Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Passover is the most elaborate of holidays – of the three Pilgrimage Festivals, Passover, Sukkot, and Shavuot, it requires the most work and the most preparation and is arguably the most disruptive of our daily lives. Halachic Jews observe the first two days and the last day as full holidays, and the last day includes a Yizkor service. We clean our houses, change our dishes and silver, eat differently, have at least one, usually two elaborate meals with guests and a full service at each meal. We may read the Megilla on Purim, but Pesach is a groyse megilla. Tonight I want to examine with you a question we’re all familiar with – why is this festival different from all other festivals?

The Talmud teaches us that it is obligatory for every Jew to relate the story of the Exodus on Passover Eve – zacher l’tsiyat mitzrayim – to remember the exodus from Egypt. Why?

This reminder can be an historical commemoration or it can have meaning for us in the present day. The Haggadah says that “even if we were all wise beyond our years, even if we were all educated in the ways of Torah, we would still need to tell this story.” Why? Later in the Seder we are told “In every generation, each of us must see ourselves as if we, ourselves came out of Egypt.” Why? We eat bitter herbs and Matzah to remind us of the bitterness and privation of slavery. Why?

I think Passover is more than a reminder of events 4000 years ago, more than a commemoration, a remembering together. I think Passover is there to remind us that, having been slaves and having been subject to injustice and brutality, it’s our responsibility to stand against slavery, injustice, and brutality today as Moses stood against it then, and that as Moses had God empowering him to stand against Pharoah, we have God empowering us toward tikkun olam – healing the world of the wrongs we have suffered.

What wrongs? Well, let’s start with slavery. What an archaic concept. Slavery ended in the 19th Century, didn’t it? No. Today, every year, 600,000 to 800,000 adults, are forcibly taken across national borders to be put to work for little or no wages. 1.2 million children and babies are trafficked every year, including into Western Europe, the Americas and the Caribbean, and the number is increasing. Gangs involved in child and people trafficking make an estimated profit of US$32 billion per year
Child prostitution
At any one time across the world, around 1.8 million children are being abused through prostitution, child pornography and sex tourism
In the UK there are 5,000 child prostitutes. 75% of them are girls

Bonded child labor
Millions of children are forced to work away their childhood in horrific conditions to pay off debt, or simply the interest on it
In India alone, estimates suggest up to 15 million children could be enslaved by somebody else's debt, many involved in illegal, hazardous and dangerous work
Forced work in mines
One million children are risking their lives in mines and quarries in more than 50 African, Asian and South American countries
In the Sahel region of Africa, 200,000 children are daily risking their lives in gold and mineral mines

Agricultural labor
132 million children under 15 are trapped working in agriculture, often exposed to pesticides, heavy machinery, machetes and axes
In Kazakhstan, children work in cotton and tobacco fields and factories for up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week
Child soldiers
300,000 children under 15 are involved with fighting forces, including government armies. Boys and girls in at least 13 countries are actively being recruited as child soldiers or as army 'wives'
Around 11,000 children in Democratic Republic of Congo are currently being held by fighting groups
Forced child marriage
Child marriage, which often includes mail order and internet brides, is one of the most widespread - yet hidden - forms of slavery. Girls as young as four are forced to live and have sex with their husband, and are often kept trapped indoors
Girls under 15 are five times more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than women over 20. In Afghanistan more than half of all girls are married before they are 16
Domestic slavery
Millions of children across the world, some as young as six, are forced to work up to 15 hour days as domestic workers. Many are beaten, starved and sexually abused
There are 200,000 child domestic workers in Kenya, 550,000 in Brazil and 264,000 in Pakistan.
And that’s just the beginning. What about drug addiction that enslaves millions? What about the hundreds of thousands here in America who are slaves to debt? What about women enslaved by abusive relationships they are too terrorized to leave, and hundreds of thousands of men and women enslaved by diseases such as AIDS and to starvation?

If slavery is unwillingly working and being deprived of the fruits of your labors, then we have to consider all that and more when we talk about slavery, and we have to recognize that slavery is alive and well in 2007.

If Passover holds meaning for us 4000 years after the Exodus, I think it is this – Avadim Hayinu – we were slaves. As one Haggadah points out, to say that we celebrate our deliverance from slavery is both an oversimplification and an understatement. On the one hand we celebrate freedom on a political, physical, and national scale. On the other hand, we also celebrate the spiritual, personal, and religious aspects that are the overriding reason for trhe Exodus – God’s choosing Israel as God’s witnesses – as a result of the Exodus, we became a nation dedicated to God’s service.

I choose to believe it was not by accident that the occasion of God’s fulfilling the covenant made a thousand years before with Abraham was a repudiation of slavery. In liberating our people from slavery, God made a number of clear statements that are repeated again and again throughout the Bible
· That God favors the oppressed over the oppressors
· That freeing the enslaved is literally God’s work
· That service to God is available only after freedom is attained – first Moses has to free himself of his attachment to the Egyptian ruling class, then of his lack of confidence in himself as a leader, and finally of his own ego. The Hebrews must first be freed from slavery, then from their longing to return to the comfort of Egypt, and finally from their fear of the warlike nations that surround them and occupy the promised land.
· That no one is truly free as long as anyone is enslaved

The notion of the “Chosen People” has been the subject of a lot of mischief and humor over the years, but the core question has always been “chosen for what?” The Biblical answer is “to be a kingdom of priests, a holy people,” which isn’t much help. Also “you shall be holy for I your God am holy,” which is still a little vague. What does “holy” mean in this context?

For Halachic Jews, holy means to keep all 613 mitzvoth – to live according to a rigid structure of rules, laws, and observances at the very least. I’ve known Halachic Jews who not only did their best to keep the mitzvoth but also tried to live in the spirit of God’s laws and I’ve known those who kept to the letter of the law and seemed unfamiliar with the spirit.

For me as a Reform Jew, the spirit of the law is everything – the basis of Reform is that we are bound by the moral code of Judaism, not the ceremonial code – and this spirit is nowhere better summed up in my view than by Hillel who, when challenged to explain the Torah while standing on one foot, said “Do not unto others that which is hateful to you; the rest is commentary.” Surely, under this rubric slavery is unacceptable to the slaveholder as much as to the slave, and to stand aside when confronted with slavery is as much a sin as to hold slaves oneself.

So what, then of Passover. “Even if we were all wise beyond our years, even if we were all educated in the ways of Torah, we would still need to tell this story.” “In every generation, each of us must see ourselves as if we, ourselves came out of Egypt.” We eat bitter herbs and Matzah to remind us of the bitterness and privation of slavery.

But if that’s all we do – tell the story, see ourselves as if we came out of Egypt, eat bitter herbs and Matzoh – can we say at the end of the Seder, “Our seder is complete, all the rituals fulfilled?” Yes, the rituals may have been fulfilled, but have we fulfilled the spirit of Passover. If we ignore the fact that slavery, particularly child slavery, still exists, have we seen ourselves as if we, ourselves came out of Egypt?” If we turn a blind eye to the number of people that are brought to the “land of the free” from Asia, Mexico, and South America and forced to “work off” their passage, a debt that will never be paid, are we remembering the bitterness of slavery? If we shake our heads sadly at 11 year olds carrying guns to war and millions starving in Africa but don’t demand that our government do something about it, we’ve told the story, but have we heard it?

For me, Passover is an occasion to rededicate myself to tikkun olam, particularly in these areas – I invite you to have it be that for you and yours as well and to include these thoughts in your Seder Monday night.

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