Passover, Shabbat and Rat Poison – Poisoning Ourselves With the Poison Used Against Us

This year the first day of Passover fell on Shabbat. Can we find a deeper connection between Shabbat and Passover?

Perhaps we can answer this question by recourse to another question: Why did our forefathers have to be slaves in Egypt such that God had to redeem us from bondage? Couldn’t God have just prevented us from going down to Egypt and becoming slaves in the first place? The exodus from Egypt is certainly the central moment in Jewish history and Jewish consciousness – why did it have to be so?

The Torah provides two explanations for the Shabbat: One, that the day is a commemoration of creation, that God fashioned the universe in six days and rested on the seventh; and two, that Shabbat is a commemoration of the exodus.

This second reason is found in the version of the Ten Commandments presented in the Book of Deuteronomy. We are told to ‘rest on the Shabbat SO THAT your servants may rest as well, and you shall remember that you were slaves in Egypt and God took you out of there’. The meaning of this is earth shattering. This is one of the many instances in which the Torah asks us to imitate God and to walk in His footsteps. He redeemed us from servitude, so we in turn must redeem the downtrodden of our society from servitude. By refraining from labor every seventh day, we construct a more righteous society in which those at the bottom of the social totem poll are freed once a week from their servitude and drudgery.

And it just may be that in understanding this aspect of the Shabbat, we have discovered why the wheels of Divine history found in necessary to bring us into Egyptian bondage to begin with. The Torah tells us again and again to remember our experience as slaves and to remember that God freed us. Similarly, the Torah tells us again and again to ‘not oppress the slave and the stranger’, to ‘show compassion for the slave and the stranger’, to ‘love the slave and the stranger’, and all this ‘because you know the heart of the slave and the stranger, being that you were slaves and strangers in Egypt’.

There is just about no way to avoid the conclusion that the Divine plan had us becoming strangers and slaves in Egypt, so that we would know throughout our long history never to behave towards the other as the Egyptians behaved towards us, and that He redeemed us from those conditions so that we would always know to redeem others from their own straits and bondages. From this perspective of social justice/tikun olam, both Passover and Shabbat point in the same direction and there is special meaning this year when we celebrate the two as one.

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It is forbidden to have any leaven (hametz) in our homes during the week of Passover, and Jews around the world have spent the last few days scouring our homes for any traces of bread, cookies, pasta etc. Huge amounts of such foods are unfortunately thrown in the garbage. Here in Gush Etzion, Israel where I live, the Roots Initiative – of which I am one of the founders – has publicized that before Passover we are collecting such items for distribution among poor Palestinian peace activists. Tens of people donated their hametz. At the same time, one of my neighbors wrote a public note saying that all he was willing to give was his rat poison! A number of people, while distancing themselves from his vulgarity, counseled that given Palestinian terror and the toll it has taken among friends and neighbors, such attitudes are understandable. We must be accepting and forgiving.

I beg to differ. Why did Pharoah enslave our forefathers? Because he was afraid of the Jews, the foreigners! He saw in them a dreaded fifth column – “Let them not increase; otherwise in the event of war they will join our enemies in fighting against us. …The Egyptians came to dread the Israelites” (Exodus 1:10, 12)

The Egyptians loathed the Israelites who they saw as taking over their country. They resented the foreigners whom they said don’t belong here – let them go back to their own country!

A stranger who is just like you and does not arouse any negative emotion is easy to care for and to take under your wing. It is not about him that the Torah is talking. The stranger who we are to refrain from oppressing and even to love is the same stranger who we ourselves were in Egypt – feared and loathed by the majority population. The one to whom the uncouth among us would offer only his rat poison.

When we are forgiving of such attitudes we poison ourselves with the very poison that was used against us. Let us rather rise above all hate and resentment and learn from Shabbat and Passover to ‘love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’.

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