Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Passover Reflections on Oppression

By Rabbi Stephen M. Wylen

Wayne, N.J.
Shabbat Hol HaMoed Pesah

A tale is told of Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon, that they were reclining at the seder service in B’nai Brak, and they spent the entire night telling the story of the exodus from Egypt, until the sun came up and their pupils came to them and said, “Teachers, it is time for morning prayer.”

On Seder night we do not stick to the facts of the biblical story. Taking our cue from the five rabbis of Bnai Brak who went on all night, we are urged to expand on the Torah’s version of the Exodus. .... The Hagaddah includes one classic version of midrash, the rabbinic art of interpretation, but the door is open to innnovations.

The significance of the seder celebration lies in two factors:

1) Our ability to empathize with the feelings of the oppressed, beginning with our own ancestors in Egypt.
2) Our ability to apply the lessons of empathy to recognize where redemption is needed in the contemporary world, and to devise strategies for bringing about that redemption.

The text of the haggadah gives our heart an opening to empathy.

Our discussion of the text around the table is our opportunity to convert empathy into concern and hence to action.

For example, the five rabbis at Bnai Brak were planning the Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire in the time of Emperor Hadrian, their response to Hadrian’s persecution of the Jews and, most outrageously, Hadrian's plan to rebuild Jerusalem as a pagan city, Aelia Capitolina.

In our day there are still oppressors against the Jews, and there are still those who enslave others around the world.

At our seder table we might expound on the Exodus by considering the enslavement and oppression of the black Africans of the southern Sudan in Darfur. We might consider the anti-Semitism of the radical left in America and Western Europe, which disguises itself as humanitarian concern for Palestinians, but which in practice is just another form of hate-mongering. At our seder table we might consider the seemingly intractable problem of political and social relations between the Western secular world and the Islamic world.

How can we bring peace or at least accommodation between these two world-views, thus advancing the redemption?

These are just a few thoughts. In what other ways might we also expand on the story of the Exodus as we recline at our seder this year?

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