As we sit down to our Seders – with family, with friends, or in community – we in the so-called ‘First World’, in 2014, intuit that as Jews we are living, historically speaking, lives of immense privilege. While we speak of oppression in Egypt and celebrate the journey our people made from slavery to freedom, we acknowledge the freedoms we now enjoy, unprecedented in Jewish history: freedom to assemble as we want, free to celebrate without persecution, free to speak our minds without fear of a knock on the door, free to express our Jewish selves in whatever style we may choose. The NSA may be monitoring every move we make – but would we want to alive in any other era of our millennia-old history?
Yet the challenge of Seder night is not just to remember the past, not just to recall the extraordinary longevity of our story with its roots in servitude and its mythos of the Jews as a people liberated into a different kind of servitude – servitude to a vision of how things could be, how freedoms of many kinds could be the inheritance of all peoples; as UK Rabbi John Rayner z”l expressed it: ‘freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom from hunger, freedom from hatred, freedom from fear; freedom to think, freedom to speak, freedom to learn, freedom to love, freedom to hope, freedom to rejoice – soon, in our days’. The Seder night is, of course, all of that. But it is more than that.
For how can we celebrate these freedoms we have – and those we wish for – with integrity, wholeheartedly, when we live in an as-yet-unredeemed world? A world of homelessness on our doorsteps and food banks around the corner; a world where women are sold into sexual slavery, and wage slavery in China, India and Pakistan underpins the technology we use, the clothes we wear, sometimes the food we eat; a world where polio has broken out in Syrian refugee camps, where West Bank settlers uproot Palestinian olive groves, where militias are on genocidal marches in Africa, a world where the richest 85 people on the planet control as much wealth as the poorest half of the global population put together…dayyeinu.
Yes, dayyeinu, we sing, in thankfulness of all we have. ‘It would have been enough’. ‘It should be enough’. Dayyeinu. But the bitter herbs remind us of all we have not done, and all that remains to be done, as long as bitterness remains the daily life of others created, like us, in the image of the Divine One, our Redeemer – who waits for us to continue the work of redemption, with our own ‘strong hands and outstretched arms’.
The challenge of the Seder night is its call to action. To take the Biblical image culled from Exodus and Deuteronomy – the metaphor of power-filled hands and arms – the image of a redeeming energy transforming the fate of a whole people, to take this part of the mythic narrative and incarnate it in our own lives. What a challenge! What an expectation! What a destiny! Dare we embrace the challenge, the expectation? Dare we live in alignment with our task, our destiny as the people of God?
Rabbi Howard Cooper is Director of Spiritual Development at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, and a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice. He is the author of ‘The Alphabet of Paradise: An A-Z of Spirituality for Everyday Life’ (SkyLight Paths Publishing, Woodstock, Vermont) and blogs at www.howardcoopersblog.blogspot.co.uk