Why is this night — and this year — different than all other nights?
Passover reflections on Ukraine
People wait for buses at a bus station as they attempt to evacuate Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 24, 2022, at the start of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. (Pierre Crom | Getty Images)
On Friday night, my family will sit down to our Passover Seder. This meal is highly choreographed (seder means order) and is one of the most observed traditions of the Jewish community internationally. During this holiday dinner, we retell the story of how our ancestors were enslaved and oppressed in Egypt by the tyrannical Pharaoh. Even with our youngest children, we tell of the grave atrocities committed against us.
Toward the middle of the “storytelling,” the narrative shifts: no longer are the Israelites the oppressed, but God redeems them from Egyptian bondage with a “mighty hand and outstretched arm.” The mood of the meal shifts as we sing and rejoice in our ability to dine and worship freely—and it is for this reason many refer to the Seder meal as a Feast of Freedom.
This year, as the mounting tragedy in Ukraine unfolds, we cannot help but look to Eastern Europe for another extreme example of loss of life and oppression. Though no one instance of oppression is more “important” than the next, today’s conflict in Ukraine is far more poignant for the Jewish community than many others. Indeed, great Jewish movements like Chasidism and Zionism were born in Ukraine. And yet, some of the greatest tragedies to the Jewish community took place in Ukraine.
Jews have lived in Ukraine since the late ninth century. In recent decades, on the eve of World War II, there were 2.4 million Jews living there. More than one million Jews were shot and killed by the Einsatzgruppen and by their many local Ukrainian supporters in the western part of Ukraine. Yet in recent years, Ukraine had the third largest Jewish community in the world, with over 400,000 Jews.
My own great-grandparents were forced out of Ukraine during pogroms more than 100 years ago. And centuries earlier, during the Khmelnytsky Uprising, an army of Cossacks and Crimean Tatars massacred and took into captivity scores of Jews, Uniate Christians, and Roman Catholics.
Today, we see a Jewish president, pleading to the international community for support as his country is ransacked by yet another Pharaoh in the name of ersatz de-Nazification. A Jewish president whose capital city (Kyiv) has in one of its main plazas (Sophia Square) one of the country’s most important monuments — honoring the same villain, Bohdan Khmelnytsky, responsible for those centuries-old massacres. Statues of Robert E. Lee may have been torn down in the South here in the United States, but since 2001 in Ukraine, Khmelnytsky on horseback is included in the State Register of Immovable Monuments of Ukraine as the monument of national importance.
We Jews have a mixed history with Ukraine, and our freedom throughout history has never been absolute. When you grow up Jewish – even here in the United States – you are taught from a young age that you should always have a passport. A Jew never knows when their government will turn on the Jewish people, causing them to flee in the middle of the night — just as our ancestors did in Egypt.
Still, as a perpetually persecuted people, we do not only think of ourselves. Each year at my family’s seder, we recognize that one is never truly free if others are enslaved, if others are persecuted.
So what do we do, eating our matzah as the war rages on in Ukraine?
On one hand, we recognize that pursuing freedom for others is a daily struggle and daily work. But on the other hand, our moral imperative is not only about freeing others; it is about ridding the world of tyranny and oppression. Indeed, that starts here in the United States.
We cannot rely on God to bring plagues to Putin, but it also does not mean that we should be the catalyst for the next world war, God forbid. As Secretary Blinken said, “Help Ukraine defend itself. Support the Ukrainian people. Hold Russia accountable.” Our urgency is to “let all who are hungry come eat,” as the liturgy of the Seder prayerbook (the hagaddah) reads — and to open our doors wide to the refugees. But we also must work with our elected officials to ensure that Ukraine (and Georgia, and all other states in Europe) have the right to join the Euro-Atlantic community and NATO. Months ago, before the conflict began, 2.9 million Ukrainians were in desperate need of assistance and protection in a humanitarian catastrophe — to which few were paying attention until now.
The chief obligation during the Passover seder is to tell our children our story — and the hope is that as they recognize that they were once enslaved and liberated, so too should they feel compelled to liberate others. This year we should all feel compelled by the story of the Exodus. If we Jews can seek support for a country that once walked us to the shipyards, the firing range, and the gas chambers, then we all — irrespective of our faith background — can figure out how to welcome the stranger this year, and, God-willing, bring peace to the region.
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