Pesach is my favorite Jewish holiday. The traditions are so rich and the Seder is the ultimate joyous, jubilant Jewish celebration: the symbols of the Seder plate, the smells and tastes of real Jewish food (I will put Margie’s golden chicken soup up against any in the world), the struggle with matzoh for eight days, the four cups, the laughter, the singing, Elijah. Those are all so memorable.
But it is the message that permeates the holiday that is so important. While the book of Exodus holds perhaps more of the basic concepts, precepts, commandments and narratives of the Torah than any other book, the Haggadah‘s lessons seem much narrower.
There are many different interpretations of the meaning of the story from the manifestation of The Lord acting directly in the world, to the molding of the Jewish people into a nation, to the miracles of the Passover and the parting of the Sea of Reeds itself. Yet to me the most straightforward and overriding message is simple:
- REMEMBER. You were slaves in Egypt
- RELIVE. How it felt to be enslaved. To be oppressed
- REPUDIATE. So that, You, personally, and, Jews as a people, will never become oppressors yourselves
Every Jewish holiday harks back to a connection with bedrock stories from the Jewish community’s past like the recitation of the Akedah and story of Jonah on the High Holidays, the Megillah on Purim, Akadmut and Ruth on Shavuot,, or the rededication of the Temple at Hanukkah. But the Seder and the Haggadah ask something of us that is wholly unique and of an entirely different nature than any other Jewish holiday. It specifically tells us that we must place ourselves inside the story – we must be in Egypt to feel the pain and oppression – and the redemption. This is one of the main lessons of the telling of the story of the Four Sons, which acts as an answer to Mah Nishtanah – Why is this night different from all other nights?
So why is it so important to more than sympathize, more than empathize, but to actually experience being slaves in Egypt? The answer seems straightforward. Each of us needs to understand what it is like to be oppressed so that we will never become oppressors ourselves. We must feel the weariness of the excruciating labor, the pain of the task masters’ whips, and shed the tears of a people without rights or freedom. Having lived through it ourselves, it should be unthinkable for Jews to oppress others. And lest we forget, we are commanded to relive our slavery each and every Pesah. We must understand the pain of the oppressed and the evil of the oppressor – so that we never allow the roles to be reversed.
One of the traditional prayers at the end of the Seder is “next year in Jerusalem”. The problem is that now when I look to Jerusalem, I see Israel occupying Arab neighborhoods. Pushing people out of homes that have been in their families for decades or longer. And beyond that, I see checkpoints, and identity cards, and political prisons. Most of all, I see one people subjugating another. This is not fantasy. This is reality for anyone who cares to take a look. But if an American Jew talks about it, he is told, “You have no right to criticize Israeli policy because you don’t live there. You don’t have to serve in the IDF. You don’t have to dive into bomb shelters when the sirens sound. You don’t have to fear that your children will be killed riding in a school bus.” That is so very true. And I am so sorry that life is indeed that dangerous for those living in Eretz Yisrael. But I am also sorry to say that I believe the Haggadah not only gives me the right, but also the obligation as a Jew, to speak out when I see fellow Jews oppressing another people. As Peter Beinart said when he spoke at Northwestern, “The morality of a people must not be measured when they are powerless. The question is how they act when they have the power.”
Saad Ibrahim on the Egyptian Revolution at the CCGA: “Young People are Deciding the Fate of their Societies”
Saad Eddin Ibrahim is the real deal when it comes to the Egyptian revolution. Although his current title is the Wallerstein Distinguished Visiting Professor, Center on Religion, Culture and Conflict, Drew University, what he has been through does a much better job of explaining who he is. He was put on trial in Egypt for his anti-Mubarek activities (including founding the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies), convicted twice and sentenced to seven years of hard labor. He served 15 months before being acquitted by Egypt’s highest court. He walked with a cane to the podium at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) and began to explain his take on the recent flood of revolutions in the Middle East. As he completed his formal talk, he moved to sit down in a chair for the Q&A. As he gingerly moved to seat himself, he quipped: “I used to be a marathoner; look what prison does to you.” I couldn’t tell whether it was a small joke juxtaposing his current portly appearance, or the straight truth.
In addition to talking broadly about the political history of the region, he made several interesting comments:
- The difference in this revolution: It was begun by youth, supported solely by non-violent civilians, and then the military stayed neutral and actually protected the demonstrators from the police
- This was unbelievable: He explained that the revolution really took off on Day 3 when the government shut off internet and cell phone service. Why? Up until then most of the demonstrators where under 30. When cell phone access got shut off, their parents could not reach them, so the parents went down to Tahrir Square to try to find their kids to see if they were OK. When they got there, the atmosphere was like a street fair – so they stayed! That virtually tripled participation in one day (1 child + 2 parents = 3 people)
- He commented (as have others) that he was not aware of any anti-American slogans being chanted. This was about Egyptians taking responsibility for themselves; not placing blame on someone else
- He strongly recommends that the West deal with the Muslim Brotherhood respectfully. They should be allowed to participate as long as they accept the basic premise of the democracy. If we do that, he says that it is likely that the system will develop similarly to many of the Central and Eastern European countries or Turkey. While some may be skeptical of a Muslim religious democratic party, he said that the concept is comparable to the Christian Democratic parties in Europe.
- He said that during the first few days of the demonstrations, he virtually “slept” at the White House – acting in an advisory capacity. Although Obama was criticized (and continues to be criticized) for his “passivity”, it was Ibrahim’s comment that the Administration was very concerned not to “scare” the Saudis, by appearing to drop Mubarek too quickly. The Saudis could easily interpret that as a sign of what could happen to them.
Ibrahim is in Chicago as part of a very special day of learning TOMORROW, March 9, at Northwestern: The Shifting Sands of Hegemonic Powers in the Middle East. Looks like a fabulous program – I’m sorry I won’t be able to go.