At one moment we are in ancient Egypt, knowing the bitterness of slavery and then the exhilaration of the exodus. The Haggadah itself insists that “In every generation a person is duty-bound to see him- or herself as if they personally had gone out of Egypt”. Then we find ourselves transported to the future.
The first part of the seder celebrates Pesach Mitzrayim, the Pesach of the past; the second half envisages Pesach L’Atid, the Pesach of the future, with the Messianic redemption. A Jewish time-machine carries us back and forward across the centuries, all in one night.
It is very confusing, very disconcerting, until we realise that in fact we are neither in the past nor the future. We are in the here and now, a bridge that links our history and our destiny.
That fact carries a crucial lesson. Emanuel Rackman – writing about America in words relevant everywhere – said, “Every human being must ultimately learn to live in two realms. Most Americans are not as experienced as we are in this art. Most Americans do not live in the world of the past and the world of the future at the same time. Some live in the past and block progress. Others are so enamoured of progress that they worship at the shrine of futurama, and loathe the wisdom and experience of the past. But we Jews know how to live in two worlds – we adore both, progress and tradition.”
We sit at seder. With distant ancestors we groan under the burdens of bondage, we cry out against the lashes of the taskmasters. We yearn for freedom and can hardly believe it when tears of bitterness turn to the joy of redemption and bitter herb gives way to wine.
Then we come back to reality, to the here and now, whatever age of history we inhabit. For the struggle for freedom and human dignity is never entirely won. Suffering has not disappeared from the vocabulary of human experience or from Jewish existence, even in the State of Israel, where we should be able to live under our own vine and fig-tree with none to make us afraid. Yet we have gained wisdom from sitting at seder all our lives: wisdom, patience and faith.
This has directed our sights forward to the future, when the dreams will come true. So if the struggle for freedom and dignity has never been entirely won, it has never been entirely lost. What will create the messianic utopia is what we do with the here and now, the bridge between past and future.
We must learn from the past and work for the future. If everyone is to be free one day, we must lose no opportunity to improve their lot in whatever way we can. If Jews are to be free to be Jews tomorrow, we must give them knowledge of what Jewishness is, the assurance that it is worthwhile, the support to get them there.
If Israel is to live securely and in dignity, we must love it with unconditional love, weep at its pain, stand in awe when it smiles through its tears, and insist that if human beings are not safe in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, neither are they safe anywhere else in the world.