by: Robert Cohen on April 5th, 2012 | 5 Comments »
Passover approaches and a fearful angel descends upon the homes of the Children of Israel. But this is not the Angel of Death, sent to take the first born son from every household of ancient Egypt. And this time, no daubing of blood on our doorposts will tell this angel to “pass over” our homes. For this is the Angel of Ignorance and Denial. This is the angel that blinds us to our own ills, that curses us to become the very Pharaoh we say we despise.
In the days to come, as we have for thousands of years, we will sit down together and tell the story of our freedom from slavery. We will open our wine-stained and motzah-crumbed Haggadot, and from its pages we will relive (as if we ourselves were there) our founding mythology, our birth as a people liberated from oppression. It is a powerful and compelling tale that weaves its message through every part of our holy scriptures and prayerbook liturgies. We are told that a tyrant can be brought low, a people can be made free, the world can be changed.
The Pharaoh Lodged in Our Soul
But do we revere the Exodus text while dishonouring its message? Each year we celebrate our freedom but fail to recognise the Pharaoh that shares our Seder night meal with us, lodged somewhere in our soul, distorting our view of ourselves and others.
We are mistaken if we think our own suffering at the hands of countless Pharaohs throughout our history has somehow made us immune from the seductive powers of Pharaoh-ism. We sit down to celebrate our survival as if survival were an end in itself. We forget that we were forged in the heat of the desert for a meaning and a purpose. Survival cannot be for survival’s sake, just as freedom was not given for freedom’s sake.
The encounter at Mount Sinai set for us a demanding (perhaps impossible) mission – to do right by God and right by each other. Wandering in the desert, without our own land or borders, we recorded the commandments that were meant to shape us as a people.
“You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)”You shall not stand idly by while your neighbor’s blood is being shed.” (Leviticus 19:16) “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Leviticus 19:18) “The strangers who resides with you, shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:34) And here’s the show-stopper: “Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you.” (Deuteronomy 16:20)
Limping back to Egypt
But when it comes to the most fundamental issue facing Judaism and Jewish identity in the 21st century, we have not just failed the mission, we have turned our back on it. We have limped back to the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s chariots have caught up with us.
In spite of all we have experienced in our two millenniums of wanderings, we prefer to keep ourselves ignorant of the meaning of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and the condition of Palestinian Israelis and refugees. We choose not to see the house demolitions, collective punishments, land confiscations, water appropriations, the olive groves uprooted, the wells blocked. The harassment, intimidation and murder of Palestinian men, women and children goes unnoticed. Settler violence and a brutalizing army of occupation means nothing to us.
And on the other side of the wall, we insist we are the only democracy in the Middle-East despite a fifth of the population (the Palestinian Israelis) feeling like, and being treated as, unwanted strangers in their own land. We choose to see another people’s displacement, another people’s exile, another people’s daily humiliation and discrimination as an acceptable price for our own national renewal.
One of Israel’s finest writers, David Grossman, wrote the following words just a few weeks ago:
I think about a people which has dumped a whole other nation on the side of the road and has backed the process to the hilt over 45 years, all the while having not a bad life at all, thank you. I think about a people which has been engaging in a brilliant genius-like denial of its own responsibility for the situation. I think of a people, which has managed to ignore the warping and distorting of its own society and the madness that the process has had on its own national values.
Are we incapable of tasting the bitterness of another people’s oppression? On Seder night, we dip our food twice in salt water to symbolise our own tears of slavery. Should we dip a third time for the tears we have brought to the “strangers” and “neighbors” in the land we insist was promised to us?
Occupy the Haggadah!
It is time to reclaim our own story. We, the authors of the Exodus paradigm, must breathe new life into our scripture. We must return ourselves to the desert and relearn the mission.
To use this year’s favorite phrase of radicals, we need to “Occupy” the Haggadah. We have to invest this medieval liturgy with the power to transform us into the people we were meant to be. We cannot let this text simply reinforce our identity as eternal victims (leaving no space in our hearts for any other victim). The Haggadah must haul us back to be the custodians of Justice we were called to be.
This year when my family sits down for the annual retelling of the Exodus story, there will be some new additions to the evening’s order of service. We will include prayers for justice, thought-provoking reflections on the meaning of the Holocaust from Jews and Palestinians, and acknowledgment of our own complicity in taking freedom from others. We will dip into salt water three times to remember not only our tears but the tears of our neighbors too.
And alongside the salt water, Elijah’s wine glass and Miriam’s cup, we will make an addition to the Seder plate. Next to the bitter herbs, the horoset, the motzah, the shankbone, we will add some Palestinian olive oil to remember that the land has meaning to another people too. And when we break the motzah, we will do so as a symbol of sharing the land. And to soften our brittle “bread of oppression” we will pour on some of the Palestinian olive oil.
This is no act of self-loathing criticism. On the contrary, this is taking Judaism back to its beginnings, reclaiming it from the narrow, extreme nationalism that has become our 21st century’s golden calf.
As well as making us alive to the past and the miracle of our own survival, we will open our eyes to the present and to our own participation in Pharaoh’s modern franchise. On Seder night it is traditional to ask the question: Why is this night different from all other nights? This year let the difference be this: from this night on we will no longer allow our story to blot out another’s.
And to paraphrase the last words of the Haggadah service: This year — in slavery to the Pharaoh of our own making. Next year — liberated to pursue our mission of justice. Hag Sameach, Happy Passover, Occupy the Haggadah!
This article originally appeared on the author’s blog, Micah’s Paradigm Shift.