By Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller*

From an early age, we can relate to the longing for freedom, a fundamental motif of Passover. We sing "Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land, and tell old Pharaoh: Let my people go!" -- and we can really understand the feeling behind the demand. From young to old, we have all experienced unfairness enforced by authority, whether cruelly or well-intentioned. So it seems natural to see ourselves as if we, and not only our ancestors, were slaves hoping for freedom and finally going out of Egypt.

In fact, seeing ourselves in this way is an explicit element of observing Passover. We enter the story of the Exodus each year by psychologically 'collapsing history,' so that we feel the Israelites' suffering in our own hearts. At the same time, our image of the Egyptian Pharaoh becomes a magnet for our indignation at present-day oppressors. This identification of the characters of the Exodus story with the players in current dramas of oppression and liberation has the potential to help us gather inspiration and perspective for our work toward peace and justice today.

Though it can be tempting to label particular leaders or political parties as 'Pharaohs' and others as 'slaves,' this can degenerate into simplistic comparisons that never move conversation very far in the direction of new understanding. A close reading of the story presents many thought-provoking scenes and interactions that challenge us to move beyond the Good Guy/Bad Guy assignment of roles.

Here is just one that might spark meaningful conversations at our seders next week:

Before the final devastating plague on the Egyptians, Moses instructs the people to ask for objects of gold and silver from their Egyptian neighbors. God disposes the Egyptians favorably toward the Israelites, and they generously agree. Some Rabbinic commentators equate the valuables to a kind of payment for the years of unpaid work that the slaves had done. But the text itself does not call it payment, and the people giving the gifts are the Israelites' neighbors, likely also slaves, who faced an oppression equal or similar to the Israelites. This passage leaves us with questions that provoke real thinking rather than labels or conclusions --

  • When have we seen one oppressed people generously help another?
  • Is/was such help given with the expectation of help in return?
  • What in our own experience fuels our deep concern for the Israeli and Palestinian peoples?
We are now in yet another moment of change in the landscape of Israeli-Palestinian political relations. In order to continue to offer our steady support and our commitment to a just peace between Israelis and Palestinians in the long term, we must stay connected to our knowledge that all people are potential allies in the fight for justice.

Suggestions for Pesach:

1. Incorporate passages from these resources into your seder traditions: 2. Start a dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at your seder table. Below are ideas for questions:

Do you think that we, as American Jews, can be anything more than spectators to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, watching a tragedy unfold more deeply each day?
  • What do you think we can we do to best support Israelis in this time of crisis?
  • What exactly do you think is the threat now facing the Jews/Israelis and how do you believe we can most effectively address that threat?
  • What can we do to bring about a peaceful solution to the conflict now?
  • Do you think we'll ever be able to tell our children that Jews are no longer at war with our Arab neighbors?
  • Is there any way to resolve this conflict without one side winning and the other losing?
  • Do you have any Muslim or Arab friends or acquaintances and if not, have you ever considered trying to build a friendship with someone of Muslim or Arab heritage?
3. For those who are interested in a text-based discussion: The Prophet Elijah is believed to herald the Messiah's arrival. It is customary during the seder to set aside a cup of wine for him and even to open a door in anticipation of his arrival. One of the central issues in rabbinical debate is about when Elijah and thus the messiah will arrive: Will it take place when people have committed themselves fully to the repair of the world, or will the Messiah arrive as a function of divine intervention?

Read the First Book of Kings, Chapter 21 as a basis for discussion:
  • What was the role of Elijah in the Bible? Is this where we get the idea of speaking truth to power?
  • Are there situations in your life when you feel as though you are acting in Elijah's spirit?
  • Why might he, in particular, have been chosen as the harbinger of the Messiah?
  • How does Elijah's sprit relate to our own work on behalf of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
If you have other ideas, please contact the Rabbinic Cabinet at rabbifriedman@btvshalom.org.

*Julie Saxe-Taller is the Assistant Rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco, California. She serves on Brit Tzedek's Rabbinic Cabinet, and as a board member of the Bay Area chapter of the Progressive Jewish Alliance, a new and growing organization dedicated to asserting a progressive Jewish presence in social and economic justice campaigns. Before becoming a rabbi, she worked in Jewish high school education, and directed a Jewish living and community service program for teenagers.

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