Tradition Today: The purpose of Pessah

The Exodus serves as a foundation to how we should treat others.

The tremendous effort required to observe a kosher Pessah occupies us so completely now that we may be in danger of forgetting why we observe it at all. The Torah is very specific in telling us the reason: “It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt” (Exodus 13:8). The Exodus from Egypt, going from slavery to freedom, is the very foundation of our existence as a people.
The experience of the Exodus had a profound influence on Judaism.
The religion of Israel is inconceivable without it. It matters not whether the story as told in the Torah is an exact record of the events or an elaboration on them. What happened to us there changed our understanding of how to treat other human beings. Time and time again when discussing mitzvot concerning social justice, one reason alone is cited: the experience of the Exodus – being a stranger, enslavement and redemption from slavery.
Thus the enslavement and subsequent manumission of Israel is the reason that we are to treat others differently than we were treated. It is the driving force behind so much of the Torah’s social legislation, legislation which was often revolutionary for its time. The laws of the Torah requiring just and merciful treatment of strangers and slaves set a tone of care and tolerance that underlies so much of Jewish practice.
It might have been expected that the lesson to be learned from the experience of slavery and liberation would be never again to permit ourselves to be enslaved, to avoid being mistreated in that way at any cost.
Instead the lesson is that having experienced the suffering of slavery and the suffering of being a stranger without rights, we should never treat others in that way. Having gained our freedom, we should want to share it with others. Thus empathy for the stranger and for anyone who is powerless results in a series of laws that protect their rights.
This remarkable sensitivity to others was well summed up centuries later by Hillel the Elder (first century BCE) when he paraphrased in Aramaic the biblical verse “You shall love your fellow as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18) as “That which is hateful unto you do not do unto others.”
“You shall not wrong a stranger [ger] or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). This is repeated again even more explicitly in the very next chapter: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).
In rabbinic literature the Torah’s references to the ger were generally understood to refer specifically to the convert, the stranger who has chosen to become a part of the Jewish People. This is clearly reflected in the interpretation in Mechilta Nezikin 18 to Exodus 22:20: “You shall not wrong a stranger” – with words – “or oppress him” – in money matters. You should not say to him: But yesterday you were worshipping Bel, Kores, Nebo, and until now swine’s flesh was sticking out from between your teeth, and now you dare to stand up and speak against me! In our own day we have seen all too clearly that the status of the convert can be a humiliating one. Too often little care or concern is shown for the feelings of those who have converted or those who wish to convert.
The problems that have arisen regarding recognition of conversions, repealing conversions and turning away converts who wish to be married, are painful and indicate a lack of sensitivity and understanding on the part of too many religious leaders.
Pessah is a good time to remember the Torah’s overriding concern for the proper treatment and even love for the ger, understood by our sages as meaning the convert, thus giving Torah-based authority for the honored place of the convert within the congregation of Israel. A truly kosher Pessah requires attention not only to what we do or do not eat, but to how we treat others.
The writer, former president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, was the founding director of the Schechter Rabbinical School. His latest book is Entering Torah.