In every generation a person is obliged to see himself as if he had come out of Egypt.
– The Haggadah of Pesach
In the weeks before Passover, I, like many Jews who love the holiday, prepare for Z’man Cheiruseinu by reading several Haggados and their commentaries, some books about the culture of ancient Egypt, and some reporting about modern-day slavery and human trafficking, all to inform me about the theme of the holiday.
I also look over some headlines and media stories about apparently unrelated topics – this year, the reluctance of several Black residents of the United States to accept the COVID-19 vaccine, the anger of Native Americans in this country over a planned oil pipeline, and the resistance of the Catholic Church to government restrictions on social gatherings during the ongoing pandemic.
What all these subjects have in common is the importance of memory:
- To many African Americans, the government campaign to vaccinate as many people as possible brings back unpleasant memories of the Tuskegee Experiments. They were an initiative in which for 40 years, starting in 1932, health authorities left Black men in Alabama with syphilis untreated – the men were told they were receiving free medical care – in order to monitor the spread of the venereal disease. The men unwittingly spread the disease to their wives; in some cases, their children were born with it.
The Black community, long familiar with this disgrace, now is wary of government health care.
- The Biden administration, as one of its first acts, signed an Executive Order that revoked the Keystone XL pipeline permit issued by the previous presidential administration; the 1,200-mile-long project was designed to transport crude oil from Canadian oil sands to the United States, but would pass through many states, impinging on “Indian” – a term that has fallen into disfavor (“Native American” is preferred) – territory, reminiscent of a long history of white disrespect for Native American culture.
The Rosebud Sioux Tribes, the Yankton Sioux Tribes, and the Fort Belknap Indian Community praised the act of the new administration, but the issue awakened memories of a long history of powerful whites in this country breaking and ignoring treaties with the indigenous population.
- To leaders and laity of “Catholicdom” in this country, the ban on public gatherings that began more than a year ago, barring the crowded worship services of all faiths, remind men and women of the discrimination that their co-religionists suffered at the hands of a politically and economically powerful Protestant majority a century or more ago. The restrictions were, to many Catholics, reminiscent of the anti-Catholic sentiment that was widespread in this country starting in the 19th Century, rooted in the discriminatory attitudes brought here by Protestant immigrants to the American colonies. Historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. called this prejudice “the deepest bias in the history of the American people” – and Catholics have not forgotten this.
These three disparate groups – racial, ethnic, and religious – view contemporary issues through the lens of their collective, and often painful, history.
Most outsiders from these groups have little knowledge about, or interest in, the Tuskegee Experiments, the details of the Native American experience in the US, or anti-Catholic bias. But to these affected groups, the events that took place decades or more ago are as relevant as the latest Tweet or Facebook posting.
We, as Jews, understand this – especially with Pesach approaching.
The Seders in which we will partake shortly are an exercise in collective memory – institutionalized memory.
Achad HaAm (1856-1927), the early Zionist leader, thinker, and essayist who famously stated that “More than the Jewish people have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jewish people,” was mistaken. Most Jews don’t observe Shabbos. But a majority of Jews, even in normally non-observant circles, mark Pesach in some form, even if they take part in a truncated or PC, text-exchanging fashion.
Every year, they remember. They remember what happened to our ancestors in ancient Egypt – and in other countries of persecution – in subsequent centuries. They remember that they are Jews. And they often interpret the lessons of the Yom Tov, which celebrates the birth of the Jewish nation, in a universal manner.
Hence, the proclivity of liberal Jews to participate in the civil rights affairs of many peoples, notably in the US and in apartheid South Africa.
Hence, the tendency of many Jews to identify with the affronts suffered by other individuals.
Hence, what seems to be a concern with the problems of non-Jews, instead of Jews.
In their minds, they are precisely acting as Jews, following Jewish tradition, answering a prophetic call whose memory is kindled every year at Pesach.
Throughout the Jewish community, none of us forget our past historical problems (and, hopefully, triumphs) and progress. While we do not share the history of other groups, we do share a commonality of interests (freedom), of priorities (dignity) and of approach (memory). While offenses of the past do not necessarily reflect the problems we face today, they do influence our understanding of the present
We can appreciate the feelings of others. At Pesach, while we concentrate on what happened to our people, we cannot afford to pretend that only we have overcome travails.
Differences between Jewish and non-Jewish memory?
