As the festival of Passover approaches, we are all challenged, this year even more than most years, to reflect and act on the universal message it conveys — especially in the light of very disturbing trends both in the United States and Israel.
The overriding message conveyed through the Haggadah is that it is our duty to experience the story of our liberation from Egypt as if it happened to us personally — and not just a story that happened to our ancestors countless generations ago. As former slaves, our tradition teaches us to be sensitive to the plight of the oppressed throughout history and in our own time. Accepting our role as active participants in that drama, we realize that we have a hand in forging our own destiny and cannot allow ourselves to become mere bystanders.
We are sensitive even to the pain of our enemies, taking a drop of wine out of our glasses for each of the ten plagues visited on the Egyptians, lessening our joy as we recall their suffering.
As our sages have noted, the one commandment in the Torah reiterated more than any other is to care for and love the stranger — for we ourselves were strangers in Egypt. It is repeated no fewer than 36 times.
Perhaps the repetition is necessary because this commandment tells us to do something that is both counterintuitive and very hard to do. It goes against something that is very deep and fundamental within us. We’re hardwired to be loyal to our own tribe and to be suspicious of and hostile to “the other.” When we’re hurting or in distress, some of us blame strangers and pour out our rage on them. It’s happening again, right now, in Syria, Iraq and in sectors of America.
In the 2016 presidential campaign, some of the leading candidates have built their campaigns by exploiting the fears and anxieties of fellow Americans. They have cynically fomented an anti-immigrant, xenophobic, nativist feeling against Muslims, Hispanics and others.
In Israel, we see the same phenomenon in the very disturbing recent polls showing that a sizeable proportion of the Jewish population would favor depriving Arab Israelis of their democratic rights or even expelling them from the country. And tragically, Israelis and Palestinians have become strangers to each other, meeting in fewer and fewer places and not currently engaged around the negotiating table.
Yes, Israelis have been subjected to heinous terrorist attacks, rockets, missiles and constant psychological pressure — and we must stand with them in upholding their right to defend themselves and our Jewish homeland — but returning hatred with hatred is not the response our tradition teaches. We’re taught as Jews despite cruelty leveled against us not to become cruel and hard-hearted ourselves. That is the key lesson of Pesach, and we ignore it at our moral and spiritual peril.
This is not who we are as Jews — nor who we can be and should be.
As individuals and collectively, working through organizations like J Street and its many American-Jewish, Israeli and Palestinian allies, we need to change this. We are called upon by tradition to pursue peace and justice and to love compassion. We must see that our neighbors are fellow humans with the same desires and aspirations as us — and we must never abandon our goal of reaching a two-state solution to end the conflict.
That is the great challenge of our time and it is deserving of particular reflection this festival season.
As the former Chief Rabbi of Britain, Jonathan Sacks, has noted, “Judaism is God’s call to human responsibility. From this call you can’t hide, as Adam and Eve discovered when they tried, and you can’t escape, as Jonah learnt in the belly of a fish. The first humans lost paradise when they sought to hide from responsibility. We will only ever regain it if we accept responsibility and become a nation of leaders, each respecting and making space for those not like us.”
May you all enjoy a joyous Passover.