Pesach in Egypt and Through the Generations — Shabbat HaGadol, 5784

מה נשתנתה השנה הזאת מכל השנים? / Mah nishtanta ha’shana ha’zot mikol hashanim?  How is this year different from all other years? 

This question rings resonantly, in 5784, a year unlike any other. 

To portray the uniqueness of Pesach this year, I want to use a rabbinic concept, going back to the Mishnah, about the differences between פסח מצרים ופסח דורות, Pesach Mitzrayim and Pesach Dorot, between the original events described in the Bible, what the Israelites did while still enslaved in Egypt on that first holiday – and Pesach Dorot, the ways future generations would recall an ancient liberation. Pesach Mitzrayim and Pesach Dorot have halakhic significance, especially regarding offering and eating the Passover lamb. But I want to focus on the poetic possibilities laden in these terms, and how they convey different experiences of this central covenantal holiday.  

For us dorot, this holiday is tremendously affirming. The world can be hard and cruel, there might be Babylonians and Romans and Cossacks and the Spanish Inquisition, but at Passover, we tell this story to remind each other that Hashem liberates the enslaved and fulfills the ancestral promises: והוצאתי והצלתי וגאלתי ולקחתי והבאתי, “I will bring you out … and rescue you … and redeem you … and take you as my people …  and bring you home.” The arc of history may be long but it bends toward geulah/redemption. Participating in this annual affirmation of faith is indispensable to being a Jew. It’s almost the very definition: A Jew is someone who remembers slavery and celebrates liberation. Along with Brit Mila, the covenant of circumcision, Passover is only the positive mitzvah, the only “thou shalt,” which carries the penalty of karet, or excommunication, for failure to fulfill. On Pesach, if you don’t come, you have to leave the Jewish people. 

How do we mark Pesach dorot? Through two things: imagination and luxury. Imagination: you must see yourself k’eilu, as if you personally were a slave and if you personally left Egypt. No matter how successful you may be, how secure, how established, on Pesach you must feel vulnerable. Imagine your children thrown in the river. Imagine yourself having to gather straw and bake bricks and then build pyramids. Then imagine feeling rescued, feeling grateful, feeling free. 

And Luxury: the journey of imagination is made at a great feast. In ancient times, the feast was in Jerusalem at the Temple, which at its height was one of the grandest buildings in the Roman empire, surrounded by tens of thousands of pilgrims. Try to imagine that life-affirming, faith-affirming, Torah-affirming exhilarating Jewish experience. “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt” …. and just look at us now. Even later, when there was no more temple or pilgrimage, even when Jews were in precarious spots, Pesach Dorot was one of the best nights of the year, and the poorest person among Israel would have wine poured for them abundantly. 

Pesach Mitzrayim, the first Passover described in the Torah, was very different. 

The people eating this covenantal meal did not have to imagine suffering in a mythic past. In Mitzrayim, Jewish parents personally remembered babies ripped from their cribs and thrown into the river. You probably recall that Moses killed an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating an Israelite [Exodus 2.11-12]. According to the midrash [Tanhuma Shemot 9], the Egyptian man had raped the wife of the Israelite man, who fought back unsuccessfully. Jewish women celebrating Pesach Mitzrayim did not need to imagine their enemy’s vast capacity for cruelty. 

And there was no luxury in the first seder in Mitzrayim: In practices that were not replicated in future generations, the still enslaved Israelites ate be’hipazon, in a panicked rush, with their traveling clothes on, their loins girded, their staffs in their hands, their shoes on their feet, ready to flee from their homes into homelessness. Ready to run away from a tyrant, who was ready to chase them into the Red Sea.

Another thing that marked Pesach Mitzrayim: there was blood smeared all over the walls. 

One more thing that distinguished Pesach Mitzrayim: While our Israelite ancestors were eating their lamb and baking their matzah, all around them they could hear: וַתְּהִ֛י צְעָקָ֥ה גְדֹלָ֖ה בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם כִּֽי־אֵ֣ין בַּ֔יִת אֲשֶׁ֥ר אֵֽין־שָׁ֖ם מֵֽת׃. A great cry came from the homes of our enemies, for there was a dead family member in every single one of their houses [Exodus 12.30]. 

