Each Passover we are instructed that in every generation each person should see themselves as if they were freed from bondage in Egypt. In so doing, we remind ourselves that there are many who still face grave injustices in our society.
Whether or not you sit at a Seder table this year, may these sources from the Jewish tradition enrich your Pesach week by reigniting your commitment to the pursuit of justice.
Rabbi Yose Hagalili says, “From where can you [derive] that the Egyptians were struck with ten plagues in Egypt and struck with fifty plagues at the Sea? In Egypt, what does it state? ‘Then the magicians said unto Pharaoh: ‘This is the finger of God’ (Exodus 8:15). And at the Sea, what does it state? ‘And Israel saw God’s great hand that God used upon the Egyptians…’ (Exodus 14:31). With how many were they struck with [God’s] finger? Ten plagues. You can say from here that… at the Sea, they were struck with fifty plagues.” – excerpt from the traditional Passover Haggadah
Just after this moment in the Haggadah, the rabbis offer other interpretations that each plague was in fact four or five plagues wrapped up in one, such that Egypt might have experienced 200 or even 250 plagues in total. All Egypt’s water turning to blood would not simply have been disgusting to see and smell, but would have affected every aspect of Egyptian life, from access to drinking water, to agriculture and irrigation, and even travel. Similarly, each source of injustice we see in the world, is not a singular issue, but has iterations with ripple effects that impact many more lives than we realize.
- What is a justice cause you have pursued since last Passover?
- What are the complexities of that issue; how many different ways does it manifest itself? Who are the affected groups?
- What are three different levels at which you can pursue a solution that will address these many affected groups?
This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt. Anyone who is famished should come and eat, anyone who is in need should come and partake of Pesach. – excerpt from the traditional Passover Haggadah
This is the text which opens the storytelling part of the Passover Seder. Matzah is called the “bread of affliction” in many translations, but the word more directly translates to “poverty” or “destitution.” This food we eat on Pesach, symbolic of how little we had as slaves in Egypt and the haste with which we had to escape, becomes a powerful reminder in our time that there are so many who are hungry in this world, and of our responsibility to open our homes, hands, and hearts.
Hunger is a pervasive problem in America with many causes, some rooted in socioeconomic struggle, and others in legislation (or lack thereof) which fails to support the needs of families struggling to feed themselves and their children. We also know that over this past year, the needs of the hungry have increased with so many losing jobs and sources to food.
The Haggadah’s call for us to open our doors to the hungry might help one family or one person for one night. What organizations can you urge your community to partner with to ease this burden in the long term?
(1) God replied to Moses, “See, I place you in the role of God to Pharaoh, with your brother Aaron as your prophet. (2) You shall repeat all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land. (3) But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 7:1-3)
Pharaoh’s heart is hardened 12 times during the narrative of the plagues, with 10 of the 12 times his heart being hardened by God. The other two times, Pharaoh hardens his own heart against the suffering of both the Hebrews and his own people. During times of crisis our leaders are under less public scrutiny, and those who would seek to proliferate injustice for their own monetary gain seize upon this opportunity. We must make sure that our leaders’ hearts are not hardened during crises.
Help by urging your representatives to continue to prioritize funding for vulnerable and at risk communities through the end f the pandemic. We know that the recovery will be long and often marginalized communities are the last to recover.
- Have you spoken to your elected officials to see what is the long-term plan for a just recovery?
On Seder night, our journey through the Haggadah is full of important groups of four: Four cups of wine; Four questions; Four expressions of redemption; “Four Children.”
Each of these ‘fours’ addresses a different aspect of the holiday:
- Sanctification and solemnity
- The particularities of ritual
- Miracles and our connection to God
- Our responsibility to teach our children
Passover is a holiday that is intimately tied in with the seasons, specifically with Spring. The Seder plate’s symbols of greenery and the egg remind us of renewal, growth, and our constant pursuit to better ourselves. Together, these four aspects show us the true meaning of the holiday: a call for self-examination, an appreciation for what we already have, and the will to fight for the rights of all people to enjoy blessings of freedom.
As Pesach is a call for us to wake up and rededicate ourselves to this struggle in the year to come, take a look ahead at your year.
- What are four decisions you can make to affect our world for the better in the year to come?
- What are four ways you will ensure that you are better — that our world and society are better — by this time next year?
