Of all the Jewish holidays, Passover is the one that most speaks to me as a call to social justice. From the slow decline of a minority group into oppression to the transformation of a member of the privileged class heeding the whisperings of his conscience, Passover has all the elements of the heroic tragedy we face in almost every generation and so keenly today.
Outsiders, immigrants with strange customs, the Israelites were first welcomed into the land of prosperity at the time, Egypt. But they were kept separate and never integrated, and as their numbers grew the majority or ruling class began to worry that this group would overtake them. And so the pharaohs began to limit their activities, place additional burdens in order to keep the population from expanding. When this did not seem to work, decrees became harsher, families torn apart, parents forced to give up children, including one brave woman who hopefully set her child in a basket on the river.
That child was discovered by the pharaoh’s daughter and grew up in privilege in the palace. The child drawn from the water, Moses, became aware as he grew up that his place of privilege was held at the expense of the oppression of others and he risked his life to save a slave being beaten by his master. Had he simply fled for his life to the oasis of Goshen and turned his back on his origins, we would not today have the story of the Exodus of slaves to freedom, a story that continues to ring the bell of responsibility for the oppressed, of speaking up for the voiceless.
Moses settled for a while, but inside him burned the memory and consciousness that others still suffered. This voice, that he heard on a mountain speaking to him through a burning bush, urged him back to Egypt, to speak against the injustice of his time.
Every year I think about Moses and remember that it takes one brave voice to begin the march to freedom. And eventually that voice grew into a multitude demanding liberty, and eventually that multitude became a people demanding a just society.
The story doesn’t end with dancing in freedom, though there was much joyous dancing as the waves of the red sea came down on their oppressors. The people come back to that mountain, where Moses heard the voice of responsibility and determined to return for the others. Standing under that mountain, they accepted a covenant, a social pact of justice and equality.
Of course, this is an idealized view of the Exodus from Egypt*, leading to this promised land of opportunity and plenty, each one under their own fig tree. New masters would continue to enslave others as property for thousands of years thence.
“In every generation,” we recite from the Hagaddah, “it is beholden on us to feel as if we ourselves had come out of Egypt.” Never forget, has been a mantra that harkens back as old as time. And never stand silent to the oppression of the stranger in your midst, for you yourself were once a stranger in a strange land.
*I would like to give credit to the original 1956 Cecil B. DeMille movie “The Ten Commandments” for perhaps inculcating this idealized view in me as well.
**Also see: On1Foot, Jewish Texts for Social Justice