Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, is the ultimate Jewish national holiday. Known as the “holiday of freedom,” Passover commemorates the Jewish people’s redemption from slavery in Egypt and the beginning of our journey into Israel. Passover is inextricably linked to the creation of a Jewish national home and our yearning to be a free people in our own land.
The David Project, a Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to positively shaping campus opinion on Israel, recognizes that talking about contemporary Israel can often be challenging, especially with the diversity of viewpoints around our seder tables. (Two Jews, three opinions!) To help infuse more meaningful discussion about contemporary Israel into your modern seder and to connect the historic and the contemporary experience of the Jewish people, we’ve provided a discussion guide, “The Four Questions (about Israel).” We’d love to hear how your conversations go!
Is Israel still our promised land? Is Israel important to you? Why or why not?
Guiding Thoughts: The Hagaddah commands us to see ourselves as if each of us was brought out of Egypt into the promised land, saying “In every generation let each individual look on himself as if he came forth personally from Egypt. We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. Had not HaShem taken us out from Egypt we would still have remained slaves.” The idea of slaves being released from bondage and journeying to a land promised to them by God is a powerful one, and the Jewish understanding of Israel certainly derives much of its power from this context. Today, American Jews have moved beyond slave status and have achieved a level of freedom and integration into modern society unknown to previous generations. Within this context, does our ancestors’ understanding of Israel still ring true today?
We suggest asking this question immediately following the recital of “We were slaves to Pharoah in Egypt,” right after the Four Questions/Mah Nishtanah. We encourage you to go around your table and have each person share his earliest memory of Israel, and the context for that memory. (Listening to the news during the 1967 Six Day War, going on Birthright, etc.) This may illuminate the similarities and differences of each person’s experience and connection to Israel, and help ground the discussion of Israel’s meaning to modern American Jews.
What does it mean for the modern state of Israel to be Jewish and democratic?
Guiding Thoughts: This question and the resulting discussion will work best following the raising of the wine cup and uncovering of the matzoh during the Maggid, the telling of the Exodus story. At this point in the seder, we read, “Go forth and learn what Laban the Aramean wanted to do to our father Jacob. Pharaoh had issued a decree against the male children only, but Laban wanted to uproot everyone - as it is said: ‘The Aramean wished to destroy my father; and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation - great and mighty and numerous.’” The Exodus from Egypt was the first step toward nationhood for the Israelites, which became a defining quality of the Jewish people.
In modern times, Israel was reborn as a Jewish, democratic state in 1948. But, what are the tensions between being Jewish and democratic? Last year, an Israeli Arab Supreme Court Judge caused a stir when he refused to sing Israel’s national anthem. The incident occurred during the swearing in ceremony of the Israeli Supreme Court’s new president, Judge Asher Grunis. At the end of Grunis’ swearing in ceremony, those present stood and sang Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. Judge Salim Jubran, an Israeli Arab, chose not to participate in the singing. The report cited Judge Jubran’s associates as having said that the issue of singing the anthem is a “very sensitive” matter for him, but did not provide details on what exactly that meant. The Israeli anthem expresses the Jewish longing to return and be a free people in their homeland, Zion and Jerusalem. It does not actively negate the presence of non-Jews in the country. Does this matter? Is there a clash of democratic and religious values in Israel, exemplified by the lyrics to Hatikvah?
Are you grateful for the Jewish State? Why or why not? What aspects of Israel or its contributions to the world are you most grateful for?
Guiding Thoughts: Toward the end of the seder, we recite Hallel, psalms of praise to God for all he has given us. In his article for MyJewishLearning, Rabbi Isaiah Wohlgemuth highlights that “Hallel deals with all of Jewish history from the birth of our nation to the establishment of the Messianic Era. In Hallel we express our joy at past miracles and our faith in future miracles.” Hallel gives us an opportunity to “praise God's providence for the individual and for the sake of the nation as a whole. In the second section we implore God not to forsake us, neither the nation nor the individual. In the last part of Hallel we thank God for miracles past, present, and future.”
When discussing Hallel and gratitude, you may want to consider that many Jews identify Israel as a safe haven, a place where Jews will be welcomed and provided for should they experience persecution. Are you grateful that Israel is there if you need her? Does the idea of Israel as a refuge resonate with your experience as an American Jew?
What does the phrase “next year in Jerusalem" mean to you?
Guiding Thoughts: The final words of our seder are “next year in Jerusalem!” These words are endowed with a tremendous sense of meaning; they evoke feelings of hope and longing for Jerusalem and express the Jewish connection to Israel as the promised land. (To give the seder’s final words with even more meaning, we encourage you to have this discussion before you recite “next year in Jerusalem!”) As you did at the beginning of the seder when guests shared their first memories of Israel, we encourage each participant to answer the question of what these words mean to him. Further questions for discussion or alternative questions for discussion include: what did this phrase mean throughout different generations of Jews? Has its meaning changed since the rise of Zionism and the birth of the State of Israel? Do you see it as a practical or figurative wish? What does it require from you personally?
Happy Passover from The David Project!