Reality check: Did we really leave Egypt?

The day-to-day realities in Israel show a negligence of certain basic moral laws.

haggada 88 (photo credit: )
haggada 88
(photo credit: )
Someone once said that you can sum up the message of most of the Jewish festivals in one short sentence: "They tried to kill us; the Almighty rescued us; let's go and eat!" This year it's going to be a bit harder because of the bird flu scare. There may be fewer eggs, chickens and turkeys about. Nevertheless, the site of bloated supermarket trolleys lined up at the check-out counters in our supermarkets and mega-stores reinforces the view that while Muslims may refer to us as "the People of the Book," it might be more appropriate to call us "the People of the Stomach." There are cardiac Jews ("Rabbi, you may not see me at synagogue, but I am a Jew at heart") and gastronomic Jews, for whom the culinary requirements of Pessah represent the essence of the holiday. You can even get glatt kosher toothpaste these days. It is significant that Judaism chose to begin its calendar year not with Shavuot and the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, but rather with the festival of Pessah and its message of liberation. The Torah repeatedly tells us to remember that we were slaves in the land of Egypt. However, we are not talking about historical memory in the sense of recalling our past the way the British remember that the Normans conquered England in 1066 at the battle of Hastings. Jewish memory is intended to inform our actions in every age: "Remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt." When the Torah relates that the Almighty promised to "pass over" the Israelite homes and not destroy their firstborn, the medieval commentator Rashi remarks that the word "passover" means "to show compassion." NOW YOU would have thought that showing compassion would be a cardinal quality in a Jewish state. After all, the 16th-century talmudist, David ben Zimra, tells us that "the children of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are compassionate - rachmanim b'nei rachmanim." However, a brief look at what is happening in our society today leaves one wondering whether the message of Passover has really been learned. Israel's Sephardi chief rabbi recently issued a halachic ruling permitting religious council workers to strike on the grounds that they had not been paid for seven months (!) Where will their families find the money for their Pessah shopping? Someone seems to have forgotten that Leviticus 19 instructs us that "the wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning." But that is only the beginning of the story. A Bank of Israel report tells us that pensions in Israel are the lowest among developed nations. So much for "you shall show deference to the old" (Leviticus 19:32). Just three verses earlier, we are taught: "Do not degrade your daughter and make her a harlot." However, if it is somebody else's daughter, that's okay. As we well know, thousands of young women have been brought to Israel from the former Soviet Union and forced to work as prostitutes. Many are physically caged in brothels, where they are abused and exploited as sex slaves. It is a disgrace to our Jewish state that an international campaign is now being mounted to draw attention to human trafficking in Israel. BUT IT is not as if we treat our own children that well. Over one million Israeli children live below the poverty line. In Israel, 0.5 percent of the GDP goes to child allowances, compared to 1.3 percent in countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Among its members only Spain is less generous than Israel when it comes to child allowances. And the list goes on and on. It would appear that Egypt, with its memories of physical abuse and dehumanization, continues to accompany us. Not that we are physical slaves; rather, the way we treat one another shows that slavery is still alive and kicking. PESSAH SHOULD also be teaching us the lesson of pluralism and tolerance. Remember that there are four sons at the Seder table. Even the so-called wicked son is to be found there. None of the sons has been ousted from the family celebration. Each is shown respect and accepted. That should also be a message for our society. The Haggada enjoins us that "In every generation a person must see himself as though he came out of Egypt." The word "must" emphasizes the forcefulness of the obligation, while its formulation in the singular reminds us that, as individuals, we cannot escape personal responsibility by blaming society, the state or its politicians for our nation's ills. At the same time, following the recent Knesset elections, it is heartening to note that a country, understandably obsessed with its physical survival, may just be beginning to address its social agenda. Everyone is beginning to talk about the need to take care of Israel's poor. Whether this is just a political ploy cynically aimed at seducing a gullible electorate, or whether these are the first signs of a wind of change, only time will tell. Ultimately, a society is measured not only by the success or the achievements of the privileged, but primarily by how it treats the poor and those who have no voice. In the words of the Torah, they are "the stranger, the orphan and the widow." In our world, they are the starving, the sick, the exploited foreign worker, the sex slave and the aged. As the survivors of Egypt, we are particularly enjoined to be sensitive to their plight. As we gather around our tables this Seder night and indulge in yet another gastronomic experience, perhaps we can find a moment to ask ourselves whether we really have left Egypt, or whether slavery - in a more sophisticated form - continues to accompany us to this day. Perhaps that is why we need Elijah's Cup on the table. There are those who mistakenly believe that Elijah will one day go from home to home taking a sip of wine from that cup - as though he were a kind of Jewish Father Christmas. However, Elijah's Cup is not there for him. It is rather the fifth cup of wine that we shall be privileged to drink when the Age of Redemption arrives. We have only to look around to realize that that day has yet to come. The writer is Director of the Rabbinic Court of the Israel Council of Progressive Rabbis.