By Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, Rabbinic Cabinet


In every generation each of us is obligated to see ourselves as if we personally had been liberated from Egypt.

As Jews we are commanded to remember that we have experienced slavery and oppression.  Yet for contemporary Jews perhaps the greater challenge is to remember not the oppression, but the fact of liberation. To remember only enslavement and forget redemption is symptomatic of the ways in which we are still enslaved.  We are commanded to keep both of these experiences in mind and thus to identify with and support liberation struggles within our community and beyond.

Nowhere is this challenge more evident than in the ongoing struggles for freedom and liberation within Israel and on her borders.  The devastating daily dance between Israelis and Palestinians shows that “both are deeply in the narrow places of mitzrayim(literally, the narrow places)”: one struggling for freedom from terror and seeking calm, the other struggling for freedom from the occupation and seeking respect.  Both seek freedom from violence and fear while inflicting violence and fear. They compete for the title of “most enslaved,” as if winning that macabre contest would erase their particular role as pharaoh.

Does one’s liberation require the other’s destruction?  The hatred between Israelis and Palestinians has built up over generations of hurts inflicted and unresolved, of losses deeper and pain more unrelenting than the sea, which engulfed the Israelites’ Egyptian pursuers.  A wrong answered with a wrong, a wound with a deeper wound. Have we forgotten that we were liberated from Egypt?

A midrash in Eicha Rabbah tells of the ten tribes of Israel preparing to defend against the attack that would lead to the destruction of the Temple.  They approached the Egyptians for help.  Initially the Egyptians agreed, but as they sailed to come to Israel’s aid, they saw the remains of their ancestors floating in the sea. “Jews did this to our ancestors, and we are hurrying to help them?” And the Egyptian soldiers returned home at once.  Thus the Temple was destroyed.

The Egyptians were so embroiled in their painful past that they were unable to act in the present.  Their fledgling relationship with the Jews was not strong enough to withstand these memories. So they did nothing.  They turned away; they turned inward. And more destruction followed. 

We, too, know about pain and loss, about turning away because of our own historical hurts.  How attached are we to our experience of mitzrayim (Egypt)? So much so that we can’t bear to let it go?  So much that we cannot hear the voice of God? 

All of history suggests this is the most frequent answer: nurture your anger, recount every hurt that has been done to you. It is in failing to hope that peace is possible that we resign ourselves to staying in mitzrayim.  It is in succumbing to despair that we forget that we were redeemed from Egypt.

To hope, however, is to remember the Exodus.  To continue to look for solutions is to live out that legacy.  When we truly hear the voices of those who have the greatest right to this kind of destructive anger, Israelis and Palestinians who have personally lost loved ones in the conflict, yet actively listen for the voice of God and work to build deep connections with each other in the face of their histories of unbearable pain and loss, we know that they remember the redemption from Egypt.

This Pesach let us all remember not only that we were slaves in mitzrayim, but that each of us was liberated from that oppression.  Let us support those organizations and individuals doing the real work of liberation: continuing to hope, creating deep connections, and looking for new solutions.
 

Suggestions for Pesach

As we drink the four cups of Seder wine, celebrating the four aspects of our redemption, let us take real steps towards furthering liberation in our time:

  • V’hotseiti (And I brought them out)
    Support the Parents’ Circle – Bereaved Families Forum, several hundreds of bereaved families, Palestinian and Israeli, all of whom have all lost immediate family members due to the violence in the region and are committed to the reconciliation process between Israelis and Palestinians.

  • V’hitsalti (And I saved them)
    Invite speakers to your community from Combatants for Peace, an organization of Palestinians and Israelis all of whom once took an active part in the cycle of violence, (the Israelis in the Israeli army and the Palestinians as part of the violent struggle for Palestinian freedom), but who no longer believe that the conflict can be resolved through violence and speak out for talks leading to peace .

  • V’ga’alti(And I redeemed them)
    Support Just Vision, which informs local and international audiences about under-documented Palestinian and Israeli joint civilian efforts to resolve the conflict nonviolently.  Arrange for a screening of their documentary, Encounter Point.

  • V’lakachti (And I took them)
    To reawaken hope as we retell the story of the Exodus, consider incorporating passages from the following resources into your seder:

May we remember enslavement and know liberation.  Chag kasher v’sameach.

 


Rabbi Ayelet S. Cohen is the Associate Rabbi of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST), the world's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender synagogue serving people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.  She became a full time rabbi at CBST in August, 2002, three months after she was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

As a rabbinical student, Rabbi Cohen served communities in France, England, and her native Montreal.  Rabbi Cohen worked as a translator for Dr. Yossi Beilin when he served as Israel's Minister of Justice and in his office in the Knesset. 

Passionately committed to progressive and feminist Judaism, she is an activist and an advocate for full inclusion and celebration of LGBT Jews in the Conservative movement and the larger Jewish world. She is also an advocate for LGBT civil rights, including the right to marriage for same-sex couples in New York State and nationally.  Rabbi Cohen has been profiled in the New York Times and was named one of the "Heeb Hundred," Heeb Magazine's "hundred people you need to know about."  She was honored at the 2005 Ma'yan Seder as a leading young Jewish feminist activist.


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