Remembering the Holocaust, celebrating the Exodus

Must we choose between remembering the Exodus and remembering the Holocaust?

In recent years, there has been a volley of criticism that American Jews' commemoration of the Holocaust constitutes the substitution of a death fixation for Judaism's central message of life.

The Passover seder gives the lie to this false choice.

There is no question that Passover is the core Jewish holiday. The Ten Commandments open with, "I am the Lord Your God who took you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."

Deuteronomy tells us that the Exodus is the source of Israel's status as God's very own — chosen — people.

Central ethical Jewish teachings such as treating the stranger with love and justice, helping the poor and taking care of the widow and orphan are validated and mandated by the event of the Exodus.

Passover itself retells and re-enacts the great biblical Exodus.

The one ritual that every Jew had to participate in was the annual paschal lamb feast. Failure to join constituted cutting oneself off from Jewry.

Thus, the core teaching of Judaism became that there is a God who cares. That is why the Israelites who were enslaved were led to freedom and a promised land where they could live in dignity and equality.

Still, when the rabbis set out to create a ritual of memory to re-enact the Exodus, they insisted that the tale cannot focus only on life and deliverance. They determined that the seder must begin by telling the shameful stories and conclude with celebration.

In the Gemara, the great teacher Rav suggests that the telling should start with the admission that the Israelites themselves were originally idolaters. But his colleague, Samuel, makes clear that the account of liberation must begin by narrating the slavery — and the genocide — that preceded the Exodus.

In fact, the Haggadah tells of the forced labor and agony of the Jews and of the drowning of male children before it reaches the remarkable deliverance and the wonders in the desert.

There are three primary reasons why the message of the Exodus cannot be understood properly unless one first grasps the injustice that is the backdrop of the liberation.

First, there is a tendency among people of good will to underestimate the force of evil in the world. Particularly when one tells the story of a great victory for the downtrodden, such as the Exodus, there is danger that the continuing power of evil in the status quo will be minimized or overlooked.

Then good people will not organize sufficient power to overcome oppression or they will criticize and belittle those who use necessary force to defeat evil. This has often been the state of Israel's fate when it defended itself.

Second, given Judaism's optimism that the good will triumph, there is a danger that its affirmations will be heard as Pollyanna truths that veil the reality of evil and pain in the world. Many religions have fled this world by dismissing it as an illusion or by looking beyond to a "better" and "higher" spiritual realm rather than confronting the extent of human suffering that needs to be corrected in the here and now.

Faith in God should not encourage naiveté vis-a-vis evil. Torah is not some simplistic belief that denies the innocent suffering and injustice in this world or claims that people deserve what they get.

Only by telling the extent of slavery and suffering that preceded the Exodus — and that continued in other places after the liberation from Egypt — will people grasp the mixture of fragile hope, hard bitter realism and tenacity that is needed to realize the Torah's promise of redemption.

Knowing full well the power of past and future evil, Judaism stands up for hope and liberation. But it makes clear that only passionate committed partnerships between God and Israel, and God and humanity, can overcome evil and perfect the world.

Finally, the rabbis understood that people take life and good times for granted. Once freedom becomes the norm, there is a real danger that its beneficiaries will live routinely and fail to savor freedom's depth and wonders.

Only as people recall the life of slavery and tyranny will they be inspired to fight passionately against freedom's enemies. If they do not remember or compare the present liberty embodied in democracy to alternative systems, they will not appreciate or maximize the benefits of freedom.

The Passover seder teaches us that the dance of life takes place on the thin bridge of hope and vitality that we build over the abyss of death and despair that looms below.

"Love [and life are] more powerful than death," says the Song of Songs. But you will underappreciate life and underestimate death unless you come to life with eyes open and in full awareness of the power of death.

Intuitively, American Jews have understood that Israel's life pulses more fiercely when you come to Jerusalem by way of Buchenwald and Auschwitz. The memory of the Holocaust liberates us from the illusions of shallow universalism or complacent liberalism.

Many Jews include passages of Holocaust testimony in their seders.

The taste of maror (bitter herb) frees us to experience the intensity of the deliverance meal. The harshness of the matzah of slavery plays off the ease of our current situation and enables us to drink deeply and to savor the wine of liberation.

In every generation, we must embrace the painful but dynamic dialectic of tragedy and triumph — bayamim hahem — in those days in Egypt and — bazman hazeh — in our time.