When I was a child, one of the high points of the year was attending the family Seder held at the home of my mother’s closest sister, Vicky and her husband Bernard, who didn’t have any children. What made it special first and foremost was the fact that it was the only night of the year when my younger sister Julia and I, who shared a bedroom, were allowed to stay up beyond 7pm. 4 1/2 years my senior, our older brother, Geoffrey, didn’t need to do this. Because of the special privilege of a late night, we had to go to bed in the afternoon. Needless to say, so excited at the prospect of what lay head, we couldn’t sleep.
Then, there was the ritual itself. Sitting at the long table, the symbols on the Seder plate and matzah in a three-tiered arrangement having pride of place. Not that the proceedings were at all inclusive of children. My uncle and his Yiddish-speaking father sat at opposite ends, chanting the Haggadah rapidly, pausing only briefly for the ritual moments. Although I wasn’t the youngest, and I couldn’t read Hebrew, having learnt the Mah Nishtanah off by heart, I always sang the ‘four questions’, which made me very nervous beforehand, but also proud to contribute to the Seder. By the time, it came to eat, I was ravenous, devouring the delicious sticky charoset in anticipation. And then, just before the meal, when we each turned to our hard-boiled egg and salt water, my uncle would make a play of seeming to put a whole hard-boiled egg in his mouth, and then take it out of his left ear. Designed to make us laugh, it did the trick. Of course, immediately after the meal there was the requisite hunting for the Afikomen – and the chocolate prize, which my sister and I always shared between us. The highlight of the Seder for me was the singing towards the end, in particular, my mother’s wonderful contralto voice, investing the traditional songs with a passion that quickened my young heart. To this day, I love the tunes I first heard around that Seder table.
My childhood recollections don’t include much about why we attended the Seder each year. This isn’t surprising really, considering everything was in Hebrew and Aramaic. But as my uncle and his father chanted on, I used to look at the illustrations in my children’s Haggadah and so got a sense of what it was all about. I had three favourites: The plagues – each represented in a box, as if to contain their ferocity; a full-page picture of Miriam in flowing gown, with a timbrel in her hand, leading timbrel-bearing women through the divided sea; and a series of images that accompanied the song, Chad Gadya, which were rather gruesome, each one depicting a scene of violence and destruction.
It was only when I was a teenager, stirred up by the Black Power movement in the United States and the struggle against Apartheid in South Africa, that it dawned on me, as we continued to gather for the family Seder each year that the ‘Exodus’ we were celebrating was about liberation of my ancestors from slavery. And so, when we paused for the meal, in my youthful headstrong way, I would pick arguments with my uncle: If it’s so important for us to remember the Exodus, why aren’t we doing more to help persecuted peoples today? Why aren’t we intervening to challenge oppression?
At the end of my teens, I got involved in the Anti-Apartheid movement, and when Jews against Apartheid was formed in 1986, over the next few years, I would attend a fourth-night ‘freedom’ Seder outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square, calling for an end to apartheid and the release of freedom-fighter, Nelson Mandela from his long imprisonment on Robben Island. Nelson Mandela called his 751 page-long autobiography, Long walk to Freedom, and the concluding section is entitled, simply, ‘Freedom’. Who can forget the day when Nelson Mandela finally walked free after 27 years incarceration, on 11 February 1990? Of course, the moment was recorded by the world’s media; the headline blazoned across the front cover of the British black newspaper, The Voice, in bold underlined capitals, said it all: FREE AT LAST.
Another great black freedom fighter, Martin Luther King Jr., made these words ‘ring’ out at the end of his famous ‘I have a dream’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial, at the end of the 250,000-strong ‘March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom’ on August 28, 1963. Articulating his dream of justice and equality, King concluded by calling for freedom to ‘ring’ out from every mountain top across the United States, closing with these words:
When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black [men] and white [men], Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last.
For those who are enslaved and oppressed, and for those who champion their cause, the cry is always and must always be: Freedom! Freedom from the shackles of slavery. Freedom from torment and torture. Freedom from humiliation and degradation. Freedom from oppression and persecution. Freedom from deprivation and discrimination. Freedom is the goal; we want to achieve freedom. Think of the Uighurs of China, the peoples of Tibet and Myanmar, the Syrians, the Palestinians and the Yeminis. And remember that being LGBT+ is still illegal in 71 countries, and punishable by death in 11. But freedom is not the destination. Freedom is not an end. Freedom is only a beginning. Freedom is a moment. Freedom is a wilderness.
Pesach celebrates the Exodus from Egypt, the great liberation of the descendants of our Hebrew ancestors and the erev rav, the ‘mixed multitude’ that made a dash to freedom with them. But what came next? They found themselves in the unchartered desert – without food, without water, without shelter; totally at the mercy of the elements. They were completely overwhelmed. They were terrified. Significantly, when Moses approached Pharaoh, proclaiming the demand of the Eternal, he didn’t simply say, ‘Let My people go’ – but rather, ‘Let My people go that they may serve Me‘ – Shalach et-ammi v’ya’avduni. The Divine purpose of the Exodus was that liberated from slavery in Egypt, the ex-slaves would enter into a covenant with God and commit themselves to building a just and ethical society. Of course, they were not able to do this overnight. Constructing the mishkan, the tabernacle so that the Eternal One who dwelt on the top of the mountain might dwell in their midst, it took forty years for the people to learn to construct community. In fact, it was only the descendants of the slaves who had not experienced slavery, who crossed over to the land beyond the Jordan and set to work fashioning a new social order.
As a young person, I was outraged by injustice and yearned for freedom. And so, I supported every freedom-seeking cause going, eventually coming round to seeking freedom for myself as a woman and lesbian and a Jew. But I discovered that freedom wasn’t enough. Freedom is not enough. One of the reasons why I chose to become a rabbi was in order to find a structure to be free in and to help transform the structures of Jewish life to make space for those who were excluded because they did not conform to established norms. As we celebrate Pesach, z’man cheiruteinu, ‘the season of our freedom’, we know that people are still enslaved and oppressed in this country and across the globe. May we be inspired and emboldened by the story of the Exodus to call for their freedom – and then, be prepared to engage in the hard, demanding work of establishing justice, securing human rights and repairing the world.
Kein y’hi ratzon. May this be our will. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
First Day Pesach Morning Service
28 March 2021 – 15 Nisan 5781
Abacus, 1995. ↑
‘I have a dream’ by Martin Luther King, Jr. In The Voice of Black America. Major speeches by Negroes in the United States, 1797-1973, edited and with commentary by Philip S. Foner. Volume 2:1900-1973. Capricorn Books, New York, pp.355-359. ↑
Bo, Exodus 12:38 ↑
B’shallach, Ex. 15:22-17:7. ↑
Va-eira, Ex. 9:1. ↑
See Mishpatim, Ex. 24:15-18 and T’rumah, Ex. 25:1-8. ↑
Sh’lach L’cha, Numbers 14:26-35. ↑