This issue of the Independent includes reflections on death and rebirth, street photos and interviews with people about faith and hope, and a holiday table reverie of spring vegetables — all bringing to mind the holidays of the season, Easter, Passover, Ramadan. A family history essay by Lise King and Bunny Pearlman (page B3) doesn’t specifically mention Passover, but its linking of our lives today with the extreme sacrifices of our forebears a century ago is a perfect reflection of the meaning of the seder, with its ritual retelling of an ancient story of cruelty, courage, and deliverance.
I wrote about Passover two years ago, when Covid had just descended on us. (Note to digital editor: the title of that column, “Year of the Plague,” should probably be changed to “The Plague Years.”) The part of the story of the Jews’ escape from slavery that seemed most riveting and contemporary in 2020 was the ten plagues, naturally, and the drama of a power-crazed mortal ruler, Egypt’s pharaoh, defying the merciless wrath of God.
In 2022, the old stories again haunt our holiday, as a power-mad ruler in Russia rains destruction and death on innocents in Ukraine. “We wonder how such cruelty could have been possible,” write King and Pearlman about the Holocaust. “It has always lived at a shrouded distance from us — and yet here we are again. The ease with which crimes are now being committed in Ukraine brings the old history close. Now we can see how it happened, how easily they killed our families. Just gone.”
There is another part of the seder story that I find haunting. It comes as the Jews escape through the parted waters of the Red Sea. Pharaoh’s army, in furious pursuit, follows and is engulfed. The angels, watching this scene from above, erupt in songs of praise for God’s justice. But God rebukes them: “My creatures are drowning in the sea — and you are singing praise?”
This rebuke forces us to ask ourselves: Who were those Egyptian soldiers who perished in that flood? How old were they? Who sent them on their mission?
Likewise, we should ask: who are the Russians who are bringing death to Kyiv and Mariupol? Some, certainly, are career officers and others are mercenaries. But many are conscripts and enlistees, as young as 18, who have been fed monstrous lies about the purpose of their “special military operation” in Ukraine, which they have been told is to destroy Nazis.
Seeing the horrors inflicted on Ukraine should spur us to action, but we would do well to remember this: it is God’s creatures who are drowning, all around.
The meaning of the Passover seder is both timeless and ever-changing with the times. It demands our critical attention to what might be hidden in the story, even when we think we know the story completely. The evil in this tale is not a single nation, or a people, or even a single, demonic ruler. It is the denial of life and liberty, the making of war, and the destruction of truth.