When I was a teen, I listened to a lot of Bob Marley. I was an avid Reggae fan and even paid homage to his grave when I visited Jamaica on a family vacation. What I loved about Bob’s music, apart from the irresistible rhythms and melodies were his spiritual, Biblically-inspired lyrics.
For people the world over, black and white, rich and poor, young and old, Bob Marley’s rousing words rang like a Prophetic call to social justice and transformative faith.
In one of his most popular songs, ‘Exodus’, Bob sings the following in his Jamaican Patois: “Open your eyes and look within: are you satisfied with the life you’re living?” Although Bob Marley was not Jewish, he echoes the sentiments of the Haggadah which tells us to every generation is to regard themselves as if they personally had exited Egypt: ‘chayav adam lirot et atzmo ke’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim’.
What is remarkable about this commandment, rooted in Exodus 13:8 (‘and you shall tell your son, on that day, saying, ‘it is because of what the Eternal did for me when I came out of Egypt’) is that it appeals to our own, personal lives. But there’s more to it than that. Exodus 13:8 and Mishnah Pesachim 10:5 (which finds its way into the Haggadah) are ultimately echoed in the lyrics of Bob Marley’s song: ‘open your eyes and look within: are you satisfied with the life you’re living?’
There can be no external change without internal transformation. To Judaism, the personal is political. And Judaism will always prompt us to ask questions.
What does it mean that the Eternal took us out of Egypt? It means that we are not only partners in creation but also in redemption. It means that we can look at the experience of oppression and internalise it, that we can cultivate empathy with those oppressed today. It means we read the newspapers and watch the news through the lens of Eternity.
It’s okay to be angry. But it is only half of the perspective. By acknowledging that it is God Who redeemed us, the Torah tries to instil upon us an ‘attitude of gratitude’ to accompany our ‘righteous indignation’ as well as teaching us that political liberation relies on ideas greater than our own. Pesach likes mixing metaphors. At the Seder we speak of the bread of affliction while we dine on delicacies. We recline on comfortable seats while speaking about the burden of relentless work. The mixing of metaphors is intentional: were we to only focus on our liberation, we might become complacent. Were we to focus only on our oppression, we might become disenchanted. By emphasising both, the Haggadah hopes to spurn us into action. Or as Bob Marley would sing, ‘movement of Jah people’.
The value of the Exodus story, therefore, is not whether it historically took place or not. Its eternal relevance does not lie in archaeological evidence or antique relics on display in the British Museum. In fact, whether it happened or not might be completely irrelevant. What we do with it in our experience today is what matters.
So when you are seated at your Seder open your eyes and look within. Engage your guests and yourself with pointed questions about our lives and our world. Like the four sons of the Haggadah, it is good to ask even when it seems difficult or inappropriate to ask. What binds you in ‘slavery’ today? And what sets you free? What social causes do you find important and in what historical developments do you see both the hand of Pharaoh and the Hand of God? Today’s newspapers and newsreels supply us with endless food for thought. Bring snippets of articles to the table. Do a little research into a social issue you’re passionate about. Present your cause and encourage discussion. Enhance the brilliant pedagogy of the Haggadah with your own chiddush, new contribution.
The genius of Pesach is that its message is always just right. Like matzah, in times of prosperity, it keeps us humble. And in times of hardship, it nourishes us.
As I will set the table and place my silver Eliyahu’s cup on my brocade tablecloth and as I thank God for another season of freedom and another feast of food, I will hum Bob Marley in honour of fighting the good fight in times past and present. It is fitting that Bob, a modern-day prophet who was himself a descendant of slaves, should lend me the vocabulary that points towards Pesach’s ultimate goal:
“Jah come to break downpression, rule equality, wipe away transgression, set the captives free!”
Chag Pesach sameach!
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
Image credits: Folkert Gorter