Over 3,000 years ago a slave revolt took place that is repeated every year. It was not just a rebellion against a long since vanished pharaoh whose dynasty and people have been consigned to dust along with his treasure cities that the Jewish slaves had labored over.
The revolutions of the past come and go. Nations rise and fall, and then fall further into the history books. Passover however was a remarkable revolt not just against an empire, but paganism, and it remains relevant even all these thousands of years later. In a recent poll, only 39% said that religion was very important to them. That’s down from 62% a generation ago.
When faith in G-d leaves, what replaces it isn’t some abstraction of ‘reason’: it’s superstition (37% of adults under 30 believe in astrology), cults of personality, conspiracy theories and the conviction that we are now gods who can destroy the planet and change gender at will.
The story of Passover is a testament of faith: it’s the account of an absolutely degraded people still continuing to believe for centuries and later millennia that their salvation, passed down by tradition, would come from a G-d they had never seen or heard, but it’s also the revelation that slavery is not just physical, it’s spiritual. Just as true liberation comes from G-d, true slavery comes when we abandon faith and degrade ourselves under the soulless tyranny of paganism.
The latest World Happiness Report index rated Israel as the fourth happiest in the world. Or as Haaretz, a relentlessly leftist local paper skeptically put it, “Low Income, High Prices and Wars: So Why Is Israel One of the Happiest Countries in the World?” What’s there to be happy about?
To leftists who believe the world is fatally broken, nothing, to believers, everything.
Last year, a survey found that 96% of Israeli Jews are planning on attending a Passover seder. In America, it’s around 70%. Properly performed, the Seder is an emotional and historical journey that takes Jews back in time to the suffering in Egypt, the divine salvation and the realization that no matter their current circumstances, G-d has permanently set them free.
It was in this spirit that the Passover seder was marked during the Holocaust with furtive gatherings in the forest, in concentration camps with tiny matzos baked from hoarded grams of flour, and with wine made of raisins soaked in water, and in hideouts beneath ghettos, yet still declaring, “now we are free” and “next year in Jerusalem”. Such freedom transcends force.
Many liberal American Jews have lost sight of this. They pepper their seder meals for the first two nights of Passover with references to the civil rights and LGBTQ movements. They discard the personal power of their history and replace it with generic leftist politics. Is it any wonder that they’re so unhappy? The American Jew has come to be defined by neurosis and the Israeli Jew by autonomy. Happiness doesn’t come from comfort, but from a sense of meaning and purpose.
“As we recite the Haggadah, which retells the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt, we have the strange feeling that, once again, we are living in Biblical times,” Elie Wiesel, the journalist and holocaust survivor, wrote.
Do we really want to live in ‘biblical times’? To live in biblical times doesn’t mean going without running water or medication, it’s the knowledge that G-d is active behind the scenes of the world. That is the faith with which the Jews embarked on their first Passover seder and then headed into the wasteland on the word of G-d to what they thought was likely certain death.
We can all live in ‘biblical times’. And whether we want to or not, we do anyway. G-d was not just active long ago, He is active in our world today. And so all our times are ‘biblical times’.
That is the true meaning of Passover.
Passover is not a celebration of the past, but a reunion of the past, present and future. The oppressions and redemptions of the past resonate in the present and foretell the future.
The tyranny of paganism tells us that we are animals, that life is short, cruel and purposeless, and that if there is a god or gods, they are as cruel and selfish as we are. This was the cold belief that united the Egyptians and the Nazis and Communists across thousands of years.
Long after Pharaoh had sneered, “Who is G-d that I should listen to Him?”, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev claimed that his astronaut had gone into space and not seen god. Both tyrants had a vested interest in convincing their slaves that there was no alternative to their regimes.
Paganism may occasionally promise freedom, but all it can ever offer is submission to a leader. That cult figure takes the place of the divine and he is worshiped through the rituals of slavery. His followers abase, sacrifice and erect monuments to glorify him. That was Pharaoh, but it’s every cult and radical leftist movement whose promise of freedom ends in blood and suffering.
And then the god-king falls, proves too human, leaving behind an even deeper despair.
But the tyranny of paganism is not just physical. Without faith, there is no possibility of escape. Powerless people trapped in what seems like a fixed course go mad and do monstrous things, they embrace apocalyptic beliefs, bring human sacrifices and destroy everything around them.
Farfetched? A quarter of American adults believe in global warming so fiercely that they are questioning whether to have children. Abortion is described as the best way to save the planet. As suicide rates, mass shootings, and accident rates skyrocket, we see for ourselves that ‘Moloch’ was not just some ancient cult, it is what happens when we lose G-d in our lives.
Passover was the original repudiation of the pagan mindset that still holds true today. It reminds us that we can all escape tyranny, no matter our circumstances, because true slavery and freedom take place on the battlefields of the soul. Slaves can triumph over tyranny if they believe and free men can fall to much weaker tyrants (or become them) when they do not.
Judaism has many holidays, but Passover is the first of them because without spiritual liberation, nothing else truly matters. Only those who are free in spirit can serve G-d. Freedom, like faith, is easy to preach, but difficult to attain. At the Passover seder, families, friends and strangers will come together to once again experience slavery, to taste salt water, bitter herbs, and the mortar that bound bricks together, and to drink wine and sing like free people.
Free people all too easily forget what freedom is and where it comes from. Only when we confront tyranny, when we experience the loss of what we had, can we truly appreciate it.
Passover immerses Jews in the tyranny of paganism and the liberation of G-d. It is not merely a memorialization of the past, or the anxieties of the present, but the promise of the future. Keeping the faith means knowing, as the Jews of Egypt or those in Auschwitz did, that there is more to the world than the power of any tyrant: to his chains, laws and social credit systems.
To truly keep the seder is to know, as they did, that there is a power above them all that knows, that sees and that acts even when everything appears to be going wrong and to be doomed.
As the slaves gathering in secret along Egyptian canals, whispering an impossible hope to each other, and as their descendants, sitting for thousands of years at the seder, feeling free no matter how much in chains, believed, G-d is coming, not just to liberate us, but to set us free.