How is this year different from all other years? 5784 has a much bigger dose of Pesach Mitzrayim than we are accustomed to while celebrating our Pesach Dorot

These details all land way too close to home. But I have nothing to offer today except the imperative that we confront this difficult reality.  It’s not easy. But you should have faith in this path. That’s why Judaism is a great religion. Because it tells you not to be babies. Don’t prefer simplistic, black-and-white fairy tales. That is unworthy of a great religion. Instead, a faith as deep as Judaism calls us to confront all the beauty and ugliness in this real world. That’s why Judaism gives us the resources we desperately need to make meaning out of this holiday in a dark moment. It impels us to make Pesach 5784 different from all other years. 

I avoid Shoah comparisons. Nothing is like the Holocaust.  Whenever you say something is like the Shoah, you’re already wrong. Even October 7 and the Gaza war are not the Holocaust. But with that big asterisk, I would offer one correlation. I was privileged to study Talmud with Prof. David Weiss Halivni, who went into the camps as a teenager with his hometown friend Elie Weisel, from Sighet, Romania. I remember him saying that after the war, you had to be different. If you were religious, you could become secular. If you were secular, you could become religious. If you were religious, you could stay religious but only if you did so in a different way. It would simply not do to return to normal, as if everything were the same. Nothing is the same. 

Mah Nishtantah Ha’Shana Hazot? How is this year different from all other years? That’s not a question. It’s an exclamation: How different this year is! And it’s an imperative: We must make this Passover different from all other years. 

It would be morally and spiritually obtuse to have the same Passover you had last year and the year before, as if none of this ever happened. As if our brothers and sisters, our grandparents and parents, our spouses, our babies, were not kidnapped and held in underground prisons for 197 days. If any of you hostages are still alive, I pray into the cosmos: may you know that we miss you and pray every day for you to come home to your families who love you and who will never be complete without you. 

I was in Israel in November. I know others of you have been since. Like me, you visited the Otef Azza: Beeri, Nachal Oz, Kfar Azza, Ofakim, Sederot, the others. Those of us who made that trip, saw, literally, walls smeared with blood, on doorposts and lintels, al shtei hamezuzot ve’al hamashkof. On all other years, that’s a metaphor. This year it’s a fact. 

This year at Pesach, it just won’t do to think all too glibly that whenever our enemies rise up against us, “HaKadosh Barukh Hu matzilenu meyadam,” the Blessed Holy One saves us from them. This year, we cannot have Pesach and forget that 1,200 of our brothers and sisters were slaughtered in their homes or dancing in the fields. This year at Pesach, I hope we feel in our bones, in our hearts, in every breath of our lungs, that hundreds of families will sit down to seder, knowing their sons and daughters, wives and husbands, mothers and fathers won’t be there ever again. 

Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur are the High Holidays of the synagogue. If you have Rosh HaShana meals or a break-fast at the end of Yom Kippur in your home, but you do not come to synagogue and don’t hear the shofar and sing Avinu Malkenu, if you don’t confess your sins and pray, “who by fire and who by water” – you just have not done Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. 

In contrast, Pesach is the High Holiday of the home. If you go to shul and recite the Shema and sing Hallel and read the Torah, but don’t have a feast at home, in which the table is the most sacred space in Jewish life – then you just have not done Passover. So please, this year, when you sit down to your seder, remember that – 197 days after October 7 – hundreds of thousands Israelis remain displaced from their homes in the north and south, and who knows what comes next for them. When will they celebrate the High Holiday of their Jewish homes again?

This next point is hard to say, but necessary, especially for a steadfast Zionist like myself. This year we must make Passover different because we must pay attention to Palestinian suffering in Azza. 

Everyone knows the context: There was a cease-fire on October 6; Hamas attacked; they knew Israel would retaliate; they wanted Israel to inflict suffering that would trigger global rebuke; they spent hundreds of millions dollars on attack tunnels for their fighters, and not one penny on shelters for their people; it remains just and proper for Israel to destroy Hamas’ military power. All that is true.

And … our people’s army is inflicting incalculable suffering on an already miserable people. The price of a joyous Pesach, 5784, cannot be that we stop our ears so that we don’t have to hear the צעקה גדולה, the horrible cries from Gaza, כי אין בית אשר אין שם מת, because every home has dead family members. That’s real too, and we cannot be afraid to listen. 

In the spirit of this very different Pesach, 5784, I want to share some observations about how these themes emerge in Haggadah with special resonance this year.

