In the early twentieth century, when admission to prestigious American universities was subject to a quota system favoring the Protestant establishment elite, the City College of New York became known as “the Harvard of the Proletariat.” Accordingly, countless talented young Jewish students were drawn to CCNY in pursuit of a truly quality education. Among such gifted CCNY students were future Nobel laureates Julius Axelrod and Arthur Kornberg (both in Medicine), Kenneth Arrow and Robert Aumann (both in Economics), Herbert Hauptman (Chemistry), Henry Kissinger (Peace), and Leon Lederman, Arno Penzias, and Julius Schwinger (all in Physics).
The motto of CCNY, appearing on its official seal, is the Latin phrase “Respice; Adspice; Prospice” – “Look to the Past; Look to the Present; Look to the Future.” So far as I have been able to determine, this motto was devised specifically for City College, and is drawn from no classical Latin or Roman source. On this Eve of Passover, however, let us note that the CCNY motto fairly summarizes a critical text of the Pesach Haggadah: Ha Lachma Anya, which initiates the retelling of the Exodus experience.
“Ha Lachma Anya: This is the bread of poverty (or ‘of affliction’), which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat; let all who are in need come and observe Passover. Now we are here; next year in the Land of Israel… Now we are slaves; next year may we be free.”
Ha Lachma Anya comprises but three sentences, which point us to our past (our ancestors in Egypt); to our responsibilities in the present (willing, generous hospitality to, and solidarity with, the hungry, the needy, and the spiritually isolated); and to the future (striving for a more redeemed, enlightened era of increased freedom and Jewish national self-realization).
“Respice; Adspice; Prospice.”
The CCNY motto is an apt slogan for the Seder because City College is an institution of higher learning with a history of Jewish significance. The Latin of CCNY’s motto aptly suits a Seder slogan because so much of our current Passover Eve ritual took form during the Roman Period. “Respice; Adspice; Prospice” is apt shorthand for the Seder because – as demonstrated succinctly by Ha Lachma Anya – our Passover Eve attention, our ambitious educational agenda for the Seder, is properly divided into three parts: a principled consciousness of our history, a passionate engagement with present conditions and challenges, and a tenacious commitment to securing a brighter future.
As American Jews, we would also do well on this Festival of Freedom to recall a tribute to an all too often forgotten Founding Father, Charles Carroll of Carollton (1737-1832), the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. Carroll, also the only Roman Catholic among the fifty-six signatories, had intimate personal knowledge of what it means to belong to a besieged and misunderstood religious minority struggling for freedom. By the end of his life, however, he was an iconic national hero. The similarly iconic Daniel Webster (Carroll’s fellow U.S. senator) heaped praise upon him… in terms resonant of Ha Lachma Anya’s tripartite mission statement:
“Venerable object! …Sole survivor of an assembly of as great men as the world has witnessed, in a transaction one of the most important that history records; what thoughts, what interesting reflections must fill his elevated and devout soul! If he dwell on the past, how touching its recollections; if he survey the present, how happy, how joyous, how full of fruition of that hope which his ardent patriotism indulged; if he glance at the future, how does the prospect of his country’s advancement almost bewilder his weakened conception! Fortunate, distinguished patriot!”
We celebrate Pesach this year in a troubled and weakened world. Neither freedom nor peace nor the independence of sovereign nations is to be taken for granted. At our Seders, we are charged with remembering our own national past, and transmitting the lessons and legacy of the Exodus: “a transaction one of the most important that history records.” May our “recollections” of that past be “touching” for every “elevated and devout soul” celebrating the holiday. May our examination of the present (despite disheartening news) be “happy… joyous… full of fruition” of every worthy hope we may indulge. As we contemplate the future – our personal and shared path forward – may we find the strength, wisdom, and the determination to build a freer, more just, more enlightened, more fully redeemed, more secure and peaceful tomorrow… “almost bewildering” to the imagination.
Wishing you – “fortunate, distinguished” Seder celebrants all – a Chag Kasher v’Samei’ach… a happy, kosher, inspiring Pesach.
Respice, Adspice, Prospice!