Four More Questions
to Ask This Passover
to Ask This Passover
It sounds trite, but it’s true: we are living in historic times. A few weeks ago, Crimea was ruled by Ukraine. Now, it is part of Russia. Troops are massing on the Russian-Ukrainian border. Will they invade? This uncertainty about the future in the wake of rapid, unanticipated political change reminds us of what we have been witnessing in the Middle East during the past few years, as several regimes suddenly toppled with ease, while others stubbornly and successfully resisted.
It’s hard to imagine celebrating our great Festival of Freedom this year without reflecting on the many serious conflicts going on in the world right now. How can we not think about what just happened in the Crimea? And what about the on-going slaughter in Syria? Or the increasingly repressive regime in Egypt?
When we sit down at the seder, we should, of course, focus on the Jewish struggle for freedom. The Exodus is the story of our liberation. And yet the Exodus is not only a Jewish story. As the prophet Amos reminds us, God is as concerned about the Philistines and the Arameans—indeed, any oppressed people—as God is about the Israelites (Amos 9:7).
The Exodus isn’t only about what happened once upon a time in one particular place to one particular people. (In fact, we know very little about the historicity of the Exodus story.) Rather, the Exodus is the story of a struggle that, our tradition teaches us, must happen again and again throughout the world, until freedom is enjoyed by all.
This year, it seems to me that in addition to asking the traditional four questions at the seder, we should ask four additional ones to help us focus our attention on the struggles for freedom going on throughout the world. Consider the following:
- In the book of Exodus, the Torah preserves a great saga of the struggle for freedom: the Israelites, who were enslaved in Egypt, rebelled against their Egyptian taskmasters and fled to safety. In what ways do the ongoing Middle Eastern uprisings, such as the one in Egypt, remind us of the Exodus story, and in what ways are they different from it? What about the annexation of Crimea? Is that the expression of a yearning for freedom by ethnic Russians, or is it a bald land grab by a modern day Pharoah?
- Our tradition teaches us that government is vital to the safety and security of all persons. A revolution—even a peaceful one that overthrows an oppressive regime—can be devastating. Consider the following teaching from Pirke Avot (the Ethics of the Fathers): Rabbi Hanina said: "Pray for the welfare of the government. Were it not for the fear of it, human beings would swallow each other alive." Does this teaching apply to the current situation in Syria? If so, how? Does it apply to what has happened in Crimea? To what may yet happen in Ukraine?
- There’s an old slogan, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Is this true? Many Israelis supported the thirst for freedom demonstrated by anti-Mubarak Egyptian protesters in 2011, even though they were wary of an Islamist government arising in his stead. Such a government did arise and was then overthrown by the military, and now Mohammed Morsi and many of his followers are in custody. (529 Morsi supporters were just sentenced to death. See: http://tinyurl.com/ov4do9j.) To the north of Israel, over two million Syrians have fled the country, and a total of seven to nine million may have been displaced by the carnage. Militant Jihadist fighters are among the rebels fighting against the brutal Syrian regime whereas Hezbollah, which supports the regime, has begun attacking Israel from the Syrian side of the border. What role should Israel play in these internal struggles playing out along her borders? What role should Jews outside of Israel play?
- In the Torah, not long after the Israelites fled Egyptian oppression, they begged Moses to let them return. They began to idolize the conditions under which they had once lived, forgetting (or minimizing) their suffering and wistfully remembering only the good things. Do you think that the peoples of Eastern Europe and the Middle East will continue to yearn for authoritarian leaders, like those who for so long ruled the Soviet Union or Egypt and Libya and Yemen and Bahrain—or do you think that they will persist in seeking to establish and maintain democracies, and remain committed to them?
I hope that these questions will spark thoughtful inquiry and reflection at our seders. And I hope that we will realize just how lucky we are as Jews to be heirs to a religious tradition that values freedom so strongly—not only for us, but for the rest of the world as well.