A Call to Freedom (Passover 2014/5774)

The Passover Haggadah instructs each and every one of us to see ourselves as though we, ourselves, left Egypt. Personally, I find this charge extremely challenging. Thank G-d, I was born and raised in countries where I never felt oppressed or subjugated. Even when I lived in the most un-Jewish of settings, I enjoyed the same levels of education, the same access to utilities and public services, the same privileges afforded all citizens, etc.  I—and I suspect most of our friends and family—have lead a life of unprecedented freedom. So what does it mean to regard one’s self as though one just came out of Egypt?

One answer to this question provided by our sages is that we should think of Egypt as more than a physical place of forced labor and physical pain.  The word “mitzrayim” (Hebrew for “Egypt”) is related to the word “metzarim”, which means “boundaries” or “limitations”. Aware of this linguistic connection, our rabbis encourage us to examine our lives and consider those things that hold us back from greatness; to identify the limitations and excuses that we let get in the way of becoming the Jews and the people we so desperately wish to be, and to resolve that we will break free of them forever.  In a way, this is the other side of Heshbon Ha-Nefesh, “accounting of the soul”, which we do in preparation for the High Holidays: Before Rosh Hashanah we make amends for our actions that fail to propel us to our most elevated state, and before Pesach we look to the roadblocks and snares that we are not fully in control of and work to remove them from our path.

I would like to suggest another answer to this question, which I learned when I attended this year’s AIPAC Policy Conference in March. Reverend Dee Dee Coleman of Oak Park, MI, presented about her experience of witnessing the last airlift of Ethiopian Jews to Israel. She spoke about how she was driven to take part in this action by the history of slavery that the African-American community continues to deal with each and every day.  For her, being a free person meant working toward the liberation of others.  Rev. Coleman truly understood the call in Leviticus 19:24: “The stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers once in the land of Egypt”.

We all have a part to play in freeing the oppressed.  We can call our representatives to demand action on behalf of the oppressed people of Venezuela, Sudan, and other war-torn regions.  We can send funds to organizations like “Not For Sale” which fight to end human trafficking in our world, and the American Jewish World Services that seek to defend human rights and improve the lives of all people in the “global south”.  We can stand with Israel, who absorbs more African refugees than any other country in the world.  On this Pesach, as we recount the many miracles that the Holy One did for us and our ancestors, as we pour out drops of wine in solidarity with the countless innocents who suffered the ten plagues because of Pharaoh’s stubbornness, as we eat matza and bitter herbs and sing “Next Year in Jerusalem”; let us remember that we have a responsibility, as free people, to help others who have not yet left “Egypt.”

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