Adam Hummel
Adam HummelCourtesy

Adam Hummelis a lawyer in Toronto, specializing in immigration law and estates litigation. He is an active member of Toronto's Jewish community, and enjoys reading, spending time with his kids, and fish tacos.

Why is this Passover different from all other Passovers?

I just Googled this question and got at least 32 different results back of articles (and at least three YouTube videos) asking the exact same question.

See?

Without reading all the results, the answer is obvious: This year, at least 100 of our fellow Jews are not free. It feels almost impossible then to celebrate Zman Cherutenu - the time of our freedom - while our brothers and sisters remain captive in Gaza.

But the key word there is almost. It is almost impossible, because we will celebrate. Even with the yellow flowers on, or empty seats at, each of our tables this year (which we did do), we will still be celebrating. We welcomed our guests to our table and applauded when our youngest children successfully (or semi-successfully) asked the four questions. We drank our four cups, sang Dayeinu, some licked the wine from our pinkies after we dripped out the ten plagues, and we wondered why, oh why, with inflation being what it is, the price of a baby goat is still just two zuzim.

So, this is not an article about why this Passover is different. Instead, I am going to write about why it is just the same. And why this is a remarkable accomplishment of Jewish power year after year.

Why is there antisemitism?

Several months ago, I was asked to run a session on antisemitism at a small hedge fund with about 15 employees. Given what’s been going on in the world, the manager wanted his staff to understand what antisemitism is and where it comes from.

I met them at their offices at lunchtime. While everyone munched on salad, I ran a 45-minute session on the history of antisemitism, from classic to medieval to Nazi to modern, left-wing, right-wing, and Islamist. The vast majority of the room was not Jewish.

As I concluded and opened up to questions, one of the managers immediately asked: “Why is there antisemitism? I appreciate that you’ve given an overview of what antisemitism was and is, how its manifested, and who spews it, but surely there must be a reason why this intolerance has persisted.”

I took a breath. After learning the history of cruelty against my community, did this guy just say, “Well, there must be a reason why everyone hates you people”?

But he wasn’t accusing. He was genuinely asking how thousands of years of this treatment has persisted, from the dusty roads of Judaea to the streets of Downtown Toronto.

Swastikas drawn on the posters of the kidnapped Bibas boys, Toronto’s Cedarvale Park, April 9, 2024

I responded that many think of antisemitism as the world’s oldest conspiracy theory. It’s described as such because the breadth of antisemitism is nonsensical, and because of how long it has persisted in falsely blaming Jews for societal and global problems.

I continued however that though there is no rational basis for antisemitism, that one of the reasons for it is likely the fact that Jews are always perceived as different. Though that doesn’t justify the way Jews have been treated, it’s probably part of the explanation as to why we have always been looked at with confusion, suspicion, and/or disdain.

The questioner seemed satisfied by that answer, but I wasn’t. While answering other questions about the IHRA definition of antisemitism, Kanye West (yemach shemo), and anti-Zionism vs. antisemitism, something in the back of my head kept nagging me to find a better answer to the question of, “Why is there antisemitism?”

An alternative to power

Someone recently pointed me to an explanation that I think makes the most sense. Unsurprisingly, it comes from Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks z’l. His explanation is ultimately that Judaism is a counter-cultural religion, that is a constant critique of the mainstream. It’s not just that people don’t like that we are different, but they don’t like that our beliefs are antithetical to theirs. The easiest example of this is Christianity: once the earliest Christians decided that Jesus was the messiah, they resented Jews who continued to practice their religion that believed he wasn't.

Rabbi Sacks argued that Judaism was founded as an alternative to the worship of power.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks z’l

When God first appeared to Abraham, he told him to leave his land of idol worshippers and go to a new one that God would show him - the Land of Israel. Why? Not just to be rebellious, but to start something new: “A religion that will not worship power and the symbols of power.” With Abraham, a new religion started that would challenge the prevailing consensus both then and now.

Rabbi Sacks wrote,

In the first chapter of Genesis we are told that every human being is in the image and likeness of God…It is a political statement of potentially explosive force. The kings and pharaohs of the ancient world were seen as gods, the children of the gods, or the sole intermediary of the gods. They presided over hierarchical societies in which there was an absolute, ontological difference between rulers and ruled. By stating that not just the king, but everyone, is in the image of God, the Bible was opposing the entire political universe of the ancient world…

The Hebrew Bible is a sustained protests against empire, hierarchy, ruling elites, and the enslavement of the masses.

To be a Jew is to be willing to challenge the prevailing consensus when, as so often happens, nations slip into worshipping the old gods.

For the last 3,000 years, the Jewish people have done just this. We have dared to be different, even though doing so has come at a significant cost. This has infuriated many throughout history, but here we remain: 15 million strong, in a sea of rising torment. “A counter-voice in the conversation of humankind,” says Sacks.

Our Sages say that Abraham was called “Ha’Ivri” - the “Hebrew” because “all the world was on one side (be-ever echad) and he was on the other.” My God, has that ever felt more appropriate than it does today?!?

That’s us, at the bottom.