Let me jump right into the one that feels the most agonizing: הא לחמא עניא … כל דכפין יתי ויכול/Ha Lachma Anya … Kol Dikhfin yetei ve’yekhol. This is the meager bread of affliction our ancestors ate in Egypt. All who are hungry, let them come and eat. All who need resources, let them come and celebrate Pesach. 

This year, with millions of Gazans starving, I will have a hard time opening my seder with this performative invitation. How can we take ourselves seriously when we say: “all who are hungry, come and eat?”. 

Although this line is so central to the seder, it is vital to Jewish life every day of the year.  In fact, the origin of this phrase is not specific to Passover. The Talmud relates the great generosity of R. Huna (Taanit 20b).  כי הוה כרך ריפתא הוה פתח לבביה ואמר: כל מאן דצריך – ליתי וליכול.  “Whenever he sat down to a meal, he opened his door and proclaimed: whoever is needy please come and eat.” This gesture – not words alone but realized in deeds – is the hallmark of a society of fellowship and care. It is true every day, and particularly resonant at Passover, as the commentator R. Itzhak Abarbanel said, because it reminds us that whether we are temporarily rich or temporarily poor, we are equals, each one of us the children of a family of slaves.  

We Jews talk this talk, and in general we walk this walk. We are good at feeding the poor. Let us be proud we support American Jewish organizations like Mazon and Masbia, Israeli ones like Latet and Leket Israel, and local ones, like our West Side Campaign Against Hunger and any of your favored food banks. May we be privileged to continue doing these mitzvot. 

And this Passover, we should do this mitzvah in Gaza by supporting the International Rescue Committee, and Oxfam and – especially this month, after the bombing of their trucks and the killing of seven of their workers – the World Central Kitchen. These organizations may say things that make you uncomfortable or even offend you, but they are doing God’s work, feeding people who are starving because of a war the Jewish people are fighting. And that makes the Jewish people responsible for alleviating their suffering. There may not be much you can do. But there is something you can do to help.

Because the situation is dire. Not only is there not enough food getting into Azza, but there are no roads left to bring food to those who need it, and not enough stable zones to distribute it in an orderly and safe way to desperate people, who would eat it behipazon, in the same panicky way our ancestors ate Pesach Mitzrayim

And no, it’s not all Hamas’ fault. It is an ugly fact that certain forces in Israel intentionally want to worsen the misery in Azza. Some right-wing extremists have physically blocked aid trucks entering the Strip. Online, you can find videos of Israelis ripping open bags of food meant for Azza and scattering them on the ground. If you read the Israeli press, you’ll find people justifying this behavior, saying things like they can have aid when they return our hostages. I also don’t want to strengthen Hamas. But, no, the people of “let all who are hungry come and eat” cannot starve a population of millions, not even in wartime. Lately, the government of Israel has been responding to international pressure and increasing humanitarian aid, rebuilding roads, opening border crossings and providing tents for shelter. That’s good. But it costs money. And just this week Defense Minister Yoav Gallant called out Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich, who ordered that funds budgeted by the war cabinet not be released. This cannot be how a nation state worthy of the Jewish people conducts itself. 

Let me share with you a different sort of text about food, from Primo Levi’s memoir Survival in Auschwitz. With the Soviet army at the door, the Nazis abandoned camp, driving anyone they thought would survive into a harrowing march westward, on foot. The only people left behind in Auschwitz were those so feeble that the Nazis considered them as good as dead. In that frozen condition, on January 19, 1945, Levi and two other skeletons loaded an iron stove into a wheelbarrow, patched up some broken windows, gathered a little fuel, and managed to heat up their barracks. A Pole named Towarowski, himself too weak to work, suggested that Levi and the other two each get one more slice of bread as a reward for their labors. Levi reflects: 

“Only a day before, a similar event would have been inconceivable. The law of the Lager [camp] said: ‘eat your own bread, and if you can, eat that of your neighbor,’ and left no room for gratitude. It was the first human gesture that occurred among us. This really meant the Lager was dead. I believe that that moment can be dated as the beginning of the change by which we who had not died, slowly changed from prisoners to men again.” 

