We are still in Egypt

On Passover, we should engage in a burst of courage to truly look at the society that entraps so many.

Pyramids (magneficent) 311 (photo credit: Ricardo Liberato)
Pyramids (magneficent) 311
(photo credit: Ricardo Liberato)
THE PASSOVER Seder is designed to bring about joy, but even more than that, its purpose is to remind us of human struggle. Through this moral consciousness, our human conscience is rebooted.
“This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the Land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat,” we recite at the Seder.
What kind of gift is “lechem oni,” the bread of affliction, and why would anyone want it? Primo Levi, the prominent author and Holocaust survivor, told the story about his final days in Auschwitz in If This is a Man. He wrote that the worst days were those after the Nazis left and before the Soviets arrived, when there was no food to be found.
Then a man found potatoes and all the survivors began to share the potatoes. At this first opportunity in the concentration camp to share food, the meaning of lechem oni became clear: It is through giving from the little bits we have in life that we find our individual and collective liberation. It is through sharing that one is transformed from slave to man.
The Haggada reminds us that we are obligated to view ourselves, today, as if we too are leaving Egypt, as it says, “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying ‘It is because of this that Hashem acted on my behalf when I left Egypt’” (Exodus 13:8).
Don Isaac Abarbanel had good reason to reflect on this text.
He was born into a prominent Jewish family in 15th-century Portugal, but then was forced to flee to Spain, after which he was expelled with his fellow Jews in spite of faithful service to the king; he went to Naples, where he was again forced to flee after the French seized the city, and finally found refuge in Venice.
In spite of the injustices heaped upon him, the Abarbanel embraced knowledge from around the world along with Torah scholarship, and sought to help his fellow Jews in all lands, including purchasing the freedom of Jewish prisoners in Morocco.
His commentary on Exodus 13:8 bears consideration: Each and every Jew will find him/herself in this exile with political subjection in its own uniqueness as that which happened to our nation collectively in Egypt. For this reason, the Sages said that everyone should see him/herself as if he/she left Egypt and this would not be possible without our problems and different distresses.... And since God saves us in galut (the Diaspora) every day, it is fitting that each and every person should see himself as though he left Egypt, that it wasn’t only our ancestors that were redeemed in our collective redemption but also us: God redeemed us and takes us out from our different individual afflictions.
This mandate transcends the parameters of collective memory and demands that we attempt to leave our contemporary, spiritual Egypt by seeing those still trapped today.
The Haggada is not merely an intellectual exercise; it is, rather, a wakeup call to see the reality of the world around us.
The ancient hardships have endured. It may surprise many to learn that slavery and statelessness are still major problems in the world. In June 2012, then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton estimated that there were as many as 27 million enslaved people worldwide.
Meanwhile, the United Nations estimates that there are about 12 million stateless people in the world, who – because of their inability to claim citizenship of any country – lack any legal protection or social or economic aid. Even in these two areas there is much to do in the world today, and our Seder should spur us into action.
As daunting as these tasks are, we must not become paralyzed by or apathetic to the enormity of the problem, or confuse study with action. Consider this example of what happens when moral commitment serves merely as intellectual exploration: One of the most ironic examples of goal obsession was the “Good Samaritan” research done by John Darley and Daniel Batson at Princeton University in 1973.
In this widely referenced study, a group of theology students was told that they were to go across campus to deliver a sermon on the topic of the Good Samaritan.
As part of the research, some of these students were told that they were late and needed to hurry up. Along their route across campus, Darley and Batson had hired an actor to play the role of a victim who was coughing and suffering.
Ninety percent of the “late” students in Princeton Theology Seminary ignored the needs of the suffering person in their haste to get across campus.
As the study reports: “Indeed, on several occasions, a seminary student going to give his talk on the parable of the Good Samaritan literally stepped over the victim as he hurried on his way!” ON PASSOVER, we should engage in a burst of courage to truly look at the society that entraps so many. The Tibetans are only one of many nationalities yet to find their liberation, tens of thousands of innocents are being slaughtered in the third year of the Syrian civil war, and millions are locked away in cells facing daily torture. In every corner of the world, immigrants work from morning to night and still live in poverty, orphans cry themselves to sleep, and widows are left unprotected. There is no shortage of causes to which we should direct our efforts.
It is only by reentering Egypt that we can access the cries that surround us.
Emmanuel Levinas, in Beyond the Verse: Talmudic Readings and Lectures, writes: “The trauma I experienced as a slave in the land of Egypt constitutes my humanity itself.”
“This immediately brings me closer to all the problems of the damned on the earth, of all those who are persecuted, as if in my suffering as a slave I prayed in a prayer that was not yet oration, and as if this love of the stranger were already the reply given to me through my heart of flesh. My very uniqueness lies in the responsibility for the other man; I could never pass it off to another person, just as I could never have anyone take my place in death: obedience to the Most-High means precisely this impossibility of shying away; through it, my ‘self’ is unique. To be free is to do only what no one else can do in my place. To obey the Most-High is to be free (142).”
When the ritual of the Seder remains on the level of piety or nostalgia but does not stir the soul to action, it has lost its value.
Rav Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen Kook made this point about ritual quite poignantly: We can know that our behavior is derived from pure and spiritual motives when our innate sense of what is right becomes more exalted as a consequence of its religious inspection. If the moral quality of the individual and the public response [to ethical challenges] is diminished by our religious observance then... our supposed piety is of no value.
As we take our journey this Passover back into the depths of Egypt, may we push ourselves to be reawakened to our responsibility to heed the calls of the vulnerable who call out to us in their destitution.
As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in a moment of comfort and convenience, but where he stands in times of challenge and controversy.”
The writer is the founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek, the senior rabbi at Kehilath Israel, and is the author of Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.”
Newsweek named him as one of the top 50 rabbis in America in 2012 and 2013.