Opinion: This Passover, have room in your hearts for Israelis and Palestinians

A traditional Passover Seder plate
A traditional Passover Seder plate is seen on the first night of Passover. For some Jews this year, the holiday is darkened by the reality of Israelis kept hostage by Hamas, unable to celebrate their ancestors’ freedom from slavery in Egypt.
(Scott M. Lieberman / Associated Press)

Monday night, as Passover begins, Jews around the world celebrate their ancestors’ liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt. That liberty was hardly cost-free. Participants in the Seder will recount the 10 plagues by symbolically dipping a finger in their glass of wine and removing a drop, one for each debacle. This recalls the destruction that paved the way to freedom.

The Hebrew Bible recounts that after the Israelites made it across the Red Sea, God kept the waters parted to lure the Egyptian army chasing them. Once the army was surrounded by the sea, God let go, as it were, and the walls of water collapsed. Safely on dry ground, the Israelites broke out in song and dance as they bore witness to the drowning of Egyptian soldiers and chariots. Angels in heaven followed suit to rejoice together with the Israelites. But, as stated in Tractate Sanhedrin, a treatise in the Talmud that details the laws and lore of Judaism, God immediately rebuked them. The “Holy One, Blessed be He, said to them: My handiwork are drowning in the sea, and you are reciting a song before Me?”

The Book of Esther and the Haggadah tell of Jewish victories and the punishment of Jewish enemies. In 2024, they are prescient, agonizing and troubling as never before.

March 21, 2024

Which brings us to our current moment.

The death toll in Gaza, according to the Health Ministry there, has surpassed 34,000. This is a staggering number. But for some, that colossal loss of life is somehow less relevant because Israel “did not start this war.” And, in any event, if there is any room left in their hearts for pain, they think it should be reserved for the Israeli hostages who have no Seder to attend.


But if the Passover Seder is to teach us anything with its many reminders of the depths of human pain and suffering, it should be that we must renounce such false choices. “The test of a first-rate intelligence,” as F. Scott Fitzgerald put it so well, “is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” The same can be said for opposing feelings. Our hearts can hold a multitude of pains without diminishment — including the pain of those we identify with and do not identify with, of those we call friends and those we consider enemies.

The Talmud shows us how, repeatedly insisting on seeing all human life as priceless. “Adam was created alone, to teach you that … anyone who destroys one soul … [it is] as if he has destroyed an entire world. … And … anyone who sustains one soul … [it is] as if he has sustained an entire world.” Similarly, the Talmud continues, Adam was created alone “for peace among people, so that one person will not say to another: My father, is greater than your father.” At bottom, we are all human and, on that level, we all have equal value.

So as much as we mourn the loss of Israeli life and the loss of the ability to live a “normal” life in Israel, and as much as we condemn the increasing antisemitism in America, we must never forget God’s message to the dancing angels: The loss of a single life, let alone thousands, is a tragedy no matter what. There is no “it depends.”

Zalman Rothschild is a Bigelow Fellow at the University of Chicago Law School and an incoming professor of law and religion at Cardozo School of Law. He is also an ordained rabbi.