Jewish history is one of enslavement, exile, and catastrophe. It is also one of rebellion, resistance, redemption, freedom, homecoming, and sovereignty. Tonight’s Passover seder recounts one seminal moment in that history.
According to the Biblical narrative, Jacob and his sons originally lived in ancient Israel. But a famine brought them to Egypt. One of the patriarch’s sons, Joseph, became a powerful advisor to Pharoah. He welcomed all of his brothers and father to join him in the kingdom. But he lost his power after his patron died. The Children of Israel were then transformed from being part of the privileged elite to barely tolerated foreigners. They were enslaved and pressed into service building the Pyramids and other physical testaments to the Pharoah’s power.
Though Moses was the champion who arose to lead a major rebellion against the Egyptian overlords, there must have been tremendous resentment for years by the slaves against their servitude and working conditions. If the Biblical account is to be believed, it was quite remarkable that enslaved people could mount a rebellion, which ended in their liberation and return to their homeland.
The Haggadah: Make It Yours
The true beauty of the Passover Haggadah is that it does not just retell an ancient tale. It compels you to engage with the narrative with personal urgency and immediacy. In every generation, each one of us must see ourselves as if we were liberated from Egypt. In other words, this isn’t just someone else’s story–a tale of what happened to an ancient tribe somewhere deep in history. It is your story. You are living it. Make the story your own. Live it in your life. In the 1960s, the term “relevance” was popular in this context. The seder is relevant to the nth degree.
The Haggadah dares us to engage with this narrative. It dares us to bring it up to date and into our lives. It even dares us to challenge the text and traditions themselves. As the rabbis once said: “turn it over and over again, because everything is in it.”
In that spirit, the statement of hope which closes the Haggadah, “next year in Jerusalem,” disappoints me Even worse, some add a word: “next year in Jerusalem rebuilt,” which refers to the building of the Third Temple. I would much rather recite the following: “Next year in a shared Jerusalem.”
For it to be relevant to this generation, the Haggadah must not just speak of our own Jewish liberation. If that is all there is, then what does it offer the world? If it only benefits us, that is not enough. The lesson of the Egyptian redemption is that every human deserves nothing less. If we could be enslaved as a people, rise up against our oppressors, free ourselves from bondage, wander for generations in exile, and finally return to our homeland as free men and women–why shouldn’t others enjoy the same fate? Why shouldn’t we support all those seeking the same rights for themselves?
This interpretation is at odds, even at war with, the Judeo-fundamentalists who view Judaism as of, and for Jews alone; that Jews must rely on themselves and their God; that not only will no one else help us, we shun their help. We put our faith in God alone (and our fellow Jews). All else is treif. Not only do such Jews view non-Jews with disdain, they even view their fellow Jews, especially those holding universalist views, as enemies of the faith.
There is a war of belief and ideas, as I mentioned in my last post, between these two trends. If we don’t want the fundamentalists to win, we must advance a powerful narrative of our own. We must not stop with our own liberation. This is not enough. We must work on behalf of every people struggling for what we won. It must be a moral imperative. As sacred as a commandment.
Palestine: Our Liberation Must Not Be at Their Expense
In the context of Israel-Palestine, our freedom must never come at another people’s expense. What makes us think that our blood is redder than any others? We came to Israel as outcasts from Russian pogroms at the turn of the last century; and from the Holocast later in that century. We were exiled from our European lands and found new homes. But it would be a sin to save ourselves at the expense of another; a sin that our joy is another people’s pain and suffering.
An Israel that hardens its heart as did Pharoah, deserves the Egyptian’s fate. Will Israel’s firstborn die? Will they suffer natural catastrophes? Will they suffer plagues–whether moral or physical? Remember, Egypt enjoyed the fruit of the labor of Israelite slaves for generations before Moses. They lived well and thrived on an economy fueled by slave labor. Today’s Israel is not unlike this.
