We weren’t just slaves

If the Seder means anything, it means we need to take our responsibilities toward the vulnerable, the alienated and the disenfranchised more seriously.

African migrant Pessah seder 311 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
African migrant Pessah seder 311
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
This year, Pessah should be very different than all other nights. Traditionally the Seder focuses on the physical redemption of our people. But this year, because of the singular events of the past two decades, we need to highlight the existential dimensions of the Exodus.
The haggada focuses on the fact that we weren’t just slaves in Egypt.
It’s true that avadim ha-yinu, but we were also foreigners, (gerim). This is mentioned at least twice in the haggada, and this second aspect is singularly relevant this year.
What is the difference between an eved and a ger? A slave is under physical bondage – something that prevents him from controlling his or her own destiny. A ger, by contrast, has freedom, but lives a life characterized by not being fully recognized and lacking a complete identity. Freedom isn’t only about controlling your own destiny. It doesn’t only revolve around determining your day-to-day life, or not being in bondage. Freedom, in the existential sense, means having a complete identity, and achieving full recognition.
THIS YEAR at our Seders, we celebrate 25 years since the Jewish people began bringing more than a million olim to Israel – literally from slavery to freedom. Immigrants from the Former Soviet Union and Ethiopia who could not (either out of fear or ignorance) fully express their Jewish identity were not able to control their own destiny. When I was growing up, we always had an empty place at our Seder for those who couldn’t celebrate, or a matza of hope for Jews from Russia.
Now those Jews are here.
But having brought these immigrants, we have a greater challenge which we haven’t taken as seriously – bringing existential freedom to our brothers and sisters by allowing them full entry into Israeli society.
Last year, less than 2,500 of the more than 350,000 non-Jewish immigrants from the FSU converted. Hundreds of thousands of olim are not full members of Israeli society, and the conversion options available to them are limited.
And over the past few months, even individuals who have managed to convert continue to be powerless. I received a call yesterday from a woman who converted in the IDF but who was told by the local marriage registry that “we don’t register converts here – go somewhere else.”
In some ways, sitting here in Israel, it is easier to remember avadim hayinu – once we were slaves – than gerim hayinu– once we were foreigners or converts. Internalizing our own history, and telling our own story catalyzes us and propels us forward.
Today’s challenge is to acknowledge not just the physical Exodus, but the existential Exodus as well. If the Seder means anything, it means we need to take our responsibilities toward the vulnerable, the alienated and the disenfranchised more seriously. We need to help those living on the periphery of society come closer to the center.
At our Seders this year, instead of thinking about the Jewish prisoners sitting in the gulag, we should consider the plight of the IDF soldier who can’t get married because conversion isn’t accessible to him or her.
Maybe this year, we should reinstitute the matza of hope. Not for the refusenik, but for the convert as well.
The writer is director of ITIM: the Jewish Life Information Center (www.itim.org.il), and the rabbi of Kehilat Netivot in Ra’anana.