On Erev Pesach, Jews throughout the world will sit down at the seder table: observant Jews of all denominations and none, secular and cultural Jews, humanist, socialist, feminist and LGBT Jews. Why? Why is it that not only observant Jews of all persuasions, but Jews who do not generally observe the rites and practices of Jewish life, choose to gather around the seder table? Why is it that in addition to the vast array of traditional haggadot, and the expanding variety of editions, published by the various progressive movements, there are so many other creative versions available? What draws so many variously identified Jews to Pesach?
It is our story, of course: the tale of the liberation of our ancestors from slavery. It is also clear that the first rabbis, who re-crafted the observance of Pesach, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, by bringing the festival into people’s homes, and creating the first Haggadah (Mishnah, Seder Mo’eid: Pesachim), helped to ensure that the obligation to transmit the remembrance of the Exodus through the generations, as stated in the Torah (Exodus 13:8), would be fulfilled. And there is something else besides the compelling story of our people’s beginnings and brilliant rabbinic initiative: The tale of the Exodus is a source of continuous inspiration for all those, who still live in chains and for all those who, in solidarity with the enslaved, are determined to eradicate slavery.
It is shocking that slavery is still a reality today – and not just in countries dominated by pre-modern ideologies and practices. Slavery and human trafficking is rife in Britain, across Europe, and in the United States. And of course, we must not forget that every time we buy a cheap item of clothing in a shop on our own local high street, there is a huge probability that it has been produced by slave labour – including, child labour – in another part of the globe.
This year, T’ruah, ‘the rabbinic call for human rights’ in the United States, which has been engaged in an anti-human trafficking campaign for some time, has produced a new Haggadah, The Other Side of the Sea: A Haggadah on Fighting Modern Slavery (2015) to raise awareness and to inspire people to take action. But in doing this, T’ruah is not simply investing the festival of Pesach with new life. One of the key passages in the traditional Haggadah, Ha Lachmah Anya, ‘This is the Bread of Affliction’, concludes with the words, in a combination of Aramaic and Hebrew: Ha-shatta, avdey; la-shanah ha-ba’ah, b’ney chorin – ‘This year, slaves; next year, free people’. And so, we fulfil our obligation to observe the festival of Pesach, not simply by retelling and re-living the story of the liberation of our slave ancestors, but by committing ourselves to the struggle against slavery and human trafficking today. Chag Samei’ach!