Monday night Jews will assemble as families and groups of friends to observe our holiday of Passover (Pesach in Hebrew), a remembrance of the events depicted in the biblical exodus story, the departure of Jewish slaves from Egypt on a journey toward their own land, a journey away from slavery to what we characterize today as freedom. Or so the legend goes, and the temptation to read modern categories into ancient stories has led many of us to understand the Pesach narrative as one reflective of some specific challenge in our time. So it has been read and understood in many generations. Jewish children will ask four questions to try to get to the reason for the celebration, but the fifth question needs to be, “to whom does our lesson apply today?”
Slaves kidnapped from Africa and stolen away to North America regarded the story as one that foretold their liberation. The plaintive spiritual, “Go down, Moses…. Tell old Pharaoh, ‘Let my people go!’” was only one way the theme of the Jewish Passover resounded for them. It vibrated equally well for Martin Luther King who, like Moses, had “been to the mountaintop,” and had “seen the promised land.” During the Shoah (Holocaust) Jews imprisoned by Nazis asked Rabbi Ephraim Oshry whether it was permissible fully to celebrate the Passover in which we recite, “Once we were slaves; now we are free.” Oshry reminded his followers that they were spiritually free even if they were physically constrained, such that Pesach and freedom were states of mind, states that helped those Jews who survived the Shoah maintain their human dignity and overcome the imposed degradation. Survivor psychiatrist Viktor Frankl taught that the last human freedom was the ability to determine the meaning of what happens to us.
If we read modern values or problems out of legend or history, what is the answer to this year’s fifth question? Who are the Israelites today? A friend commented recently that he felt he had become a slave to the system of taxes in the US, that Democrats and liberalism had crafted a reversal of slavery to ensnare the rich and comfortable. While I can sympathize with anger, it is hardly a serious problem for the upper middle class and richer, no matter how loudly protestors scream, no matter how many epithets they hurl at members of Congress and no matter how many bricks they throw through windows. The assertion by the wealthy that they are oppressed today is as disingenuous—maybe even as racist—as the ruse that anti-white discrimination has warranted an NAAWP, a National Association for the Advancement of White People.
Incidentally, I supply the link with a little fear, but know that if I did not, those who want it could find it. Still, there is something scary about offering a virtual bridge to a source spewing hatred, especially at Passover. Reading back into history, adding my values to today’s recitation of the Pesach narrative, I feel a bit of fear about the people who think they are oppressed when, for generations, they have been the oppressors. At the very least, they have supported the oppressors. Look into their faces and at their clothes. They are white. They are rich. They are comfortable. They call themselves patriots, yet they behave nothing like the founders, the true and literal patriots who were the fathers (go look up “patriot” in a really good dictionary, one that provides etymology) and mothers of our country. Can we imagine Jefferson spitting on a representative? Would Hamilton address another by a homophobic slur? Or might Adams have used some colonial equivalent of the N-word to ascribe subhuman qualities to his opposition? Might Washington have hurled bricks through the windows of officials of the opposition party? Those who signed the Declaration of Independence pledged “to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” Many of them lost the first two out of three. The self-styled exploited patriots of 2010 risk nothing and demand everything.
As Passover comes, it bothers me to think about some of the people who imagine themselves oppressed today. There is real slavery out there. There is real hunger. If we are to read biblical legends and lessons into our world, then the freedom we seek must not be our own, not even our own freedom from feared inconvenience, but freedoms for those truly in need. The hunger we want to end is not our own relentless appetite for ever more comfort, but the hunger of those truly starving. And if we want to concern ourselves with local hunger, then let us feed our own hungry children who, despite complaints of the oppressed rich, are really in need in our inner cities, even in our suburban schools.
Perhaps there is yet a sixth question. What am I going to do about it? How might I best stop moaning about my own inconveniences and challenges and do some good for others, for those truly endangered and put to the tests of hunger or slavery? Early in the Passover Seder (the ritual meal of observance) we remember that “My ancestor was a wandering Aramean,” and declare, “Let all who are hungry come and eat.” Immigrants all, we are called at Pesach, Jew and Gentile, to remember our roots, to free and feed our neighbors.