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The Four Citizens: A Passover Meditation

Crossposted on Tikkun Daily by Dan Brook In the Passover Haggadah, we retell the story of our ancient enslavement in Egypt as well as our escape from that slavery. One of the central parts of this story is the parable of the four children, who each ask their own question with each receiving their own answer. Like the four children, there are also four citizens. We must approach each person differently, so that each can be reached where they are, while inspiring them to do more, to do the sacred work of a citizen, the job of making one's life and one's society better, more civil, and more just. All of these citizens can teach us something, and each of them, both actually and potentially, is inside each of us. In every generation, we should each and all remember that we were once slaves in Egypt who escaped to become physically and spiritually freer; we should likewise each and all remember that whether in Jerusalem, the Warsaw Ghetto, New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, or elsewhere, the Passover seder has been used to recall our history, strengthen our culture, discuss contemporary issues, and plan future actions. 1) The first citizen is the activist citizen, struggling for both personal growth and social change, who asks "What is the meaning of Pesach, in every way, so that we may apply the lessons to the various Egypts we live in today?" We should both teach and learn from citizens like this, joining with them in social action to make a better world, while encouraging them to learn more about the actions they engage in, thereby making vital connections between theory and practice, faith and action, being and doing. 2) The second citizen is the intellectual citizen, learning and knowing a lot, curious about the world, who asks "What is this holiday really about, what is the social history of Ancient Egypt, and what are some new details about the Pharaohs and the slaves?" We should talk to citizens like this, commending them for what they know, learning from them while explaining as much as we can, directing them to further resources, yet also reminding them that various Talmudic teachings suggest that study is best when it leads to action, because knowledge for its own sake is not enough for tikkun olam, to heal and repair the world. 3) The third citizen is the one who is interested but aloof, who may occasionally donate money but does not get personally involved, asking "How does Passover relate to modern Jews, to modern non-Jews, and where I should I send a check?" We should thank citizens like these for being interested and for their generous donations, adding that each person is necessary to heal and repair the world, welcoming their physical participation while praising their financial one. 4) The fourth citizen is indifferent, with many excuses and rationalizations for their absence, apathy, or sometimes hostility, and asks "Why do we have to do this holiday and when can we get it over with?" We should remind citizens like this that we don't have to do this holiday; we have the freedom to choose to celebrate this important part of our history and culture, making it come alive for us today, or not. If we do so, it can enrich our lives and improve the world; if we choose not to get involved with Passover because it is inconvenient, letting it pass over us and our children, then we lose a valuable opportunity to connect with our culture and to engage with the world as it is and the world that can be. We should also remind apathetic citizens like this that there is no one else who could take their unique place. 5) ...and a fifth: the one who is undocumented, in prison, homeless, in a sweatshop, enslaved, tortured, trapped, dispossessed, hungry and thirsty, ill, injured, depressed, abused, abandoned, ignored, non-human, or otherwise unable to speak or to be heard. They often cannot ask, yet they nonetheless need our help. We should help where and when we can, treating them with dignity and respect, while trying to reform or abolish the unjust systems that lead to their cruel conditions.
Credit: Creative Commons/racoles.
At every meal, on Passover and every other day, we need to transform the breadcrumbs of poverty and affliction into the festive bread of freedom and liberation, from suffering to celebration, from the narrow confines of slavery to the Promised Land of freedom. Liberation is not simply an historical event that happened thousands of years ago; liberation, like creation, is an ongoing process that we can all participate in on a daily basis. While these citizens may be our co-workers, neighbors, friends, and family, they are also each of us. Why is this night not different from all other nights? Because, as individuals and as a society, we simply have not said and done enough, yet there is still ample opportunity to do more to end injustice within ourselves, our families, our workplaces, our communities, in our society, and in the world. Indeed, it is never an inopportune time to pursue peace and seek justice. This night, as well as all others, is only different if we choose to make a difference. Dayeinu. Next year in a world of peace and justice for all! Dan Brook, Ph.D., is chair of OS JUSTICE, the social action committee of Or Shalom Jewish Community in San Francisco, teaches sociology and political science, and maintains Food for Thought - and Action at, Eco-Eatingat, The Vegetarian Mitzvah at, and No Smoking? at He welcomes comments via [email protected]. For more pieces like this, sign up for Tikkun Daily’s email digest or visit us online. You can also likeTikkun on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
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