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Passover: The universal story of freedom

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The tragic war in Ukraine serves as a reminder to all of us that the desire for freedom and liberation from slavery is both ancient and universal.

We find stories about humanity’s search for freedom throughout history and on every continent. Yet no tale of freedom has inspired as many people as the Bible’s Exodus story. This story of freedom is a tale that touches our very souls. Although it is a Jewish story, it is a story that resonates whenever and wherever people have sought to throw off the shackles of tyranny. For example, this ancient tale of Israel ‘s liberation from Egyptian bondage has provided hope for millions of African Americans during their period of slavery and during the dark periods of segregation. It also provides hope for displaced persons throughout the world.

It is no exaggeration to state that the Exodus story is perhaps the world’s greatest tale of liberation. Although scholars have long debated the story’s veracity, their debates are of little consequence. The Exodus story’s value is not in the facts but in its truths, not in its details but in the courage that it provides all who are hungry for freedom.

This tale of liberation has provided, and continues to provide, countless generations during dark periods of despair with the light of hope and inspiration.

The story of the Israelites’ exodus from slavery is both history and theology; it is a story of despair and of hope. Although the exodus story is a pivotal moment in Jewish history, it speaks to all people, wherever they may be, who seek freedom under God. Each Passover we read the story of the Exodus in a book called the Haggadah. The Haggadah is profoundly Jewish, and its particularity also makes it universal. People from across the world identify with the Haggadah and with the Passover seder. Perhaps it is for this reason that this most Jewish of stories touches the minds and hearts of people wherever humanity cries out to God.

On the pages of the Haggadah imagination meets history and dispersion becomes the hope of national reunification. The Passover Haggadah is less a book of historic details than it is a book of hope and inspiration. We learn to live its central message: that it is our duty to be God’s partners in taking humanity from enslavement to liberty, from degradation to liberation.

The Exodus story is so powerful, its message so important that we Jews retell the story during Passover at a special meal, called the seder.

To participate in a seder meal is to understand the ideal of freedom through words, taste, foods and adventure. It is also to connect each of us with people who are still not free around the world.

What makes the seder experience so powerful is that it is not about people who lived long ago, but about us. It is at the Passover seder that we sense the power of freedom. It is through the brilliance of the Passover Haggadah that we relive our trials and tribulations as we too journey on the road from slavery to freedom. In this dangerous world in which we live, with war and the threat of war in so many places around the world we feel not only our own pain but also the pain of others.

The Haggadah reinforces the notion that “in every generation, each of us (those who participate in the Passover meal and hear the story of the Exodus) is to see him/herself as if she/he had personally gone forth from Egypt.” The Haggadah does not tell our ancestor’s story but ours and reminds us that were the Exodus not to have happened then we too would still be slaves.

It is on the pages of the Haggadah that we relive our crossing of the desert and our transformation from a group of slaves into a nation. For the Jewish people this story is our national story. The Exodus story also has become a universal story. It reminds the world, that humanity has traveled, and must continue to travel, the long road from degradation to dignity, from a world of evil to a world of hope.

The Passover story serves as a spiritual roadmap for all who are hungry for freedom. It is living history. The seder experience and the literature that it contains does not merely tell the story about a people who lived long ago. To be at a Passover seder is to be an active participant in the Jewish people’s collective departure from Egypt and our 40-year journey to the freedom of Israel. During the Passover seder we not only relive the meaning of freedom, but actively participate in a journey to freedom.

This year we have seen once again the outbreak of hostilities in Europe and learn of humanity’s search for freedom. The search for freedom is a story without end. Passover is the point where history and theology meet and produce human dignity. In these days when so many question if we too are losing our freedoms to large corporations, reading this Biblical tale of freedom provides hope in a world often enveloped in darkness. This most Jewish of stories speaks to all of us and in that sense helps us to remember that we are all children of God.

In these times of trouble, with war in Europe and the potential of war in Asia and the Middle East, we all need to hear, and to participate in, the message of hope that is Passover.

Passover begins this year on the night of April 15.

My family and I wish each of you a Happy and Healthy Passover. May we all appreciate the freedoms that we all cherish and are a gift of God.

Peter Tarlow is the rabbi emeritus at Texas A&M Hillel Foundation in College Station. He is a chaplain for the College Station Police Department and teaches at the Texas A&M College of Medicine.

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