At our Passover Seder this year, one of the guests introduced an interesting discussion spark—a set of cards with photos of people who, depending on one’s perspective, could be considered either free or not free. One of these photos especially caught my attention. It shows the last Passover Seder in the Warsaw Ghetto, taken on April 19, 1943, the night that the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising began. The Germans entered the ghetto that night, intentionally on the Festival of Passover, planning to remove or kill the last Jewish inhabitants. Perhaps strengthened in their resolve by the message of Passover, a handful of Jews faced off against the German army and held out for three weeks until the ghetto was finally overwhelmed and destroyed on May 16.
The crowd gathered around the Seder table included people of all ages, most bearing desperate and grim expressions. The man seated at the head of the table is breaking the middle matzah (“yachatz” is a symbol of the brokenness of the world…for whom would this act have been more real and vivid?). His expression seems determined and resolute. The question the card poses is this: Are these people free or not free? Perhaps they are free because, despite facing terrible evil and the fear and dread of the executioner’s sword hanging over their heads, they are embracing and celebrating their tradition, the very religious tradition for which they are being exterminated. Perhaps they are not free because even they know that their suffering will soon increase and they will perish in anguish. Is celebrating Passover in a ghetto, doomed to die, freedom?
When we discussed this question in shul on the last day of Pesach, most people felt that the question of whether the Jews at the last Passover Seder in the Warsaw Ghetto were free or not free cannot be answered objectively. That is because freedom is not solely a legal status. Freedom is as much a state of mind, an ever-evolving potential of the human spirit. Freedom is a way of life to which we must aspire, and for which we must work, every minute of every day.
The celebration of Passover is not merely about history, a recollection of what happened to our people centuries ago. For Passover to be not only relevant but meaningful, it must address the present and the future. The questions of the Haggadah must be understood not only as “how were our people liberated from Egyptian bondage centuries ago?” but, more pressingly, “how does the message of Passover inspire and motivate us to increase the blessing of freedom for all of humanity?”
If that is true for Passover, it must also be true for Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day). Observed beginning this Sunday evening, April 23rd, Yom Hashoah is rightly about the suffering of our people during the dark years of the Nazi regime in Europe. It is also about the determination and will of those Jews who resisted, and the valiant acts of righteous gentiles who saved so many of us. But Yom Hashoah is also about being inspired and motivated by the terrible anguish of the Holocaust to work to end the oppression of all human beings. The lessons of the Holocaust summon us to be aware of the places in the world where people suffer, sometimes in silence, at the hand of tyrants, where they are murdered and gassed, where women are sold into sexual slavery, where children are forced to fight as soldiers rather than get an education and develop their minds and lives. These things are happening in our world today, in Syria, in South Sudan, in Somalia, in Yemen, and countless other places around the world.
As Yom Hashoah begins at nightfall this Sunday, please light the candle provided to every Oheb Shalom member by our Men’s Club. As you light the flame, reflect not only on the suffering of our people during those dark years but also on the suffering of human beings in today’s world. As the light begins to spread, imagine that the freedom, like the flame, grows and spreads. May the light of the candle symbolize our potential to spread freedom to each person who lives in this world.