The holiday of Passover, which begins on Monday evening, April 10th, celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery more than 3,000 year ago. The theme of the holiday is “freedom” and in the liturgy it is referred to as z’man chei-ru-tei-nu, which means the season of our freedom. Although the Israelites were freed from Egyptian slavery over 3,000 years ago, throughout the ages, Jews have not been free from various persecutions and various acts of discrimination. Both of my parents were born in Eastern Europe in areas under the control of the Russian Czar. My father immigrated to the United States when he was eighteen years old and my mother immigrated with her family when she was thir-teen. They came to the United States to escape the persecution of Jews in the areas where they lived and to seek better eco-nomic opportunities and freedom. In the shtetls where my parents were born, not only did the government deny freedom to Jews, but Jews lived in a religious environment which restricted their freedom of action. In the shtetls where my parents were born, Jews lived in a closed society dominated by strict Orthodox practices. A Jew who worked on Shabbat or smoked a cigarette outside his home on Shabbat or was found eating a ham sandwich would be socially ostracized. A Jew who did not attend synagogue on Shabbat would be shunned by his fellow Jews. All the synagogue prayers were in Hebrew, a language which very few Jews understood. There were numerous religious rituals, with few people knowing the reasons for them. Yet, in these shtetls, a child didn’t have to attend religious school to learn about Jewish observances. He knew that Shabbat was a special day because his mother lit candles every Friday evening and he ate his best meal of the week on Shabbat. He knew about all the Jewish holidays because his fam-ily observed these holidays. If he attended a cheder, it was to learn how to read and write Hebrew and to study Hebrew texts, not to learn how to practice Judaism. In the United States, Jews live in a land of freedom, not only political freedom, but religious freedom. We are free to prac-tice Judaism or not to practice any religion at all. And the Reform movement has modernized Judaism by declaring male and female religious equality, by making religious services more meaningful, by eliminating outmoded religious practices, by giving congregants the reasons for the many practices which Reform continues to observe, and by introducing new practices. However, while all the social pressures on Jews in the European shtetls pushed them toward greater religious observance, the opposite trend exists in the United States. Jews who attend religious services on a regular basis are in the minority. Those who observe Jewish holidays and traditions throughout the year are also in the minority. For many, Judaism has become another leisure time activity competing with other activities for their attention. Judaism deals with life’s ultimate questions. Why am I here? What is my purpose in life? Is there a Greater Power to whom I am responsible? What is my obligation to the Jewish tradition? What is my obligation to my fellow Jews? To humanity as a whole? As we bask in the freedoms which we enjoy in the United States, I think it is this sense of obligation to our Jewish heritage that some of us have lost. In the shtetls of Eastern Europe, Judaism became stultified and moribund. Reform has restored meaning to Judaism. But the Jews of the European shtetls felt an OBLIGATION to observe the practices of their tradi-tion. It is this sense of OBLIGATION which many of us in the United States have abandoned. Chag sameach. Happy Passover.
Rabbi David Weissman