Some of my best childhood memories were made around the Passover table.
On the first night of Passover, Jewish families around the world hold a ritual meal called a seder. Extended family and friends, delicious food, joyous singing, and a lot of storytelling usually accompany the seder as we celebrate the miracle of the Exodus. For me, it was always a special time to connect with my extended family, to laugh, to learn, to sing – and it instilled customs that I now pass on to my own children.
As I grew older and began to understand the symbolism behind the food we ate and the text we read (called the Haggadah), I noticed that much of the seder focused on bitterness and slavery, not freedom and joy.
Matzah, a symbol and staple of Passover, is referred to as “the bread of affliction” (Deuteronomy 16:3) in the Bible. It reminds us of the poor man’s bread — consisting merely of flour and water – that the Israelites ate while enslaved in Egypt. Eating matzah at the seder is a critical component of the meal.
In addition, one of the first rituals that we take part in at the seder is dipping a vegetable in salt water. The salty tasting water is meant to remind us of the tears our ancestors cried during slavery. Another item that takes a prominent space at the seder is maror, the bitter vegetable. We eat and discuss this symbol of bitterness several times during the meal.
I began to wonder: Why is it that we focus so much on slavery during a holiday that celebrates freedom?
My dear father, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, taught me the answer. He explained that we recall the experience of slavery so that we remember what it is like to be in a bitter situation, and to become sensitive to those who are suffering bitterly today.
My father lived this idea all of the time, but especially on Passover. For 36 years, through The Fellowship he worked tirelessly to provide desperately poor Jews in Israel and the former Soviet Union with food for the holiday. Poverty is also a kind of slavery that is oppressive and cruel. As we celebrate our freedom, we must not forget those who are still enslaved, either by people or circumstances. Unfortunately, so many of God’s people are still suffering today.
Decades after my father began his initiative, The Fellowship now distributes more than 70,000 Passover food packages in Israel and the former Soviet Union. These food packages not only feed the hungry, but also nourish their souls. We tell those in need that we hear their cries and we see their suffering, just as God saw ours when we were slaves in Egypt.
Slavery, in its most literal sense, still exists in our times. Moreover, oppressive regimes, persecuted minorities, abusive relationships, and poverty at its worst, plague our world. My father would always take time at the seder meal to call attention to those suffering around the world. If we have any hope of ridding the world of slavery, in all its forms, we must first take notice. We need to pay attention to the suffering of others, feel their pain, and commit to action.
This will be the first Passover without my father. But we will honor him and his legacy as we celebrate our freedom by working on behalf of those who are still not free. With God’s help, we will reach even more people, as we renew our commitment to helping the oppressed and to serving God’s purposes. Let us pray that, together, we can show these people in need the truth of the Hebrew saying: “Redemption from the Lord can come in the blink of an eye.”
With blessings from the Holy Land,