“Let my people go” and the missing bit
First Shabbat after Pesach. It is safe to say that this is not the most attended service of the year. There are several reasons for that.
The first is what I call the Pass-over Hangover. We have had, in rapid succession: Pesach -one Seder at home, then service here the following day, then the community Seder, then the last day of Pesach, then today another Shabbat… it is a massive series of religious services, and understandably at a certain point, one feels it has been enough. The Dayenu! mood kicks is.
Then there is the complicated issue of the end of Pesach. Since the beginning of the Diaspora, those Jews who lived outside of the Land of Israel celebrated the most important holidays — such as Pesach- with two days of celebration. Before the invention of the press, the first day of each month was proclaimed after reliable witnesses had seen the new moon in the sky over Jerusalem. Communication in those days was a complicated affair, and the news of the sight could take more than one day to reach all the communities in the Diaspora. Extending the time of the holidays for two days was a way to ensure that the festivities were observed by everyone.
We Reform Jews acknowledge that no one is at risk of losing connection with Jerusalem nowadays. Everybody can know the Jewish date, and no one is at risk of celebrating a Jewish holiday on the wrong date. There is no need anymore to double the first day of Pesach.
But the Orthodox disagree. So they keep two days of Pesach at the beginning, followed by the seven days required by the Torah. We keep one day, followed by the seven. So today, for us, is the first Shabbat after Pesach. While the Orthodox synagogues in the Diaspora still observe the last day of Pesach, with different prayers and a different Torah reading. Next week, they will read the Torah portion we have read today, and we’ll have to wait for the Summer to re-align ourselves again.
All the issue is very complicated. There is massive confusion regarding which holiday is today: Shabbat for us, Pesach for the Orthodox, and a bigger mess about what we celebrate. Small wonder that few people decide to go to shul: they do not know what they should do!
And the contrast is striking. A few days ago, community halls were packed for the Seder. Today it’s the first Shabbat after Pesach, and look how few we are.
But I think that there is at play something more profound, perhaps more disturbing than simply confusion or exhaustion.
What do we have indeed celebrated on Pesach? This is a simple question. On Pesach, we celebrate our liberation from slavery in the Land of Egypt. We do so (as good Jews) by eating particular foods and participating in a codified ritual. But that is the beginning of the journey. It is well known how the journey begins.
The scene of Moses who says to Pharaoh, “Let my people go” is impressed in our minds. There is also, as we know, a famous song — which by the way, this year came under attack because it is an Afro American song, and we Jews should not appropriate it.
That is not the point. Because actually, the Seder is not about “Let my people go”. During the Seder, we do not even evoke that famous dialogue.
Because the proper Biblical quote is: “Go to Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: “Let my people go, so that they may serve Me”. The bit missing from the song is: “so that they may serve Me”. This makes the real difference.
On Pesach, we celebrate freedom — who does not like it? Of course, the Seder is well attended. But then the journey begins, and the journey’s goal is “to serve Me”, to serve God. And this is possibly the reason why today, the synagogues (our included) are not so crowded as they were during the Seder. Because this understanding of freedom, freedom as a condition to serve God, is not so easy to understand and possibly not so palatable, not so attractive.
Freedom is undoubtedly a fantastic concept and an inspiring idea. But are we, human beings, ever really completely, totally free? More than one century ago, a guy who was born Jewish, Karl Marx, discovered that our ideas and choices, which we often think are purely rational, are influenced by the social class we belong. And after a few decades, another Jewish guy, Sigmund Freud, discovered how our mind is influenced by impulses, fantasies, and desires of which we are not always aware.
It’s not a coincidence that these two were born Jewish. Even if both of them have probably never attended a Seder in their lives, they knew the Haggadah message. That absolute freedom does not exist. Freedom is instead a process, not a goal.
Let’s get back to that Biblical quote: “Let my people go to serve Me”. What does it mean to serve God? First of all, not to serve other human beings — like Pharaoh and the Egyptian taskmasters. This is what we celebrate on Pesach. Or, better, this is what we teach to our children and ourselves during the Seder. We are not born to serve other human beings but to serve God.
And then? Then, as in these days, the journey continues. Tikkun Olam, making this world a better place, and working in partnership with God, is undoubtedly one of the many ways to serve God. And so it is prayer, even if it may seem difficult or exhausting on days like this, after a whole row of services. The main problem in the contemporary Jewish world is that too often, we see an opposition between these two ways to serve God — Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) and Tefillah (prayer). Jews who care about prayers (and synagogues) look at those Jews who believe in social justice as they were not authentically Jewish. And Jews who base their identity on Tikkun Olam too often disregard prayer as a superfluous activity, almost a loss of time.
And both forget that social justice and prayer stem from the same root, have their origin in the same commandment (“Let my people go, to serve Me”), and both have their role in the journey of the Jewish people from slavery to freedom, from passivity to responsibility, from darkness to light, a journey which our ancestors have begun many, many years ago and which we commit to continue.
Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue, 23 April 2022 –22 Nisan 5782 (Isru Hag)