Celebrating Pesach in Israel, for only the second time in my life, has definitely been a unique and enjoyable experience. From the relative lack of restrictions on access to delicious food — since so many of the restaurants in the city stay open with completely kosher-for-Pesach menus — to enjoying a seder with some of the inspiring and engaged Jews I have the privilege to study with this year, I am sure I will remember this Pesach for years to come.
There are two thoughts that have occupied me leading up to this year’s seder, connected to two of the classic themes of the holiday. The first I spoke of during the seder: in thinking about the plagues (whether there were 10 or 300 of them, as the Midrash brought in the Hagaddah asserts), I was struck by the rabbinic impulse to argue that there were more plagues inflicted upon the oppressors of the Israelites in their effort to become free. Why stress the plagues, and the attendant suffering they caused the Egyptians? What kind of god does that imply that the Israelites (and the rabbis) believed in, and what theological differences would it have made had the Midrash (or the Torah itself) instead tried to minimize the plagues, championing the miracle that Hashem was able to free the Israelites with a minimum amount of harm dealt to the Egyptians?
The second is much more of a modern, grounded concern. I have focused a little bit this year on a problem of slavery as it exists in the world today, in the form of sexual trafficking. From volunteering for ATZUM’s Task Force for Human Trafficking, to reading and talking about Half The Sky, the plight of trafficked people has been prominent for me this year. The tie-in to the seder occurred when I began thinking about how the formal seder ends (before the concluding songs): לשנה הבאה בירושלים — Next Year in Jerusalem! As someone celebrating the seder in Jerusalem, with little chance of doing so next year, I began to wonder what Jews have traditionally said about this paradox (quite different from being in another country with an equally slim chance of celebrating the following year in Jerusalem). The basic understanding of this phrase, shared by many, is that the ‘Jerusalem’ referred to is not the city I have been living in this year, but rather ירושלים של מעלה — The Heavenly Jerusalem. The call at the end of the seder is not one of mass aliyah to Jerusalem, but rather a call to rebuild our world as a whole to more properly reflect what we would consider a heavenly Jerusalem. I could not help but think that the Jerusalem I had in mind when saying that concluding phrase would have no place in it for the sexual trafficking that occurs in ירושלים של מטה — the Earthly Jerusalem which I live in.