Every year, Jewish families and friends gather over a Passover dinner to read about the liberation of their ancestors from bondage in Egypt around 1446 B.C. Our ancestors were slaves in ancient Egypt, subjected to brutality and oppression – restricted from life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
As it is written, “the Egyptians made the children of Israel work with rigor. And they made their lives bitter with hard work, with mortar and with bricks and all manner of service in the field.”
A resistance movement led by Moses grew throughout Egypt as the Jewish people cried out for help – for freedom. They sought a return to their homeland, the land of Israel, and to be freed of the hatred and deprivation which engulfed them for generations of slavery. The Torah recalls their miraculous exodus and the ten plagues inflicted on the Egyptians to force Pharaoh to accede to Moses’s call to “let my people go!”
Being a national liberation movement, the exodus from Egypt and the return home is perhaps one of the earliest forms of Zionism. And that too is an important story to tell – that even in ancient times, the Jewish people knew their homeland and did in fact return to their birthplace to establish their nation and temple in Jerusalem.
The story of Passover itself has been the bedrock of a Jewish value system that has turned an entire group of people into social justice warriors aimed at “Tikkun Olam” (Repair of the World). For this reason, you often see us at the forefront of social justice movements – we cannot sit back while others are suffering. We are involved in the sciences, medicine, law, education and many other areas because of our inherent need to heal the world.
Passover is our code of conduct. Having experienced oppression and the destruction of our people multiple times in history and as recently as the Holocaust, we are obligated, as Rabbi Hillel said, to ensure “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” And thus, our conduct must be measured as we strive to seek equality and equity for all people and be a source of inspiration for generating compassion and good citizenship.
Passover, as our sages foretell, is not only about “freedom from” – it's about having the freedom to make the world a better place. When one is held in bondage, this becomes difficult and the responsibility lessens. But when one is free, as we are today, the responsibility to spread kindness, to help the needy and to make the world a better place (in all this facet) becomes greater. This point is often missed until its too late.
It's easy to take freedom for granted, especially today when the standard of living for many is the greatest in all of human history. But Passover forces us not only to recall our affliction, but to feel it (literally). Humans learn best through action, and thus Passover obligates us to change our diet – for example, to eat Matzah, a tasteless cracker that does wonders to our body, instead of bread. But with every bite, we are reminded that our forefathers left Egypt in such a hurried state, that they had no time for their bread to rise.
We are obligated to feel the slavery the Jewish people endured in Egypt and to taste their freedom. As it is written, in every generation a person is obligated to regard himself as if he had come out of Egypt: "You shall tell your child on that day, it is because of this that the L-rd did for me when I left Egypt." This is meant to reaffirm our religion and history. It's also a warning that our safety and sanctity is not absolute.
Passover is eternal in the cause for human rights. Its lessons are reflected in a document written some 3,500 years later – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights; Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person; No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; Everyone has the right to leave any country; Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance” (UDHR).
Our world is still imperfect. In Jewish tradition, we are obligated to continue working to improve it, but we are not individually required to finish the task. Finishing Tikkun Olam and pursuing social justice must be transmitted to our children and grandchildren – and that is the obligation Passover requires as we read the Haggadah (the text recited each year). This holiday is a rallying cry for rights and freedoms to be transmitted from generation to generation. It is also a warning to every new generation that silence, complacency and inaction put our very lives in peril.
Wishing all my friends and supporters a Chag Sameach and a Happy Easter.
~ Avi Benlolo