At a time when antisemitism is at an all time high, and it seems like an easy way out is just to side with the mob (as cowardly groups like Jewish Voices for Peace and Independent Jewish Voices do), the Jewish community stands resolute. The whole world is on one side, and once again, we are on the other. Whether in the hallways at the UN, on campuses like Columbia or Harvard or Concordia or York, defending our Canadian synagogues, or standing up against the slew of hatred online, we are once again fighting the same old fight: us against the world.

Passover and Power

So what does all this have to do with Passover? Well, I find this holiday incredibly empowering, especially this year.

Thousands of years ago, an 80 year old man with a speech impediment, who had only just learned of his Hebrew ancestry, went up against the almighty Egyptian Pharaoh, and won. For 400 years, the Hebrews had languished as slaves in Egypt. Their numbers grew, despite the fact that each generation must have known that they were just giving birth to future slaves. However, though their lives were bitter and their backs were bent, they maintained their Hebrew identities. They refused to assimilate. Historians note that strangely, even after 400 years in Egypt, there is almost no Egyptian linguistic influence in the Hebrew language. That is astonishingly stubborn.

And it’s not like these were seasoned Jews either. According to the Biblical chronology, monotheistic Judaism was fairly new at that time! Abraham had Isaac who had Jacob who had Joseph who led the Hebrews in Egypt. A new Pharaoh took the throne “who knew not Joseph,” and he enslaved the Hebrews for 210 years. That’s it!

This was not the Judaism of today, with the writings and the commentary and the wizened witty rabbis and the jokes: this was a simple but revolutionary new movement, in which every single Hebrew believed that he was created in the image of God. Those Hebrews who became the generation of the Exodus, did not know if they would ever be led out of Egypt, let alone by a stuttering old shepherd. But they maintained their identities, with the unending belief that they would, one day, be redeemed.

My good friend Rabbi Isaac Choua recently shared a question once asked by our sages: “Is it appropriate to recite avadim hayinu (we were once slaves) during the Pesach seder, if there are still captives today?”

Can we say that we were slaves when we are still in captivity?

Well the answer to that, is yes, we can. Why? Well, as Rabbi Choua writes,

We have always celebrated Passover both during times of freedom and captivity. Doing so does not minimize the realities of current suffering, but underscores a core Jewish value: Hope.

Jews maintain hope; Pesach embodies hope in its purest form. Without discussing hope, we are confined to despair.

This approach isn’t about ignoring pain or injustice; it’s about affirming hope and perseverance as acts of “emuna” (faith) and as resistance against despair.

Even in the darkest times, there is a place for gratitude, for remembering past deliverances, and for looking forward with hope toward future redemption.

Oftentimes, the smallest things make us mighty. As Jewish history shows, it is not our feats of strength that make us a formidable people. It is what we believe, our willingness to be different, our motivations that push us from one day to the next, and how we treat others, that keeps us strong.

Rabbi Sacks described Abraham as the supreme example in all of history of influence without power. He was prepared to be different, and this is a mission that every subsequent Jew has taken on throughout all of history. People take notice, for better or for worse, when someone dares to be different, and what we are going through today is simply 2024’s iteration of our daring to be different.

Been here before

When put into this context, I take comfort in what is going on today - let me explain. Now, I cannot fathom the experience of the hostages or their families. I cannot imagine that those with loved ones held captive in Gaza can read what I wrote above and feel that same hope, 200 days after their loved ones were taken from them. This is the heartache that echoes through Jewish history.

40 of our captives

But we have been here before. Jews went underground to observe the Passover seder during the Spanish Inquisition, the Holocaust, and the dark days of the Soviet Union. Unsure if they would ever emerge, able to once again practice their rituals in public, they kept the faith, asked the questions, and remembered how thousands of years ago, we - the same Jews with the same beliefs - went from slavery to freedom. And to them, this was not some no-name universal idea of freedom. It was freedom to go somewhere: Israel. To the Promised Land. Lihiyot am chofshi be’artzenu: to be a free people in our land.

This year, we celebrate just the same as in years past. In doing so, perhaps especially this year, we sustain our critique of power. Today, the mob appears to be perfectly fine with the idea of 100+ Jews held captive. They are fine acting in a way designed to intimidate us, breaking the windows of synagogues or shouting at fellow Jewish students at Columbia University in New York to “Go back to Poland!”

What these bullies who seek to wield power today however forget, is that each year, we celebrate a holiday that reminds us that our strength is not determined by their might. This is a rejuvenating reminder.

This Passover, as we gather with our families, recount the story of how we became a nation, and proclaim “Next Year in Jerusalem!” we refresh ourselves, hit reset, and remember what makes us unique. We don’t need an empire. We don’t seek converts. We don’t ask forgiveness from our enemies, nor do we want their approval. We don’t wallow in our sorrow, and we don’t accept battlefield losses. We don’t let others determine our fate.

We are the world’s foremost experts of dusting ourselves off, learning from our past, redoubling our efforts, and infuriating our critics when their barbs fail to stop us. It is a type of power that is ingrained in the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

In doing so, we exercise an unstoppable form of power. So, we celebrate this year, as we celebrated last year, as we will celebrate next year too, hopefully, with our brothers and sisters back at our side, speaking once again of how we once were captive, but now are free.

Chag sameach to all.

PS: At the Seder, after saying “Next Year in Jerusalem!,” we sang Hatikvah too.