Note: Ruth R. Wisse is the Martin Peretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. She is the sister of David Roskies, professor of Yiddish and Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Millions of children will ask their parents: Why is tonight different from all other nights of the year?
Children asking this question in Jewish homes around the world will be told that the Passover festival commemorates the liberation of their people from enslavement in Egypt and celebrates the civilization that emerged from that breakout into independence.
Families gathered at an orchestrated meal—the Seder—will begin the story by tasting the bitterness of subjection, make their way through debates over interpretations of the event, and culminate in joyful and occasionally (after the designated four cups of wine) raucous song.
We were never to forget that our timely exit from Europe coincided with the loss of several million others like us. Every year, we include in our family reading of the Haggadah a postwar insert circulated by the Canadian Jewish Congress honoring both those who perished at the hands of the Nazis and those who went down fighting:
“On the first day of Passover the remnants in the Ghetto of Warsaw rose up against the adversary, even as in the days of Judah the Maccabee. 'They were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided' [2 Samuel 1:23], and they brought redemption to the name of Israel through all the world.”
This tribute concludes with one of Maimonides's 13 principles of faith: “I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the messiah—and though he tarry, yet I believe.” Participants in our Seder traditionally differ in how deeply they linger over the tarrying and how fervently over the belief.
Passover is the first of the Jewish holidays to have broken through ethnic boundaries—at least in America—to become regarded as a paradigm of the freedom story. President's have hosted Seders at the White House. An annual cascade of new Haggadahs demonstrates the multiple ways that the festival is nowadays observed and understood.
But the most inspiring incarnation of the exodus has been the one that reversed it: the recovery of the Jewish homeland from foreign occupiers after millennia of exile. Not by the hands of an angel and not by the hands of a messenger, but by the self-reliance that their ancestors had practiced for millennia, and by keeping faith with their vow to return to Jerusalem, the settlers of Israel accomplished one of the greatest national feats in history.
Jews reclaimed their political independence in the land of Israel in the same decade that witnessed the genocidal slaughter of one-third of their people. They did so not only by mobilizing skills honed through centuries of adaptation to foreign rule but by reactivating powers that were dormant for centuries.
Can the legendary crossing of the Red Sea compare with the marvel of several million Jewish migrants and refugees from lands as disparate as Ethiopia and Latvia forging a common, democratic Jewish state? Are the plagues that persuaded Pharaoh to “let my people go” or the miracles in the desert as stunning as Israel's ability to withstand the preposterously asymmetrical Arab aggression against it? The revival of Hebrew from sacral high status into national vernacular is an unparalleled linguistic feat. Entrepreneurship in Israel has won it the title of “start-up nation.”
The traditional Passover Seder concludes with the pledge, “Next year in Jerusalem,” which the British poet William Blake nationalized in the vow not to rest “Till we have built Jerusalem / In England's green & pleasant Land.” Yet modern Israel represents an immense human accomplishment that may even go beyond the prophetic vision. Passover today includes a story of national liberation at least the equal of the one in the Book of Exodus that served as its inspiration.