The exodus from ancient Egypt is, strictly speaking, ancient history. No descendants of ancient Egypt remain, none to apologize for their ancestors. But for the other groups, the sins committed against their extended family are of more recent vintage – mostly the 19th and 20th Century. Their stories are passed down to living descendants. People are left who can apologize, and who can accept the apologies.
For us, it’s history; for others, current events.
The Haggadah states that if G-d had not freed us from the bondage of Pharaoh, “then we, our children, and our children’s children would have remained enslaved to Pharaoh” – not that we would still be slaves in Egypt, but we would have remained indebted to the king of Egypt.
We recognize that G-d broke our chains.
We don’t dwell on the past; that would paralyze us, or draw our attention from the progress we still need to make. The “telling” of the Pesach story takes place once a year – but it never fails to determine how we deal with any variety of issues and challenges. Similarly, African Americans have never forgotten the Tuskegee Experiments, Native Americans put injustice at the hands of a powerful white establishment forefront in their dealings with others, and Catholic Americans keep in mind the country’s aspect of ongoing WASP privilege.
Blacks in this country, for good reason, still bear resentment to what continually proves to be a largely inequitable balance of resources (and police protection). Native Americans, many still isolated on underserved reservations and dispossessed from their original territory from the time that Europeans arrived en masse, need no reminder of the raw deal they received. Catholics, while enjoying success to a degree unimaginable a century ago (for example, the current president and six Supreme Court justices), still live under the shadow of the once-second-class status that colored their upbringing.
Jews, in most respects in positions of unparalleled economic and social freedom, still look over their shoulder as anti-Semitism mounts here, as we prepare for the Festival of Freedom.
The Seder puts our history in perspective. Yes, we were slaves. Yes, we were idolaters. Yes, we eventually took part in better times and look forward to more in the future.
The Seder packages memory, and urges us to move beyond bitterness.
The Seder teaches balance – remembering how we began in degradation but ended up in triumph.
The Seder brings us closer to a saving belief in G-d; He, not our hands, will exact revenge upon those who do not recognize Him.
The Seder encourages optimism.
Such is the power of memory. It leads to confidence; without it, we could dwell on where we were, not on how far we have come.
Memory, of course, is not unique to Jews – but as the oldest community of faith in the world, certainly one that has made it a hallmark of our way of preserving our G-d-based way of life, we have served as a model of how collective memory sustains and strengthens a group of believers.
Clearly, other groups have patterned their approach to this after the Jewish use of memory – particularly African Americans, who liken their rise from slavery to the Jewish exodus from ancient Egypt. Native Americans’ mythical attachment to their land and spiritual practices similarly depend on collective memory to keep their identity intact. The Jewish and Catholic communities have, over the years, found many points on which to work and lobby together.
Memory is a two-edged sword. It can hinder us, by concentrating on the bad things that happened to us. Or it can empower us, unifying us and teaching us our own strength and an empathy with other people. It can do damage, as the self-defeating tendency of many Black Americans to avoid accepting the vaccine in an already medically underserved and vulnerable community indicates, opposing what is in their long-term self-interest.
As the Haggadah shows, Jewish memory, which is an active rather than a passive act, serves a unique function. For us, memory is educational, instructive, inspirational, designed to be uplifting, even if some parts of what we recall contains unpleasant memories; above all, we are honest about our own faults and shortcomings. Out of slavery came freedom, out of the threat of Haman grew joyous Purim, out of the sin of the Golden Calf emerged the second chance we receive on Yom Kippur.
The point of memory is not anger at what was, but embracing of what is. While intrinsically collective at the Seder, it is fundamentally individual; we often read from the panoply of Haggados that reflect our individual leanings and interpretation of history.
The Seder fittingly ends with “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Better days are ahead. As they are, G-d-willing, for Blacks in a land without racism, for Native Americans in improved social conditions, for other ethnic and religious groups in a culture where minorities are respected for what they can contribute to the common good.
The recent headlines and the imminent arrival of Pesach are an ongoing reminder that what has taken place in the past does not remain there – it passes from generation to generation, and shapes how we react to the latest news-making headline.
When we sit down at our Seder tables, while we remember the past in an atmosphere dominated by the current headlines, dominated by the indignities that other groups endure, we start the night by remembering where we were, and where we are today.
That is the main theme of Pesach.
Steve Lipman, a resident of Forest Hills, was a staff writer at the New York Jewish Week from 1983 to 2020.