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Passover is not only about Moses and the Israelites. It also is about Volodymyr Zelensky (pictured during Tel Aviv rally) and the Ukrainians, writes David Shribman.

The Passover story amended for today: Let the Ukrainian people remain free



The Passover story amended for today: Let the Ukrainian people remain free

Passover is not only about Moses and the Israelites. It also is about Volodymyr Zelensky (pictured during Tel Aviv rally) and the Ukrainians, writes David Shribman.

Why is this Passover different from all other Passovers? Because this year we confront more than the usual Four Questions. Let us consider the Fifth Question of Passover 5782:

Just how different are “Let my people go” and “Let my people live?”

The first is a phrase some 3,000 years old, maybe more, a plea from Moses to Pharaoh to release his people from bondage, to let them breathe free. The second can be taken from a news report pretty much any day this spring, a plea from Volodymyr Zelensky – another Jewish fighter for freedom – to Vladimir Putin, an imperious tyrant whom you might consider a modern-day Pharaoh, to permit Ukraine the liberty it has come to cherish.

Every year the message of Passover rings true, but some years it rings the bell of freedom with special force.

It rang that way from 1933 to 1945, broadly the time when Adolph Hitler was chancellor of Germany. In those years, the migration of millions and the destruction of peoples was the dominant, tragic theme. It rang with unusual intensity from 1954 through the 1960s, when the civil rights movement sought freedom for Black Americans. It was not for nothing that President John F. Kennedy, in his remarkable June 1963 speech on civil rights, said that the doctrine of freedom for all was “as old as the scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”

This year, the message of Passover is especially vivid – and urgent.

A Jewish president of a besieged nation has made his case, in the Centre Block of the Canadian Parliament, in legislative halls across Europe, before a meeting of members of the U.S. Congress: Let my people remain free.

Zelensky noted that Russia’s invasion of his country came on Feb. 24, a date that you might agree lives in infamy. On that date in 1920, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, known as the Nazis, was founded. “This day has twice gone down in history,” Zelensky said. “And both times – as a tragedy. A tragedy for Ukrainians, for Jews, for Europe, for the world.”

In the days that have followed, commentators have searched the historical record for hints of Putin’s intentions in Ukraine and – even more broadly – across Europe, much the way their predecessors searched Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” for hints of his intentions after the Nazis began their march through Europe and their remorseless assault on the Jewish people. It was not surprising that some of those contemporary commentators focused on a remark Putin made in September 2013, when he expressed hopes that Eurasia might become a “major geopolitical zone” and he spoke of Russia’s “genetic code” – a phrase that surely makes all Americans, and especially all Jews, especially uneasy.

Closer to home, some 20 people wearing neo-Nazi insignia appeared during the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade March 20 in South Boston. They were neither invited nor welcome. But gestures like that, and the hatred they express, are neither invited nor welcome, and on Passover, Jews reflect on the burden of being singled out for opprobrium.

This year, however, the op­­pro­brium is shared.

And so let’s reflect on the Maggid, the story that is told at Seders around the world. There is a contemporary analogue that is worth examining. It is the story of four individuals.

First, the wise ones, who want to understand the details. They see the peril in the tragedy of Ukraine, first for the people there, then for the refugees, and finally for the rest of us, living under a nuclear sword of Damocles. It is the wise ones who shudder in fear this Passover.

Second, the wicked ones. We know who they are, and we have come to learn their methods. In this case they invent historical precedents and pretexts – “Lebensraum,” translated from German as “living space,” explaining the Nazi drive for territorial expansion, or the Putin notion that “Ukraine is not even a state” – and live by them, and are astonished when others recoil at their affrontery. It is the wicked ones who are the scourge of the earth, in the Nazi period and in the Putin years.

Third, the simple ones. They regard this episode in Eastern Europe in the fateful words of British prime minister Neville Chamberlain, who complained amid the Munich Agreement in 1938 – one of the many precursors to World War II – that the crisis in Czechoslovakia was “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” Not so then, and not so now, in a shrunken world where every quarrel has the potential of being our quarrel.

Finally, the ones who are unable to ask. They live in Russia today, where it is illegal to describe the war in Ukraine by employing the word “war;” where dissent to the “special operation” can be punished by 15 years in prison; and where the news pages and airwaves are full of – are polluted by – lies. In our country, we speak easily of the First Amendment. It is important to remind Jews that the First Amendment does not only include the precious rights of the press. It also includes religion.

And so this year, let us reconsider everything we think about Passover.

Passover is not only about Moses and the Israelites. It also is about Zelensky and the Ukrainians. It is not only about the Red Sea. It is also about the Black Sea. It is not only about decades in the wilderness. It is also about the end of decades of the post-Cold War era. Passover is not some other era’s story. It is the story of our own time.

David M. Shribman is a native of the North Shore. He is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and scholar-in-residence at Carnegie Mellon University.

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