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We Were Strangers in the Land of Egypt (April 2017)

We celebrate Passover (Pesach) to remember and to re-experience the slavery and the Exodus experience of our Israelite ancestors.  The holiday is called “The season of our freedom,” “Z’man herutenu,” in our tradition.  We were slaves, and we were strangers in Egypt.


We are enjoined countless times in the Torah to love the stranger or be kind to the stranger, because “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  We all know “Love your neighbor as yourself,” which we are told once.  But the command to love or be kind to the stranger appears dozens of times throughout the Torah.  And our experience of being strangers has not been limited to Egypt; it has occurred countless times, in countless places, throughout Jewish history.  We know what it means to be on the outside, not accepted, excluded, shunned, and worse.


Arguably the “stranger experience” par excellence is being an immigrant to a new country, a new land.  Obviously, immigrants and the issue of immigration has been front and center in our national discourse throughout the recent presidential campaign and certainly since November 8.  It should not be surprising that the weight of Jewish communal response to the discussion and controversy over immigration has been pro-immigrant, because we are an immigrant community.  Some of us—particularly those whose families came from the former Soviet Union—know this first-hand.  Most of us are third, fourth, or fifth generation Americans, and we know stories about the immigration experience of our families from several generations ago.


The Seder is a good time to talk about how the Passover story relates to the current debate taking place around us about immigrants and refugees.  Here is some hopefully helpful information and possible talking points:


Most Jewish organizations have advocated for not closing the door to immigrants:

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, one of the most significant national community relations organizations:  “JCPA is dedicated to upholding America’s commitment to immigration and refugees. One of our most enduring moral commitments and distinctive features as a free, open society is to provide a safe haven for people facing persecution. America is a nation of immigrants, which lies at the very heart of our identity. When our government shut the doors to people fleeing violence and increased raids and deportations, the JCPA acted swiftly by speaking out publicly, filing an important amicus brief, providing comprehensive tools for local advocacy and advocating through national coalitions.”

HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, has been a vocal advocate for not turning our backs on refugees and immigrants, and has available a Seder supplement.

JCRC of Greater Boston has its own Seder supplement, similar in tone and message.  It offers “Four questions, four actions” we can take to support immigrants in an effort to counter the policy of deportations that the new administration has been trying to effect.  In its introduction it quotes from a new Haggadah of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:  “What hospitality is it to offer the hungry the taste of suffering? In fact, though, this is a profound insight into the nature of slavery and freedom. Matza represents two things: it is the food of slaves, and also the bread eaten by the Israelites as they left Egypt in liberty. What transforms the bread of oppression into the bread of freedom is the willingness to share it with others...That is why we begin the seder by inviting others to join us. Bread shared is no longer the bread of oppression. Reaching out to others, we bring freedom into the world, and with freedom, God.”

Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP), the Federation of Boston’s Jewish community, just kicked off a major fund-raising effort to benefit Catholic Charities’ immigration law clinic.  As of March 31 (as reported in the Boston Globe), the campaign had already drawn about $250,000 in commitments from large donors even before the campaign was formally announced).  Barry Shrage, President of CJP, commented, “The Jewish people have been refugees from peril on a frequent basis, but have also sought to find betterment in the countries of our dispersion. In every case, what would have been better is to know people were there to help care for them.”  One of the early donors, Adam Suttin, whose grandparents emigrated from Russia and Eastern Europe, beautifully summarizes the spirit of the Jewish communal response to the current immigration crisis.  He sees aiding today’s newcomers as a matter of “basic human rights, civil rights, and Jewish values.  We were once strangers in this land. We have to remember that and provide opportunities for others to enjoy the benefits of this country.”

Lastly, the Reconstructionist Movement is advocating adding a pineapple to the Seder plate as a symbol of solidarity with refugees and immigrants.  Rabbi Deborah Waxman, President of the rabbinical college, suggests:  “In American colonial times, the pineapple was a symbol of welcome and prosperity. They were special gifts because of the great labor and expense required to ship them from the tropics. As we think about those in the midst of crossing through danger and into unknown lands, we aim to bestow upon them the gifts of hospitality and a sweet welcome.”


By the way, our Seder plates could become quite crowded if we’re not careful.  In recent years there have been numerous suggestions to add symbols to represent various causes:  olives to represent peace in Israel-Palestine, an orange to stand for women’s rights, a tomato to call attention to contemporary slavery, pine cones for prison reform.  Take your pick—these are all worth discussion at our Seders.  Unfortunately, slavery and oppression, war and conflict, continue to be endemic to the human condition.  May the ultimate redemption, which the past redemption of the Exodus suggests is possibility, bring an end to all oppression and freedom to all!


Carol and I wish our Beth Tikvah family a healthy, meaningful and joyous Pesach!

Fri, July 12 2024 6 Tammuz 5784