What is the most resonant line in the Haggadah? I suppose each of us would have a different answer to that question, but when I was a boy it was the line about all of us having to see ourselves as though we personally were slaves to Pharaoh in
Partially, it had to do with my family itself. My grandparents, my father's parents, came from Nowy Dwor, a town in central
All of this came back to more forcefully just yesterday as I was reading the news stories marking the sixty-fifth anniversary of the uprising in the Warsaw ghetto. The story of the uprising, I suppose everybody knows. But it was the way the events marking the anniversary were reported that spoke to me as deeply as the events themselves. Shimon Peres, the president of
If my grandmother were alive, she wouldn't believe any of this. Even I hardly believe it. About half of the martyrs who died during the Shoah were Polish Jews. Their stories are so gruesome, so unbelievably horrific, that I still have nightmares occasionally about stories I heard or read decades ago. One of my father's favorite themes was the complicity of the Polish people in the slaughter, but to see the president of Poland standing next to the president of Israel and speaking passionately about the uprising as an event not only of Jewish concern, but as something that should inspire all the world's people--and then to see these remarks reported throughout Europe, including in Germany and Poland, and throughout the world--maybe that is what the Haggadah meant all along when it instructs us to think of ourselves as though we ourselves went forth from Egypt.
We, after all, are free people. We live in a free country blessed a thousand times with every one of God's many blessings. Within our lifetimes, however--or within our parents' or grandparents' lifetimes--we were truly slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, but, somehow, we survived...and survived not merely by not being killed, but by having among us people like Marek Edelman, the only surviving leader of the uprising, who is not only still alive, but who spoke in Warsaw earlier this week. (Edelman, eighty-five years old, succeeded Mordechai Anielewicz as leader of the uprising. He survived, never left
I have been emotional involved with the story of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising ever since I read Leon Uris' Mila 18 and John Hersey's The Wall as a teenager. If there is any way in which I viscerally respond to the call to think of myself as a slave, it is in my role as a latter-day descendant of two of the Jews of Nowy Dwor who left while there was still time, thus escaping the slaughter that overtook almost all their friends, neighbors and relations. Was it really only sixty-five years ago that the Jews of the ghetto rose up to defend themselves against their enemies? Even they must have known they couldn't really win...but the fact that they rose up in revolt at all is what matters. Truly, we all were slaves to Pharaoh in ancient Egypt--lots, but not all, of those slaves must have died in Egypt at the hands of their overlords--and the ones who survived turned into a nation that exists at the cusp between history and destiny, between slavery and redemption. That, I believe, is the secret to Jewish survival, our blessing and our burden, the detail of our self-conception that makes us who we are. (April 18, 2008)