The long history of our people is one of contrasts — freedom and slavery, joy and pain, power and helplessness. Passover reflects these contrasts. Tonight as we celebrate our freedom, we remember the slavery of our ancestors and realize that many people are not yet free.
Each generation changes — our ideas, our needs, our dreams, even our celebrations. So has Passover changed over many centuries into our present
holiday. Our nomadic ancestors gathered for a spring celebration when the sheep gave birth to their lambs. Theirs was a celebration of the continuity of life. Later, when our ancestors became farmers, they celebrated the arrival of spring in their own fashion. Eventually these ancient spring festivals merged with the story of the Exodus from Egypt and became a new celebration of life and freedom.
As each generation gathered around the table to retell the old stories, the symbols took on new meanings. New stories of slavery and liberation, oppression and triumph were added, taking their place next to the old. Tonight we add our own special chapter as we recall our people’s past and we dream of the future.
For Jews, our enslavement by the Egyptians is now remote, a symbol of communal remembrance. As we sit here in the comfort of our modern world, we think of the millions who still suffer the brutality of the existence that we escaped thousands of years ago.
Rabbi Prof. David Hartman z"l talks about the way Israelites' enslavement in Egypt reminds us of the fragility of global interrelationships today.
The four figures epitomize the Jewish cultural and class struggles in interwar Poland. The wise figure is a delicate intelligent yeshiva "bochur" (unmarried student) dressed traditionally yet meticulously. His body language expresses the grace and modesty of the Torah student ideally understood as an intellectual and religious aristocrat. In contrast, the wicked figure is a middle-aged bourgeois Jew dressed to show off his aspirations to Western European modernity. While the wise student has no props, not even a book, the wicked figure sports a riding crop, a cigarette with cigarette holder, and a stylish monocle. He is dressed in a hunting outfit with a jaunty Tyrollian hat with a feather, an ascot around his neck, silk gloves and sharp spurs on his leather boots. His stance is self-confident, self-contained and arrogant in contrast to the simpleton who is fat and smiling, opening himself to the world trustingly with arms and legs spread out.
While the simpleton is still traditionally dressed with a small tallis, the one who does not even know how to ask is a worker dressed poorly, wearing proletarian boots, without any visible link to Jewish tradition. His contemplative expression suggests that his direction in life is not yet determined.
The Boxer as Rasha, 1920, illustrated by Lola
The wicked child is a new kind of soldier. The culture of the naked physique, of sports, of the aggressive boxer is contrasted with a middle class seated scholar with a tie, glasses and a book. The passivity and introspection of the intellectual whose head is supported by his arm reflects the defensive status of traditional Jewish culture, when contrasted with the rise of American sports and perhaps contemporary Zionist youth movements that praised the values of the body. For example, two in a series of great Jewish boxers of this era were "Battling Levinsky" (nee Barney Lebrowitz, light heavy weight, 1916-1920) and Al McCoy (see Albert Rudolph, middle weight, 1914-1917)
Here the generation gap between Eastern European immigrants to the U.S.A. and their assimilated wicked son is foremost. Having adopted new-fangled American ways, the son smokes, dresses in black clothes with a modish cut and dances on his tilted chair. He takes the initiative in attacking his parents with an accusatory finger as if to say derisively, "what is this ritual for you?" The simple and the silent children, distinguished only by their hand motions, are mesmerized by the wicked son who sits at the head of the table holding forth. The other three figures — mother, bearded father and wise child with kippa — are dressed traditionally in pale white. Their body language bespeaks paralysis, passivity and lack of communication. The conversation is dominated by the three children in black, all with uncovered heads and backs turned. The family is divided culturally and generationally. Only the wise child identifies with the old ways.