Pesach is a holiday of many meanings. It’s a holiday of freedom. It’s the holiday on which b’nei Ya’akov became Am Yisrael. It’s the holiday most deeply embedded in the Jewish psyche, but it’s also a day of strong family and personal meaning. “V’haya ki yomru aleichem b’neichem ma ha’avodah hazot lachem (Shmot 12:26). “And it shall happen that your children shall say to you, ‘What is this service to you?’”
I hail from socialist, Zionist stock. I was raised on the music of the labour movement in English, Yiddish and Hebrew. Holidays were a connection to generations of freedom fighters, to the union leaders of my grandparents’ and parents’ generation, and to those generations of Jews willing to stand up to oppression from the time of Mitzrayim until today.
Pesach was the greatest of all. We sang slave spirituals and labour songs. We recited a poem called The Greatest Walkout Ever Known. These ideals were thoroughly embedded by the time my own children were born. They learned Woody Guthrie lyrics alongside the Shema. We smiled every time our eldest sang out “You can’t scare me. I’m stickin’ with the union!” Over time our children’s taste in music moved on from Woody Guthrie’s Songs to Grow By to Alice Cooper. The Beatles are a huge favourite, and our eldest has discovered classical music.
Still, Pesach is the time we return to our roots. We are again singing the spirituals of “When Israel was in Egypt land, let my people go…” and “For the old man is a comin’ for to carry you to freedom, follow the drinking gourd.” We do this because God took us out of Egypt, saying to us that we shall follow the mitzvot, especially those regarding the treatment of others, because we were once slaves in Egypt. This is the meaning of this service to us. We understand. We’re not afraid to stand up to tyranny and injustice, and we’re sticking with the union that binds us as a community and a nation throughout history and into the future.
There is an old Jewish joke, “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.” Throughout all of history, Jews have not only fought against oppression and hatred, we have celebrated our victories. It’s not the victory over others, but the victory over hatred, injustice and oppression.
We celebrate because we know it could have been different. We know because we live it. We live it as a collective memory, we live it through history, and we live it each and every day.
Rabbi Jennifer Gorman is executive director of Mercaz-Canada, www.mercaz.ca.