Israel is a society with two levels: above the sun is shining; everyone enjoys Tel Aviv’s beaches and its nightlife. People are making money hand-over-fist. Or at least this is the image Brand Israel projects. Below, is a slave economy of Occupation and apartheid. There, Palestinian laborers toil (and die) at construction sites, building new settlements or high-rise condominiums for the oligarchs, Israeli and Russian. Next to them down there are, of course, the graves of the tens of thousands who died to maintain the system of wealth and privilege offered Israeli Jews.
Remember Pharoah’s dream which Joseph interpreted? There were fat cows who grazed on copious sheaves of wheat for seven years. They were followed by emaciated cows who swallowed all of the healthy ones, bringing with them seven years of famine? This could be Israel’s fate. It’s now enjoying those seven years of bounty. When will the seven years of privation come? And how will Israeli survive it?
Returning to Judaism, what is it worth if we restrict it to ourselves alone? If it is no more than that, then it is a blinkered religion offering comfort to a single tribe of the many inhabiting the earth. Judaism must be more than that. It must offer hope not only to Jews, but to everyone who suffers what we have endured. In doing that, it will expand the hearts of Jews themselves, who will realize that their God is not one for Jews alone. But that S/He shines his/her light on every human being. That is truly powerful and universal.
Passover, Exile, Homelessness and Refugees
The world is faced with massive disruption and violence. Tens of millions on multiple continents have been displaced by war and famine. They are on the move, seeking refuge, peace and security. Remember what our ancestors suffered? Remember they fled famine in order to survive and ended up slaves in Egypt? Remember they suffered for decades wandering through the desert, seeking to return to their home?
How can we as a human species, one whose very survival has been based on migration in the face of hardship, turn our backs on refugees and the homeless? We should be revolted by it. It degrades us as a species to be so cruel. In the US in particular, homelessness has become, to some, a scourge; a social ill, and an eyesore. It embarrasses them. It angers them. As the Brits say: “I’ve got mine.” If I’ve got mine, then it’s your problem to get yours. It’s “all for one and none for all.”
There is no doubt that homelessness is an urgent social issue. But we are pursuing the wrong approach when we criminalize it; when we turn it into a police problem; when we eradicate the few miserable places of refuge they find. Today, Seattle police “cleared out” two homeless camps in Ballard, a gentrifying neighborhood of hip new bars, restaurants, clubs, and cafes. The ‘residents’ were given an hour to collect their belongings and “move on.”
This is the policy Seattle voters adopted when they voted for the tough-on-homeless Mayor Bruce Harrel. They want cops aggressively targeting the homeless. Get rid of the stain on our city. Make it someone else’s problem. But of course, it isn’t. It is our problem. These sweeps accomplish nothing. Instead of finding a camp that is semi-habitable, they are driven deeper into the shadows. Under freeway overpasses, in abandoned parking lots, with tents pitched perilously close to the edge of a cliff that falls toward the freeway hundreds of feet below. In those dark places, they are victims of rape, violence, and crime. They become victims of disease, addiction, and die early deaths.
In Seattle, every shooting, every murder is laid at the door of the homeless. They are the “criminal element.” Eliminate them and you eliminate every social blight afflicting the city. Do sweeps, Dump the trash. The truth is that there is no more crime in Seattle than there has ever been. In fact, in 2020 the Seattle Times found that our crime rate was one of the lowest it’s ever been. But the right-wing moaners and their media megaphones are looking for an issue. They are desperate to distract the city from the problems of race, class, and privilege championed by the Black Lives Matter movement. Crime and homelessness are the easy low-hanging fruit of social discourse. Fear always wins over hope. Fear is easy. Hope is hard.
These are problems that must be solved by society as a whole. The homeless don’t choose to be. Nor can they stop being homeless just because it offends our eyesight to see them on the street. If we want to address this problem we need to spend billions not just on housing, but on health care, addiction counseling, job training, etc. We need to raise taxes to do this and make our Amazon and Microsoft oligarchs do so as well. This is the price of their wealth and success in this city.
