Passover and Easter are, in many ways, the defining holidays for Jews and Christians, respectively. Yet with all of their differences, there is something profoundly similar, and profoundly American, about both of these holidays. That something is freedom.
Freedom is probably the thing which most of us hold sacred as the most American of values. Our founding stories are freedom stories and our greatest moments as a nation are moments of securing greater freedom for ourselves and for the world. Perhaps that is why Passover is the most celebrated holiday among American Jews, and one which is increasingly interesting to others as well.
The exodus from Egypt is one of those stories which inspires people whether they are Jewish or not, whatever their race or ethnicity may be, and it has been that way for a very long time. In fact, the Bible reports that a “mixed multitude” left Egypt with the ancient Israelites. Freedom was not simply for the members of a particular tribe, nor was it offered only to the righteous. Passover celebrates the notion that freedom is a right, while recognizing that rights are not always free.
Leaving Egypt was hard. In fact, the generation that left never made it to the Promised Land. The achievement of that goal was left to their children and grandchildren. Perhaps that is the definition of having a really big goal – that it is so big, it will not be achieved by those who first dare to articulate the goal.
Perhaps it is not only the grandeur of a goal like freedom which made it impossible to achieve in a single generation. Perhaps it is the nature of freedom itself to always be something we need to achieve more fully.
For the slave generation, leaving Egypt was good enough, but for their children, it was not. The next generation needed to accomplish more – they needed not simply to be free of the nation which oppressed them, but to establish a nation of their own.
And after 1,000 years of nation-building, the descendants of those ancient Israelites pushed even farther. For the rabbis who created what we now know as Judaism, that meant teaching people that wherever they were in the world, they could build meaningful lives with genuine spiritual connection.
As Jews were heading into the Diaspora for what would turn out to be almost 2,000 years, those rabbinic sages taught that goodness, decency and dignity were not a function of living in a particular place in the world, but rather of how people conducted themselves in the world.
The boundaries of geography would not define Jewish life, people would. But is that so different from at least one of the central messages of Easter? To teach people that death itself can be conquered is to teach them that the constraints they assume, that the circumstances which limit them and keep them from being free – they can all be overcome.
While we differ as Jews and Christians about the historic claim of the cross, we are both products of teachers who lived and died around the message that no matter what the world does to us or tell us, we are free to make a difference and that eventually that difference will transform the world.
Seeing that possibility, whether as a Jew, a Christian, or from the perspective of whatever tradition may animate us is what makes us strong and our nation strong. In this season, when freedom and rebirth are celebrated in churches, synagogues, and even in backyard gardens where we see the first shoots emerge from the ground, I hope it is a message we remember to celebrate.
Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership