The Passover Seders of my early childhood are now increasingly distant, cherished, and sacred memories.
I recall most vividly two critical moments in those annual family holiday observances presided over by my father: the taste of the maror, the bitter herbs, which I approached with a measure of trepidation – and the discussion of the four sons, which I found still more frightening. Specifically, I recall a sense of dark dismay at the Haggadah’s treatment of the wicked son – the rasha.
My father’s “Litvakish” (Lithuanian) pronunciation of that Hebrew term sounded to my uninitiated young ear as if he were saying “Russia.” My father was a civilian employee of the Strategic Air Command at the height of the Cold War, intimately involved, for example, in the Berlin airlift. I had a keen early awareness of “the enemy” – lawless, godless, despotic, and bellicose. The emblem of SAC, a shield showing a powerful armored fist grasping lightning bolts against a clouded sky, hung in my bedroom.
What terrible things could a mere child possibly have done, I wondered timorously during the reading of the four sons. What sins could he have committed to merit being branded with so derogatory and frightful a title – “The Russia” – with all the evil and danger the name of the Soviet Union evoked? How relieved I was each year when my older brother volunteered to read this passage, sparing me its secretly dreaded burden.
It was not long before I was disabused of my misunderstanding of the Hebrew text of the Haggadah. In time, too, Russia’s repression of Jewish life would soften, the Cold War would end, and the Soviet Union would be dismantled. A measure of freedom and democracy and hope would spread throughout the former Soviet States, including Lithuania (the ethnolinguistic source of my youthful liturgical confusion) and Ukraine.
Though both my Hebrew language skills and my understanding of geopolitics have grown considerably more sophisticated since my childhood seder experience, I responded to the recent news of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula with an eerily familiar dark dismay.
The rasha of the Passover Haggadah, at least in our traditional reading of that text, defiantly distances himself from the seder’s celebration of freedom: “What do these proceedings mean to you?” he demands. With analogous defiance, the Russia now occupying Crimea insists that the West – and specifically the United States, its erstwhile Cold War foe – has no legitimate interest, no standing to object to its invasion of Ukraine: “What do these proceedings mean to you?” In so doing, today’s Russia – with an emboldened and increasingly despotic Vladimir Putin at its helm – also has rejected freedom, embracing a bellicose lawlessness of unsettling historic resonance. As the Haggadah puts it: L’fi she-hotzi et atzmo min ha-klal – “By excluding himself from the community” of nationsâ€¦ kafar ba-ikar – “he has denied the most basic of principles”â€¦ the freedom that is the birthright of all peoples, and the territorial integrity of sovereign nations.
The Haggadah prescribes that we react to the rasha with strength of purpose, explaining in no uncertain terms that our course, our actions, are a principled response to our historic experience: “Because of what the Lord did for me when I went out of Egypt.” The Jewish national experience imposes on us an obligation to champion freedom, a moral and spiritual duty that we are not entitled to shirk or to neglect. “Ever since the Exodus, freedom has spoken with a Hebrew accent,” insisted German poet (and, alas, Jewish apostate) Heinrich Heine.
As a Jew, my sadness (and outrage) at the invasion of Crimea is compounded by the rich Jewish history of that region. Jewish settlement of Crimea began as early as the first century C.E., purportedly by descendants of the Babylonian exile and deported warriors of the Bar Kochba rebellion. The participation of Jews in Crimean culture is said to have led to the storied conversion to Judaism of the Khazar royal family, and after their example, much of their kingdom in the seventh to 11th centuries. In the 20th century, Crimea was the site of a number of experimental proto-Zionist semi-autonomous agrarian Jewish communities, which were annihilated during the Nazi Holocaust. Greater Ukraine has seen the best and worst of Jewish history: the birth of the Hibbat Zion, Am Olam, and Biluim movements, as well as the massacres under Chmielnicki in the 17th century and at Babi Yar in 1941. S. Y. Agnon, Hayim Nachman Bialik, and Golda Meir all were products of Ukrainian Jewry, as was Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav. Jewish communal and synagogue life continues in Ukraine to this day.
No less than Jews at their seder tables, Americans also have an obligation, born of our unique history, to champion freedom, and to chart a principled course worthy of that historic mission. A defining element of the American ethos is recognition that all human beings “are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That is, America stands for the principle that freedom is not a privilege granted by rulers and government. Freedom is a universal right, an inescapable consequence of our belief in God – “Because of what the Lord did for me.”
The founding principles of the United States, not unlike the founding narrative of the Jewish people rehearsed around seder tables each year, require a meaningful response and strength of purpose when freedom is threatened by tyrants and terrorists. The rights with which we are endowed by our Creator come with equally divine corollary obligations. The cost of meeting those obligations, it is true, at times may be bitter. Perhaps that is the true meaning of the maror – the bitter herbs we dutifully taste at Passover, as we refrain, temporarily, from our ritual reclining. As a child, I would have preferred to avoid the bitterness altogether. Now I understand. Neither as Americans nor as Jews can we discharge our sacred duties without a willingness to abandon the relaxed posture with which we are accustomed to reveling in our freedom, and when principle so dictates, to face a possibly bitter course.
“The hottest place in Hell,” said Dante Alighieri, in an observation framed and displayed in my rabbinic study, “is reserved for those who, in time of moral crisis, remain neutral.”