Too many Americans dump our social problems in the lap of police. Let cops handle it. But they aren’t social workers. They carry guns. They see everyone as a possible suspect. If you look or act wrong you’ll end up either in prison or the morgue. What kind of society treats an entire class as refuse? Instead, give them refuge. Seattle’s efforts are plain harassment and bullying of the powerless. We don’t value human life. We value our own lives and “people like us.” If you’re not, go fend for yourself. You’re not my problem
It’s the same issue I raised above: do we as humans only have responsibility for our own family and tribe? Or does our vision extend beyond our own close to home? I remember Hillel’s dictum: “If I am only for myself, what am I?” We are a poor excuse of a species if we are only for ourselves.
Remember, we Jews were strangers in Egypt . We wandered for forty years in the Sinai desert before we found our way home. In exile, we suffered every possible privation: hunger, thirst, rebellion. Nor was this our only brush with exile. In 1492, the Spanish King outlawed the practice of Judaism, expelled the Jews, and forced those who remained to convert to Christianity. Those who refused were tortured or burned to death in the auto da fe. Those who fled, left behind happy lives and healthy families for the suffering and penury of exile. Eventually, they made their way to new homes in the Netherlands, Italy, and the new world. Similarly, kings of England expelled the Jews not once, but twice!
During the Holocaust, we Jews were slaughtered by the millions. The lucky ones were slave laborers in Nazi factories. The unlucky ones died of starvation, typhus or in the gas chambers. After the Holocaust, a few million survivors became refugees anew. Most could not return to their former homes in the villages of central and eastern Europe. Like the Children of Israel, they wandered from camp to camp, and country to country till they found a haven in the US, Israel or elsewhere.
We Jews know this suffering. We must not let it be the lot of those who suffer today, whatever their religion, race or nationality. We have a moral obligation to oppose the warehousing of people, whether refugees or the homeless.
Some Jews may agree with the criminalization of homelessness. They have achieved economic success, distancing themselves from the suffering of their ancestors. But we must not let them set our priorities. While I know there is some lobbying by Jewish communal leaders in state legislatures, I see precious little of this happening in the city itself. I’d venture to say that except for a few Jewish NGOs whose specific mission this is, we aren’t doing much. Even if we are, it’s not enough.
Similarly, we stand in shock as thousands drown in desperate efforts to cross the sea in rickety boats, in order to flee the horrors that led them to take to the water. They are not just African refugees or Muslim refugees. They are humans. Even more poignantly, they could easily be your grandparents or great-grandparents. Don’t turn your back on them.
I’ve written a number of Passover posts over the years. The first section contains songs aired on a Passover music show I produced for KBCS-FM fifteen years ago. The second section is political-theological meditations on the meaning of Passover There’s even a translation from Yiddish of a Sholem Aleichem children’s story:
Passover Jewish Music on KBCS FM
Passover Music on the Radio
Passover Music: Max Helfman’s ‘Di Naye Hagode’
Passover Music: Yehoram Gaon’s ‘Un Cavritico’ (‘Had Gadya’)
Passover Music: Sephardic Cantor Alberto Mizrahi ‘Sings Ki Lo No’e’
Passover Music: Western Wind’s ‘Chad Gadyo’
Passover Music: ‘Baruch Hamakom,’ Dayeinu,’ and ‘Avadim Hayinu’
Passover Music: Alain Scetbon’s Tunisian ‘Haggada de Pessah’
Passover Music: Hazzan Issac Azoze’s Rhodes-style ‘Ma Nishtanah’
Passover Music: Andy Statman and David Grisman’s ‘Adir Hu’
Israeli Passover Out of Africa
Passover Holiday of Liberation Bypasses Some in Israel
Passover: Holiday of Freedom and Suffering
Passover Seder: “In Each Generation One Must See Himself as If He Left Egypt”
Passover: Israelis and Palestinians Share Heritage of Exile
Happy Passover: Settlers, Immigrants, and the Perversion of Jewish Values
This Passover Don’t Pour Wrath on Goyim, Open Door to Peace
Passover, Exodus and Immigration
Next Year in a Shared Jerusalem!
A Zis’n Peysach: Wishing You Joy and Redemption
Eliyahu Detained By IDF, No Seder Visits This Year
‘Chad Gadya’, Chava Alberstein Protest Against Israeli Militarism
Elijah the Prophet: a fantasy with riddle in honor of ‘Paysach,’ especially for children