It is hard to say when “Pesach season” begins. We could say that it begins when local grocery stores begin to carry Kosher-for-Passover food products, or when we issue invitations to friends or family for a home seder. We could consider the end of Purim to be the beginning of "Pesach season” because the next holiday is our annual celebration of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery.
This year, Pesach has taken on a special significance, due in no small part to the waves of bomb threats, vandalism, and violence against Jewish institutions and communal sites.
It isn’t that there is nothing good on which we can focus. Of course, there ALWAYS are good deeds, acts of kindness, and meaningful mitzvot being performed. Still, the sting of hateful acts tends to linger and keep more than a few of us up at night.
On March 9, the Las Cruces Film Festival featured a screening of “School Ties,” the 1992 movie that told a fictional tale of David Greene, a quarterback at a Scranton, Pennsylvania high school whose Jewish identity was not a secret in his hometown. He was recruited by a Massachusetts preparatory school for his senior year to lead the football team to victory, especially against its rival school. David decided to keep his Jewishness secret at his new school, especially due to anti-Semitic comments he heard from his classmates. Eventually, his identity was revealed and he was subjected to a barrage of harassment and hatred. When a fellow student cheated on an exam and accused David of the honor code infraction, their classmates met to render a judgment against one student or the other.
Well-known actor Brendan Fraser, who portrayed David Greene in the film, appeared at the Las Cruces Film Festival and joined Rabbi Bery Shmukler and me on a panel to discuss the film and its take on anti-Semitism. Mr. Fraser explained that he thought that the “judgment scene,” at which classmates had to determine who cheated, was the moment when everyone’s masks came off. Some refused to see David’s humanity. Others came around to accept David as a hard-working, all-around good person and student who lived a life of honor.
The message of Pesach is embedded in the view of the Egyptians that the Israelite slaves in their service were not human beings. They were strangers. They were different, and they were fit only for the harsh labor that had been forced upon them.
For me, this year, the words from Leviticus Chapter 19 reverberate in my soul: “When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Eternal am your God.”
May each of us find meaning in this story of liberation that will guide us to extend our helping hand to others, and to look into each other’s eyes and see a spark of the divine. Happy Pesach!