There are many people who include, in addition to the traditional items which belong on a Seder table, a cup of water known as Kos Miryam (The Cup of Miriam) and an orange on their Seder plate.
Miriam’s Cup serves as a symbol of Miriam’s Well, which was the source of water for the Israelites in the desert. It calls attention to the important role of women in the Exodus story, which is too often overlooked. The orange on the Seder plate is an innovation of Dr. Susannah Heschel, Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College. It has been attributed to, albeit an urban legend, a man who interrupted her lecture to say that a woman belongs on the bimah as much as an orange belongs on a Seder plate. In reality, Dr. Heschel added the orange to her Seder plate as a way of acknowledging the struggle of LGBTQ Jews, as well as others who have been pushed into the shadows.
Although we have made tremendous progress, there still exist inequalities within our community and larger society. Women and the LGBTQ+ community are still under threat from those who seek to wield religious texts as a weapon against a woman’s right to choose and the civil rights of LGBTQ+ people. Click here to see our action alert on the Equality Act and post/send it on to five (5) friends.
The song Dayenu is a 15-stanza poem that thanks God for each ensuing miracle in the Passover story. We say that each miracle, from the plagues, to the Sea of Reeds to the receiving of Torah at Mt. Sinai, would have been enough for us, and yet God did more and more.
This song is only sung in hindsight. In the moment of being trapped between Pharaoh’s army and the Sea of Reeds, it is unlikely at that point (nor does the Torah or Haggadah suggest) that the Hebrews were singing to one another about God’s miracles. Generations removed from our march to freedom, we can look back and be thankful. In the midst of struggle, however, it’s challenging to appreciate all that has been achieved thus far.
We have made great strides toward justice, but we have a long way to go. Even as we achieve a victory here and there, it can still feel like Pharaoh’s army is nipping at our heels, and like there is still an ocean of injustice ahead.
- What miracles are you thankful for this Passover?
- What are the toughest fights for us in the year to come?
- We may not be able to wield the power of God like Moses did, but we can wield the power of community. Who will be your partners as you try to cross the sea?
(10) But Moses said to God, “Please, O my Lord, I have never been a man of words, either in times past or now that You have spoken to Your servant; I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” (11) And GOD said to him, “Who gave humanity a mouth!? Who makes them dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, GOD!? (12) Now go, and I will be with you as you speak and will instruct you what to say.” (Exodus 4:10-12)
Even Moses, the great leader and prophet of our people, was not a confident speaker. If it is possible for Moses to lack confidence in speaking of truth to power, it’s understanding that it’d be daunting for anyone. Yet God comforts Moses, reminding him that he was given a mouth by God so that it could be used. Moses follows God’s instructions, but also deputizes Aaron, his brother, to help him voice what needed to be said.
Each year, as we reread this story, we are reminded that God needed a human representative to take the fight for justice to Pharaoh.
- What is an issue on which you have not felt confident enough to make your voice heard?
- What support would you need to take all the potential energy within you and convert it into advocacy?
- Who would you look to for support?
- Who – like Aaron did for Moses – will stand alongside you in your fight for justice?
(1) Now Moses, tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian, drove the flock into the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. (2) An angel of Adonai appeared to him in a blazing fire out of a bush. He gazed, and there was a bush all aflame, yet the bush was not consumed. (3) Moses said, “I must turn aside to look at this marvelous sight; why doesn’t the bush burn up?” (4) When Adonai saw that he had turned aside to look, God called to him out of the bush: “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” (Exodus 3:1-4)
Moses’ call back to God: “Here I am,” or “Hineini,” in Hebrew, is the classic response of the greatest Biblical leaders of our people. Hineini does not simply mean “Here I am.” It is a deeper acknowledgement of presence. It is a declaration of readiness: Here I am; show me how I can be of service and I will do the best that I can. The next time Moses would stand on that mountain was when he had completed his task, and ascended to the peak to receive the Torah from God.
- What are the key “Hineini Moments” in your life?
- Has there been a time when the moment you felt called to act and the moment you felt ready to lead were one and the same?
While we may not be gathering in large groups for Passover again this year, we hope you have a meaningful celebration with those closest to you, and that your loved ones are safe and healthy.
The commentary and discussion has been provided by Rabbi Noah Diamondstein, Assistant Rabbi at Temple Sinai Washington DC, JCJ’s 2019-2020 Manager of Jewish Engagement and Advocacy, and member of JCJ national clergy council.