important lessons from the law of the four cups, both in its function as a dispersal of communal welfare, and in the way (as an aspect of the Passover celebration) it prefigures the future redemption. As a piece of concrete policy, the law of the four cups says no to the idea that the poor do not deserve luxury – in contrast to the cruelty of our welfare system, which is ever-vigilant for the possibility that recipients of welfare might have a moment of material comfort. As a prefiguration of the future redemption, this law stands against the idea that an overcoming of class divides must mean a life of spartan simplicity. It is rather a dream of abundance, in which the many enjoy the pleasures now unjustly limited to the few.
The Mishnah’s guide for the seder is haunted, however, by an unspoken presence that belies this redemptive vision. Throughout the chapter, the moments of ritualized eating and drinking are introduced with formulations such as “they pour him the first cup,” and “they bring before him unleavened bread and lettuce.” The implicit subject of these sentences is in fact the servants or slaves whom the Rabbis imagined to be attending the participants of the seder. Just as reclining and indulgence in wine were the customs of free people that must be practiced by even the poorest Jews, so too, they assumed, liberation means a world in which each has their own butler and valet. In Mishneh Torah, the code of law authored by the medieval philosopher and jurist Maimonides, what was implicit is stated outright. Regarding the child who does not know how to ask about the Passover story, Maimonides writes that one should instruct them as follows: “We were all slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, just like this maidservant here or this slave here, and on this night God redeemed us and brought us out to freedom.”
The redemption from Egypt, though it sits at the heart of Jewish religious consciousness, was an incomplete redemption, which still waits for its completion. The assumption of the Rabbis and Maimonides – that liberation for some is compatible with and even depends on the subservience of others – reflects this incompleteness, and stands as a sad reminder that our visions of the future are always provisional. In a world of scarcity and conflict, it is all too easy to read these conditions into the nature of things, making them into necessary laws, concluding that the struggle for material and spiritual freedom is a zero-sum game. The celebration of Passover, when we set aside our workaday concerns in order to praise the redemption God has brought and will bring to the world, is also an opportunity to ask ourselves–in what ways might our visions be limited, even now? How might we expand our conception of liberation even farther, and in that small way aid the coming of a time in which all are free to flourish?
Vincent Calabrese holds a doctorate in Religion from the University of Toronto and is a Rabbinical student in the Advanced Kollel of the Hadar Institute.
Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.