This seder night, when you say “let all who are hungry come and eat,” please think about whom you actually need to feed. This doesn’t mean you should not support Israel in its time of need. You should. As a committed Zionist Jew, I think there is only one reasonable option: Israel must pursue its war aims urgently, and pursue its humanitarian duties with comparable urgency. Please think about how giving bread can restore degraded humanity. In Primo Levi’s terms: let Auschwitz die. Don’t become brutal.

But here’s another point that emerges strongly from the Haggadah on this very different Passover: Don’t fool yourself. Don’t be naive.

The phrase בכל דור ודור/bekhol dor va’dor, “in every generation” appears twice in the Haggadah. One is profoundly optimistic. One is dark.  

First: בכל דור ודור חייב אדם לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים/In every generation you are bound to imagine your own personal liberation from Egypt. 

The second: בכל דור ודור עומדים עלינו לכלותינו/In every generation, enemies arise who want to wipe us out. In faith, we affirm that God will save us in the end. And in the meantime, keep your eyes open. 

Both these poles are necessary for every generation of Jews. The first says we are always already free. If that were not true, we would despair, shrivel up, and die. Without the reliable experience of Exodus from Egypt, we would never last another day. This year, even on this different Passover, I hope you can see yourself as personally free, because inner liberation is always at hand. In every generation, you have that resource within. Be faithful Jews who believe the world can transcend its constrictions. Believe captivity and oppression are not permanent. The world can soar, and so can we. 

The other pole says: In every generation, Jews face real enemies, who really want to do us harm. Who this year attacked us with horrifying violence. And don’t forget those whose savagery is “only” rhetorical, but who think our violent enemies are totally awesome. 

On this Passover like no other, this second pole exerts more gravity than usual. It brings a dose of mourning to our celebration. Holidays are wonderful, but we say Yizkor on them, because even our best moments include sorrow, as people we love are gone forever. In 5784, let us celebrate this very different Passover amidst Am Israel, very diminished by the absence of the hundreds of our brothers and sisters, killed by those who rise up against us to destroy us. 

This second “every generation” reminds us that redemption is at best, always partial, always a work in progress. You leave Egypt; you meet Amalek. Around each corner there will always be some other Pharaoh who doesn’t know Joseph; some communist who thinks Jews are a cabal of capitalists; some fascist who thinks we are communist spies; some conspiracy theorist who thinks we have space lasers; and teachers of other religions who think we represent evil incarnate. This Pesach we will leave Egypt once again, but Egypt won’t entirely leave us. And we have a lot of desert to cover before we arrive where we want to be. 

I will illustrate this point by turning to one of the most beloved and fun parts of the seder: Dayenu. I get that Dayenu has a real religious meaning: we should feel gratitude for each step along the journey. Even partial redemptions are worthy of blessing. 

But I think Dayenu is kind of ridiculous. If you had only led us into the midst of the Red Sea and not let us pass through on dry land … dayenu. What?! It would have been enough if God drowned us in the sea?! No it wouldn’t have. If you had only led us into the desert and not fed us on manna … dayenu. What?! It would have been good enough if we starved to death in the desert?! 

This year, with a little more Pesach Mitzrayim and a little less Pesach Dorot, I can only say, lo dai. Our Passover redemption is wonderful, but, no, it’s not enough. Not with hostages still in tunnels. Not with families still in grief. Not with our brothers and sisters still at risk for more attacks from an implacable and fanatical enemy. And also not with the enemy’s children starving to death at our hands. I’m walking out of Egypt Monday night… but walking into midnight. 

I’ve been doing this long enough to know: You have to end a derasha on a good note. You need some light to go with the darkness. As the inspiring hostage mother Rachel Goldberg Polin says, and as we have all been quoting for too many days: “Hope is mandatory.” So where can I find it this Passover? 

I will conclude with what I think is the most poetic passage in the Haggadah, bringing the needed note: The tale is told of R. Eliezer, R. Joshua, R. Elazar b. Azaria, R. Akiva, and R. Tarfon, celebrating Pesach in Bnei Brak. They discussed the Exodus from Egypt all night long. Until their students came and said, Masters, the time has arrived to recite the Shema of dawn. 

When did these sages discuss liberation? All. Night. Long. Through suffering, alienation, fear and loss, they kept telling and retelling. The story of Pesach gave them strength to keep digging through the darkness. Until there was a dawn. May we all be privileged soon to recite Shema Israel, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad on a morning filled with light.