I have heard the story before. We have all heard it before. Every year, twice a year in the Diaspora, we not only tell the story of our ancestors’ Exodus from Egypt, but are commanded to relate to it personally: “I was a slave in Egypt, and God set me free.”
Three years ago, I had behind me 23 years of hearing the story, of telling the story, of watching the movie versions, of studying it in school, of listening to sermons and yet, I had never felt enslaved and never thought too deeply about what it meant to be free.
Three years ago, I also met Yusef – a charismatic, 30-year-old Darfuri refugee. After fleeing genocide in his homeland, he spent years of uncertainty and violence in Egypt, and then escaped across the porous border into Israel. In Israel he was imprisoned for over a year and then sent to live on Kibbutz Sde Boker, under similar conditions to house arrest, with a group of seven other Darfuri asylum seekers.
A social work student at Ben-Gurion University at the time, I had volunteered to visit the refugees and assist in any way that I could.
After a couple of months on the kibbutz, the refugees experienced their first Pessah. Yusef laughed when he heard that it took our ancestors 40 years to get from Egypt to Israel, as he had walked from Egypt to Israel in just three days. When I asked him how he was enjoying the holiday, he told me that it gave him hope.
Hope? Yusef explained: “I think it is very good that people here remember their history and tell the story from the past; that even though it’s good for them now, and they have a country of their own, they remember all the suffering and hardships their ancestors went through.
“They don’t forget. That’s very important. This gives me hope. Because my whole family died and the situation back home is very bad.
“However, being here [in Israel] and learning about Jewish history made me realize that sometimes you need to suffer in order for something good to happen. So maybe, in the future, it will be better. And maybe, people won’t forget.
“I am writing my story so that people will know. I think that maybe in the future it will be okay. I hope our people will also remember and be able to tell our story year after year in freedom.”
I didn’t mention that it took 2,000 years for the Jews to get their homeland. I was, however, blown away by Yusef’s insight. Jews around the world have been telling the same story of Pessah – of slavery, Exodus and freedom – every year for centuries. Yet how many of us have really stepped back and appreciated just how fantastic it is that we are commanded to feel like our ancestors did, as slaves who have been set free, year after year, generation after generation, in the Diaspora and in Israel.
For me, it was Yusef – who fled from the Egyptians in order to seek asylum in Israel – that made me think about freedom during future Seders.
Several months later, Yusef attained refugee status in Israel. He is one of the luckier asylum seekers, one of nearly 500 refugees from Darfur who received an A5 visa, allowing him to legally work and live where he chooses. The visa must be renewed annually, until he can safely return to his country.
Yusef chose to move from the kibbutz to Tel Aviv.
TWO YEARS ago, Ben-Gurion University Hillel organized a Lag Ba’omer party in Beduin-style tents near Beersheba. I invited Yusef and his friends to come and perform their traditional music and dance. On the bus ride down from Tel Aviv, Yusef told me about their music: How the women would say “ssssss” to give them energy to continue jumping. How if there was a war the women would gather in a circle and say “ssssss” to give them motivation to dance and continue the fighting.
He explained that they came from the Massalid tribe in Darfur. It said Massalid, in English letters, on their drum. They had made the drum the traditional way, from goat’s leather dried in the sun, aluminum and other materials. They had then painted on white and blue stripes and the Star of David. “We painted Israel’s flag because we love Israel,” Yusef said.
I asked him what one of the songs meant.
“The song is about how we have to fight back. How even when they come and burn our village, we must not run away. We must not give them our village. We must stand strong even if they come to kill us. We must stay strong.”
“Wow.” The pretty song now sounded tragic.
The group of about 10 performers had made costumes to dance in. I asked them what the symbol on their shirts was.
“The stick we use to kill animals. We throw it, and it kills the animal.”
“What type of animals?”
“You eat giraffes?”
“No. Just for leather.”
“Why don’t you eat it?”
“I don’t know. We just don’t.”
At that point, one of the young Darfuri men got up and spoke before the audience. Yusef provided the following translation:
“He said that we all need to jump with a lot of energy. That all the Jews have helped us also in Darfur and now here in Israel. And that you helped us when we were in jail and now in Tel Aviv. And you want to see our culture so we are thankful for the opportunity to play for you and for the nice bus you sent for us, so we need to give everything to the dance. We must jump high and sing strong because of everything you have done to help us.”
I was speechless. I did not think that I did so much. In fact, most of
the time I feel like I do not do enough. There are approximately 18,000
asylum seekers in Israel – most of them from African countries. The
government has sent several dozen back to Egypt (often resulting in
their death, imprisonment or persecution), imprisoned hundreds of men,
women and children and left thousands in a situation where they cannot
legally work and whose lives are in limbo.
There is a story in
the Talmud about a Jew who freed his slave and gave him gold and money.
That Jew was exempted from the commandment to hear the Exodus story
because he already understood its essence. Reading from the Haggada
last week, Yusef’s exodus experience echoed in my mind. I only hope
that I have opened my ears enough to hear its meaning and my heart to
do something about it.The writer made aliya in 2006 and has an MA in social work from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.