NOTE: This essay was cross posted at Kol Ami.
In the Passover seder, we are commanded to tell our story of freedom beginning with the words: “Arami Oveid Avi – My father was a wandering/escaped Aramean.” There are differences of opinion regarding whether this line refers to Abraham or to Jacob. But either way, its meaning is clear. Our people got their start as escapees from the land of Aram, which is now in northern Syria. We begin our Jewish story as Syrian refugees.
In fact, the Jewish experience is one of being the stranger and welcoming the stranger. Abraham and Sarah, the first Jews, were known for keeping their tent open on all four sides, so that they might rush out and bring passersby into their home. It’s known as Hachnasat Orchim – Welcoming the guest. Later, as our people emerged from slavery, we were commanded “V’ahavtem et Hageir – You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” And only 8 decades ago, our people once again were the strangers and the refugees, trying to escape the dangers around them in Europe, and often labeled as security threats or subversives.
As Jews, that’s the religious and historical experience that we bring to the current refugee crisis. As Canadians, we also bring a deep respect for pluralism and for the immigration mentality that has made this country what it is. Aware of the security risks, aware of the challenges that immigration can bring with it, we approach the world with a desire to uphold Tzelem Elohim – to uphold the image of God in each human being.
May this season of freedom be a harbinger of freedom for all people, in all corners of the world. Someday may there be a time when no one will every have to say “Arami oveid avi – My father was a refugee.”
They say that “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” I’m not so sure about that.
This weekend, Jewish families all over the world will sit down at their tables for the Passover Seder. This season celebrates freedom; it acknowledges that somewhere in the depths of our history/mythology we were slaves. And that through forces human and divine, we were made free.
The main character of this drama is, of course, Moses. Moses the miracle baby. Moses the Egyptian prince. Moses the freedom fighter. Moses the reticent leader. Moses the prophet. Moses the philosopher. Moses the rabbi. He plays more roles in Jewish tradition than any other figure. He is the archetype for EVERYTHING.
Which makes it exceedingly curious that as you make your way through the traditional Haggadah – the prayerbook for the Passover Seder – the name of Moses appears not a single time.
Why is Moses absent from the seder? Maybe the framers of the Haggadah wanted to attribute the miracles to God. Maybe they didn’t want to encourage Moses-worship. Maybe they wished to universalize the story, allowing it to speak to oppressed peoples in every time and place. Whatever the reason, there is a sense that Moses’ actions are so extraordinary that they speak for themselves. We don’t even need to mention his name.
Moses is lucky – we know he’s there even when he’s not mentioned. But that’s not usually the meaning of absence. And that is what the US Treasury Department acknowledged this week when it announced that for the first time, a woman will be featured on an American bill. Finally, a woman’s presence on US currency! Finally, an end to this glaring absence of female voices and faces in an important federal institution.
And appropriately for Passover, the US Treasury department chose none other than Moses. The abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and then committed her life to shepherding other slaves to freedom, was known in the abolitionist movement as “Moses,” because of her commitment to freeing her people. A human rights activist, a suffragist, and a symbol for freedom, her actions – like those of the original Moses – have long outlived her own lifetime.
By placing Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, we acknowledge the central Jewish value that individuals have the power to repair the world. That where there is slavery or oppression or hatred, brave women and men can to change it. It reminds us that that our presence is felt through our actions.
May the name of “Moses” – and her picture on our currency – inspire us to be our best, and to bring freedom and peace to our world.
Chag Pesach Sameach – Happy Passover to all!
NOTE: The primary purpose of the Pesach Seder is “maggid” – telling the story of the Exodus. According to the Talmud, we are meant to do so by expounding on Deuteronomy’s words of slavery and freedom – “My father was a wandering Aramean.” Here is my attempt for this year to find modern meaning in those ancient words:
אֲרַמִּי אֹבֵד אָבִי
My father was a wandering Aramean.
What is an Aramean? It is someone from Aram – the land north of Israel. Someone who came from elsewhere, whose journey began as something else. The Jewish story begins with wandering that is both physical and spiritual – just as Abraham and Sarah made their way toward the land of Israel, so did they make their way toward a new way of thinking and believing and understanding the universe. Away from idolatry and toward TIkkun Olam. Today, we continue that journey of questioning and learning and growing. We are still wandering Arameans.
ַיֵּרֶד מִצְרַיְמָה וַיָּגָר שָׁם בִּמְתֵי מְעָט וַֽיְהִי־שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם
He went down to Egypt with small numbers and lived there, and there he became a great and very populous nation.
The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, which means “narrow places.” We all have narrow places in our lives, times of pain, loss, and confusion. And in those moments, we may feel as though we are surrounded by “m’tei m’at” – by very little in terms of support and strength. Yet those are the times when we need our loved ones the most. When people we care about are in mitzrayim – when they are in narrow places – our role is to turn m’tei m’at into atzum v’rav – to turn little strength into much strength, to surround them with support so that they can continue make their way.
וַֽיְהִי־שָׁם לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל עָצוּם וָרָֽב וַיָּרֵעוּ אֹתָנוּ הַמִּצְרִים וַיְעַנּוּנוּ וַיִּתְּנוּ עָלֵינוּ עֲבֹדָה קָשָֽׁה
And there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians were cruel to us and oppressed us, and imposed heavy labour upon us.
Why does it matter that we were populous in Egypt? Because it made us frightening to the Egyptians. Because we were many and because we were different, they oppressed and enslaved us. Today, we live in a society that is perhaps the most diverse in history. But we are still too afraid of the differences between us – differences of belief and practice, differences of culture and skin colour. On this festival of freedom, may we work to free ourselves of our preconceptions and assumptions about people who look, believe, pray, vote, or speak differently than we do.
וַנִּצְעַק אֶל־יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתֵינוּ וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָֹה אֶת־קֹלֵנוּ וַיַּרְא אֶת־עָנְיֵנוּ וְאֶת־עֲמָלֵנוּ וְאֶֽת־לַֽחֲצֵֽנוּ:
We cried to Adonai, the God of our ancestors, and God heard our voice and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression.
God couldn’t see our misery beforehand?! God didn’t know we were slaves until we cried out?! Why did God allow 400 years of slavery? Why does God allow anyone to suffer? It isn’t God who “allows” people to suffer; it is us. And it isn’t only God’s role to hear the cries of our fellow human beings and act on their behalf; it is also ours. If there are hungry children in our schools, we must feed them. If there are homeless in our cities, we must shelter them. If we wait around for God to do God’s work, it may never get done.
וַיּֽוֹצִאֵנוּ יְהוָֹה מִמִּצְרַיִם בְּיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבְמֹרָא גָּדֹל וּבְאֹתוֹת וּבְמֹֽפְתִֽים:
Adonai freed us from Egypt with great strength, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and amazing things!
There are wonders and signs of God’s presence all around us:
- The loving family and friends who surround us
- The earth that gives us life and fulfills all of our needs.
- Our human capacity to grow, to learn, to dream, and to build.
On this Pesach may we challenge ourselves to better appreciate the miracles in our world, and may we commit ourselves to the task of building a better world.
Chag Pesach Sameach!