Passover’s Deep Meaning

10 April 2014

“In each and every generation, a person is obligated to regard himself as though he actually left Egypt.”

This verse from the Haggadah echoes from ancient Egypt, from a time when Jews lacked freedoms, to our own time, when the Jewish people have our own state, while others, asylum seekers, knock on our doors. Despite the almost blatant symbolism, most Israelis find it hard to view the asylum seekers coming to us from the south like the Jews of long ago. We allow our fear of their unfamiliarity, and of their color, to take the place of empathy and compassion.

This isn’t incomprehensible. Fear, and even hatred, of the other is a well-known historical phenomenon. And perhaps it’s even possible to understand why the unfamiliar awakens fear in us. But it is precisely because it might be natural to fear the stranger that the Haggadah insists on reminding us that we were strangers in the Land of Egypt. The composers of the Haggadah understood how easy it would be for us to forget that we had also been the others, the strangers, the threatening ones. They knew how hard it is to identify with the other, how we must abandon our fears in order to try to enter for a moment the shoes of someone who is different from us.

That is why they press us to tell the story of the exodus in every generation. That is why the Torah reminds us, more than ten times, to have mercy on the stranger, to treat him with compassion, as it is written: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Especially when we meet the stranger, we must make the effort to check ourselves again and again, because with those who are similar to us acting decently and fairly comes naturally.

But it’s not just attitudes with respect to asylum seekers that echo from the Passover story. Freedom is the main theme of the Haggadah — not only freedom from slavery in a foreign land, but all forms of freedom. Passover is the festival of freedom. That is why it is so connected to the mission that NIF has always sought to achieve: to allow all those living in Israel to enjoy the most basic human freedoms, every person without respect to religion, ethnic affiliation, or gender.

In the name of freedom we struggle against women’s exclusion, so that every woman will have the freedom to appear and to express herself in any arena that she chooses. In the name of freedom, we struggle for the rights of minorities, against discrimination and racism, against coercion and in favor of freedom of religion.

Every year, Passover reminds us that we were strangers and slaves in the Land of Egypt. We learned from that experience that life without freedom is limited, one dimensional, and there are those who will say that these lives are almost not worth living. When we at NIF struggle for the freedom of all Israelis, we do not forget that for decades now the State of Israel has deprived the freedom of the Palestinian people.

As Passover approaches my wish for all of us is that we will learn the lesson of the Haggadah in its deepest meaning, not only in order to remember the past, but also in order to shape the future.

Hag sameach!