A man breathes through an oxygen mask as another one receives treatments, after what rescue workers described as a suspected gas attack in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria April 4, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In Jewish tradition it is believed that the first-hand experience of persecution in Egypt was a prerequisite for transforming the offspring of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob into the Jewish people. Only through the personal experience of bondage under a ruthless Egyptian regime could Jews properly sensitize themselves to the suffering of others. True empathy and compassion for victims of oppression emanate from the very subjective first-hand knowledge of what it means to suffer for no crime other than a lack of power to defend oneself. The defining traits of Jews are said to be compassion, modesty and kindness. So much so that people who lack these traits have been considered ineligible for conversion to Judaism.
It is only natural, therefore, that many Jews draw parallels between the three-and-a-half-millennia-old Exodus story retold during the Passover Seder and the modern-day plight of tyrannized peoples, particularly those situated in the Middle East.
“We read in the Haggada each year that each person is supposed to see himself or herself as having personally gone out of Egypt,” Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, vice president of community engagement for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, told The Jerusalem Post
’s Danielle Ziri. “It’s not just a retelling of the Exodus, it’s not just a remembering, it’s re-experiencing, reliving it.”
And ultimately, the goal of the retelling of the Exodus story is to motivate Jews to action.
“The Seder is not just about telling our own story,” Rosenn said. “What you do after the Seder is probably even more important than the Seder itself. When we stand up from the Seder table, we want people to feel a sense of commitment to work in support of today’s refugees,” she added.
The moral obligation to relieve the suffering of others can be learned directly from the Exodus story. It was the physical oppression inflicted by the Egyptians on the Hebrews that was the initial impetus for God’s intervention against Pharaoh’s tyrannic regime, as recounted in Moshe’s epiphany at the burning bush:
“And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Mitzrayim and have heard their cry by reason of the taskmasters, for I know their sorrows and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of Mitzrayim…”
However, the Exodus story is not just about deliverance from bondage and physical oppression. The purpose of the Exodus is a more complete redemption. A priestly class, a legal system, a set of moral codes and a cohesive sense of peoplehood were all integral aspects of the redemption process. All of these were set in place even before the Jewish people was brought into the Land of Israel and gradually attained political sovereignty.
The message of the Exodus that is reflected in the Haggada is clear: Transforming a group of people whose only collective experience is slavery into a free and autonomous people is a long and arduous process. An entire generation of Israelites died in the desert before the Jewish people was sufficiently prepared to even attempt to begin the metamorphosis. It can be argued that 3,500 years after the Exodus the Jewish people still strives to live up to the lofty ideals of their faith. And full redemption will be possible only in a Messianic era ushered in by God.
This lesson is still relevant. If the so-called Arab Spring or the toppling of Saddam Hussein taught us anything, they showed that overthrowing oppressive regimes does not automatically lead to stable, healthy societies. Nation-building is a complicated business that takes decades, maybe longer.
Often “redemption” from one tyranny leads to even greater suffering. Anarchy or a far greater evil replaces the relative stability of the old order. The breakup of Iraq, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the plight of Syrian refugees and the phenomenon of Islamic State are all symptoms of this complicated transition.
As Jews we have no choice but to have compassion for those suffering throughout the region. It is in our cultural DNA, reinforced year after year on Seder night with the retelling of the Exodus story. But we must also be realistic and understand that the road to redemption is long and arduous. The Jewish people is blessed with a rich culture and a strong sense of peoplehood. Other peoples are not so lucky.