Every year, when my family sits down at the Passover seder table, we talk about the stranger.
The version of the Haggadah that we use, with its readings and blessings, includes a passage from Exodus: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of a stranger.” Hammered home during my childhood was the message of compassion: Because our ancestors were freed from bondage in Egypt, we should help those who suffer today.
Over four cups of wine, we always reflect on who, currently, languishes in a metaphorical Egypt: Afghans one year, Syrian refugees the next, then Uyghurs. This holiday, we’ll likely talk about Ukrainian families that went from living their lives to running for their lives.
But as Passover approaches, I’m replaying a conversation I had with Dov Linzer, an Orthodox rabbi with whom I used to co-host a podcast about the Torah portion of the week. He told me that the key line about empathizing with the stranger isn’t mentioned in his Haggadah at all. He was startled that the chief mandate I had absorbed is to think about who is in trouble now, because Jews once were in trouble ourselves.
That wasn’t the ethos of his boyhood seder. The line in his traditional Haggadah on which he focused, he told me, is “In every generation our enemies rise up against us to destroy us, but God always delivers us out of their hands”—a reminder that anti-Semitism is inevitable and only God saves the day.
To be clear, the Haggadah is known to be a fluid document, unlike the Hebrew Bible. There have been countless iterations of the text, though the 15 steps of the seder, which translates to “order,” have remained fairly fixed. The main obligation of the ritual is to tell the Exodus story to your children.
But this year, my usual orientation toward “the stranger,” or, in contemporary parlance, “the other,” feels oversimplified, insufficient, naive to the idea—however hard to accept—that the hated “other” is sometimes us. I’m alert to the spike in anti-Semitic ugliness throughout the world. According to the Anti-Defamation League, 2019 saw more anti-Semitic incidents than any other year since the organization began tracking such incidents four decades ago. This year and last, anti-Semitic hate crimes were the most commonly reported type of bias crimes in New York City. Hateful tweets about Jews increased by 31 percent in 2021, according to an Israeli-government report.
Americans seem inured to finding swastikas in dorm rooms, seeing Hasidic Jews beaten on sidewalks, and listening to Israel’s existence be vilified. Crass Holocaust analogies are deployed from both sides of the political aisle.
What hit closest to home for me, though, was the harrowing Sabbath in January when my rabbi, Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in New York, fielded deranged calls from a gunman, Malik Faisal Akram. He demanded that she use her “influence” to free a jailed terrorist while he held four hostages for 11 hours in a Colleyville, Texas, synagogue.
One of Akram’s hostages, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, exemplified not only the calm and courage of a true leader but the tension between different themes of the Haggadah: Do we welcome the stranger or treat him with suspicion? When Akram knocked on the locked synagogue’s door, Cytron-Walker offered him not distrust but a cup of tea. Cytron-Walker was later deservedly lauded for that kindness, though at the same time synagogues everywhere rushed to increase their security.
I don’t subscribe to the fear, heard in some Jewish circles, that it’s 1938 all over again. But I have also never in my lifetime watched Jews painted so starkly as master manipulators, oppressors, colonizers, even Nazis, excluded from progressive efforts for social justice. I never imagined that I’d see signs blaring Zionism is terrorism, or flyers left on doorsteps blaming the pandemic on a Jewish plot. I find it mind-boggling that white supremacists have even found a way to blame the Jewish president of Ukraine for engineering a war to get white Europeans killed.
The ground has shifted, and Passover must too.
I’m struggling this year to reconcile the lessons I’ve taken from the holiday: to help the world, but also to remember how often the world has turned on us. Maybe the seder needs to be a call not only for empathy but also for vigilance. And yet if I reorient my prayers, will the directive I’ve always most valued—to care and to act—be applied chiefly to my family, so that we forget the stranger?
I remain committed to my Haggadah’s charge—not just to recount our own oppression, but to resolve not to oppress others. I will hold my fellow Jews to that standard without equivocation. But I’m wrestling now with Passover’s other clarion call: to remember that we had enemies once, and that we have them still.
At the end of the seder, we open the door for the prophet Elijah—the harbinger of the Messiah—yearning for a better world.
Two clashing explanations for the Elijah ritual reverberate this year—one modern, one medieval. The first is that we open the door to symbolize that humans have a role to play in redemption. The other is that, in a time of hatred, Jews must remain on guard, opening the door to make sure the enemy is not waiting on the other side.