Messages of Slavery and Freedom
By Rabbi David Baum / April & May 2012

As a young student living in Israel, I volunteered to go to the former Soviet Union to run communal seders (a Jewish ritual service and ceremonial dinner for the first two nights of Passover) in remote Jewish communities where the population lacked the knowledge of how to perform this task. This was a very strange phenomenon, to find a place with Jews who do not know how to run a Passover seder, considering that Passover is regarded as the most observed Jewish holiday. But this was a special place, with very special people.

Most people think that the Jews of the former Soviet Union emigrated when the Soviet Union collapsed. But there are still more than 400,000 Jews living in these lands, according to the Jewish Agency. I met many Jews in a city called Kazaan in West Russia, and heard their stories. I listened to the elderly Jews who lived through the beginnings of Communism. They told me how it became forbidden to practice Judaism, although they still had memories of growing up as Jews.

Then I spoke to their middle-aged children, who were taught very little about their heritage, and knew they were Jewish only through their passports. Then I met their children, my peers at the time, who knew almost nothing of their Jewish story.

Passover is the holiday of this story. The book that Jews use during the seder is called the Hagadah, which comes from the Hebrew words "to tell." The Hagadah is how we tell our story. The Torah gives us a commandment, "And you shall explain (higadetah) to your son on that day saying, 'It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt.' " (Exodus 13:8) The commandment is incredibly personal; each parent has the obligation to tell his own child their story. This is not a task that can be outsourced to others.

It is important to tell the story, and for our children to ask questions, because the messages of slavery and freedom are timeless and necessary to talk about in every generation. Just seventy years ago, my grandfather and millions of Jews were literally slaves in Europe during the Holocaust. Soviet Jewry had a different type of slavery. Not everything was taken from them, but something very important was stolen from them -- their stories and their faith.

My job those many years ago was to combat this slavery and bring them freedom by helping them reclaim their story.

We sang the words of the Hagadah, "In every generation one must see themselves as if he had personally left Egypt." We proclaimed loudly that each one of us had a task -- to appreciate the freedom that we have, and to remember the slavery that we were subjected to.

The commentators teach us that each one of us has an obligation to look at ourselves as if we OURSELVES had left Egypt. The rabbis are telling us something very important -- be part of our story.

It is up to each one of us not only to tell the story, but to live it. We live it by taking the personal obligation of making sure that our children hear our story and tell it to their children. We live the story by ensuring that no one remains in slavery, and that all people are free. Even in this age, we see slavery and injustice around the world, both far away, in foreign countries, and near, in our own country. When we tell our children our story, we engage them in the holy task of freedom and redemption, and we will tell this story until everyone knows it, and everyone is free.

Rabbi David Baum is affiliated with Congregation Shaarei Kodesh in Boca Raton.

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