“Passover begins at sundown the evening preceding the fifteenth day of the Hebrew month of Nissan. It is the great spring celebration of the Jewish people. Passover began as a nature holiday, celebrating new life. In the priestly and rabbinic traditions, it became a commemoration of the biblical exodus and the escape from slavery in ancient Egypt. This familiar tale, contained in the traditional Haggadah is retold each year at the seder, the Passover celebration.” – Society for Humanistic Judaism
Our family, as humanistic Jews, view the biblical Exodus story as one of the most powerful myths of the Jewish people, a tale that relates the courage and determination of a people fleeing slavery for freedom. Secular Humanistic Judaism views Passover as a time to celebrate the modern, as well as the ancient, quest for freedom. A humanist Haggadah includes both the legendary tale of the exodus from Egypt and the modern Jewish exodus stories, as well as the themes of its origin. Passover is also is a celebration of human dignity and the freedom that makes dignity possible.
The humanist Haggadah has guided our family for over forty years, from the time my husband and I were married by a Rabbi who was a Jewish Humanist and we entwined our families, ages 4, 5, 7 and 9 – my two daughters and his daughter and a son. We still use the original script even though it has been modified by others over the years. Our four adult children and five grandchildren now know the songs and the readings by heart. Even as we no longer live within proximity of each other, we celebrate wherever we are, still using the same Haggadah. One year, when our daughter, Laura, was living in Indonesia, she assembled a number of expats and had a grand seder.
This year, our table includes my husband Garrett and myself, two of our daughters, Michelle and Sharon, Michelle’s husband Steve, one granddaughter Alexa (age 16) and her friend Jennifer who has never attended a seder. This makes our dinner even more meaningful as she asks questions which give us new perspective on what we generally take for granted. We have an especially upbeat evening. The food is delicious, the conversation interesting and the company terrific. We laugh a lot, eat a lot and share our experiences, present and past.
There is a section in the seder readings entitled, “The Human Quest For Freedom.” It is my turn to read these six paragraphs. I choose to read the first and last paragraphs so as to get to the dinner more quickly (dinner is not served until most of the readings are completed); however, my daughter, Sharon, comes back to this section and says she thinks it is too important to be abbreviated and she reads it again, this time as it is written. I start to think about this reading. I remember how important this message was to our maturing children, especially when they became teens. I decide I want to post it in its entirety:
“Wise men among our people have advised us to respond to the Passover story as if each of us personally had been freed from Egyptian bondage. Yet, we know that most of this story is probably fictional. What then, can this ancient legend mean to us?
The course of every human life represents a quest for freedom. Children, much like slaves, are not their own masters. As children, we are provided with life’s necessities; we depend upon others for survival.
As we grow and mature, we pass through a wilderness of fear and self-doubt. Along the way, the risks of freedom threaten to overwhelm us. We look back on our youth with longing. We imagine the young to be free — free from the responsibilities that seem to enslave us. We tend to remember only the warmth and security of the past. We tend to forget that those who fed and clothed and loved us also planned, and sometimes, even thought for us.
A life of dependency is not satisfactory for long. The urge to break free — to dream our own dreams — to live our own lives — is irresistible. Each of us must eventually release ourselves from the bonds that tie us to the past, for even bonds of love can make us slaves.
Only when we find the courage to stand alone shall we earn the right to enter our “Promised land.” That land promises the incomparable dignity and fulfillment which accompany the mature acceptance of bondage. Responsibility for oneself is not a burden to be shunned of evaded, but a reward to be treasured and protected. Responsibility for one’s self is the privilege of one who has successfully braved the wilderness in his/her quest for freedom.
Our ancestors learned a lesson of value, and their legendary journey through the wilderness teaches a less of value to all mankind. Though the risks of freedom are great, security at the price of freedom is an impossible choice for any human being of dignity.”
Written for Congregation Beth Or by Rabbi Daniel Friedman & Felice Friedman, 1973
Learn more about humanistic Judaism at the Society for Humanistic Judaism.