Seder at the Jewish community center in Bangor, Maine, circa 1947. (Documenting Maine Jewry)

From a Passover of Alienation to a Passover of Empathy

Our love and concern must radiate out beyond the us towards the them.

One of the most oft-repeated themes of the Torah is that we must remember that we were slaves and strangers in the Land of Egypt, and that God redeemed us with an outstretched hand. Both the experience of slavery and the experience of redemption are meant to radiate one central and fundamental call to action that the Torah comes back to again and again:

Slavery and stranger-hood – Love the stranger and care for him, provide for him and show him empathy. Feel his pain and act to alleviate it, deal kindly with him, for you yourself know what it means to be a stranger and a slave.

Redemption – Walk in the footsteps of God who redeemed us from Egypt, and redeem the slave and the downtrodden. Provide for them as God provided for us. Just as God’s mercies are upon all His creatures, so ought our mercies to be upon all His creatures.

The world is divided into us and them. That is the way that it has to be. In order to experience the security and the love of the family, the clan, the nation, there have to be those who are not part of our inner concentric circles. But at the same time, one of the most central directives of the Torah is that this division must never be so stark as to alienate the us from the them. Our love and concern must radiate out beyond the us towards the them. Our sense of us must empower our people to reach out to them.

We recall and relive our experience in Egypt on the holiday of Passover that is now at our doorstep. Passover is the centerpiece of the Jewish year and the focal point of the process of handing down the tradition to the next generation. And the focal point of Passover is the seder night with its Haggadah text. The Haggadah tells us – “In every generation one must see himself as if he personally went out of Egypt”. We spend the whole night bringing alive the events of slavery and redemption.

Towards what end? What is the take-away? Clearly the answer ought to be – To develop within us the historical memory that will constantly remind us and inspire us to love the stranger and redeem him from his suffering!

Yet this message is completely missing from the Haggadah. It certainly harps on our misery in Egypt, but instead of using that experience to nurture empathy for those who suffer, it sees in it a paradigm for the panorama Jewish history, reminding us “in every generation they rise against us to annihilate us, and the Holy One Blessed be He saves us from them”.

The reason for this lacuna – at least one of the reasons – may be that during the 1,000-plus years during which the Haggadah text developed, we Jews were the slaves and the strangers, and the dominant cultures were antagonistic to our way of life and often to our very existence. We were the other and little love was lost on us. Our forefathers were too busy surviving to find room in our hearts and in our texts to teach ourselves about love of the stranger and empathy for his suffering. The larger message of Passover was postponed for the distant future.

That future may have arrived. Reality today is different, in Israel and to a large degree in many parts of America, from that which our forefathers knew. We are no longer the other that we used to be, and there are other peoples, cultures and ethnic groups that have taken our place. In Israel we are the dominant culture and in America we are part of the mainstream.

These are the conditions of life that the Torah envisioned, and not the circumstances under which our forebears have lived for the past 2,000 years. As such, it is time for our Haggadot and our celebration of Passover, as well as our Jewish consciousness and our behavior, to reflect that change and to go back to basics.

Let the seder be our forum to proclaim and inculcate an ethic of empathy for the other emanating from two intertwined experiences  – One – Never Again! Never again shall any people suffer what we suffered in Egypt. And two – We take it upon ourselves to continually struggle to redeem the other, just as God redeemed us!

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