Officially, the Passover seder is a joyous and optimistic celebration of the transition from slavery and oppression to freedom and liberation. But on closer inspection, the images and themes paint a picture of human society and politics that is often brutal and violent.
The stories of Pharaoh’s cruelty, including ordering the drowning of Israelite baby boys, and, on the other side, the pain inflicted by the 10 plagues, ending with the deaths of Egyptian first borns, are cautionary tales. Looking at today’s headlines from Syria and elsewhere, it’s clear that mankind’s capacity to inflict pain and suffering on others has not diminished in 4,000 years.
For Jews, the dangers of persecution do not end with the liberation from Egypt and the entry into the Land of Israel. During the seder, we are reminded that “in every generation, they arise to strike us down.” And before opening the door for Elijah and our plea for a speedy messianic redemption, we ask God to pour out his anger against the tormentors.
Today, the tormentors are vicious terrorists who target not only Jews. Islamic State (IS) and Hezbollah attack and kill each other, as well as anyone who is not “one of them.” The jihadi attacks in Paris, Brussels, San Bernadino and elsewhere are aimed at westerners. This campaign serves a reminder that while Israel and Jews are singled out for particular hate, the world continues to be a dangerous place, where anarchy prevails. Periods of peace and security are exceptions, some longer and geographically broader than others, but eventually, they come to a violent end.
The Passover story that we celebrate and repeat in every generation is not of peace and harmony, but rather of struggle. The Israelite march to freedom was also accompanied by the beginnings of self-defence. They left “with out-stretched fists,” which later became a full-fledged army. In order to survive as a free people, Israelites had to be able to defend their lives and land.
In the Jewish tradition, war and outbreaks of brutality and coarse inhumanity are built into the human condition. And war will only end when the Messiah comes, according to the prophetic vision, and the existing natural order is replaced, the lion lies down with the lamb, and nation shall not lift up sword against nation. But until then, we must be prepared to fight and defend ourselves in order to survive.
For Thomas Hobbes, the 17th-century British political philosopher, this central part of political life was obvious. To Hobbes, the founder of political realism, who was greatly influenced by the Jewish Bible, the environment of political anarchy – “the war of all against all”– is the state of nature. And for leaders (Moses, Samuel, David, and others) and everyone else, the need to fight for one’s rights and survival as a people is obvious. War (including terrorism) is an integral part of the state of nature, and to ignore it is particularly dangerous. Even God is a realist.
During Passover, we have the opportunity to contemplate these lessons from the Exodus – from the beginning when a small tribal family of 70 souls went down to Egypt to buy bread, through the enslavement and sudden liberation. And as part of the commentary around the table, we might consider how these essential political lessons apply to our condition and the world today.
I would argue that the tendency to replace the realism of Passover and of Jewish history with an intoxicating messianism is mistaken. Such messages are inspiring and provide hope for the long term, but it is a mistake to confuse them with reality. The Passover seder, with the matzah – the bread of affliction, and the maror – the bitter herbs, does a good job of separating the real world and the messianic ideal.