As we begin the Maggid portion of the seder, the time when we tell the story, the leader lifts up the three matzot that have been set aside and recites, “This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.” And as the reading continues, the leader says, “This year we are slaves; next year may we be free.”
And this last bit is always a puzzle. On this night of all nights, aren’t we celebrating our freedom? Isn’t the entire seder experience an acknowledgement of the great liberation story of our people, replete with miracles and outsized personalities, the greatest of whom is the Eternal God? How is it, then, that we declare that on this day we nonetheless remain slaves?
For me the clue to the answer is what happens after the meal when we open the door for Elijah who, when he does finally stand at other side of the door waiting to be invited in, comes in, has a sip of wine and announces the imminent arrival of the Messiah.
But the problem is, Elijah is never on the other side of the open door, and his cup of wine, despite the joke that we can observe a slight diminution of wine in Elijah’s cup, remains full.
And so, because the messianic times have yet to arrive, in some sense, we remain enslaved. Certainly not to the extent of actual lived slave experiences, of which there are far too many examples in history and in our times. But in the sense that we have constantly to deal with the ramifications of evil in our world, we remain enslaved to a radically imperfect reality.
I say this because our enslavement has been made painfully obvious in the last two weeks as we’ve experienced two mass shootings. One in Atlanta and one in Boulder.
And they are just two more in a long line of these horrors that we experience as Americans. These mass shootings, certainly the vulgar quantity of them that occur within our borders, form a uniquely American event which enslaves us to a world of violence, of fear, of inexplicable, irrational murder. The perpetrators constitute an odd and ugly class of individual. They are obviously capable of pulling the trigger of a weapon aimed at an anonymous crowd. He comes to the scene armed with a weapon of the type no ordinary citizen should be able to purchase, with or without a background check, lets loose with a hail of bullets, and lives are ended and others seriously damaged in the wake of the murders.
So, we go into our Festival of Liberation confronting, yet again, the weird and accursed American phenomenon of the mass shooting. And we wonder when we as a nation will find the wisdom and courage to confront this problem and find the solution that will help us cross this particular Sea to find on the other end that this particular plague no longer afflicts us.
Until such time, we understand anew what the reader at the seder, raising those three matzot, means when she says. “Today we are slaves. Next year may we be free men and women.”
Even so, it remains appropriate, even necessary, to wish you all, on my behalf and Betsy’s,
Hag samayach v’kasher,
Rabbi Phil M. Cohen